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Archive for the ‘Academic Achievement’ Category

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? 

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Student achievement varies a great deal across the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Good teachers can have a significant impact upon their students’ learning and achievement and there is now research to support that contention.  What makes some teachers more effective than others is less clear.  It remains one question that cries out for further in-depth study.

A comprehensive research study reported in the latest issue of Education Next (Vol. 19, Spring 2019) tackles that fundamental question on an international comparative scale. Three American researchers, Eric A Hanushek, Marc Piopiunik, and Simon Wiederhold, not only demonstrate that teachers’ cognitive skills vary widely among developed nations, but that such differences matter greatly for student performance in school.

Developing, recruiting and training a teacher force with higher cognitive skills (Hanushek, Piopiunik, Wiederhold 2019) can be critical in improving student learning. “An increase of one standard deviation in teacher cognitive skills,” they claim, “is associated with an increase of 10 to 15 per cent of a standard deviation in student performance.” Comparing reading and math scores in 31 OECD countries, teachers in Finland come out with the highest cognitive skills. One quarter of the gaps in average student performance across countries would be closed if each of them were to raise the level of teachers’ cognitive skills to that of Finland.

What’s most fascinating about this study is the large role Canadian teachers play in the comparative data analysis for teacher cognitive skills.  Of the 6,402 teacher test-takers in 31 countries, the largest group, 834 (13 per cent), were from Canada. Based upon data gleaned from the OECD Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), we now know where Canadian teachers rank in terms of their numeracy and literacy skills (See Figure 1). We also have a clearer indication of how Canadians with Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s or Doctoral degrees rate in terms of their core cognitive skills.

Teachers from Canada fare reasonably well, in the top third, in the comparative analysis of cognitive skills. In literacy, teachers in Canada perform above average, with a median score of 308 points out of 500 compared to the sample-wide average of 295 points.  If there’s a problem, it’s in terms of numeracy skills, where they perform slightly above the teacher-wide sample with a median score of 293, compared to the average of 292 points. Adult Canadians with Bachelor’s degrees actually outperform teachers in numeracy skills by 7 points. Teachers in Finland and Japan, for example, perform better than Canadians with Master’s or Doctoral degrees.

Since the September 2010 appearance of  the McKInsey & Company study “Closing the talent gap,,” American policy-makers have considered teachers’ own academic performance as “a key predictor” of higher student achievement, based upon teacher recruitment practices in countries that perform well on international tests. High scoring countries like Singapore, Finland and Korea, for example, recruit their teacher force from the top third of their academic cohorts in university.

Securing sound data on the actual quality of recent Canadian teacher education cohorts is challenging because of the paucity of reported information. One claim that Canadian teachers come from the “top one third of high school graduates” put forward in a 2010 McKinsey & Company OECD study looks highly suspect.

A September 2008 review of Initial Teacher Education Programs  (Gambhir, Evans, Broad, Gaskell 2008), reported that admission cut-offs ranged from 65 per cent to over 90 per cent, depending upon the faculty of education. Most of the Canadian universities with Faculty of Education programs, to cite another fact, still have grade cut-off averages for acceptance in the Arts and Science that hover between 70 per cent and 75 per cent. With the exception of OISE, Western, Queen’s and UBC, teacher candidates are not drawn from the top third of their academic cohort, particularly in mathematics and sciences.

Differences in teachers’ cognitive skills within a country also seem to have a bearing upon student performance. Plotting student performance difference between math and reading ( at the country level) against the difference in teacher cognitive skills between numeracy and literacy yields some intriguing results (Figure 2). An increase of teacher cognitive skills of one standard deviation is estimated to improve student achievement by 11 per cent of standard deviation. The data for Canada shows a teacher test-score difference between numeracy and literacy of -12 points

The brand new American study (Hanushek, Piopiunik, Wiederhold 2019) also demonstrates that paying teachers better is a possible factor in attracting and retaining teachers with higher cognitive skills. In terms of wage premiums, teachers’ earnings in higher performing countries are generally higher, as borne out by Ireland, Germany and Korea, where teachers earn 30 to 45 per cent more than comparable college graduates in other jobs.

Teachers in Canada earn 17 per cent more than their comparators, while those in the USA and Sweden earn 22 per cent less. Increasing teacher pay has potential value in the United States where salaries discourage the ‘best and brightest’ from entering teaching. There is a caveat, noted by Hanushek and his research team:  Changes in policy must ensure that “higher salaries go to more effective teachers.”

Do smarter teachers make for smarter students? How sound is the evidence that teachers who know more are actually better teachers? Why do we put so much stock in improving student learning in literacy/reading and mathematics?  What potential flaws can you spot in this type of research? 

 

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Two of North America’s better known school change theorists, Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, have just published a fascinating article in Education Canada (December 2018) entitled “Well-being and success: Opposites that need to attract.” Looking back over Ontario’s implementation of the ‘Student Well-Being Agenda’ since 2014, the two Boston College consultants hired to both guide and review that agenda sound wistful but they do identify a few of the potential pitfalls. The article’s sub-title even hints at the now visible contradictions.

From 2014 to 2018, Hargreaves, Shirley and their Boston College research team were hired by the Ontario Directors of Education (CODE) to work with ten of Ontario’s 72 school boards to “understand the work they were doing on the ground” to implement the Ontario Ministry of Education’s educational change agenda.

The mandated provincial reform agenda embraced “four pillars”: achieving broadly defined excellence; securing equity for all students; promoting well-being (and positive feelings about learning); and establishing public confidence in the system.  Their mandate was to assess how the four pillars were being implemented and not whether they represented the right direction for the province. 

Hargreaves and Shirley are very skillful promoters of Ontario’s public school system. They are leading education change theorists and Ontario under the Kathleen Wynne Government might be described as “their baby.” “Canada is a global leader” in educational change, they confidently state, and that is why Ontario and Alberta are Exhibits A and B at education summits around the world. The latest iteration of Ontario educational boosterism even comes with a newly-minted slogan – “Leading from the Middle” (LfM)  It is, we are informed, spreading worldwide to Singapore, New Zealand, and Scotland.

The notion that Canada’s education leaders, including Education Deputy Ministers and Regional Superintendents, “lead from the middle” is quite a stretch.  So is the claim that “LfM” was “invented in Ontario” because the two leading promoters were professors at Boston’s Lynch School of Education.

“Leading from the Middle” is hard to pull-off when you are the CEO of a school system.  You can talk that way and spout the right words. Schools and school districts embracing “LfM,” we are told, do not just ” join up the dots” between policies at the top and practice at the bottom.” Instead, they lead “from the middle” with “shared, professional judgement, collective responsibility for initiating and implementing change” with “systemic impact that benefits all students.”

Ontario, Hargreaves and Shirley would have us believe, is moving from an “Age of Achievement and Effort” to an “Age of Learning, Well-being and Identity.”  That conclusion was reached after interviewing some 222 educators and Ministry officials implementing that agenda.  There was no hint in the CODE report (issued early in 2018)  of a coming storm (the Doug Ford hurricane)  let alone an upheaval that would stall this movement in its tracks.

Hargreaves and Shirley, based upon their Ministry-approved research, offer a number of conclusions, presented as incontestable truths: 1) Improved well-being increases achievement; 2) Academic achievement is crucial for well-being; and  3) Well-being has its own value and complements academic achievement. In sum, their research confirms the wisdom of Ontario Ministry directives from 2014 to 2018.

Most of the research actually cited in the Education Canada article is that conducted by advocates for, or contributors to, the Student-Well Being agenda. No one will be surprised to see the approving citations to work of Carol Campbell and others in Empowered Educators in Canada (2017), Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The new psychology of success (2007); and Leah M. Kuypers, Zones of Regulation (2011).  All conform nicely with the prevailing policy trends from 2014 to 2018.

NarcissisticKId

Dark clouds are spotted on the otherwise sunny horizon. The two CODE consultants sense that marrying student well-being with academic achievement may appear, to some, as contradictory. Then comes a warning : “In testing times, be wary of cheap shots that are easily made against well-being or achievement. On one hand, we don’t want a school system that is obsessed with well-being to the point where young people live in a superficial and self-indulgent world of undemanding happiness. That path leads to a nation of narcissistic adults who feel that success and earned expertise are unimportant., and all that matters is the needs and opinions of themselves and others who happen to agree with them.”

That passage concludes with a telling comment: “True well-being doesn’t come without sacrifice and struggle, perseverance, and empathy for others.” That’s quite an admission from two of the chief proponents of the Ontario “Student Well-Being agenda.’

The warning is counterbalanced by an obligatory reference to the wisdom of pursuing student achievement and well-being together. Unless I’m wrong, there’s also a grudging acknowledgement that student achievement still comes first and when it doesn’t educators default to more comfortable habitats – whether it’s worshiping the “god of self esteem” (1968 to 1992) or the new secular religion of “mindfulness” and “self-regulation” (2009-2018).

The prophecy that ends the Hargreaves-Shirley research summary is already coming to pass in Ontario education. The Well-Being policy agenda is now imperiled.  “Back to fundamentals” education and heavy investments in student well-being initiatives do not mix. “When budget cuts loom,” they note, “initiatives in yoga or meditation, or support roles in counselling and similar areas” are seen as dispensable, compared to literacy and math.

What are Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley really saying in their retrospective on Ontario’s recent obsession with “Student Well-Being” and “Success for All”? Did Ontario really “invent” Leading from the Middle? How plausible is it for Regional Superintendents to “lead from the middle’?   If student achievement is paramount, then why not cite the academic literature that demonstrates its primacy? How much of the Dalton McGuinty-Kathleen Wynne education policy agenda will actually survive the Ford Revolution in Ontario politics? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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