Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Essential Catchall

I've raged against the inflation of grades and streaming to minimize expectations on otherwise capable students before.  I'm at the end of another semester of teaching essential students and once again I've been injured by the process.  Just as in last year's essential English class, I'm given a single class with mixed grade elevens and twelves (because teaching essential classes is easy?).  In that split focused class are a majority of genuinely essential level students who need close support and a lot of one on one attention to manage the work.  This I have no trouble with.  These students tend to be very genuine and eager, but have trouble thinking through what needs to be done.  They make me feel valued as a teacher, which is lovely.  In all cases when I bump into them in the hallway outside of class we have positive and supportive interactions with each other.

Hidden among these students (the ones least able to resist their animosity) are capable students who have matriculated into essential classes because they have failed academic and applied courses in previous years.  They haven't failed these classes because of an inability to manage the learning, they simply haven't done it.  These students tend to have months of absences in a semester and when they do show up you can expect disruption, disrespect and constant sabotage.  At the end of it all is an expectation to pass these students (usually with a fifty), even though they have been a poison in the room.

Needless to say, teaching in an environment like this (in a split three way classroom with a handful of saboteurs who have been carefully moulded by a system seemingly intent on not expecting anything from them) isn't an enjoyable experience.  Halfway through the semester I had to fill out my annual learning plan and I ended up asking that the essential classes I had been working to begin for years be stopped.  If it means not catering to using essential classes as a catchall for miscreants, then I will happily make a place for genuinely essential students in my open M level classes and look after them better there without them having to sit next to a learning troll.

These poisonous apples are a tiny portion of our school's population, I'd guess no more than thirty students out of almost thirteen hundred, but they damage whole rooms of learners and diminish the school's ability to function.  In some cases they are hanging around the school to sell drugs, in others they are hanging around the school simply because no one else expects anything of them either.  The rest of us are going to end up spending the rest of our lives paying for these people, and the system seems intent on teaching them that they can do what they want and expect no consequences.

I've watched these students accumulate months of absences without any observable consequence.  When they are in class you can expect them to walk in twenty minutes late (and after initial instruction), actively disrupt any work others are doing, take twenty minute toilet breaks and then walk out early without permission.  I'm told I'm supposed to spend my lunch giving them an in-class suspension, but they refuse to attend those too.  In any case, I usually leave my room open for the other 99% of students who want to do something productive.  Given a choice I'll look after that vast majority.  Meanwhile, back in class, I've watched these lost boys maliciously and intentionally break technology in my shop, driving up the costs of what I'm trying to do with no discernible benefit to anyone, themselves included.  That's the saddest part about this, they are wasting their own potential and no one seems to want to do anything about it.

Ontario's Bill 52:  Learning until 18, was obviously instituted with the best interests of all students, including those who would previously have dropped out, but there is benefit in having a student leave school if they are unable to make use of what is still a fairly inflexible education system.  Changing this bill to learning until 16 with a variety of options beyond sabotaging high school classrooms would be a logical step forward.  Giving apprenticeships and work to these students might prompt them to care enough make productive use of their potential.  It would also stop the system from punishing vulnerable and genuinely essential level students by dropping delinquents into their midst because the only response to a failing grade in our rigid education system is to move the offender into a different stream.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Ontario's streamed high school system except what politics has done to it.  With some rational adjustments we could fix this for those students who have lost the ability to develop their own potential, as well as everyone else.  Going to work and getting dirty and tired for a couple of years did wonders for my educational motivation.

NOTE It appears the TDSB is trying to manage this problem: "students who study at the applied level in Grade 9 are less likely to graduate and streaming has led to inequitable outcomes for marginalized students."

As I mention above - marginalized students are matriculated from academic to applied and then essential level classes because the only way the education system assesses students is on how well they can adapt to the academic stream in high school.  Anyone unable or unwilling to sit in rows in a room of 31 students and work out of a text book quickly finds themselves bumped down this fictional ladder of capability, eventually ending up in essential classrooms with students who genuinely struggle with curriculum.  We might have started streaming as a means of differentiating instruction and offering a less generic classroom, but it has turned into a punitive process driven by cost cutting.  The problem with addressing socio-economic and other student specific inequalities is that it takes resources, and resources cost money we don't have because we had to bail out banks and multinationals.

"Although the Ontario government promised “zero tolerance” for bad behaviour in schools before the Safe Schools Act was enacted, and the Act prescribes “mandatory” suspensions and expulsions, the presence of mitigating factors in the current legislation precludes it from being strictly characterized as “zero tolerance”. Likewise, although the TDSB Safe Schools Foundation Statement Policy speaks of “zero tolerance” and “mandatory” suspensions and expulsions, the direction to principals and teachers to apply mitigating factors in disciplinary matters precludes it from being strictly characterized as “zero tolerance”. The real issue is whether there is a practice of “zero tolerance”."  The Ontario Safe Schools Act: School discipline and discrimination  Safety is secondary to reducing parent blowback and paperwork (there is less when you don't suspend a student).  The result is an inflation in unchecked poor student behaviour that spreads from a tiny percentage of students into the general school population.  A lack of alternative options for these students exacerbates the situation.  The goal should be intervention and directed support to get them back on track, not benign indifference.