Globe’s Radwanski thinks McGuinty’s “education record” key to re-election in 2011

What is it about so many Canadian professional journalists that they feel they have to continually promote Liberal governments, even when they are doing a bad job of governing? And, yes, the McGuinty-led Liberals have done a bad job of governing Ontario, particularly given the number of e-Health-like boondoggles, wind energy and other money sucking green initiatives, the HST and other tax increases (e.g. the health premium and eco-taxes come to mind), as well as ever rising hydro rates. In fact, the Ontario Liberals have taken Ontario from “have” to “have not” status in just a few years, requiring equalization payments be returned to Queen’s Park. Meaning, that Ontario is no longer the economic engine of Canada. 

Yet, plugging for the Ontario Liberal Party is exactly what Adam Radwanski seems to be attempting in today’s Globe and Mail (H/T Catherine). I say “seems to be attempting” because, while he does provide several reasons for the McGuinty Liberal government to stress their record on education in order to get re-elected in October 2011, he also presents several caveats as to why that may not happen.  And, on those points, I would agree.

Endnote: Post shortened on Friday, December 23rd, 2010. C/P at Jack’s Newswatch.

Prof. Lukacs exposes Univ. Manitoba “no-fail” policy at Ph.D level

Can you believe it?  The University of Manitoba’s Mathematics Department has succumbed to the politically correct policy of promoting a student who was not ready to graduate. Only, this time we are talking about a student who has already had their Ph.D conferred — even though they did not pass one of their required comprehensive exams.

No big deal you say? Sorry, but it “is” a big deal because it is the comprehensive exams that decide whether or not a Ph.D candidate is ready to be identified as a scholar and a professor.

Been there and done that. Tough? Stressful? You bet it is.  Did I suffer from test anxiety? Absolutely. The thing is, there were only four of us in a large room. At the doctoral level, there are not hundreds of students, or even dozens. Likely, the student involved wrote their exam alone. But, because they are usually timed (anywhere from three hours to eight hours), you have to think fast and you have to know your research paradigms. My guess is that this student still doesn’t understand the purpose for the exam.

In any event, good on Professor Gabor Lukacs! Suspended without pay for three months, you sure have to hand it to him for exposing all this! I have taught in two universities. I know only too well the fortitude it would require to take on the administration and the politically correct “let’s lower our academic standards in this case” attitude, particularly since the student had a medical letter.

While this matter may be happening in Manitoba, it is also alive and well in Ontario. The McGuinty government call their lowering of academic standards at the high school level, their  “success” initiative — which I call their “no-fail” policy.

Odd isn’t it that the person who exposes this travesty is suspended but the person who failed the comprehensive test is out there somewhere pretending to have successfully completed all of their doctoral program. For full details, read yesterday’s special to the National Post. Written by Joseph Brean, it just has to be a wake-up call to everyone.

Obviously, what started out as well-meaning accommodations for students with average to above average ability, who also had learning or other disabilities (including severe math or test anxiety), has now become a crutch and a detriment to academic accomplishment.

And, unfortunately, nearly twenty years ago, I had a hand in that process when I wrote a text-book about accommodations and compensations — used world-wide in university special needs departments. I also worked with dozens of college and university students in my private practice who needed help learning essay-writing techniques, study and test-taking strategies. However, I never would have suggested waiving an exam, most especially a failed comprehensive exam. Nor, would I have suggested accommodations at the doctoral level.

Recommendations:

While no one at the University of Manitoba has asked for my opinion, I intent to give it anyway.

  1. The President of the University of Manitoba and the Math Chair have to stop blaming the whistle-blower, Prof. Lukacs.
  2. While they can’t take away a Ph.D once it has been conferred, they can insist the person involved rewrite the test as many times as it takes for them to pass it — marked by an outside neutral source.

Otherwise, all those who have a part in this fiasco have ruined the University of Manitoba’s reputation, as well as put in question “all” previous Ph.D’s conferred there.

For the rest of society, it is long past time to stop promoting students who are not ready, for whatever reason. If that means, a higher drop out rate, so be it. And, yes, having taught sociology, I know there will be those who say dropping out creates strain and the likelihood of higher crime statistics. Well, young people have choices and those choices have consequences. My point is to stop making excuses for them because  chances are most will return to school once they find out they can’t get meaningful work.

I am just glad that someone said “enough is enough” and exposed the University of Manitoba’s implicit “no-fail” policy.  Thank you Professor Lukacs!

Endnotes: Professor Lukacs was a child prodigy, meaning he was a “gifted” child. The fact that he is willing to buck his university’s administration shows he is made of different stuff and not afraid to rock the boat. Check out Paul Bennett’s blog EduChatter and his latest post on where gifted education should be going. While you’re at it, read the comment thread as well because there is an excellent discussion going on that deals with the “lowered academic standards” we see in this situation.

Carleton Univ. provides help to students who are “flunking out”

Unlike high school where teachers and parents can direct and influence what students do, the opposite is usually true of university. Total freedom! As a result, even though good marks are what get young people admitted to university in the first place, the characteristics and skills that are most needed to succeed are self-discipline, organizational abilities and perseverance, as well as knowing when to ask for help.

The importance of first-year university mid-terms exams

But before I get into those issues, a little reminder. Absolutely everyone who attends university at some point in their lives remembers the mid-point of their first course or first year. In most universities there are what are called “progress exams” or “mid terms” in first year at the end of November and into early December. They exist for very good reasons and primary among those reasons is a wake-up call as to how well (or not well) students are doing.

The results can sometimes be very demoralizing because unless the students are self-disciplined and organized, they usually don’t do very well, sometimes even failing.  Why? Well, I hate to inform parents about this (as though they don’t already know), but the first semester in first year is usually all about partying and students discovering the world around them — without anyone supervising them, particularly if they are not living at home.

The reality is, universities are totally free of the constraints of high school. No one telephones or texts students when they sleep in and don’t show up for class. Similarly, no one telephones or texts when they don’t hand assignment in on time, or nags them to study for their mid-terms — although many profs do try to find ways to communicate to those students who are not fulfilling their obligations.  However, the first honest-to-goodness wake-up call is when they get those exams back.

The effect of never learning how to fail

As a former university teacher, I have seen the long faces and the tears. I have also heard “but I didn’t realize….” more times than I care to remember.  Why did they not realize? Well, in hindsight I have now come to the conclusion the reason they didn’t realize was because they are seldom taught the consequences of what happens when they don’t do what is required of them.

For example, I have written many articles about how our current high school systems in this country are passing kids even when they don’t deserve to pass. Why? Because there is a deep-seated belief that a child’s self-esteem will be adversely affected if they fail at anything. Here is a link to the Ontario Ministry of Education’s “success initiative,” which I and many others have relabelled a “no-fail” policy. Well, let me tell you, the falsity in that view hits home really hard when the results of mid-terms arrive.

What universities can do to help students succeed

However, all is not lost if the students will take the time to get help.  That is the first and most important step. Yes, they blew it. But, if they can learn from that and accept help, they will learn what it takes to really be successful. Yet, as Carson Jerema writes in Macleans, only 30-40% of Carleton University students accept the help that is offered them — even when Carleton staff approaches them.

That is most unfortunate. Because, attending and being successful at university is no different from high school, except it is the learners who must supervise themselves, something they will need to do in whatever path they take in life. So, that is where self-discipline and perseverance comes in.

What should universities do? Like Carleton, they should use the results of mid-terms and first year finals to find out which students are “flunking out” and offer to help them. For students who are having difficulties adjusting to university expectations, it is my hope that they will, in turn, accept the help offered.

Some endnotes regarding the Macleans article

  1. What I found especially interesting was the fact that those who are “flunking out” are not necessarily what progressives like to promote as disadvantaged or minorities. Rather, they are just students who are failing and dropping out because of their low marks — from all walks of life regardless of their cultural or socio-economic status.
  2. Moreover, universities themselves had better look at their retention rates after first year. Jerema writes, for instance, that the retention rate at Queen’s University is high at 95%, whereas at Brandon University in Manitoba, it is only 70.3% (meaning that 30% of Brandon first year students are either quitting or flunking out).

Was Canada’s high school drop-out rate halved by lowering standards?

Yesterday, the news came out that Statistics Canada had found that the high school drop-out in rate in Canada has been cut in half over the last twenty years.  While print and television news reports were all overflowing with praise (e.g., see this Ottawa Citizen report by Mark Iype), my immediate reaction was “why.”  Why did the drop rate go down so dramatically? Unfortunately, Stats Can numbers don’t tell us anything about why more young people are staying in school long enough to graduate.

Well, as a former university teacher, I can tell you it isn’t because students are being better prepared. In my last few years teaching, for example (early in this decade), I found spelling and grammar in written assignments was worse than it had ever been — and remember, like now, that was the age of computer spell checkers. 

In my opinion, and it is the opinion of an awful lot of people in this country, the reason for the decrease in drop-outs are provincially directed “no-fail and social promotion policies.” In fact, I was on the Dave Rutherford Radio Show last May, talking to Roy Green and his callers about that very subject. For those who are interested, here is my blog’s archive on that topic.

Now, I am all for motivating students to stay in school. But, lowering standards to do it is, in the long run, counter productive to society as a whole. Yet, Andrew Parkin, Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education, doesn’t seem to question why the rate had been reduced by half, just that: “It’s a dramatic change over time, and hopefully that means we can keep it going…I think it shows that the value of education and the recognition of that value has been increasing.”

I wish I could say I think it shows the recognition of the value of a high school graduation diploma, but I rather think it simply shows that: (a) more kids are promoted who shouldn’t be, particularly from elementary school into high school, and (b) academic standards have been reduced in order to accommodate those who would otherwise have dropped out. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t know. I guess only time will tell.

Perhaps parents and today’s employers can leave a comment here and tell me if they think their grown children, or staff, were adequately prepared for working in the real world. Because, it is only with that kind of information that we can know the reason Canada’s high school drop out rate has dropped so dramatically.

Ethical standards & legislation both guide & hinder teachers

I know there is not much sympathy in general society for elementary and secondary school teachers, but they really do get a bum rap from all sides of the educational divide.  First, let me state that having taught in both pre-service and graduate education programs, I can verify that this is a group of individuals who are by their very nature, societal leaders.  

Yet, once in their jobs, teachers find out fairly quickly that their notion of independence is no more than an illusion because they have to do exactly what their government, principal and union demands — and in that order. For example, here and here are comments Doug Little wrote on another thread about union involvement.  

In other words, teachers either learn to do what they are told or they have to quit and find a new career path. Most, because they like children, the salary, the benefits and the pension plan, adapt. And, truth be told, I was no different.  

Yes, there are ethical standards of practice. But, click on the link and you will quickly see how general they are. In fact, they are all motherhood concept words or statements — edu-babble as far as the general public is concerned — because they don’t say anything concrete.

I mean, when push comes to shove, how can a parent judge whether a teacher has a commitment to professional knowledge? And, even if parents did have access to that information, where does that leave their children when they disagree about something?

Let’s say, for example, that a parent complains about an evaluation technique whereby high school teachers have been told they cannot deduct marks for handing in assignments late. Let’s assume, for discussion purposes, that the parent’s child is one of those students who works very hard and does exactly what they are told to do. Yet, they see another student do very little for the same credit. Both the student and the parent feels the policy is wrong because there appears to be a lack of fairness and equity.

Now, who exactly are parents and students going to blame for such a policy? Do they blame the Premier or Education Minister? Not likely. Rather, they tend to blame the teachers because they are the front line workers. Which is likely why, Matt, a regular commenter here, writes in a comment on the same thread as Doug, that it was not fair for me to suggest that it is the teachers who are widening the divide between the no-fail policy and parents — when they don’t like the policy either.

The irony of the situation is that the “no-fail” policy was developed in the first place because of the public complaint that too many high school students were dropping out because school was not meaningful to them. In fact, Ontario’s current Premier, Dalton McGuinty, campaigned in both 2003 and 2007 that, if elected or re-elected, he would decrease the drop out rates and increase the graduate rates. And, guaranteed, come hell or high water, he will make sure he has improved statistics in time for the 2011 provincial election.   

In reality, then, what options do teachers have if they disagree with a policy they must implement when, under the Ontario Education Act (Part X, Sections 264-265), they MUST follow their principal’s direction? It is not just as Catherine suggested in the same thread as Doug and Matt, that teachers don’t speak out because of the politics of fear. It goes far beyond that. It is the law.

Well, it seems that the only option they have is to ask their unions to lobby on their behalf. True, I have been hard on the teachers’ unions over the nearly five years I have been blogging. But, I am finally beginning to see why the teacher-union rep relationship I remember as being somewhat distant, is now so close.

Yet, I can’t help thinking positively about the whole subject. I mean think about it. Each and every day in every province and territory of Canada, there are thousands, if not millions of positive teacher-parent contacts, in person, by e-mail or on the telephone. In other words, whether it is because of College of Teachers ethical standards or legislation, such as Ontario’s Education Act, teachers are usually able to communicate effectively with parents.

However, for those parents who want to go further, to advocate change, they need to consider starting or joining a parent advocacy group that speaks regularly with provincial politicians, not on individual cases, but in general areas that need attention or reform. And, no, I am not talking about parent groups that cow tow or accept money from school boards, the government being lobbied or unions that might have a conflict of interest. In other words, parents need to become political because that is where all education policy happens. I know, because after early retirement, I worked as an EA for an Ontario MPP from 1995 until 1999, a member of provincial parliament who also happened to be the Education Minister’s PA. And, that old adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease? Well, it is bang on!

So, while provincial ethical standards and Education Acts may be in place to provide public accountability, they may also hinder the parent-teacher communication process.

Ethical standards & legislation both guide & hinder teachers

I know there is not much sympathy in general society for elementary and secondary school teachers, but they really do get a bum rap from all sides of the educational divide.  First, let me state that having taught in both pre-service and graduate education programs, I can verify that this is a group of individuals who are by their very nature, societal leaders.  

Yet, once in their jobs, teachers find out fairly quickly that their notion of independence is no more than an illusion because they have to do exactly what their government, principal and union demands — and in that order. For example, here and here are comments Doug Little wrote on another thread about union involvement.  

In other words, teachers either learn to do what they are told or they have to quit and find a new career path. Most, because they like children, the salary, the benefits and the pension plan, adapt. And, truth be told, I was no different.  

Yes, there are ethical standards of practice. But, click on the link and you will quickly see how general they are. In fact, they are all motherhood concept words or statements — edu-babble as far as the general public is concerned — because they don’t say anything concrete.

I mean, when push comes to shove, how can a parent judge whether a teacher has a commitment to professional knowledge? And, even if parents did have access to that information, where does that leave their children when they disagree about something?

Let’s say, for example, that a parent complains about an evaluation technique whereby high school teachers have been told they cannot deduct marks for handing in assignments late. Let’s assume, for discussion purposes, that the parent’s child is one of those students who works very hard and does exactly what they are told to do. Yet, they see another student do very little for the same credit. Both the student and the parent feels the policy is wrong because there appears to be a lack of fairness and equity.

Now, who exactly are parents and students going to blame for such a policy? Do they blame the Premier or Education Minister? Not likely. Rather, they tend to blame the teachers because they are the front line workers. Which is likely why, Matt, a regular commenter here, writes in a comment on the same thread as Doug, that it was not fair for me to suggest that it is the teachers who are widening the divide between the no-fail policy and parents — when they don’t like the policy either.

The irony of the situation is that the “no-fail” policy was developed in the first place because of the public complaint that too many high school students were dropping out because school was not meaningful to them. In fact, Ontario’s current Premier, Dalton McGuinty, campaigned in both 2003 and 2007 that, if elected or re-elected, he would decrease the drop out rates and increase the graduate rates. And, guaranteed, come hell or high water, he will make sure he has improved statistics in time for the 2011 provincial election.   

In reality, then, what options do teachers have if they disagree with a policy they must implement when, under the Ontario Education Act (Part X, Sections 264-265), they MUST follow their principal’s direction? It is not just as Catherine suggested in the same thread as Doug and Matt, that teachers don’t speak out because of the politics of fear. It goes far beyond that. It is the law.

Well, it seems that the only option they have is to ask their unions to lobby on their behalf. True, I have been hard on the teachers’ unions over the nearly five years I have been blogging. But, I am finally beginning to see why the teacher-union rep relationship I remember as being somewhat distant, is now so close.

Yet, I can’t help thinking positively about the whole subject. I mean think about it. Each and every day in every province and territory of Canada, there are thousands, if not millions of positive teacher-parent contacts, in person, by e-mail or on the telephone. In other words, whether it is because of College of Teachers ethical standards or legislation, such as Ontario’s Education Act, teachers are usually able to communicate effectively with parents.

However, for those parents who want to go further, to advocate change, they need to consider starting or joining a parent advocacy group that speaks regularly with provincial politicians, not on individual cases, but in general areas that need attention or reform. And, no, I am not talking about parent groups that cow tow or accept money from school boards, the government being lobbied or unions that might have a conflict of interest. In other words, parents need to become political because that is where all education policy happens. I know, because after early retirement, I worked as an EA for an Ontario MPP from 1995 until 1999, a member of provincial parliament who also happened to be the Education Minister’s PA. And, that old adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease? Well, it is bang on!

So, while provincial ethical standards and Education Acts may be in place to provide public accountability, they may also hinder the parent-teacher communication process.

So, Saskatoon high schools think plagiarism is okay?

What next? Just when you think you have heard it all, the CBC is reporting today that Saskatoon’s high schools will not be treating plagiarism as cheating or taking marks off for handing in work late or incomplete  (H/T Paul). Why? Because they are supposedly “behaviours” and not learning.

Do these people have any idea how wrong that view is? As a learning specialist I can tell you that BOTH cognition and behavioural changes are about learning. I mean, think about learning to drive a car. Should we allow new drivers to have a licence as long as they get a good mark on the preliminary written and visual tests, since the practical driving part of the test is only looking at behaviour?  

Yes, no fail-policies are truly that narrowly focused and irresponsible! It’s like education ministries in Canada think learning stops at high school graduation.  For example, the CBC item states:

“Some educational experts are critical of the move — an apparent first for Saskatchewan — saying it creates an uneven playing field for students in other parts of the province. But the Saskatoon Public School Board, administrators of the school division and some teachers say the new report cards encourage learning by removing penalties for poor behaviour.

English teacher Katie Kehrig said it’s taken her 30 years of teaching to realize the benefits of separating academic marks from behaviour evaluations. ‘I don’t give late marks, or deduct marks if students are late,’ Kehrig said in support of the new evaluation method. ‘I don’t give bonus marks. I don’t have participation marks. Those are behaviours. As long as a student hands in an assignment at some point, no marks are docked. The same applies to students caught plagiarizing.'”

Have these people lost all sense of reality? Truly, they must have because surely they must know that post-secondary institutions will not put up with this nonsense. As a former university teacher, I can tell you that most professors will not split hairs about what is learning versus what are behaviours. 

I mean, an assignment that is due on a certain day is due on that day, unless there is proof there was an extreme family or health emergency. However, barring that type of emergency, marks will be taken off if handed in late or incomplete. Moreover, a student caught plagiarizing will not only fail the assignment and the course, but will be thrown out of the university. Plus, they will forever have a note on their transcript that they cheated. 

In other words, you can’t separate “behaviours” from learning. It’s all about learning.  

  • It’s learning right from wrong.
  • It’s learning about personal responsibility.
  • It’s learning that there can be negative consequences to what we do or don’t do.
  • It’s learning why it is important to get work done on time — because employers will expect that.
  • It’s learning that claiming someone else’s work as your own is not only cheating but intellectual theft.
  • It’s learning that not handing work in on time is failing at a task.
  • It’s about learning “how to work” and what it will be like to go to college or university and what an employer will expect.

So, the school districts and teachers in Saskachewan, or anywhere else in Canada for that matter, who are defending this “no-fail” type of policy (see my archive on similar Ontario policies) are failing in their jobs as educators because, in their misplaced zeal to graduate more students, they are NOT preparing them for life beyond high school.