Saturday, 14 May 2022
Saturday, 7 May 2022
I've been assisting with the Ontario Literacy test this week at school. Watching students have to put phones away in a system that allows full access all the time is like watching a long distance runner getting a foot amputated before having to run a marathon. Students didn't understand the instructions and many ignored them and had to be individually assisted in unplugging themselves from their devices. They then looked disorientated and confused, and then we hit 'em with a high stakes literacy test!
The threats and fear generated by the test are also part of this wonderful experience. "You can't graduate without this" is the most common refrain. I've been wondering why it's all stick and no carrot with the literacy test, and then I got one of those 'support education' emails that'll send the email an organization wrote in your name to your members of parliament.
We have a provincial election approaching and the stakes are high. My problem is that no one has any vision for Ontario's public education system that would actually improve it or make it sustainable into an uncertain future. Liberals are entirely invested in keeping things as they are (they're also the main reason why things are the way they are), and the conservatives aren't interested in improving it at all as they collect supporters intent on privatizing it.
Rather than send off someone else's words to my representatives, I sent a suggestion for a leaner, diversity-of-pathways honouring system that might also be greener, but no one in Ontario politics has a vision for public education beyond either keeping it as it is or selling it of to their donors. Ontario students deserve better...
I'm going to cut out the form letter and speak frankly. After years of Liberal stewardship, the public education system in Ontario wasn't in the best shape and needed an overhaul.
As a teacher in the system, I believe the entrenched political entities (councils, unions, colleges etc) have become more fixated on their own continued status quo than they have in an education system focused on student needs.
I had hoped that the current government would go about the serious business of fixing it, but they seem entirely focused on dismantling it for private benefit, which isn't going to help anyone.
Ontario's education system was broken by the 2006 learning to 18 amendment to the education act. There are many pathways and learning should be a lifelong commitment; schools do not own the concept of learning. Forcing students to stay in public schools until 18 has done irreparable harm to students and the system itself, though none of the many groups with a vested interest in a bloated public system will want you to address this.
A lean and individually responsive education system (that is also more fiscally responsible) could be achieved if we shelved this legislation and opened up pathways by allowing students who have demonstrated sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to move on if they wish. In this way our high-stakes and expensive OSSLT would offer an opportunity rather than being a purely punitive experience. If students were able to graduate at the end of grade 10 with a basic Ontario diploma which would allow them to pursue pathways directly into the workplace or into alternate learning situations like apprenticeships, our senior classrooms would no long be daycare centres for students who don't want to be there. The students in senior high school would be there with intent and the system would be able to align their limited resources to serve students who are learning with the intent to continue on into post-secondary.
This change would drastically reduce our overages on building maintenance by reducing the number of buildings needed. It might also offer an opportunity where schools can amalgamate beyond the rigid elementary/secondary system we run now, offering hyper local schooling that drastically reduces busing costs. In a world where fuel prices are skyrocketing and supply chains are stretched to breaking, this seems like an inevitability. Moving towards a digitally enhanced, hyper-local future now would mean it doesn't come as a violent upheaval later.
With strong digital/remote skills and effective leverage of emerging technologies, we could create a leaner, greener and more individually responsive public school system in Ontario. Academic teaching in classrooms works for students who understand that they need what's being taught in order to prepare for post-secondary, but for many Ontario students who aren't on that pathway, these final years are torture for them and for front line education staff trying to deal with them with ever shrinking resources.
No one will consider options like this because there are far too many organizations committed to the way things are for their own benefit. Conservatives won't do it because their private school friends won't like them taking away customers. The Liberals are so entwined with unions and other educational groups that they too won't touch this. I hope someone can see the light here and make moves to create a more student responsive, less bloated and more environmentally responsible education system. In such an Ontario, redundancies like education systems serving a single belief system would also end, but no political party will touch that either for fear of upsetting Ontario's status quo religious privilege.
Our public education system wasn't in great shape before the last four years beat it to a pulp. If Doug doesn't win again this June, whoever does will give us half of what was stripped away back and we'll be told by the various colleges/unions/councils they're aligned with that we should thank them for it. I don't want things to go back to the way they were, I want them to respect the many pathways students choose and honour those choices by not forcing students to remain in classrooms that aren't aligned with their learning needs until they are eighteen. Does anyone in Ontario politics have anything like this kind of vision?Sincerely,
Saturday, 26 March 2022
A few years ago it was a college bound student with learning challenges. His mom was... outspoken (that's being very charitable) while he was in school, but I was able to work well with him and he eventually went into information technology at a local college. He dropped out in his first semester with failing maths grades. Mom emailed me in a rage blaming me for this. I pointed out that I teach computer technology and asked how he was doing in those classes (he was getting 90s). That ended that particular interaction, but it wasn't the first and it won't be the last.
I've also had students who I worked closely with both in class and on school teams, students who know me well enough to be straight up, get in touch while in post-secondary to say that they too are struggling with maths. It's a familiar refrain; a student who got high 90s in high school maths suddenly finds themselves dysfunctional in post secondary. A recent multi-award winning graduate put it well: "when we're given a problem, other students apply their maths skills like taking tools out of a toolbox. They assess the problem and then apply the right mathematical approach to solve it. I feel like we spent all our time learning mechanics on worksheets but spent no time contextualizing what we were doing." This would be like trying to learn how to play hockey by drilling yourself independently on stick handling, skating and shooting, but never contextualizing those skills as a whole in a game.
When some of our most academically decorated students come back to me with this kind of feedback, I'm left wondering how to address it. I don't think it's fair that the blame falls entirely on teachers. Thanks to our community's everyone-can-go-to-university-if-they-want-to sense of privilege, many of our academic classes are populated by students without the background or interest in using what we're trying to teach them. This means teachers have to simplify and compartmentalize their content to such a degree that the students who actually need it aren't getting it. I frequently see students with weeks of absences who are still expected to earn a credit (you got auto-dropped at 10 absences when I was in high school). When you've got students who barely attend, compartmentalizing the learning becomes a survival technique. It also makes it nearly impossible to contextualize learning beyond single period lessons.
Last year my son was told, "don't worry, everyone fails that unit" in his grade eleven maths class. If I had a unit that everyone failed, my first assumption would be that I'm teaching it wrong and I'd change my approach, but one of the ways we appear to drag students to the end of the Ontario maths curriculum is to just keep pushing through it, regardless of comprehension, context or mastery of previous concepts. This isn't a new phenomenon, it happened to me in the 1980s too.
I'd quote statistics to you about how successful our graduates are once they leave the building, but no one in Ontario public education keeps those statistics. Instead of quoting EQAO scores, what we should be doing is collecting data on the success rates of our graduates in post-secondary. If we all claim to be about backward design, this kind of data would make that possible on a meta-level, but it's better to fly blind, then we don't have to take responsibility for those failures or change anything.
There is a lot of talk around destreaming as a cure-all to systemic prejudice, but the people framing it that way are usually the ones happy to see larger class sizes for everyone at a lower cost. Streaming wasn't designed to denigrate anyone, it was instituted to let classes focus on learner needs with higher needs students having smaller classes and students aiming at advanced post-secondary programs working in a room where everyone is driving for the same goals. The unfortunate truth is the destreaming has already occurred thanks in large part to parents and guidance ignoring it. When I last taught university level classes I found that less than half the class was university bound and a number of those directionless students were put into university stream to 'keep their options open'. In keeping their options open these students were knocking others out of contention. In curriculums like English and mathematics, where skills development is vital in order for students to operate at the senior end of the program, this kind of watering down of intent hurts many of our graduates.
Even in my technology courses I see this. My 'M' level courses are supposed to be for post-secondary bound students but I typically see 10-20% of the class coming out of credit poor essential and applied situations who have no intention of going into post-secondary. I then spend an inordinate amount of my time catering to these high-needs children instead of helping the students who selected the right stream get to where they want to go.
I'm not sure why, with the pressure to reduce costs, we're not offering alternate pathways that allow the students who don't need senior classes to take alternate pathways. An early graduation workplace/apprenticeship pathways option for students should be available for anyone who has passed the literacy and maths testing in grades 9 and 10. If those students who would rather be out working were, we could refocus our classrooms on preparing the students in them for post-secondary success instead of watering everything down in order to babysit those who don't want to be there. Instead we're all handcuffed by Ontario's learning until eighteen law. If we're all really advocates for life-long learning, then it should be obvious that this doesn't just happen in schools. There would be many benefits to stepping away from this mandatory restriction and refocusing our classrooms on developing rich, contextualized learning opportunities for students who show up and want to be there in order to go on and tackle post-secondary specialities.
This issue goes well beyond maths, but the structured development of skills over many years in mathematics exacerbates the problem in ways that make it much more visible.