Articles

WHY HALF OUR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS QUIT

FRED BODSWORTH August 1 1950
Articles

WHY HALF OUR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS QUIT

FRED BODSWORTH August 1 1950

FRED BODSWORTH

THE high schools are in the midst of a cold war that has suddenly flared into open flame. With the revelation that more than half the students who start high school in Canada never finish their studies—that more than 100,000 quit every year—the controversy has come sharply into

The issue: Will secondary education continue

its swing toward a more “practical” form of schooling, or will it shift back toward the old-style classics, abstract mathematics and ancient languages —the brain-teaser type of education whick aimed at the development of mental discipline and hard thinking and left the student to pick up his everyday knowledge on his own hook?

The controversy gets down to the bedrock ol education. What is public education’s main purpose—to hand out neat little packages of facts that students can use when they get out in the world, oi to develop the mental curiosity and acumen thal will enable them to pick up those facts—and act on them intelligently—without formal guidance? Is the job of mass education to produce breadwinners or thinkers?

Say the modernists: high-school education must be made more practical, it must deal with the problems students see in the world around them: otherwise many quit school and get little or nc secondary education. It isn’t a case of whick system is better, the modernists add, it’s a case ol which is possible.

They Just Don't Stick It Out

SAY the traditionalists: high-school education i¡ too practical now. It has sold its birthright for £ mess of contemporary courses dealing with trivia things. Too much of it teaches students how tc work with their hands, too little teaches how tc work with their heads.

For 20 years the opposing camps have beer sniping sporadically at each other from lecture platforms, in educational journals and prospectuses and at conventions and round tables.

The modernists had won some earlier victories —commercial, home economics and trade courses in many city schools; the removal of Latin as a compulsory subject from some courses. Then this spring they suddenly tossed some statistical dynamite into the fray—data from a nation-wide survey

WHY HALF OUR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS QUIT

which show that close to 60% of students are quitting high schools without graduating because they find no meaning in their educational diet.

Alarmed over the high rate of school quitting, practically every educationist in the land is now saying his bit on what we ought to do about it. In the past couple of months there have been more authoritative pronouncements on the blessings and sins of practical education than there were in the previous five years.

The survey was conducted by the Canadian Research Committee on Practical Education, a body sponsored by the Canadian Education Association and established in 1948 to study practical education in Canada. More than anything else the educationists wanted frank advice from business and industry which absorb the high-school graduates, so representatives of commerce, industry, agriculture and labor, as well as education, were included on the committee. Most of the committee’s funds come from business firms and associa-

Last winter the committee brought together the results of the most detailed and comprehensive educational survey of its kind ever performed. Data had been collected from 27,000 students who either graduated from or dropped out of high schools in 1948, a 20% cross-section of graduates and drop-outs in every province except Newfoundland. The surveyors concentrated on those who dropped out before graduation; they wanted to know why.

In a smoke-stained building on Toronto’s College Street a few months ago committee members studied the statistics and wondered if they could be true. For the survey reveals that something like 100,000 students are dropping out of schools every year. Fifty-nine per cent of boys and 51% of girls who start junior high school (grade seven) never stick it out long enough to graduate with a junior matriculation (grade 12 in Ontario and British Columbia, grade 11 in other provinces).

But it wasn’t these figures in themselves which 3tarted the cold war sizzling. It was the reasons

the drop-outs gave for quitting school. Educationists have always believed students dropped out either because economic factors in the home forced them to go to work or because they didn’t have grey matter enough to master the studies. Now it develops that this isn’t true. The majority of students quit high school because the schools are boring them stiff. They feel that traditional studies fill them with a hodgepodge of knowledge they’ll never use, prepare them for white-collar jobs which many of them don’t want and will never get. The modernists insist that the results of the survey give them a conclusive victory.

Says A. G. McColl, research director of the committee and chief engineer behind the study: “These findings are alarming. Our high schools are bungling their most important duty—that of keeping students in school long enough to give them a worth-while well-rounded education. Canada’s boast of secondary education for all is, in actual practice, a hollow myth. The education is there, all right, but in its present form the pupils don’t want it.”

It seems that our high schools, costing somewhere close to $100 millions a year to operate, are giving us 50% value. Half the work they start is never finished.

Dr. Charles E. Phillips, professor of education, Ontario College of Education, a member of the let’s-be-practical camp, adds this: “A generat n

ago high-school education was the privilege of the few, today it is the right of practically every Canadian teen-ager. We boast of our growing highschool enrollments, of our fine school buildings, but we get the kids in school and then fail to keep them

Does it really matter if 100,000 students a year quit before their secondary education has been completed?

F. K. Stewart, secretary of the Canadian Education Association, says: “High-school courses are

designed to form threeor four-year units. A student doesn’t obtain a very thorough insight into subjects covered unless he completes the full

course. The student who attends one or two years and drops out has wasted hundreds of hours getting an introduction to subjects which will never be worth much to him unless he goes deeper so that he can apply it. He’s not only wasting his own time; the drop-out is also wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money.”

“High-school graduation is increasingly essential for citizens in a modem democratic nation,” Stewart adds. “Democracy demands thinking and understanding citizens. A progressive nation like Canada needs a well-educated public to keep its democratic society functioning smoothly and to maintain proper levels of production.”

Yet, out of every 100 who start primary school only 22 finish high school. Most drop out after they reach high school. Interviewers for the surveying committee asked more than 14,000 drop-outs why they were quitting school. For the first time in the history of Canadian education there are precise data on this vital problem.

Potential Doctors Are Lost

REASONS relating to the school and its courses (lack of interest, unsuitability of curriculum) were three times as numerous among boys and twice as numerous among girls as other reasons such as economic pressure within the home. For example, 14% of the boys quit school because the family income required them to go to work, but 58% quit simply because they couldn’t get interested in the schooling they were getting.

When the committee delved into the economic status of drop-outs’ families it was found again that school and not family factors are to blame for the laugest share of student drop-out. Students from families in the above-average economic bracket do not have to go to work, can easily afford all school expenses, yet three out of 10 of these quit before graduation just the same.

Do they drop out, then, because their learning capacity is low? The drop-outs’ learning capacity was investigated and it was found that 25% of students with above-

Continued on page 31

Higher learning or practical subjects? While educationists argue hotly it looks as though the $100 millions we spend each year is half wasted

Continued from page 7

average intelligence drop out before graduation. High schools lose about 8,500 of these superior students every year. Says research director McColl: “These are not merely capable of graduating—they are potential doctors and teachers whom Canada’s understaffed medical and teaching professions will never see.” Their most frequent reason for quitting school: lack of interest.

How about those of average intelligence? Around 55% of these drop out, or 58,000 every year. Again these are students capable of graduating.

Ten per cent more boys than girls drop out. The extra 10% all drop out because of dissatisfaction with the school and its courses. “It looks,” says McColl, “as if our high-school courses are better suited to girls than boys.” The committee points out in its report that high-school students of many larger centres, particularly in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, can choose more practical courses such as commerce, home economics or shop work if they wish. But there is no such choice for the majority of secondaryschool students in small towns where the traditional academic course—including stiff doses of Vergil, Shakespeare and algebra—is the staple diet. Students can take it or leave it. Close to 60%, leave it.

F. K. Stewart says: “High-school curricula were designed originally to give the groundwork in academic subjects students would need on entering universities. Forty years ago practically every student who entered high school intended going on to a university; today fewer than 10% have any intention of continuing in university. Yet most high schools still stick to the old university-preparation course.” For the 10% who are eyeing the universities the “academic” high schools are just what the doctor ordered. For the other 90%. . .? One drop-out answers: “Will knowing how to conjugate the Latin verb facio make me a better salesman or mechanic, or help me decide how to vote on an election day?”

What Is “Practical?”

In spite of the fact that job opportunities are more numerous in cities the drop-out rate in cities is lower than in rural schools. Advocates of reform say this is because city schools provide opportunities for more practical studies.

“The time has come,” says the committee, “when the call for more practical subjects has reached the irresistible

What do they mean by “practical education”?

Committee chairman Hugh Crombie (vice-president of a large engineering firm) says, “Practical education does not mean technical education to the exclusion of all general or cultural education. What the committee has in mind is a program of general education which covers the cultural side and also deals more fully with practical problems of life in Canada today.”

A. G. McColl adds, “The academic course shaped around university - entrance requirements is too far removed from real life for the average student. In school the student studies one or two languages, some pretty abstract geometry and algebra, a great deal of history that seems to have little connection with what is going on in the world today and a literature course that also seems to stress the past and ignore the

present. But when he gets home after school the problems of life he hears his parents discussing centre around such things as mortgages, insurance, political parties, his dad’s labor-union negotiations, foreign trade and the cost of

“His school is teaching him practically nothing of these things.”

One critic says that the average parent-to-be after 12 years of Canadian schooling knows more about housebreaking a puppy than doing the same chore for a baby.

Dr. Charles E. Phillips believes students should have a greater say in selection of their own studies. “The high school should give attention to the ordinary problems of life—how to behave in relations with other people, what is involved in marriage and in buying and running a home, what is the meaning of the endless contention between labor and employers.

Many Teachers Favor Change

“Perhaps our most serious fault,” Phillips adds, “has been our failure to consult young people themselves. If we want young people to have an interest in school work we had better give them some say about it. If the school must be a prison in which all the inmates are forced to do only what others prescribe can you blame a large proportion for trying to escape?”

Such an alteration of the curriculum would place a heavy responsibility on teachers trained only to teach traditional academic subjects. Yet many teachers favor such a change. A year ago Ontario high-school teachers meeting in Toronto agreed the current curriculum wasn’t meeting present-day needs. Some opinions:

J. S. Calvert, Sault Ste. Marie: “Because of the importance of science in our modern civilization a complete revision is required. It should be brought up-to-date to include such things as atomic energy, electronics and soil conservation. All our science textbooks are out-of-date, uninteresting and inadequate.”

Ian Ferguson, Owen Sound: “Our

present method of teaching French doesn’t teach the students to speak the language. If we are going to continue teaching French the oral method should be used. We should cut down on the French grammar and use records and French radio programs so that the student learns it by ear.”

Verna Nichol, Toronto: “The study of home economics is vital to every girl, but only a few schools have rooms equipped to teach it.”

The Canadian Youth Commission, an organization comprising leaders in education, business, religion and labor established in 1943, has adhered to the policy in all its recommendations to government and social agencies that the opinions of youth themselves should be given strong consideration in plans for their welfare. So recently the commission asked 1,500 young people just out of school what they thought of the education Canada had dished up for

One Nova Scotia boy, 16, expressed a typical view: “I learned more about

politics and how to get along in the world by listening at the village grocery store than all the time I spent in school. I think some political training would be more valuable than ancient history or French.”

In a report the commission declared: “High schools with which most of us are familiar . . . cater to that fringe of the student body which excels in academic subjects. Their program, as a result, is bookish and abstract. In so far as it educates the rural youth it educates him away from the land.

“General science courses (should be) a practical training for life in a modern home. For example, the diffidence of most girls and women in dealing with home gadgets is notorious, in spite of the fact that the home and its care are their specialty. Opinions . . . «all urgently for the modernization of science courses so that girls may function competently in a modern home, instead of waiting to impose their gadget troubles on a tired husband at the end of the day . . .”

In a series of lectures last year Dr. J. G. Althouse, chief director of the Ontario Department of Education, pointed out that high schools today are for all youth, not for the selected few, and declared, “Secondary schools can no longer confine themselves to the training of selected brains for professional service; they must give all young people something of specific use . . . When the school so bores its students that they don’t want to learn any more, education has not improved them—it has done them irreparable harm.”

But the educationists who want high schools to stick to the old classicsmathematics regime have a powerful argument. Most practical-education subjects cost a heap more money. This is one reason why most practical-education teaching is centred in cities and bigger towns, while smaller schools stick largely to the academic approach. Many of the smaller schools can’t afford anything else.

The advocates of practical courses claim they have found a way to beat this problem—the larger unit, or consolidated school. By combining school sections, closing smaller schools and pooling funds for equipping one central large school, hundreds of rural areas are today starting to provide students with advantages previously possible only in better-heeled urban areas. Pupils are transported to the central school by bus. Most of these schools provide home economics courses for girls and various forms of vocational training for boys, geared to the needs of industry in their own particular area Increased funds have made it poss.jle for many of them to obtain qualified teachers, and land and equipment for courses in practical agricul-

Psychology at Orangeville

There are other moves in the direction of practical education. Ontario, under its new secondary-school policy announced last year, is encouraging municipalities to work out curricula closer to the life of each community. The tobacco-growing districts of Southwestern Ontario will be permitted to include training which covers the specialized agriculture of their areas. Schools in the mining areas of Northern Ontario will teach more geology. There will be less emphasis on purely academic subjects, more attention to contemporary problems (one of the noteworthy ones being conservation of wild life ánd forests).

Ten years ago Chilliwack, B.C., decided its high school was educating students only for the universities and professions, which would require them to leave home. The nine out of 10 students who would remain in Chilliwack as farmers, small businessmen and home-makers were getting little out of their own school. Large numbers were quitting before graduation. So the school bought a 22-acre farm for agricultural training ' and gradually added courses in business and industrial trades which would fit students for jobs available in its own area. Chilliwack now has one of the lowest drop-out

At Orangeville, Ont., senior high-

sdhool girls conduct lessons in the kindergarten class under the supervision of trained kindergarten teachers. By this means they learn something of child psychology, and become experienced in the handling of small children.

The drop-out survey of the Canadian Research Committee on Practical Education is proof, its supporters say, that the trend toward practical education must go much farther before Canada’s secondary-education system can be regarded as an education for all.

In the cold war’s other camp, however, leading educationists are claiming that education has become too practical already.

Says Dr. Robert C. Wallace, principal of Queen’s University: “The present utilitarian emphasis may drown out the appreciation of the finer values of life which came from the older classical education. The classical-mathematics regime was severely disciplinary. It sharpened the mind and gave a fine sense of the meaning of words. It cultivated the aesthetic feeling. The assumption was that if the mind was well trained it would be capable of meeting any kind of situation that would later arise.

For Posterity Fine Plumbing

“Today . . . young people go out from collegiate institutes with a better sense of contemporary issues than they did under the classical-mathematical disciplines . . . but their minds are not well disciplined. They are not capable—generally speaking—of original thinking. They take their opinions from their favorite newspaper, are swayed by catchwords. There is a lack of stability, for the foundations are not down to rock.

“We cannot afford to sacrifice the high qualities of mind for any social aim, however admirable. The subjects which stretch the mind must not go into discard. If they do we shall become— indeed, we are already—a nation of readers of snippets and predigested morsels. We shall be vulnerable to all the catchwords devised to sway the unthinking multitude.”

Dr. Alexander B. Currie, associate professor of education, McGill Uni ver sity, adds: “An education which usethe six or more years of high school to train mainly ‘marketable talents’ leaves unfruitful many of the most valuable of human powers.”

Dr. W. G. Hardy, head of the department of classics, University of Alberta: “Our high schools are producing an undereducated and overopinionated mass of people. Less and less now is taught about more and more. Most vocational-training courses are hobby courses, not education. The Romans were enthusiastic about vocational education, yet Greece is remembered for its brains and Rome for its drains. At the rate we are going, North America will be remembered merely for its plumbing.”

And that’s the lineup in the battle of the high schools. ★