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A sixteen-year-old Nova Scotia high school student, Emma Stevens, has taken flight with her Mi’kmaw language version of the Beatles classic, Blackbird. It’s beginning to look like a real-life recreation of A Star is Born. Since the first performance was posted on You Tube on April 25, the beautiful and haunting cover of Paul McCartney’s song has been seen or heard more than one million times. She has performed at a UN Indigenous Peoples conference in Nairobi, Kenya, and McCartney has sung her praises.  An editorial in The Chronicle Herald urged all Nova Scotians to log in and catch her performing the song.

Surveying the initial world-wide media coverage, there was little or no acknowledgement or recognition that Emma’s talent was nurtured and developed in a Mi’kmaw school in Nova Scotia’s Eskasoni First Nation. Only now are we beginning to see that a student performing in her native language with full musical accompaniment did not happen overnight. Her band music teacher, Carter Chiasson, was an inspiration and supported her at every stage and the video was shot by Grade 12 Multimedia course students.

Without diminishing Emma’s amazing achievement, it was also made possible by the teaching, mentoring and support she found at Allison Bernard Memorial High School, the jewel in the autonomous, Indigenous-run, Mi`kmaw Kina`matnewey (MK) network of schools. She is, after all, the product of a Mi’kmaw language music program in a school outside the public school system in Nova Scotia.

Her breakout success is, in many ways, another example of recent achievements that have catapulted Nova Scotia’s First Nations to the forefront in the national movement for Indigenous control over education. It’s been forty years since the first Mi’kmaw- English bilingual education program was established at Potolek, known then as Chapel Island, and twenty-three years since the formation of the MK, a First Nation education authority managed by the Mi`kmaq and funded by the federal Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.

Emma’s high school is one of the better-known MK schools, operating in twelve of the province`s 13 Mi`kmaw communities, and enrolling some 3,000 students province-wide. Mi’kmaw schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School have significantly raised graduation rates for First Nations students. While the proportion of Canadian on-reserve adults under 25 with a high school diploma barely rose (from 25 to 30 per cent) from 1996 to 2006, Atlantic Canada bucked that trend, rising from 55 per cent to 65 per cent. By 2016-17, some 89.6 per cent of Grade 12 students in MK schools completed their graduation year.

Mi’kmaw band schools reported graduation rates tend to be inflated because they are based upon Grade 12 completion rates rather than the proportion of students entering grade 9 or 10 who secure a high school diploma. Even so, the rise in academic attainment levels is real and a clear sign of the enormous potential of First Nations-run community schools to change students’ educational outcomes and life chances.

The recent success of Mi’kmaw schools has not gone unnoticed. Former Toronto Globe and Mail Education reporter Jennifer Lewington looked closely at the Mi’kmaw model and observed in a 2012 Education Canada article that Mi’kmaw student success was “winning national attention as a possible model for First Nation self-governance in education.”

Schools like Emma’s take a more holistic view of learning and achievement and this is reflected in Mi’kmaw arts and music programs. First Nation Elders and scholars espouse a different and broader conception of learning, drawing upon insights from the First Nations Holistic Lifelong Learning Model, advocated by First Nations scholar Marie Battiste.

Teachers, principals, parents, families, and communities are all mentors and nurturing guides responsible for their children’s achievement in all aspects of lifelong learning. One example is the use of the ‘Talking Circle’ to discuss and resolve issues, respecting that tradition in Mi’kmaw culture and spirituality.

Emma’s school lies at the heart of Eskasoni First Nation and its annual high school graduation ceremonies are community-wide celebrations. School leaders like Principal Newell Johnson and Language and Culture consultant Katani Julian take great pride in their remarkable recent progress in delivering language immersion and other culturally-based programs and activities.

The success rate of schools like Allison Bernard Memorial High School impressed Scott Haldane, chair of a 2012 federal First Nations governance review panel, and he trumpeted the benefits of this First Nations-run model for students in his final report. It was also a key factor in the March 2019 renewal of the MK funding agreement for 10 years, representing an investment of $600 million going forward.

Students at Allison Bernard High School are far are more engaged because of pedagogy and curriculum more attuned to Mi’kmaw traditions. Emma’s breakout hit could well be a further breakthrough for Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaw schools.

(An earlier version of this post appeared in The Chronicle Herald, 13 July 2019).

What can we learn from the overnight success of a young Mi’kmaw songbird?  What was the role of the Mi’kmaw language and music program? Are Indigenous students educated and immersed in their own language and culture more motivated to learn? Is there potential for other Canadian provinces and American states to find similar success? 

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A new Quebec secularism law, known as Bill 21 (2019), is now international news as far away as Europe and the Middle East. The prime proponent of the law, Quebec’s Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, achieved infamy in early July 2019 when he tweeted a picture of himself at a summit in France with Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner who was nearly killed by the Taliban for her activism championing education for girls. Asked on Twitter whether Yousafzai could teach in Quebec while wearing her head scarf, M. Roberge said ‘no’ — she’d have to take it off – an assessment later backed-up by Premier Francois Legault.  Anyone who aspires to teach in Quebec, including the world-renowned author and teacher Malala, is forbidden from wearing religious symbols or religious attire in the state schools.

Quebec’s Bill 21 is a prime exhibit which illustrates how Quebec is distinct from the rest of Canada. because it deals with the matter of secularism, laicite  (laicity), or the separation of religion from government.  Over the past two decades, it has emerged and dominated political discourse and produced convulsions affecting recently arrived immigrant families and Anglo-Quebeckers accustomed to periodic surges of Quebec nationalist feeling. The fierce debate has also inflamed passions and aroused Islamophobia, intensely felt by Muslim women and girls in the school system.

The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) plan to affirm the secular character of the Quebec state is not really new, but a continuation of a project first initiated by a previous Parti Quebecois government. It originated as an off-shoot of the “Charter of Values” unveiled in 2013 by Premier Pauline Marois and the PQ.  On March 27, 2019, in the most recent attempt to legislate a vision of secularism in the province, the CAQ government tabled Bill 21 (2019), “An Act Respecting the Laicity of the State.” The legislation, passed on June 16, 2019, bans public servants in a list of jobs from wearing religious symbols at work. Such restrictions not only apply to schoolteachers and principals, but directly affect students in universities, colleges, and schools planning on seeking future employment in the public sector.

Origins of Quebec Secularism Policy

The recent debate over secularism in Quebec has its roots in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror. An earlier controversy involving a Montreal school board decision to ban a 12-year-old Sikh boy, Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan (ceremonial dagger) to school demonstrated the potential for social disruption. Early in 2007, a small hamlet in the heart of French Quebec, Herouxville, introduced a “code of conduct” for immigrants and brought a simmering “cultural accommodation crisis” to a boil. Talk radio shows, op-ed pages, and kitchen conversations were ignited by very public debates about whether a YMCA on in Montreal’s Mile End should frost its gym windows at the request of a next-door Hasidic synagogue or whether publicly-funded daycares should serve halal meats.

Confronting a raging culture war in January 2007, Quebec’s Liberal government appointed a Consultative Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences, co-chaired by prominent intellectuals Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor. Their May 2008 report waded into the sensitive questions about how immigrants can or should integrate with Quebec society, and how to uphold the ideal of secularism, while accommodating non-conforming religious practices. The Bouchard-Taylor report recommended removing a large crucifix from the Quebec National Assembly, abandoning prayers before municipal council meetings, and barring civil servants in positions of authority — like judges, police officers and prosecutors — from wearing religious symbols at work. It also attempted to draw the line at the school system. Students and teachers, as well as nurses, should be allowed to wear religious attire like the hijab and turban to school.

The CAQ’s Bill 21 goes one step further in reaffirming and enforcing secularism in the public sector. Unlike previous legislation, it stipulates exactly which professions would be restricted from wearing religious symbols, including teachers and principals. It is also more court-proof – because it invokes the notwithstanding clause to protect it from being struck down by courts for violating the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights. While Bill 21 does not target any one religion specifically, Charles Taylor has expressed grave reservations about its potential impact on visible religious minorities. In his April 2019 testimony during QNA hearings on the bill, he reversed his previous position. Since the horrific late January 2017 Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre mass shooting, he claims any change must be considered in the context of a society “full of Islamophobia.” 

Impact of Quebec’s Bill 21 on Society and Education

Noisy public debates over Bill 21 and mass protests by teachers, students and affected public officials have failed to alter Quebec public opinion. , According to a May 2019 public opinion poll, a majority of Quebeckers, (63 per cent) favoured the measure restricting religious symbols, and of that cohort, 88 per cent showed signs of anti- Islamic sentiment. The only age group that broke with the trend was youth, aged 18 to 25, consisting mostly of university/college students and recent graduates.

Passage of Bill 21 made Quebec the first jurisdiction in North America to enact legislation enforcing a religion-free dress code. Quebec’s largest school board, the Commission scolaire de Montreal, lined up with the Quebec English school boards in refusing to implement Bill 21 without consultation or modification. Most of the urban metropolitan boards serve diverse populations, including Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students.

The Quebec government of Premier Legault sees this law as the next stage in the evolution of the modern Quebec state, exemplified in the state school system. It is also a clear demonstration of the profound influence of the French intellectual culture, privileging collective rights over individual rights and liberties.   Severing religion from the state is, in many ways, like defending the republic. Any sign or kind of encroachment on larcity/secularism, including the presence of religious symbols or the wearing of religious attire, is seen as a threat to the state. Democratic public institutions, from the CAQ and PQ perspective, exist to represent the will of the majority, which, at times, means overriding the interests of minorities.

What is driving the Quebec government’s determined push for secularism in government services, including the schools? Is the Quebec nationalist conception of the neutral state rooted in the French intellectual tradition? Should the protections guaranteed for individual freedom and minority rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ever be overridden?  Where should governments draw the line in imposing state policy on citizens? 

 

 

 

 

 

Talk about the inordinate number of ‘School Storm Days’ in the Maritimes never seems to go away. The current school year, it turned out, reflected the ‘new normal’ in Nova Scotia with between 5 and 14 days lost to storm closures. Yet a fierce public debate continues to flare up, almost like clockwork, every time the Maritime region experiences a run of school day closures disrupting the lives of families, interrupting student learning, and affecting the workplace.

Over the past decade, in spite of all that talk, little has really changed and, in some cases, the problem has actually worsened. That’s the conclusion of my latest research report, “Missing in Action: School Storm Days, Student Absenteeism and the Workplace.”

Almost ten years ago, two policy research papers, James Gunn’s December 2009 Discussion Paper, Storm Days in Nova Scotia, and my April 2010 AIMS research commentary, Schools Out, Again, documented the problem and demonstrated that Nova Scotia and the Maritimes were ‘out-of-line’ are when it comes to cancelling school for all sorts of reasons, mainly but not exclusively related to adverse weather conditions

Instructional time lost through storm day cancellations is a serious problem adversely affecting student learning when over two weeks of school are lost through school day cancellations.  Since the previous record setting year, 2008-09, Nova Scotia schools outside of Halifax regularly exceed that threshold, averaging over 10 days lost per year, almost double that recorded during the previous decade.

Storm day closures and student absenteeism are intertwined and need to be considered pieces of the puzzle. Leading researcher Dave E. Marcotte and his University of Maryland research collaborators documented the detrimental effect of weather-related school closures on math and reading results in Maryland elementary schools. Follow-up studies reached the same conclusion in Colorado and Minnesota.

Based upon research from 2003 to 2010 in Massachusetts, where school storm days average three to five a year, Joshua Goodman of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found that planned disruptions like school day cancellations have less impact than the disruptive effects of student absences during periods of heavy snowfall. It is the only study to have reached that conclusion.

Organizing students to ensure effective instruction is difficult when large numbers of students are missing because of inclement weather. Forecasted rates of student absenteeism do need to be taken into consideration. Having said that, repeated and multiple school day cancellations such as those in Nova Scotia have a cumulative impact, especially on weaker students who can least afford missing whole days of school.

Student absenteeism also contributes to the achievement gap affecting students from disadvantaged households. One 2015 study of the impact of student absences in North Carolina primary schools provides ample evidence of the impact. “While absenteeism was not found to be a large factor overall, it did have a serious adverse impact upon struggling students lowering test scores by between 5 and 10 per cent.” Missing school days, whatever the reason, only contributes to those inequities.

In the case of Nova Scotia, cancelling school days only compounds the existing problem of chronic student absenteeism, affecting one out of four Grade 1  to 12 students. Some 37 per cent of Middle School and 32 per cent of High School students in 2014-15 missed more than 16 days school because of absenteeism. Losing an average of ten more days to storm days makes matters worse. It is difficult enough for many students to get to school even without the regular interruption of school storm days.

Unplanned school closures announced in the early morning can and do have unintended consequences. Families are left scrambling to rearrange their lives and, where both parents work outside the home, to find safe and reliable day care for younger children. Working parents employed on contract or in the hourly wage service sector can suffer lost pay by missing work and cannot stay home repeatedly, particularly in small enterprises or non-union workplaces.

School closure policies, the report points out, has a ripple effect on the workplace and largely unexamined impacts upon labour productivity.

It’s time to move from talk to corrective action. Our research paper calls upon the province, the teachers’ union, and district administrators to embrace a new province-wide policy with five key elements:

  • a provincial guarantee to students and parents of a minimum number of instructional days (i.e., 180 days of actual instruction) each school year;
  • the establishment of a flexible school year calendar with provision for make-up instructional days, including the substitution for PD Days and the option of adding days at the end of the year;
  • complete the Rural Broadband expansion and introduce e-learning days during periods of severe weather and dangerous roads;
  • a clear policy requiring the provision of student ‘homework bags’ when storms are forecast to bridge the gaps and ensure continuity in learning; and
  • a more comprehensive, detailed study of the disruptive effects of school day interruptions, planned and unplanned, on productivity in the workplace.

An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Chronicle Herald, June 15, 2019. 

Why are school authorities in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes so inclined to close school at the first sign of snow, freezing rain or blustery wind?  Are those who claim that cancelling school for some two weeks a year doesn’t matter communicating something about the value of current instructional time?  What is the connection between mounting school cancellations and chronic student absenteeism? Who is looking out for local employers and working parents when school is cancelled with that regularity each year? 

 

A recent headline in the New Scientist caught the eye of University College London Professor Rose Luckin, widely regarded as the “Dr. Who of AI in Education.” It read: “AI achieves its best mark ever on a set of English exam questions.” The machine was well on its way to mastering knowledge-based curriculum tested on examinations. What was thrilling to Dr. Luckin, might well be a wake-up call for teachers and educators everywhere.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now driving automation in the workplace and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is dawning. How AI will impact and possibly transform education is now emerging as a major concern for front-line teachers, technology skeptics, and informed parents. A recent Public Lecture by Rose Luckin, based upon her new book Machine Learning and Intelligence, provided  not only a cutting-edge summary of recent developments, but a chilling reminder of the potential unintended consequences for teachers.

AI refers to “technology that is capable of actions and behaviours that require intelligence when done by humans.” It is no longer the stuff of science fiction and popping up everywhere from voice-activated digital assistants in telephones to automatic passport gates in airports to navigation apps to guide us driving our cars. It’s creeping into our lives in subtle and virtually undetectable ways.

AI has not been an overnight success. It originated in September 1956, some 63 years ago, in a Dartmouth College NH lab as a summer project undertaken by ten ambitious scientists.  The initial project was focused on AI and its educational potential. The pioneers worked from this premise: “Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”  Flash forward to today — and it’s closer to actual realization.

Dr. Luckin has taken up that challenge and has been working for two decades to develop “Colin,” a robot teaching assistant to help lighten teachers’ workloads. Her creation is software-based and assists teachers with organizing starter activities, collating daily student performance records, assessing the mental state of students, and assessing how well a learner is engaging with lessons.

Scary scenarios are emerging fueled by a few leading thinkers and technology skeptics.  Tesla CEO Elon Musk once warned that AI posed an “existential threat” to humanity and that humans may need to merge with machines to avoid becoming “house cats” to artificially intelligent robots.  Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has forecast that AI will “either be the best thing or the worst thing for humanity.” There’s no need for immediate panic: Current AI technology is still quite limited and remains mechanically algorithmic and programmed to act upon pattern recognition.

One very astute analyst for buZZrobot, Jay Lynch, has identified the potential dangers in the educational domain:

Measuring the Wrong Things

Gathering data that is easiest to collect rather than educationally meaningful. In the absence of directly measured student leaning, AI relies upon proxies for learning such as student test scores, school grades, or self-reported learning gains. This exemplifies the problem of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Perpetuating Bad Ways to Teach

Many AIfE algorithms are based upon data from large scale learning assessments and lack an appreciation of, and input from, actual teachers and learning scientists with a grounding in learning theory. AI development teams tend to lack relevant knowledge in the science of learning and instruction. One glaring example was IBM’s Watson Element for Educators, which was based entirely upon now discredited “learning styles” theory and gave skewed advice for improving instruction.

Giving Priority to Adaptability rather that Quality

Personalizing learning is the prevailing ideology in the IT sector and it is most evident in AI software and hardware. Meeting the needs of each learner is the priority and the technology is designed to deliver the ‘right’ content at the ‘right’ time.  It’s a false assumption that the quality of that content is fine and, in fact, much of it is awful. Quality of content deserves to  be prioritized and that requires more direct teacher input and a better grasp of the science of learning.

Replacing Humans with Intelligent Agents

The primary impact of AI is to remove teachers from the learning process — substituting “intelligent agents” for actual human beings. Defenders claim that the goal is not to supplant teachers but rather to “automate routine tasks” and to generate insights to enable teachers to adapt their teaching to make lessons more effective.  AI’s purveyors seem blind to the fact that teaching is a “caring profession,” particularly in the early grades.

American education technology critic Audrey Watters is one of the most influential skeptics and she has expressed alarm over the potential unintended consequences. ” We should ask what happens when we remove care from education – this is a question about labor and learning. What happens to thinking and writing when robots grade students’ essays, for example. What happens when testing is standardized, automated? What happens when the whole educational process is offloaded to the machines – to “intelligent tutoring systems,” “adaptive learning systems,” or whatever the latest description may be? What sorts of signals are we sending students?”  The implicit and disturbing answer – teachers as professionals are virtually interchangeable with robots.

Will teachers and robots come to cohabit tomorrow’s classrooms? How will teaching be impacted by the capabilities of future AI technologies? Without human contact and feedback, will student motivation become a problem in education?  Will AI ever be able to engage students in critical thinking or explore the socio-emotional domain of learning? Who will be there in the classroom to encourage and emotionally support students confronted with challenging academic tasks?

 

Progressive education and its principal banner-bearer John Dewey remain popular in Canadian and American faculties of education and within the teaching profession, particularly among elementary school teachers. Educational theories based upon Dewey’s voluminous writings still hold great appeal among a wide swath of professors within education schools, encompassing educational psychologists and teacher educators. Citing Dewey in your work is common; less common is delving into the intellectual underpinnings and tenets of Deweyism.  While the Philosophy of Education is withering as a field, Dewey scholarship remains a bright spot and a gathering place for the so-called “romantics.”

A recent analysis of John Dewey and the state of educational philosophy dared to suggest that the father of modern progressivism may be “doomed to fade” in the galaxy. The short 2019 essay, authored by Dewey scholar David I Waddington, Professor of Educational Philosophy at Concordia University, posited that the “romance” showed signs of coming to an end.  That decline and ultimate fall, he forecast with a twinge of sadness, was foreshadowed by the decomposition of “modernity” and the “accelerating failure of the progressive movement’s social project.” The progressive movement’s current difficulties, he concluded, did not bode well for the future of Dewey scholarship in education schools and, by extension, research-informed practice in the schools.

Education schools carry the burden of a reputation for occupying a “low academic status” in the university. In the course of explaining that lowly status David Larabee (The Trouble with Ed Schools, 2006), attributed it in large part to the tendency of American schools of education to embrace Dewey’s progressivism with something approaching a religious fervour. He claimed that education schools exemplified a “romance with progressivism” forged in the early 20th century as teacher education moved decisively towards a strong professional training orientation. On the teaching side, this tied-in with preparing teachers for the classroom; on the research side, it was exemplified in the focus on developing new testing systems and building the bureaucratic administrative structure of the modern school system. Faculties of education became, in Waddington’s words, “handmaidens to the public school system” absorbed in training teachers and administrators, and later, higher-level consultants.

John Dewey’s progressivism filled a vacuum by providing a serviceable educational philosophy.  Few teacher educators gravitated to educational philosophy and most were satisfied with a general understanding of Dewey’s theories. A significant number of education professors, then as now, were deeply committed to “social justice education” and found in Dewey an aspirational philosophy that accorded with their own commitment to the “liberal reform project” of schooling.

Most education professors were pragmatic educators with surprisingly little interest or passion for matters of theory, cognitive science or discipline-based curriculum. Teacher educators had some control over classroom practice, so this became their primary focus, and curriculum was ceded to the policy branches of education departments. Dewey’s writings fit the orientation because they focused on how to teach rather than what to teach. Studies conducted from 1993 to 2006 revealed that alarming numbers of education professors were poorly read and, in some cases, unable to cite a single book or author in their field.

Schools of education needed all the credibility they could muster and they found that salvation in Dewey, widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.  Many with a narrow focus on teacher preparation, psychology, or technical education latched onto Dewey and claimed him for what Waddington aptly describes as the “sad-sack home team.”

While the ghost of John Dewey still haunts teacher training schools, his influence is definitely on the wane.  The American education philosopher still has a hard core of camp followers, but his ideas embodied “the modern project” of reconstructing society through the reform of public institutions is in disrepute in the academy. “We are living amidst the wreckage of the modern project,” according to Waddington, and the “grand modern Deweyan metanarrative of education as the liberator of humanity now rings increasingly false.” Supporting modernity and the renewal of the liberal state is, after all, incompatible with “critical social justice scholarship” leaving Deweyites on a lonely academic perch.

Prominent critics of education schools are now piling-on with fresh evidence that those institutions are disconnected in other ways. Manitoba teacher and education policy analyst Michael Zwaagstra claims that most education faculties remain wedded to Deweyism and resistant to change.  “Education schools continue to downplay subject-specific knowledge and promote many of the same fads, albeit under new names,” he points out. “Today’s education students are fed useless platitudes such as the need to be a ‘guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.'” 

Zwaagstra’s critique has a familiar ring:  “Instead of empowering future teachers with the confidence they need to effectively manage their classrooms, education professors promote theories that have little practical use in actual classrooms with real students.” Teacher candidates give high marks to classroom teachers in their practicum sessions, but  ‘one of the most common sentiments expressed by classroom teachers is that their education classes taught them little about how to teach.”

Hopeful signs are appearing as some practicing teachers have begun to take matters into their own hands. Zwaagstra and a growing band of researchED supporters draw hope and strength from the British teacher research movement founded in 2013 by Tom Bennett and slowly spreading (teacher-to-teacher) throughout Canada and the United States. In sharp contrast to education school approaches and education guru-led school change, researchED is “entirely teacher-directed and gives teachers an opportunity to directly engage with the research literature.” Freed-up from the ideological conformity expected by modern day Deweyites, teacher presenters come from a variety of perspectives and disciplines and teachers are left to make up their own minds regarding what they hear.

Why does John Dewey and his brand of progressivism still pervade so many faculties of education?  Will Deweyism survive the decline and fall of modernity and be exhumed from ‘the wreckage of the modern project’?  Where do today’s teacher training programs fall short?  Does the emergence of researchED in North America provide a glimmer of hope?  

 

An April 2019 study, Academic Skill Deficiencies in four Ontario universities, has sent shock waves through the Canadian K-12 school system.  That study, spearheaded by two leading sociologists, York University’s J. Paul Grayson and Western University’s James Cote, has shone fresh light on a previously identified problem — growing evidence that secondary schools feeding universities are falling well short in addressing students’ skills deficiencies. What’s most surprising is that, over the past 15-years, dramatically rising graduation rates have not translated into improvements in students’ academic skills.

First year university and college professors have long complained about the quality of students entering their institutions.  This study, conducted at four Ontario universitiesYork, Western, Waterloo and Toronto, which together enrol 41 per cent of Ontario undergraduates — confirms much of the accumulated evidence. The researchers found that “only about 44 per cent of students felt they had the generic skills needed to do well in their academic studies, 41 per cent could be classified as at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills, and 16 per cent lacked almost all the skills needed for higher learning.”

This study was borne out of the sheer frustration experienced by Grayson and his York University colleague Robert Kenedy in trying to teach undergraduate Social Science students at York University. Their bias was clear – far too many appeared mostly unprepared for the demands of higher education, particularly in critical thinking, academic research and competent writing.  In late 2017 they surveyed 22,000 students from all disciplines and levels of study enrolled in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York. Their questionnaire posed 50 questions to students of all demographic backgrounds. The key skill questions focused on writing ability, test-taking, analysis, time and group management, research, giving presentations and elemental numeracy. A year later, the same survey was performed at the three other universities cited. The results were remarkably consistent in all four universities.

University student reading in classroom

Such research findings shock Ontario educational leadership because they run completely counter to the prevailing assumption that Ontario’s K-12 school system ranks among the best in the world. Academic skill deficiencies of secondary school graduates, all too evident to first year university instructors and employers, too often escape the attention of those overseeing the system and PSE admissions offices looking to fill seats. It’s aptly named – the “big disconnect” –– referring to the growing gap between high school attainment and actual, demonstrable student achievement.

Critics of today’s “graduate everyone” school systems find confirmation in this study of their oft-repeated claim that the secondary-school system is “failing to meet basic pedagogical objectives” and “failing to cull incompetent students.” That is not really new because it was all flagged a decade ago in two academic critiques, co-authored by James Cote,  Ivory Tower Blues (2007) and Lowering Higher Education (2011). Back then, professors expressed grave concerns about students unable to accept criticism or remain engaged and conceded that they had dumbed down their courses and reduced the frequency of tests and assignments. What the most recent study shows is that not much has changed.

Far too many of today’s secondary school graduates are not only unprepared for university studies, but panic-stricken by the academic expectations.  One of Grayson and Kenedy’s students provided a sad example of this latest iteration of the problem: “IM IN FIRST YEAR AND IM DOING SO BAD AND IM SO SCARED BC IM FINDING IT REALLY HARD TO MANAGE MY TIME AND MY ANXIETY HAS GOTTEN SO BAD AND IDK WHAT TO DO AND IM SCARED OF GETTING KICKED OUT AND IM JUST SCARED.”

Two new dimensions have emerged that deserve more serious research and analysis: the radical differences in the quality of among secondary schools and the impact of academic acceleration programs, most notably the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. From what we know, university admissions offices now “rate high schools” on a top secret quality index and much prefer graduates applying with transcripts requiring far more rigorous academic courses. Both trends are indicative of a further ‘devaluation’ of the standard provincial graduation diploma.

Today’s students applying to university tend to have significantly inflated grades. That is why some universities do attempt to assess the relative quality of students graduating from various high schools, comparing incoming grades with those at the end of first year. In October 2018, a confidential report prepared for the University of Waterloo Engineering Program was uncovered that documented the existence of an “adjustment factor” used to determine which students were admitted into their top ranked, highly competitive program.

The downward adjustment factors applied to final marks from Ontario high schools averaged 16 percent, ranging from a low of 9.9 per cent (L’Amoreaux Collegiate, Agincourt) to a high of 27.5 per cent (Grimsby SS).  Students graduating from some other provinces fared worse;   New Brunswick applicants saw their marks downgraded by 24.5 per cent, meaning students applying with a 90 per cent average would be credited with only a 65.5 per cent by the University of Waterloo.

The academic skills deficits identified by the April 2019 study do not seem to apply to students applying with IB mark transcripts. Students graduating with the full International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP) are the most sought-after by Canadian universities, particularly in highly selective university programs leading to professional studies. In the case of Nova Scotia, IB university applicants now have their grades raised so as not to penalize them in competition with students from regular, non-IB high schools.

Four top Canadian universities, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, and the University of Alberta actively seek students applying with IB graduation transcripts. Students admitted with the IB Diploma do perform better in first year of university. Entry level grades are maintained because IB grades based upon IB external examinations are far more reliable as better predictors of four-year college outcomes.

One authoritative 2014 study, conducted by Andrew Arida for the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that IB admissions candidates possess more highly developed academic skills than those from regular non-IB high schools. They are particularly strong in reading comprehension (+25%), mastering research skills (+ 26%), making presentations ( +25%), clarity and effectiveness in writing ( +20%), and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity (+13 %). This advantage is sustained to the end of first year university.  Those IB graduates were also more likely to participate in volunteering, join university clubs, and assist by tutoring other students.

Why are such a high proportion of today’s university-bound students in Ontario and elsewhere across Canada showing academic skills deficits?  What’s happened to the value of a secondary school graduation diploma in university, college and presumably the workplace? Why do provincial ministries, university leaders and school administrators greet reports on academic skills deficits with a deafening silence? Who is monitoring and addressing the identified inequities in levels of secondary school preparedness for higher education? Without academic acceleration programs like the IB, would matters be worse?