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Archive for the ‘High School Graduation Rates’ Category

Today’s business leaders have a clear sense of where a better future lies for Canadians, especially those in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce initiative Ten Ways to Build a Canada That Wins has identified a list of key opportunities Canada, and the Atlantic Region, can seize right now to “regain its competitiveness, improve its productivity and grow its economy.” Competitiveness, productivity and growth are the three cornerstones of that vision for Canada at 150 and this much is also clear – it cannot be done without a K-12 and Post-Secondary education system capable of nurturing and sustaining that vision.

Yet the educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational reform evolves in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Today’s business leaders –like most citizens–also find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.  Since Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood described the School System as a “Fortress” maintaining clear  boundaries between “insiders and outsiders” back in 1993 not much has changed.  Being on an “advisory committee” gives you some access, but can easily become a vehicle for including you in a consultation process with pre-determined conclusions determined by the system’s insiders and serving the interests of the educational status quo.

Provincial education authorities, pressed by concerned parents, business councils and independent think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the so-called “21st century knowledge-based economy.” Student testing and accountability may be widely accepted by the informed public, but they are far from secure. Provincial teachers’ unions remain unconvinced and continue to resist standardized testing and to propose all kinds of “softer” alternatives, including “assessment for learning,” “school accreditation,” and broadening testing to include “social and emotional learning.”

Two decades ago, the Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership was created and, to a large extent, that education-business alliance has tended to set the pattern for business involvement in public education. Today The Learning Partnership has expanded to become a national charitable organization dedicated to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.  With the support of major corporate donors, the LP brings together business, government, school boards, teachers, parents, labour and community organizations across Canada in “a spirit of long term committed partnerships.”  It’s time to ask whether that organization has done much to improve student achievement levels and to address concerns about the quality of high school graduates.

A change in focus and strategy is in order if the business voice for education reform is to be heard and heeded in the education sector. Our public school system is simply not good enough. Penetrating the honey-coated sheen of edu-babble and getting at the real underlying issues requires some clear-headed independent analysis. We might begin by addressing five significant issues that should be elevated to the top of the education policy agenda:

  • declining enrollment and school closures – and the potential for community-hub social enterprise schools,
  • the sunk cost trap — and the need to demonstrate that education dollars are being invested wisely,
  • the future of elected school boards — and alternatives building upon school-based governance and management,
  • the inclusive education morass — and the need to improve intensive support services;
  • the widening attainment-achievement gap — improving the quality of high school graduates.

In each case, in-depth analysis brings into sharper relief the critical need for a business voice committed to major surgery –educational restructuring and curriculum reform from the schools up rather than the top down.

The education system in Atlantic Canada, for example, has come a long way since the 1990s when the whole domain was essentially an “accountability-free zone.” Back in 2002, AIMS began to produce and publish a system of high school rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials.  Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have all accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics.

Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s High School Report Cards, school boards became far more attuned to the need for improvement in student achievement results. While we have gained ground on standardized assessment of student achievement, final high school examinations have withered and, one -by-one been eliminated and graduation rates have gone through the roof, especially in the Maritime provinces. Without an active and engaged business presence, provincial tests assessing student competence in mathematics and literacy may be imperiled.  Student assessment reform aimed at broadening the focus to  “social and emotional learning” poses another threat. Most recently, a Nova Scotia School Transitions report issued in June 2016 proposed further “investment” in school-college-workplace bridging programs without ever assessing or addressing the decline in the preparedness of those very high school graduates.

Today, new and profoundly important questions are being raised:  What has the Learning Partnership actually achieved over two decades? What have we gained through the provincial testing regimes — and what have we lost?  Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning that we have been expecting?  If students and schools continue to under-perform, what comes next?  Should Canadian education reformers and our business allies begin looking at more radical reform measures such as “turnaround school” strategies, school-based management, or charter schools? 

Where might the business voice have the biggest impact? You would be best advised to either engage in these wider public policy questions or simply lobby and advocate for a respect for the fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability.  Standing on the sidelines has only served to perpetuate the status quo in a system that, first and foremost, serves the needs of educators rather than students and local school communities.

Revised and condensed from an Address the the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, June 6, 2017, in Summerside, PEI. 

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Alberta teacher Mike Tachynski, a high school science teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, is a brave soul.  In late January 2017, he had the courage to speak up publicly about the critical, but largely buried, issue of grade inflation in Canadian high schools.  It was just one more indication that the province of Alberta, once the bastion of higher graduation expectations, was falling more into line with other ‘soft on standards’ provinces.

In the three minutes Tachynski was allotted to address the Edmonton Public Schools elected board, on January 31, 2017, he demonstrated that Alberta was not immune to the disease of grade inflation. Moving away from weighing final exams at 50 per cent of the final Grade 12 subject mark was already contributing to  ‘grade inflation’ leading to irregularities in grades that unfairly favoured some students over others. “Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are presenting more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the other hand, he said students with ‘artificially high grades’ may flounder when admitted to college and university programs.

The provincial data for June 2016, published in the Edmonton Journal,  supported Tachynski’s claim. Some 96 per cent of students were awarded a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, it was 15 percentage points.  Going back to 2008, the gaps in pass rates between teacher-marks and diploma exam results had grown in five of 12 subjects over the span of nine years.

What’s shocking about Alberta’s slide in standards is that, as recently as November 2011, Maclean’s Magazine had hailed that province as having Canada’s best education system based upon the standards of its graduating students. Based upon a 2011 University of Saskatchewan admission study of 12,000 first-year university student grades, Alberta high school graduates dropped only 6.4 points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for students from other provinces. It was attributed, at the time, to Alberta’s policy of basing 50 per cent of the final grades on diploma exam marks.

Grade inflation has been identified as a major concern since the early 1980s in most school systems in the English-speaking world. In 2009, Durham University in the U.K. studied the phenomenon and concluded that an ‘A’ grade was now roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980. Ten years ago, forty per cent of Ontario high school graduates were leaving with an ‘A’ average, eight times as many as in the more conventional British system. In Alberta at that time, it was only 20 per cent, in large part because of compulsory exams in the core subjects.

Former Alberta school administrator Jim Dueck has recently written about the internal struggle during the early 2000s to maintain the province’s more rigorous standards. “Superintendents were loathe to undertake any action to ameliorate the problem,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Education’s Flashpoints.  “Large-scale testing was contentious and acknowledging the significantly different results was thought to be inflamatory and likely lead to a backlash among union members, which at the time included principals.”

Co-author of the much discussed 2008 book Ivory Tower Blues, James Côté, a Western University sociology professor, insists that grade inflation ultimately hurts students. “It starts in high school. Giving higher grades is one way to reward kids fairly easily, boost their self-esteem and stop them from dropping out,” Côté said. “That’s the mandate our high schools are facing: lowering the dropout rate.” That’s why, he added, 60 per cent of students applying to university had an A average by 2008 and the mark ranges were compressed so much that it had “reached a point of crisis.”

High school grade inflation is now rampant in school systems right across Canada. Out east, the problem was first flagged in a May 2007 AIMS study focusing on the enormous gaps in New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador between assigned class marks and diploma exam marks. In November of 2011, the University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts blew the whistle on the alarming extent of Ontario grade inflation. “There’s an arm’s race of A’s going on, ” he told the Calgary Herald.  Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10 in June 2012, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 per cent to 92.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Students are well aware of the impact of high school grade inflation, especially when they take a real hit in their first set of university grades. It is, according to a former President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, Zane Schwartz, a balloon that’s ready to pop.  “Until there is standardization, ” he wrote in a March 2013 Toronto Globe and Mail opinion column,” high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low achieving students will keep getting pushed from grade to grade, and students grades will drop when they reach university.”  We can, he added, do more to “reign in rampant grade inflation and better prepare students for university environment.”  To date, it is my understanding, little has been done to act upon that level-headed student advice.

Why has grade inflation become so rampant in most Canadian high schools?  How much of the pressure for higher marks comes from university-bound students and their parents?  Why have provincial authorities, one after another, either abandoned Grade 12 provincial exams or devalued them in the determination of graduation marks? Is there a graceful way out of the current predicament? 

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Bridge building can provide a rather unconventional source of educational reform insights. All bridges built over water –and constructed with the expert advice of a construction engineer — need “a foundation which is rested on the bed.”  Solid foundations, therefore, are critical to successful bridge-building projects.

School, college and workplace are far too often islands separated by hard to traverse expanses of water. Building bridges for high school leavers involves far more than simply clearing a path and creating easier off-ramps. It should involve paying far more attention to the cardinal principle of bridge building science — sound foundations matter.

BridgeBuildingPhotoA recent Nova Scotia Transition Task Force report, From School to Success: Clearing the Path, released June 21, 2016, looks well-intended, but appears to have missed the most critical piece — shoring-up the foundations on both sides of the bridge.  With youth unemployment hovering above the Canadian national average, the task force focused mostly on repairing the bridges, providing more program supports, and better career counselling.  It even proposed that high school graduates take a “gap year” on their own, presumably to acquire the requisite job-ready skills and work ethic.

How well prepared students were for success in college and the workplace was not really addressed in the Task Force report. When pressed to explain what employers were looking for, the notable silence was filled by one Task Force member. Andrea Marsman of the Nova Scotia Black Educators Association. “There are issues around deadlines and attendance and work ethic,” she told CBC Nova Scotia News. “They were saying that over the past several years they’ve seen a decline of respect for those particular principles of work ethic.”

Boring into the report, the problem with the educational foundation of the K-12 level pillar comes into sharper relief.  While high school graduation rates soar above 85%, only four in 10 university students complete their degree within four years. Thirty per cent never complete their university studies at all. At the community college level, 32 per cent don’t come back after their first year of study.

Raising graduation rates has been the priority in Nova Scotia , Ontario, and elsewhere for the past decade or so.  School promotion policies and “no fail” student assessment practices have significantly raised retention levels.  In spite of this, about five per cent of Nova Scotia students drop out in grade 11, unable to collect a graduation diploma. Those who do leave before graduation, it is clear, are totally unprepared for the daily discipline/grind and rigors of the workplace.

The Nova Scotia Task Force report simply accepts the current status quo — trying to help high school dropouts to graduate. While it is true that dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, and college dropouts are have 3 % higher unemployment rates, the report does not really confront the the quality and preparedness of students leaving the system.  Instead, the Task Force recommended making it easier to graduate and funding more school-to-workplace bridge programs.

BridgingNSedReviewThe Transition Task Force recommendations completely flew in the face of the most recent evidence on employer satisfaction with Nova Scotia student graduates.  In the Nova Scotia Education Review survey, released in October 2014, only 38% of the 2,309 community members surveyed felt that students were “well prepared” for college or university, and fewer still, some 18%, felt they were well prepared for the workforce (p. 35).  Only one of three of the community respondents found students “well prepared” to move onto the next grade, so that is hardly an earthshaking revelation (p. 31).

The answers to the critical questions of preparedness and what today’s workplace demands may not be squarely addressed in the Nova Scotia report, but they are in a pertinent American study, produced in January 2014 by Bentley University researchers.  Just as in Nova Scotia and other provinces, the business sector concerns that today’s college graduates aren’t properly prepared are not going away.  What is changing is the willingness of U.S. colleges and universities to grapple with and address the core issue – improving the core competencies, skills, and work ethic of graduates.

The PreparedU Millennial Preparedness Survey questioned 3,000 respondents across nine audiences and examined skills, traits, use of technology, workplace attitudes and expectations, along with opinions of executives about millennials and vice versa, and much more. It directly addressed the preparedness problem and found a surprising consensus around the source of the problem – a lack of focus on developing strong character, determination, resilience and work ethic. It also found students’ self-perceptions, fostered in schools, to be out of line with those of employers.  Most alarming of all, businesses surveyed found graduates unprepared or unemployable, but seemingly confident in their own abilities.

Thirty-five percent of surveyed U.S. business leaders reported recent graduates they have hired would get a “C” or lower for preparation, if graded. However, they didn’t believe the fault rested entirely with students. Many businesses claimed that “soft skills” were highly valued, but their hiring decisions demonstrated otherwise, showing a clear preference for those with “hard skills,” such as technology training or apprenticeship certificates.

Just over half of business decision-makers and 43 percent of corporate recruiters surveyed said the business community itself deserves a “C” or lower on how well they are preparing recent grads for their first jobs. They also acknowledged that many businesses are not training new hires like they used to, leaving career colleges and private companies to fill the gaps.

School-college-workplace bridges will not be built in a day, nor will they be repaired by tinkering with, or extending, existing programs. Education department reports, like the June 2016 Nova Scotia Task Force study, tend to avoid going to the root of the preparedness problem. Looking at the membership of the Transitions Task Force, it is easy to see why.  Of the seventeen appointed members, the vast majority have a stake in the current system, only two were from business or industry and only one was a teacher in the K-12 school system.

What can school authorities wrestling with school-college-workplace transitions learn from bridge building science?  Why is the preparedness problem so difficult to tackle?  How can you assess the preparedness of high school and college graduates without systematically surveying job seekers or prospective employers? 

 

 

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Shannen Koostachin’s Children’s Campaign for a ‘safe and comfy’ school in Attawapiskat First Nation was deeply moving. It spawned Shannen’s Dream, a Canadian youth-driven movement dedicated addressing the glaring educational inequities and alerting policy-makers to the urgent need to improve funding of on-reserve First Nations education. With the support of Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Shannen got her school, was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and then featured in Alanis Obomsawin’s 2013 documentary film Hi-Ho Mistahey. 

ShanneninActionWhile reading the latest C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, Students in Jeopardy (January 2016) written by Barry Anderson and John Richards, a chill came over me. With clinical precision, the two authors document, once again, the abysmal First Nations graduation rates and the apparent ‘failures’ of what are termed “Band-Operated Schools.” What, I wondered, had Anderson and Richards learned from Shannen and her youth crusade for First Nations community-based schools?

For those seemingly fixated on documenting the “deficits” and proposing structural reforms in First Nations education, a refresher may be in order. In 2007, Shannen was 13 and in Grade 8, having spent her entire elementary years in squalid, poorly heated portables. When the proposal for a new Attawapiskat school was shelved, she and her Grade 8 classmates stood up for the younger students behind them. Utilizing letter writing, then Facebook and You Tube, Shannen’s children’s crusade went over the heads of politicians and bureaucrats to get their message across in the elementary schools of Southern Ontario, union halls, then on Parliament Hill and even in Geneva, Switzerland.

Tragically, in 2010, Shannen was killed in a highway accident on one of her long trips in the Near North, but her Dream lived on. Taking up the youth campaign, MP Charlie Angus pushed for a new school and succeeded in securing passage of a February 2012 House of Commons resolution to “put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools.”  In September 2014, fourteen years after the old school was closed because of a diesel fuel leak, a new Attawapiskat school opened with brightly lit classrooms, a library, a music room, a home economics department, and a gymnasium.  Without the “outraged energy” of Shannen’s campaign it may not have happened at all.

Shannen’s educational journey is regrettably all too common. She and her older sister, Serena, graduated from the Attawapiskat school and were compelled to move hundreds of kilometres away to New Liskeard, Ontario, for high school. While campaigning for better schools, she travelled far and wide and saw, first hand, the gross inequities in schooling, especially between schools in suburban Toronto and those in First Nations communities.

Completing high school in  First Nations communities requires incredible persistence. One of Shaneen’s fellow students, Holly Nakogee, attending Grade 12 in Attawapiskat in 2014-15, was typical of the true survivors.  After losing her closest sister Dakota following  childbirth, she moved south three times for high school, only to return ‘homesick’ each time. In a community where some 95 per cent of the housing is sub-standard and the water isn’t drinkable, graduating from high school can seem insurmountable.

First Nations children in Attawapiskat are still facing long odds and feel essentially trapped with no real bridges to a healthier, happier, more fulfilling life.  Looking at those all-too familiar C.D. Howe Institute bar graphs showing 2011 First Nations High School Certification Rates of 48.9 per cent for Ontario, compared to well over 80 per cent province-wide, cannot possibly convey all the “burdens” borne by those First Nations students who “fall out” of the system.

Somehow the “Action Steps” proposed in the C.D. Howe Institute report leave me cold.  A “seven step” strategy is presented with the declaratory certainty of the “policy-wonk” at a safe distance from the unfolding crisis among First Nations youth. The same recommendations reappear: close the funding gap; focus on improved student results; clarify who’s responsible for what, improve Region and ‘Band’ competencies; seek incremental improvements; target program funding; and improve second-level support services.

Such an approach may produce marginal improvement and help to ease the tortured conscience of federal and provincial policy-makers and Indigenous Affairs officials. It doesn’t really get at the root of the problem and does precious little to empower First Nations people themselves.

With a new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, and more generosity of spirit, the time for social reconstruction may have arrived. Supporting traditional industries, creating sustainable employment, refurbishing housing, and embracing First Nations community-based schooling is a much better ‘whole of government’ approach. In that respect, my own Northern Policy Institute report, Picking Up the Pieces co-authored with Jonathan Anuik (September 2014), offers a sounder point of departure.

Social reconstruction and community-school development require a completely different more comprehensive, grassroots up strategy respecting First Nations ways of knowing and traditions. More funding would be a real help, but it’s going to take a generation to rebuild broken trust, foster cross-cultural reconciliation, and assist First Nations peoples themselves in this vitally important work.

What have we learned from Shannen’s Dream and the Attawapiskat School campaign? Why do First Nations ‘policy experts’ tend to fixate so much on the obvious “deficits” in student learning and graduation levels — and not really address the underlying causes? Where have top-down First Nations supervision and accountability schemes gotten us, so far? Is it easier to affix blame and point fingers than to listen, learn and act with more sensitivity?  Why not try harder to get more in sync with First Nations communities and their deepest aspirations to rebuild their own communities and institutions? 

 

 

 

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Allana Loh’s neighbourhood cries out for radical change. Only one out of every two children attending her north-end Dartmouth elementary school currently graduates from high school.  Three years ago, she and her friend Roseanna Cleveland raised money to finance a feasibility study aimed at securing a Dartmouth site sponsored by Pathways to Education.  Now she is campaigning to bring a proven literacy program, SpellRead  into her daughter’s school, Harbour View Elementary, to boost its alarmingly low literacy rates.

PathwaysTakeAction14She and her group, the Take Action Society, experience, first hand, the debilitating effects of  “unequal education.”  Since 2010, they have been working to create positive change in a community that struggles with a high crime rate, drugs, poverty and lower levels of education. They have built a community garden, painted a large mural outside the school and organized community cleanups.

Now Loh is convinced that only a bold initiative can bring about the need radical change. “We would like to have Dartmouth North declared an education reconstruction zone.”  Speaking out is rare, but Loh and the Take Action Society are far from alone in seeking bold and more comprehensive approaches to community-school regeneration.

A powerful new series of investigative news reports, produced by Teri  Pecoskie at the Hamilton Spectator, and headlined “Unequal Education,” has ripped the lid of the problem of educational inequalities in urban school systems. “As school reformer Horace Mann famously put it, education is a great equalizer, ” she wrote. “It’s the balance wheel of the social machinery. Something that offers every child, regardless of personal circumstance, a fair shot at success. In Hamilton, though, there’s nothing equal about education. The fact is, where you are born, and to whom, can have a profound effect on your future.”

The Spectator analysis of six years of Ontario EQAO test results reveals huge gaps in academic achievement in Hamilton schools, despite significant investments aimed at levelling the playing field. When education is so important to the future of our kids and our city, why do such disparities continue to exist, and what can be done to fix them? Pecoskie spent months researching the issue and provides the answers in a special five-part series.

Through interactive graphics, The Spectator , compares, in graphic detail, student test scores with socio-economic factors in each school neighbourhood. Students at St. Patrick School in the poorer east end of downtown Hamilton, she found, are badly trailing in performance, compared to those  at St. Thomas the Apostle in Waterdown, where only 15 per cent of the children come from low income households.

The stark revelations in Pecoskie’s series are not new, but they demonstrate conclusively that bold initiatives will be required to turn student performance around in these struggling school communities. Her findings also add weight and significance to the findings of researchers preparing feasibility studies foe Pathways to Education. Since its inception in 2001, Pathways has identified over 14 different neighbourhoods across Canada which qualify as high student dropout zones.

Struggling students in faltering schools cry out for more radical, innovative community-based solutions. Proven educational development programs like Pathways to Education in Halifax Spryfield , sponsored by Chebucto Community Connections, are demonstrating what a “wrap-around” child and youth support program can accomplish in a few short years. So has the pioneering community support stay-in-school venture known as the Epic Youth Peer Breakthrough Program in Sydney, Cape Breton.

School communities in crisis cannot afford to wait until they secure another Pathways to Education site, perhaps a decade from now. Armed with what we know know about struggling neighbourhoods, let’s start by identifying the potential “education reconstruction zones” and enlisting the support of a cross-section of public and private sector partners from Community Services to the United Way to the local chambers of commerce.

THe stark inequalities are clear and it’s time for action where it counts  in the Premier’s Offices and our corporate board rooms. Since 2010, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Education Department have blazed the policy trail. Starting with 21 American communities and $10 million, the “Promise Neighbourhoods” initiative, inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, has begun to transform poor urban and rural neighbourhoods with “cradle –to-career services.”

Allana Loh is giving voice to the voiceless, The Spectator has smashed the myth of equal opportunities, and Pathways to Education has charted the course.   Struggling school communities are worthy candidates for domestic social and economic reconstruction projects. What we need is bold leadership committed to a more comprehensive, targeted “reconstruction zone” strategy expanding educational opportunities for all children.

Whatever happened to the vision of public education as “the great equalizer?”  What can we learn from the findings of the Pathways to Education studies and the recent Spectator “Unequal Education” series?  Will more of the same in the form of more funding for existing programs, student supports, and special education  ever succeed in making a dent in the problem? Is it time to identify “education reconstruction zones” and to mobilize a wider range of resources targeted on struggling neighbourhhoods  and aimed at significantly raising graduation rates?

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High school graduation season has come and gone and it seems an opportune time to step back and try to assess the whole matter of rapidly rising graduation rates.  Now that high school graduation rates have topped 80 % in most Canadian provinces and some American states, it seems reasonable to ask whether rising levels of student “attainment” are actually the best way of measuring actual “achievement” levels.  American education commentator John Merrow of PBS News Hour  raised the same issue in April 2013 by posing the question this way – “Can an increase in National High School Graduation rates be trusted?”

SmilingHSGradsEducation authorities in Canada and the United States have recently been crowing a great deal about rising high school graduation rates.  On June 25, 2013, the Council of Ministers of Education in Canada (CMEC), chaired by Nova Scotia’s Ramona Jennex, claimed that the OECD report Education at a Glance 2013 showed that Canada was “one of the most well-educated countries in the world” on the basis of its high school and post-secondary education completion rates.  A recent U.S. education report, “Building a Grad Nation,” released in February 2013, claimed that American graduation rates had risen to 80%, a gain of 6% since 2001, and were on target to reach 90% by 2020.

The 2013 OECD  report delivered good news on “educational attainment” levels for many countries, including the United States. The Graduation Rates for upper secondary level (A 2.1) in 2011 among first time graduates were extraordinarily high, while the gender differences and ages at graduation varied considerably.   Canada registered an 85% graduation rate ( 82% for Men, 88% for Women) and the average age at graduation was 19 years. For the United States, the national figures reported were 77% (74% for Men, 81% for Women), but the avg. age at graduation was only 17 years.

Rising graduation rates are being reported throughout the OECD countries. Japan and Finland led the pack of top nations tied with 96% graduation rates, but the avg Finn at graduation was 22 years of age. Canada’s rate of graduation, 84%, is just above the OECD average of 83% at 20 years of age.  The United Kingdom and Australia, both with national student testing systems and so-called “league tables,” report graduation rates of 77% and 74% respectively.  Young women are graduating at higher rates than men  in virtually every country to the point where it is becoming a ‘sleeping’ public policy issue.

High school graduation rates are soaring and, in many countries, national dropout rates are declining. In Canada, the Canadian Council on Learning was one of the few agencies not simply content to report trends and inclined to look deeper.  Back in December 2005, a CCL report on School Dropout Rates documented the dramatic decline of 7% in high school dropout rates from 1990-91 to 2oo4- 05, noting that Atlantic Canadian provinces like Nova Scotia led the way.  The demands of the labour market for high school graduates was identified as the key factor, outweighing school retention initiatives.

Rising graduation rates and declining dropout rates are worth applauding, to a point. Over the 20 year period from 1990-91 to 2019-10, the number of Canadian young people ages 20 to 24 without a high school diploma dropped from 340,000 (16.6%) to 191,000 (8.5%), again most dramatically evident in Atlantic Canada. THat is a positive development because, as John Richards of the CD Howe Institute pointed out in January 2011, Canadians without a diploma have an average employment rate of under 40%, whereas graduates average about  25% higher. In short, dropping out of high school leads to a life marked by bouts of unemployment and, in many cases, by poverty.

Provincial student attainment levels, however, only tell part of the story.  Canada’s  top performing province on international tests, Alberta, has among the lowest graduation rates and surprisingly high dropout rates.  Alberta’s  Education Department has long contended that the low graduation rate can be explained by Alberta’s more carefully audited reporting system and the number of young Albertans moving in and out of the oil rich province over the course of a school year.

The Maritime provinces have extraordinarily high graduation rates and low dropout counts , but their students perform mediocre at best on PISA and other standardized student assessments.  In the case of Quebec, the country’s top performing province in Mathematics, a more rigorous curriculum, provincial examinations, and the high rural francophone dropout rate are factors. Anglo-Quebeckers have much higher completion rates, but those who leave the province to complete high school or switch to private schools are also identified as “dropouts” from the state system. One of the country’s best resourced school systems, Ontario, lagged behind in graduation rates until the late 1990s when Premier Dalton McGuinty finally adopted his “everyone will graduate” policy. 

Boring down into the reasons for the rising Canadian graduation rates will likely lead to more plausible explanations. When we do, it will likely start by examining the factors identified by John Merrow in his recent PBS investigative report.  To probe into the numbers will likely lead us to seriously examine the impact of slackening academic standards and the proliferation of “no fail” assessment policies. High school credit recovery courses have grown enormously as a way of moving students along and helping them to secure diplomas, but the phenomenon has not really been studied in Canada or the United States.

A major factor in the United States has been the closure of so-called failing high schools, known as “dropout factories.”  That is not a factor here in Canada, where faltering schools remain open and essentially resort to “social promotion” policies. In Canada, we also need to assess the numbers of students leaving in Grades 10 and 11 to enter alternative schools or to be home-schooled and whether they are counted the same way in each province. Some lighthouse small school programs to support Aboriginal students, like St. Joe’s in Edmonton, may yet yield more positive answers.

It’s time to probe into rising graduation levels and to see whether they reflect real improvements in student achievement. What have we gained — and lost – by adopting “everyone graduates” policies in our high schools?  Given the lack of national graduation standards, can the reported provincial graduation rates be validated and trusted?  What has been the impact of credit recovery courses in schools across Canada?  Are rising graduation levels accurately reflecting improvements in student learning and achievement or is the public being sold another bill of goods?

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