WHAT'S WRONG AT SCHOOL?
PARENTS, EDUCATORS AND POLICY-MAKERS ARE DETERMINED TO IMPROVE THE STANDARD OF PUBLIC EDUCATION
When her nine-year-old son, James, kept coming home from school with headaches, Ann Gay got angry. The computer design artist, who lives in Winnipeg’s north end, said that eventually she attributed the headaches to rowdiness in her son’s classroom. But that was not her only concern about James’s school. On one occasion, during a parent-teacher interview, she asked why he was having trouble with multiplication. She was told not to worry, that James was progressing at his own rate. But Gay did worry. By late August, Gay had become so disenchanted that she pulled her two sons out of public school. Now James and Andrew, 14, both attend the private Faith Academy Baptist School in Winnipeg. Said Gay: “We have children who are floundering at the high-school level because they did not get a basic education in elementary school.”
Ann Gay is not an isolated rebel. Across Canada, thousands of alarmed parents have declared war on provincial public education systems which, they maintain, are doing a poor job of teaching their children. Many parents are concerned that their children are not learning to read well (page 42). Some are organizing themselves into lobby groups and demanding that provincial governments reform their education systems (page 36). Other parents, despairing of change, have put their children in private schools, where fees can reach $10,000 a year and more. A growing number of politicians share the concerns. Said Derrick Kimball, chairman of the Nova Scotia legislature’s select committee on education: “Teachers feel powerless, parents are frustrated and students are failing to learn.”
Provincial authorities as well are confronting the failures of the school systems. During the past five years, all 10 provinces and the two territories have appointed committees or commissions to review how well they teach elementary and highschool students. While the findings conflict in several areas, they are virtually unanimous in one pessimistic conclusion: too many students are either drifting through schools that fail to teach them to read or write well, or they are dropping out of high school. The result has been a rising level of frustration on all sides with almost every aspect of pre-university education. Many students are becoming disillusioned. Said George Couros, a Grade 12 student and co-president of the Humboldt, Sask., Collegiate Institute student council: “I know a lot of students who have trouble reading and writing.”
Oddly, much of the discontent centres on one of the innovations that many educators hail as a breakthrough—the now widely followed theory of child-centred education, a system that encourages students to progress at their own rate. Critics contend that because the child-centred system does not impose clear standards, it has become unaccountable and is producing near illiterates. Christine Rieder, for one, a mother of two grade school-aged children from Queensville, Ont., placed them in private school in September, 1991, because they were not learning to read.
Then, last February, she formed Parents In Action, a parents’ lobbying group, which has attracted 600 members. Said Rieder: “We are graduating happy illiterates from our schools. It amounts to educational child abuse.”
Echoing the parents’ frustration, Canadian business executives are among the sharpest critics of the Canadian educational system, with many demanding that reading, writing and computing skills be given higher priority. George Cobbe, chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. of Toronto, says that if Canadian schools do not address the problem, graduates will be unable to compete in high-technology industries. Added Cobbe, who is director of the Montreal-based Corporate-Higher Education Forum, an advisory group advocating a return to basics in education: “We hire a lot of university students, and we have had difficulty getting the right people—people who can express themselves in writing.”
Still, many school administrators and educators across Canada defend current teaching practices. Richard Dodds, past president of the Toronto-based Canadian Education Association, whose members include teachers, government administrators and other groups with an interest in education, says that much of the criticism is fed by a misunderstanding of what the school system is attempting to do. Dodds said that critics often focus selectively on international tests that show Canadian students performing poorly. He said that they often ignore the fact that Canada’s top students compare favorably with the best in the world in those same tests. But he added that the school system is increasingly being called on to teach everything from sex education and AIDS awareness to safe driving practices. Said Dodds: “I think the school system is doing a great job, but one of these days we’re going to have to sit down and decide what it is we want from our schools.”
The question of exactly what Canadians want from their schools is at the core of a deep philosophical clash. The harshest critics charge that, in failing to give children a solid grounding in reading, writing and arithmetic, schools have become mere day-care centres where students play at learning. Those accusations anger education experts. Patricia Holbom, a teaching consultant at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., says that the child-centred system prepares children to be more than just good readers and writers. She says that, unlike more traditional approaches where children learn by
memorization, child-centred programs teach children to think and learn independently or co-operatively.
The child-centred approach is still developing in new directions. One remarkable experiment is a program in Lowell, Mass., that schools in 21 other states are copying It has students participating in a so-called microsociety, in which they adopt specific roles from the world at large. They use money to conduct transactions for businesses, make laws and judge their peers. That kind of approach, say its proponents, trains students to learn throughout their lives. Said Fran Savage, president of the 30,000-member Alberta Teachers’ Association: “Studies show that employers want people who can actually work in teams, and independently. That’s what we are producing in our school system.”
Another innovative program, in which students study on their own, has been in operation in Calgary for more than 10 years. At Bishop Carroll Senior High School, students do not have regular classes with teachers. Instead, they study on their own in the school library and meet with tutors who help them with any problems that arise. “It was the best preparation for university,” said Nils Mungan, a physician who graduated from Bishop Carroll in 1985 and currently is an intern at a Kingston, Ont., hospital. “It lets you progress at your own pace.”
Still, many teachers say that the demands that society places on the education system make it difficult to concentrate on teaching the basics.
Many say that they have had to lower standards because politicians and education bureaucrats want to keep as many children as possible in school. As a consequence, say the teachers, they are having to advance children who have a poor grounding in the basics. Said Francis Watson, who has taught high-school history in Toronto for the past 28 years: “Our standards are not as high as they were 20 years ago.”
As well, teachers say that they often take the blame for the effects of domestic and social problems. Said Yvonne Vaughan, a high-school sociology teacher in Fredericton: “Society has decided to make the teacher accountable for poor grades, when they are just as likely to be an indicator of truancy and other home-related problems.”
As for the students themselves, it is not hard to find signs that they are divided over the quality of education they are receiving. Indeed, a Maclean’s/Decima poll that surveyed 500 university students in November found that
only 52 per cent felt that high school had prepared them properly for university. Jason Ettorre, a University of Toronto engineering student, said that high schools do not attach enough importance to reading and writing. “Grammar might be only worth five marks on a paper,” said Ettorre. “If you want help, you really have to motivate yourself.”
So far, the debate over how to improve the
quality of education while meeting the need to reduce the numbers of dropouts has produced divergent courses. In Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, education officials are examining proposals that would put more emphasis on testing and on the teaching of core subjects such as reading and writing—what could be called a “back to basics” approach. But at the same time other provinces, most notably British Columbia and Ontario, are moving towards more liberal, child centred policies. Under a new, controversial Year 2000 program in British Columbia, standard grades are being abolished from kindergarten to Grade 3 and report cards for younger students will describe their progress in anecdotal form (page 38).
Critics of contemporary teaching methods point to mediocre showings by Canadian students in international rankings. In one instance, in 1990-1991, the U.S. Department of Educa-
tion and the U.S. National Science Foundation commissioned comprehensive tests of 13-yearold students in 15 countries, including Canada, on their knowledge of science and mathematics. Even though Canada spends a greater percentage of its gross domestic product on education than most countries, it finished ninth in both subjects, behind such countries as the Soviet Union and Switzerland, as well as South Korea and Taiwan.
The results of domestic studies are equally unimpressive. A1989 Statistics Canada survey concluded that 29 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 24 lacked the basic skills necessary to read a newspaper. And according to a report last May by the Economic Council of Canada, more than one million functionally illiterate young people will emerge from the nation’s schools during the next 10 years. Said Paul Duffie, the New Brunswick education minister: “We can’t allow children to just float through the system and not learn to read.”
In counterpoint, defenders of modem educational methods point to reductions in national dropout levels. According to Dodds, about 70 per cent of students dropped out of high school in the 1950s. In 1989, the latest year for which figures are available, the national dropout rate was down to 34.3 per cent. But some students themselves say that there is only so much that education authorities can do to keep some of their classmates from leaving. Said Sheila Ryan, 17, a Grade 12 student in Nelson, B.C.: “A lot of students just aren’t motivated and they drop out. I don’t think that is the school’s fault.”
The school system’s current approach to dropouts, like many of the _ modern trends in education, had its 1 origins in the liberal education reforms S of the 1960s, which reflected the belief I that a child’s creativity and self-es“ teem were as important as learning to read and write. As child-centred education became widespread during the 1970s, it took on more social and psychological overtones. To promote self-confidence and a desire to learn, said Mark Holmes, a professor of educational administration at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, schools judged students just as heavily on their eagerness, attentiveness and ability to get along with others as on their ability to read and write. And because the theorists considered failure to be damaging to the ego, many boards eliminated the practice. As a result, he said, child-centred reforms evolved into a system without precise goals. Added Holmes: “You can pass an English course in Ontario simply by participating in class.”
In Room 14 at Winnipeg’s Laidlaw Elementary School many of the education practices now being questioned are in daily use. The
room is painted bright yellow, decorated with posters and student projects, and cluttered with books and science equipment. Desks are arranged in pairs and the teachers, Stephanie Greene and John Matas, a husband-and-wife team who usually work on alternate days, were urging Grade 5 pupils to participate in discussions.; Greene and Matas said that, despite the spontaneous conversation and unstructured look of their classroom, they operate according to a careful plan. “We try to make it interesting without losing sight of the academic goals,” said Matas. “The best thing for us is when parents say their children love going to school every day.”
To teach reading, Matas uses various methods, supplemented by a word-of-the-day program. The students write down what they think the word means and add it to a list of words they could later use in an essay. Matas said that the approach teaches students about the parts of speech and how to use them in a sentence. If some students have trouble, oth-
ers help them. Said Matas: “If they understand something they can explain it to other kids better.” Matas and Greene also use flash cards to help teach multiplication and assign homework. Said 10-year-old Jacqueline Guertin: “I think homework is good, because when the teachers aren’t there, you have to figure out the answer yourself.” And if students fall behind, or fail to complete their homework, the teachers telephone their parents. “Most of the parents are grateful,” said Matas. “They really want to help out, and they are very co-operative.”
Lloyd Dennis, one of the leading architects of the reforms that shaped the teaching methods now widely used across Canada, says that many of the problems facing education have their origin outside the classroom. Dennis, who lives in Orillia, Ont., was a co-chairman with former Supreme Court justice Emmett Hall of a groundbreaking 1968 inquiry into education
Since 1966, the Toronto-based textbookpublishng firm Nelson Canada has periodically tested 3rade 8 students in English-language schools in all provinces except Quebec. The tests covered a /ariety of basic skills, from reading comprehension :o mathematics. Compared with test scores in 1966, scores in 1991 had dropped in all areas tested by the following percentages:
VOCABULARY MATHEMATICS READING COMPREHENSION WRITING SKILLS
IN THE LABORATORY
Werage marks by students in their inal high-school year who took part n the Second International science Study, between 1983 ind 1986. The average score nternationally was 54.5 per cent.
New Brunswick 130.8 Prince Edward Island |34.6 Nova Scotia 136.8
One of the most recent comprehensive international surveys of educational standards took place two years ago, when 13-year-old students in 15 countries participated in the second International Assessment of Educational Progress.
A random sample of 3,000 students in each country answered more than 100 questions in science and mathematics. And as such tests often do, the results placed Canadian students in the middle of the competition.The average grades:
O SOUTH KOREA 0 TAIWAN © SWITZERLAND Cl HUNGARY 0 SOVIET UNION 0 SLOVENIA 0 ITALY 0 ISRAEL CANADA* FRANCE ® SCOTLAND © SPAIN © UNITED STATES © IRELAND © JORDAN
78 SOUTH KOREA 76 TAIWAN 74 SWITZERLAND 73 SOVIET UNION 71 HUNGARY 70 FRANCE 70 ITALY 70 ISRAEL 69 CANADA*
69 SCOTLAND 68 IRELAND 68 SLOVENIA 67 SPAIN 63 UNITED STATES 55 57 JORDAN 40
'Prince Edward Island did not participate
in Ontario. The so-called Hall-Dennis report advocated the switch from traditional teaching methods to the child-centred system. Dennis, 69, who works part time as a lecturer and writer on education issues, says that he considers much of the mounting criticism of the system misdirected. Since the Second World War, he said, Canadians have asked their school systems to assume responsibilities that have little to do with teaching. “Teachers have had to become psychologists and sexual monitors,” said Dennis. “They’re doing all kinds of things other than teaching reading and writing.”
The same view emerged in the results of a $250,000 study carried out by two education professors at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and published in September. Based on interviews with 17,000 teachers across Canada, the survey concluded that emotional problems among students, increasing levels of violence in schools, and the practice in some provinces of putting youngsters with severe behavioral problems into regular classrooms are eroding the quality of education. Said Toronto’s Watson: “If you have repeated altercations with students, it has to hurt your program.” Added Edward Bujold, a Grade 7 and 9 mathematics teacher in Fredericton: “You can’t really discipline children anymore— and they know it.”
Still, the major question asked by parents and employers is why students bright enough to graduate from high school often cannot read or write properly. Said Winnipeg’s Gay, after her son had been in private school for a week: “He is already doing better. Why is that?” Added Walter Shawlee, research director of Kelowna, B.C.based Northern Airborne Technology Ltd., a local aircraft electronics manufacturer: “It breaks my heart when I get 50 to 100 applications for a job at my plant and none is suitable. They are coming out of high school with minimal skills.”
To better prepare students for university and the job market, some parents and lobby groups want to return to a more traditional education system. By stressing the three Rs and testing students more often, said OISE’s Holmes, it might be possible to improve literacy and still meet the political demand that students from every economic and social background finish high school. Holmes
MACLEAN'S/JANUARY 11, 1993 31
added that a change to a more structured system, in which all children begin at the same place in the curriculum and study the same material, would allow most to advance together. Those who failed tests could get remedial help. Many teachers also advocate a return to a more basic approach. Said Fredericton’s Bujold: “Maybe we should go back more to basics, because right now we have to pass everyone. The kids know it, so they don’t do any work.”
Some critics predict that unless the quality of Canadian education improves soon, parents will begin demanding the kind of changes that the British government has enacted to give some parents in England a bigger voice in education. Under legislation passed in 1988, publicly funded schools in England can break away from local school boards and receive funding directly from the national education ministry. Because funding for such schools is determined partly by enrolment, the system encourages schools to boost their academic standards as a way of attracting students.
Concerned Nova Scotians are proposing a version of the British system for their the province. According to MLA Kimball, the education committee that he chairs has suggested that the provincial government channel grants of about $4,500—the average cost of educating a child in the province for a year—to private schools to cover the costs of educating children who otherwise are in danger of failing or dropping out of school. Kimball said that,
because schools producing better results would attract more students, such a plan would force public schools, which are similarly funded according to enrolment, to become more competitive.
But while some Canadians are pushing for a return to basics, Premier Bob Rae’s New
Democratic Party government in Ontario is moving the province’s education system in the opposite direction. Currently, Ontario students are directed into basic, general or advanced levels in high school. Education Minister Tony Silipo said that when the separation of students into different streams ends next year, all Grade 9 students—including the brightest and the
slowest learners—will be free to go to any kind of class. The policy, Silipo said, will ensure equal opportunities for all students. At the same time, the province will introduce a new “benchmark” method to evaluate student performance. It will provide teachers with guidelines —in some cases on videotapes—for determining students’ levels of development, but there will be no standardized examinations. Said Silipo: “I believe you can have both equality and academic excellence.” Some critics insist that the Ontario experiment is a striking example of what is wrong with education in Canada. Horst Schweinbenz, president of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, said that the benchmarks and de-streaming contain inherent conflicts that militate against high academic results. He said that because students inevitably have different abilities, they will have to be measured dif5 ferently to keep all of them advancing through the £ course. Some critics of deI streaming say that such a sity uation will lead to a lowering of academic standards. Meanwhile, the battle between the defenders of childcentred learning and those who are pressing for a return to basics seems likely to intensify. It is a debate that could have immense consequences for Canada. In the struggle between advocates and opponents of child-centred learning, the well being of the nation’s children is at stake.
TOM FENNELL with correspondents’ reports