Going to Summer School used to be the expected fate of Canadian high school students who either failed or performed poorly in academic credit courses. In the old days, summer school functioned as a kind of purgatory for struggling students and for “slackers” who drifted through high school. A recent Toronto Globe and Mail news feature, “Are kids failing at summer?” (July 7, 2012), unearthed new data from school boards in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario demonstrating that it’s now become a haven for “anxious students aiming for higher grades.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/are-kids-failing-at-summer/article4397211/?page=all
Typical of the new breed of Summer School students is Chris Stojanovski, a 90% Whitby, Ontario student, who has completed Grade 10 and is currently taking Grade 11 English this summer. While his fellow students lined-up for a matinee showing of The Amazing Spiderman, Chris could be found hunched over his desk in a stark flourescent lit classroom studying literary devices in Robert Burns’ A Red, Red Rose. He’s back in class to get a head start on Grade 11 and it was his decision.
Summer School has certainly changed in recent years. High achieving students are gradually replacing struggling students in the traditional five-week high school credit course programs. For a variety of reasons, they are choosing to forgo that first job, roaming shopping malls, and summer camp to “reach forward” and capitalize on opportunities to raise their marks. Academic upgrading and credit recovery are becoming a thing of the past and it is time to ask why.
Summer School student enrolment is growing at a time when fewer and fewer students are actually failing courses from Grades 7 to 12 in Canadian schools. Over the past five years, B.C. summer school enrolment has increased from 1,165 to 46,666, a 40-fold increase. Some 85% of Summer School students in the York Region District School Board are now taking courses for the first time rather than seeking academic upgrading. Similar trends have been identified in the Calgary Public School Board and in the Durham District Board, just east of Toronto.
Some Canadian school boards still operate under the old principles while implementing “no fail” student assessment policies. The Halifax Regional School Board, for example, with 16 junior and senior high schools and 49,500 students, continues to run a Summer School at one location, offering Grade 7 to 12 five-week courses in only Mathematics and Language Arts/English. It’s a shrunken down traditional program running week days from July 5 to August 8 and scheduled for 8:30 am until 1 pm. Students grades are “entirely based on course assessment during summer school.” http://www.hrsb.ns.ca/content/id/953.html
Mark inflation, rising student attainment levels, and “no fail’ student assessment policies have radically reduced the traditional market for Summer School programs — struggling students who might benefit from upgrading in weak subjects. Failing subjects is becoming rarer and Statistics Canada (2009) reports that 86.7% of young Canadians ages 25 to 29 now have high school graduation diplomas. Eliminating any sign of failure in schools has a way of reducing the need for high school credit recovery programs.
Three years ago, Ontario high school teachers complained about the spread of “no fail” policies, linking such policies to provincially-set targets to raise graduation rates. Deputy education minister Dr. Ben Levin responded with a four-page memo defending the system. When Toronto Sun columnist Moira MacDonald interviewed him, Levin, who is quite influential in Canadian education circles, claimed that, although students shouldn’t be given marks they did not earn, he believed students were also “demotivated” by failure. http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/moira_macdonald/2009/05/19/9496746-sun.html
“No fail” policies appeal to students and parents but they raise the ire of many teachers. High school teachers have coined terms such as “pseudo-credits” and “credit lite” to describe new alternative learning courses such as “credit recovery” catering to students at risk of dropping out. Fewer students are falling through the cracks, but it’s getting harder and harder to fail a course and repeating a grade is now next to impossible. Once limited to elected or optional high school courses, “social promotion” is now common, even in Mathematics, Science, and English courses.
Some 5,000 citizens, mostly high school teachers, signed an online petition in April 2009 registering opposition to the province’s “no failure” policy with regard to high school students. ( http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/evaluation) Students who miss tests because they skip class or even cheat on a test cannot be marked “zero” but instead must be given another chance. Teachers in the Toronto region have also complained that the pressure to graduate more students has created a boon in students marching off to private school “credit factories” to pick up credits in subjects they might barely scratch through at public school.
Edmonton high school physics teacher, Lynden Dorval, has become a hero for defending high school marking standards. He simply refused to implement his school’s “no zero” policy and, after 35 years of teaching, is now facing dismissal for his actions. He wasn’t even handing out zeros for poor work. His “radical” move was doling out zero for work not done at all, or skipped tests — after students were given chances to make them up. Even though his Senior Physics course was an IB Diploma course expected to adhere to rigorous international standards, it didn’t matter to his principal who insisted that he code the work as “unable to assess” and assign grades based only on work a student actually completed. http://www.torontosun.com/comment/columnists/moira_macdonald/2009/05/19/9496746-sun.html
Today’s high schools focus on raising student attainment levels, seeking to sustain higher graduation rates. Summer Schools for struggling students are acquiring a new mandate — supporting highly motivated, academically able students to “reach ahead” and secure higher grades for university admissions purposes. “Failure” is now a dirty word in school, and so damaging to student self-esteem, that it is to be avoided through social promotion. That is why traditional Summer Schools are dying on the vine.
What’s happening to Summer Schools across Canada? Why are student enrolments rising in academic acceleration courses? What has caused the decline in academic credit course offerings catering to struggling academic students? How have mark inflation and “no failure” policies impacted upon Canadian summer school enrolments?