May 5, 2018 10:00 am

COMMENTARY: Alberta teachers may open ‘Pandora’s Box’ with short-sighted media policy

If it’s acceptable for government to instruct the media on how issues around standardized testing should be covered, Rob Breakenridge says it would be equally acceptable to demand that the media be similarly instructed on other issues.


It’s rather tone-deaf to call for an official government decree on how certain stories should be covered during the same week in which we mark the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

It’s also rather short-sighted to open that Pandora’s Box when you’ll most likely be quite dismayed at how a future government chooses to exercise that power.

That’s not to say the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) is hostile toward the concept of freedom of the press, but demonstrating such a cavalier disregard for it is not exactly evidence of a deep appreciation, either.

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We learned this past week of a resolution drafted by the executive of the ATA that its membership will be asked to vote on later this month. It expresses concern at how issues around provincial achievement tests (PATs) are being reported by the media, saying that such “misleading” stories are “damaging to the integrity of teacher professionalism and student well-being.”

As such, they would “urge the department of education to encourage media” to adhere to an 18-year-old position statement from the Canadian Psychological Association and the Canadian Association of School Psychologists.

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Government news releases don’t come with an instruction manual, nor should they. That applies to any publicly available information being released by or obtained from government departments. While governments no doubt have preferences as to what stories get covered and the manner in which they are covered, in the end, it’s none of their damn business. Let’s not make it their business.

The ATA is probably no different from most other teachers unions in Canada and the U.S. in that they are not big fans of standardized testing. A big reason for that is no doubt the fact that disappointing or declining tests results can potentially reflect poorly on teachers — fairly or not.

Here in Alberta, the ATA is especially vexed, though, with the Fraser Institute. Each year, the right-leaning think tank takes the publicly available PAT results and compiles its school rankings report.

The ATA would clearly prefer these reports not exist to begin with, or failing that, that the media ignore them completely. That’s not going to happen, obviously, and it’s rather cheap to go running to government to try and tip the balance in your favour.

PAT results are but one indicator of a school’s quality, and it’s clearly not reasonable to expect children from more disadvantaged backgrounds to be posting comparable test results to students at an elite, expensive private academy. It is reasonable, however, to compare a school to itself. If test scores are rising or falling at a particular school, for example, it’s more than fair to note that trend.

Not everyone is going to agree on the value of PATs or the proper amount of weighting and emphasis they deserve, and that’s fine. If the ATA wishes to help shape public opinion on those counts, well they’ve certainly got the resources and influence to do so.

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However, it’s not government’s role to ordain the proper and correct way such matters are to be reported, and it’s truly stunning that anyone would think otherwise. The ATA might think that they have a kindred spirit of sorts in the form of the ruling NDP, but what happens if and when Alberta elects a new government in 12 months? How would the ATA feel if a more conservative government were to demand that the media emphasize the benefits of standardized testing?

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Why should it stop there? If it’s legitimate and acceptable for government to instruct the media on how issues around standardized testing should be covered, why would it be any less legitimate or acceptable to demand that the media be similarly instructed on other issues?

Government interference in a free press is not justified by the pursuit of what is perceived to be a noble goal or cause. Moreover, you may end up learning the hard way that what your political opponents consider to be a noble goal will seem like anything but from your perspective.

Hopefully, the ATA will come to their senses and scrap this resolution, and this whole bizarre episode can serve as an important lesson on how not to advance one’s cause.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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