The Back-to-School Edition

Eleven years ago this week, I dropped XUP Jr. off for her first day of school. She was almost 6 years old. The rule in Nova Scotia is that the child has to be 5 by October something in order to start school and her birthday is in December so she’ll always be a bit older than her peers. But that’s okay because she wasn’t really ready for school until she was almost 6.

As a youngster she was thoughtful and curious and bright and intelligent and independent and eager to learn anything and everything. If I’d had a choice I probably would have home-schooled her until she was a bit older. Because it wasn’t long until the school system drained most of the curiosity and brightness and independence and eagerness out of her.

She’s still her own person and still pulls off good marks and everything, but I don’t think she’s actually learning anything anymore – hasn’t for quite a few years now — and doesn’t seem to care all that much about it. Once she learned to read, write, add and subtract, things sort of leveled out.

Teachers get a program they have to follow. There are certain milestones the school has to prove it has achieved every year. School boards have to report back to the province. It’s all about numbers. And numbers can be fudged. Kids get an “A” for mediocre work because the class/school/board needs a certain level to maintain its funding.

There are provincialstandardized tests every few years, but kids are coached and primed to within an inch of their lives for a couple of days before the tests, so they produce inflated results.

A lot of teachers just seem bored or under too much pressure from their principal or school board to actually teach anymore. Teachers in Ontario have a starting salary of about $40,000 and go to over $90,000 after about 12 years. (High School teachers earn slightly more).

That’s not bad, though there are schools where I’m sure they’re earning every penny. But I can’t say I’ve been really excited about a lot of the teachers my daughter has had. Worse, she has not been very excited by many of her teachers. In fact, some of them just seem to go through the motions and it’s been like pulling teeth to have to sit through hours of listening to them drone on every week.

I don’t entirely blame the teachers. Most of their incentive and creativity has been stifled as well. There’s very little room/time/funding for individuality or different styles of learning/teaching. There’s just a set amount of stuff to be gotten through in a certain amount of time. Kids  (and teachers) have to conform to the institution if they don’t want to get by.

No one fails. Failure is no longer allowed in schools. Everyone just gets pushed through like a grommet on an assembly line.

Students are graduating high school with 99% averages yet universities report that “most of their students demonstrated a lack of the basic skills necessary for university” and that 42% of Canadians are semi-illiterate.

We have one of the highest post-secondary enrollments in the world, (approximately 10% of our population has a university degree) but we aren’t able to compete on an international level, especially in the science, mathematics and technology sectors.

These functions are being outsourced at ever increasing levels. Canadian-based companies cannot find the expertise locally to compete on the world stage.  The trend-watchers are advising parents to encourage their children toward futures in the arts and humanities sectors.

I know it’s really easy for us oldies to look back and say we knew so much more than kids today, but I still have some essays I wrote in high school and although they somehow look a lot more literate and intelligent than the stuff my daughter is turning in and she’s getting much better marks. Not that she’s unintelligent or illiterate. Once upon a time, she used to put a lot of effort into her school work and into meeting deadlines, but she’d end up with the same marks as people who handed in crap and handed it in weeks late. (Teachers are no longer allowed to deduct marks for lateness, apparantly). So now she just does the bare minimum and her marks are still very good.

I don’t think Canada has fully realized the value of giving our kids a good education. They get shuffled through elementary and high school. If they can find a way to pay for an increasingly costly post-secondary education, fine, they go on to “higher” education. If not, they’re go find a minimum wage or factory job or something. Which is a shame, because there might be some very bright people out there who simply can’t manage tuition fees. At least in the US they have state colleges.

When we watch the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, my poor child is totally lost. Ya, I know these kids are the cream of the crop, but XUP Jr. doesn’t even understand the question half the time. And she’s an “A” and “B” student.

Sometimes we watch Reach for the Top (the Canadian School Egghead Competition) and the questions are ridiculously easy by comparison.

Thank goodness neither I nor the kid have any aspirations for her to be the second coming of Einstein and that she’s been all about visual arts since she first picked up a crayon. Because we do the arts pretty good in Canada. The kid is going to an arts high school. We have some excellent arts colleges and universities. The country has produced some outstanding painters, writers, visual artists, actors, comedians, photographers. Musicians, film-makers, designers, dancers, etc.

Maybe we should stick to that and really put a lot of funding into producing the world’s best artsies?

Still, it would be nice if they knew the capital city of France or how many centimeters in a meter or what a zygote is.

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29 responses to “The Back-to-School Edition

  1. My brother missed out on that October rule thingy by mere days. Still bugs him.

    I haven’t watched Reach for the Top in decades. Has it really gone so far downhill that it’s that much easier than Teen Jeopardy? I mean, Jeopardy gives hints in the answer as to what the question should be.

    Given that I don’t have children, I probably shouldn’t be voicing an opinion about current educational practices. But it still scares me as an adult Canadian to hear some of what I overhear from kids on the bus. (Or, god forbid, in some of my nieces’ and nephews’ Facebook pages — it worries me to see that these children and young adults are in some cases barely literate with questionable futures as a result.)

  2. I clearly recall being strapped in school for drawing a picture instead of making a bookmark in art class. In fact, I was being punished for inattention but the experience did little to encourage an enthusiasm for creativity. This took place about 1950. We did learn the basics. We chanted multipication tables. We had basic grammar pounded into our heads, over and over and over. We were lined up around the classroom in order of our last set of marks. A lot of kids just dropped out at sixteen, or even earlier sometimes.
    While I deplore the basic errors today’s students are allowed to ignore, I don’t think that the school system used to be better. As I recall it, a few students were favoured and nurtured at the expense of the hoi poloi.
    I put ten years of steady effort into an attempt to educate my kids before and after their school day, as my mother and aunt had done for me. They both learned to learn, thank goodness.
    I wish I had an answer. Sorry about the long reply to your post; it is so interesting and well done that it just begs for discussion.

  3. That is so incredibly disturbing that teachers are no longer able to fail or deduct marks anymore. WTH?! No wonder so many kids are doing the bare minimum and are “semi-illiterate”.

  4. Nowadays it seems that people celebrate mediocrity way too much. I grew up in Quebec and while the Quebec education system is far from perfect, if you didn’t do well, you failed. Plain and simple.

    A good education is important. But a student actually has to learn something.

  5. Hannah — it’s not just that teachers can’t fail kids any more — they are required to accept test and assignments any day up until the last day of the year, without deducting marks for lateness. That means that if they hand out an assignment and most of the class does it, then they mark it and hand it back, someone can just copy what was handed back and hand it in later. Or, someone can skip class the day of a test, find out from their friends what was on it, then write it a week later with no penalty (or, the teacher has to do the work of making up a second test…and a third…and then a forth…and so on). It is CRAZY.

    I have to say home schooling is looking PRETTY GOOD.

    When I was in university I started out with a history major and I got very bitter, very quickly, that the instructors had a recipe for a “good paper” and if you hit all those points, you got an A. They weren’t interested in thoughtfulness or creativity. I very quickly learned to work the system and I was getting all A’s, but I didn’t feel like I was learning anything or being encouraged to think. I switched to an engineering major because at least math is right or wrong…no grey areas.

    I only hope I can keep my kids interested in learning through extra trips and discussions and events on the weekends.

  6. I could go on about the failings of the Ontario public school system at length. I feel like it failed me. I was not academic, but I was curious and artistic. This combination was not ideal in my Ontario public school. By the time I was in high school, I was barely holding on. I could never have been accepted to university with my grades, but the school made us college-bound kids feel like we were complete failures for not going to university. I feel like I was forgotten, or ignored, but certainly never encouraged.

    So I went to college, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA at the top of my class, because all of the sudden, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was LEARNING SOMETHING. And I was allowed to foster that curiosity and creativity. (Most of) My professors recognized that my style of learning is does not fit into the box that school systems seem to think young people belong in.

    And then I went to university, and I graduated, and now I work there – coordinating an Ontario-wide evaluation of at-risk youth. And when I learned from these kids that it was impossible to fail any longer, I was so incredibly shocked at the disservice that is being done to these youth. They are essentially being swept under a very, very large rug – and I feel like that’s what happened to me, only more so now. Because I had the resiliency in the form of a good family that said “it’s ok, keep trying.” (Some/most of) These kids don’t have that. It’s very, very sad.

    (I also worked at an adult literacy centre when I was in university. Children being swept under rugs has been going on for a very long time, and this was very apparent. With this new “no fail” policy, I can only imagine where our literacy rates are headed.)

  7. The failure of the school system is just part of the “Everyone must feel good about themselves” attitude that is in the educational system.
    Its now rare that a teacher can really invigorate his or her students as they used to.
    A classic example of this came from my life where in grades 7 and 8 I had a boring assed (but mildly hot) teacher by the unlikely name of “Mrs. Brain”. She advised me to avoid the sciences in high school because “You just don’t have the aptitude”.
    I went on and curiously enough discovered that the maths and sciences we actually my forte as I had unique high school teachers who fired up my curiosity.
    The reliance on the bell shaped curve has screwed up education.
    No where is anyone teaching students how to really THINK anymore….. just regurgitate whats in the book.
    Sad.
    We will never really see another Einstein or Feynman again. 😦

  8. Louise – Ya, they know so much scary stuff and yet it’s scary how much stuff they don’t know. I’m sure our parents thought the same about us and it was probably true — every generation is less educated than the generation before it.

    Ramblereed – If only that were true. If schools did nothing more than open up the world for kids and show them how to learn and the joy of learning, that would be enough for me. But they don’t. In fact, they make the world very, very small and, in fact, discourage any independence or free-thinking.

    Mary – Yes, I know schools were horrible, horrible places back in the day. I’m not that much younger than you, so I remember the strap and the favoritism and the ostracizing of the less popular students, and a lot of weird practices by teachers that became teachers right out of high school with a 6 month teaching certificate. HOWEVER, there has to be a happy medium between those days (where at least people learned stuff) and now where it’s all about being PC even at the cost of actually teaching/learning. Don’t you think?

    Hannah – I’m pretty sure the teachers aren’t too thrilled with it either. I’m anxious to hear from Pinklea on this topic – though the BC system might be different from Ontario’s. I know each province has its own thing going on –which is also a little strange. I believe we are the only western country not to have a national education system.

    Chris – It’s almost beyond mediocrity even — more like playing to the lowest common denominator.

    Lynn – It’s all so disheartening and so unfair to the students who really want to do well. Who work hard to get their stuff in on time. Who show up every day. Who study for their exams. I’ve done my very best to involve my daughter in enrichment programs and activities to keep the love of learning alive, but it’s almost a losing battle. I’m hoping university in a couple of years will re-spark some of her natural curiosity and love of achievement.

    Meagan – Sadly, I know your story isn’t unique. I probably went through school a little earlier than you and while elementary school was a nightmare, my Jr high and high school years were pretty good. It was an era of experimentation so we had a lot of interesting stuff to do and managed to learn quite a lot even though people were failed and docked marks for being late and given hell for not coming to school. We might want to look back and consider that model.

    Lebowski – All those little cookie cutter molds they have into which they have to squeeze each and every student. Most will give up and conform to the mold. Some will just fall out. It takes extremely exceptional people to pull themselve out of that and above it all. I suspect the Einsteins will prevail no matter what because they just can’t be contained. The real damage is being done to the ones who could excel with a little more inidividual encouragement and a little creativity in educating them. It’s damaging not just to the individual students, but to this country as a whole when the best we can produce is uniform mediocrity.

  9. The not failing students is certainly a concern but back in the day they just turfed scads of them out instead. I started grade 9 in a school with 7 classes and ended grade 13 with 2. That sort of thing, 5 out of 7 classes disappearing before graduation was pretty common then.
    I have a lot of teacher friends and I am a pretty staunch union person but you can’t be half union half professional.
    A professional works till the job is finished. Doctors don’t stop an operation because the 5 o’clock whistle blew, they finish. Teachers used to do that to but more and more they are forced/ urged, by their colleagues to do only what is required by the contract.
    All the best ones are appalled at the way the system is going. The worst ones never cared before and don’t care now, they’re just in it for the money and long vacations.

  10. And, in the good old US:
    In the fifties, we had children lined up by the grade they made and I was put into an accelerated class where my straight A’s turned into C’s and I got made fun of, did not fit in and totally lost my self-esteem.

    Fast forward to the next generation, where my first son-in-law graduated from the same school I did. Has a diploma and can barely read a word.

    Fast forward to my youngest guy, who, when we took him to live with us, was 13, and read at a second grade level. He spent two years in Jr High, being the teachers pet because he was one who could succeed of the class of kids who had major problems. They wanted to move him up. He still can only write to sign his name. His printing is illegible but less so.

    He has now failed two years of high school academics, while making A’s in choir, etc. He will be called a Super Senior for how many ever years it takes for him to pass. Right now he is passing, with a D his pre-alegebra. Law requires you put them in Algebra and they fail it twice before you get pre-algebra. One class that he, and everyone has, is the class to pass “THE TEST”. What is it called this year? Istep??? Whatever it is, it seems to be all they are teaching.

    Master’s Daughter of mine, teaches sixth grade in a public academy for the gifted. These kids go to different teachers and classes for math, english, arts etc. The art academy doesn’t work well, my grandson tried it and was left behind.

    Maybe they should go back to one room classrooms. Stop labeling kids and just start teaching them. If you need an older kid to help you, there is no stigma, you get help. The older kid is helped by this too. As it is, there are so many kids going to the Learning Resource Center that there is no sigma and not enough learning going on.

  11. When I used to get papers from the school that had to be signed, I would correct the mistakes in red ink. The worst one was from her 8th grade coach who just also happened to be an English teacher. It was horrible. Also I personally know some school teachers and I absolutely would not want them on my team for Cranium or Trivial Pursuit. My daughter is in college now and a few semesters back told her Government teacher that Laura Bush had killed someone and the teacher didn’t believe her until someone checked on their laptop and told the teacher it was true. These not so bright teachers move on to become principals and administrators that run “the system.” Oh and whenever our state government tries to pass a law to make teachers be tested, it is always shot down. I wonder why?

  12. WHAT?!?! Reach for the Top isn’t necessarily for the real smart kids? Has it always been that way?
    I was captain of the second-best team in the land in 1977, and never realized that.
    Then again, that was the year I graduated from Grade 13 with a 62.4% average. Maybe I should have made the connection back then.
    But damn, we thought we were bringing some smarts to being cool party animals.

  13. Bandobras – What? You had 7 grade 9 classes? What a huge school. Most people also didn’t bother going to grade 13 back then because very few people went to university. And there were jobs for people who didn’t finish high school. There has to be a balance between challenging the bright kids and providing the remedial help necessary to get the others educated as well. When I was in school those who weren’t academically inclined has a special school stream where they learned life skills, job skill and got a lot of extra help with academic subjects.

    Sheryl – And here I thought the US education system was better. I’m not sure if going back to a one-room school house is feasible or even advisable. I’ll have to think about that one.

    Hallie – Okay, I will. And I’m saving Ken for when I have 20 minutes to spare. Thanks

    Meagan – Agreed

    Geewits – Oh ya, that used to drive me crazy, when I’d get stuff from the teachers or principal that was only semi-literate. Good example, eh?

    Bob – Ya, I gotta tell you something else, Bob. Kids on Reach for the Top are also pretty far from being cool party animals. Sorry.

  14. Hi, I substitute teach in two districts here in the states. And I go to community college for classes too. When I started college, algebra and english 101 were the first two math and english classes. Now they have pre-algebra, basic math, a whole curriculum of math classes to get the high school graduates up to taking college algebra and english. These were basics when I went to public school, You learned or your failed (and believe me, failing wasn’t an option with my parents)!

    There are still kids getting the education, but it comes with who their parents are and where they live. The honors and advanced placement classes are turning out students who get college credit for those classes. But that’s a minority.

  15. My daughter will be in the same situation (we have an October 1st deadline here, too), only I have a feeling she’s going to be ready for Kindergarten early. We haven’t decided what to do about this yet, because they seem to be pretty strict with the age-limit here. (In my home state, you were tested and put in the grade that matched your skills and abilities…it wasn’t just based on age.)

    I may just end up supplementing at home and with extra activities that interest her.

    It’s great that XUP Jr. has found something that interests her!

  16. In BC, we can’t really fail elementary students (the idea is that rate of progress varies according to the individual), but we certainly can in high school. What we can do in elementary is give a report card mark of “incomplete” in an individual subject, but this must be accompanied by a written plan (created by teacher, parent, student and approved by principal) as to how the student can convert that to a true letter grade. If the child doesn’t follow the plan or does but still performs poorly, the grade becomes “F”. There don’t seem to be further consequences to that mark, as the child still continues on till they hit high school. Then, if they get an “F”, they have to repeat the class.

    WHAT to teach is set by the government, but HOW to teach it is up to the individual teacher. There are recommended methods and resources, of course, but we do get some leeway. Most of the teachers I know do dock marks for lateness, or require rewrites of poorly-done tests or assignments, and this is supported by most school principals.

    With education, it often comes down to two things: government funding and parent support. If the money isn’t there, teacher training may not be as good, quality people may not train as teachers anyway because the salaries may be lower, class sizes may be larger, there may be fewer subject specialists, the school buildings may not be properly built, maintained or supplied, there may not be enough materials like textbooks or paints or microscopes, and so on.

    Parents need to care enough to get involved in the school, to understand that THEY are their children’s primary educators and that they cannot simply drop their children off at school every morning and expect the teachers to do their jobs in isolation with no home support. Parents need to get their kids to school on time, to ensure that homework gets done, to provide nutritious food for their children, to make sure their children have the necessary supplies and so on – because if the parents don’t take school seriously, their children won’t either. Parents also need to quit overprotecting and making excuses for their children, and to help their children learn to take responsibility for their own actions and their own learning.

    Yes there are poor teachers out there. There are poor doctors, plumbers, ditchdiggers, too. Some people are just not suited to their jobs, unfortunately. The difference is that everybody has gone to school at some point, so everybody has an “informed” opinion on teachers. But if governments would provide appropriate money for education and if parents would provide us with the best-prepared and best-supported children they could, we teachers would do our best to ensure that every child keeps that love for learning that all children seem to be born with. We’re already trying, under less-than-perfect conditions everywhere.

  17. this sentence is what makes me the most sad about the school “system”, “Because it wasn’t long until the school system drained most of the curiosity and brightness and independence and eagerness out of her.”

  18. the best part about report cards when I was a kid was the handwritten part where teachers made their comments, observations. it was personal and intimate and i loved getting the inside scoop on what they really thought about me.
    gracie’s report card is a template – with the most fitting paragraph inserted. i would just love it if they could they could give us a little more than that.

  19. While I agree that the educational system here in Ontario is rather sub-standard in many ways, my experience is that this state of affairs really isn’t a lot different than when I went through the system in the ’70’s.

    I did a count and out of the approx. 30 teachers that I had from Grade 1 (didn’t have Kindergarten) to 13, I can count 5 who I consider to have contributed to my education. The rest went through the motions or worse.

    My Grade 12 American History teacher spent the whole year copying out the course textbook (Manifest Destiny) on the blackboard. While it was a good book and I got something like 95 in the course, I didn’t really learn anything that I couldn’t have picked up on my own.

    On the other side of the ledger was my Grade 13 Canadian History teacher who inspired me to take an interest in all things political. He argued, debated and challenged. The guy really had a big part in shaping who I am today.

    But five of 30 ain’t a good average.

  20. Susan – Education is such a huge thing to so many other countries, it’s sad that it has become such a low priority in North America.

    CP – Yes, you have to keep her interest up at home. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a child starting school late. I was almost 7 myself. There’s no reason why a 2 or 3 or 4 year old has to be in school already. Let them explore their world on their own terms for a few years before getting the institutionalized version, right?

    Pinklea – Thanks so much for your perspective. I was hoping you’d have some input. Interesting that you feel the teachers have a lot of leeway on how to teach because it’s always been the excuse teachers have given me that they are forced to teach a certain thing a certain way and there’s nothing they can do about it if a kid isn’t getting it. The BC system seems a tad more sensible (you get to dock marks for lateness and high school students can fail classes). And you’re absolutely right that education has to be a partnership between the school, the student and the parents. I just feel that most of the time, Jr. and I are pulling the whole load. But kudos to you and all the really good teachers out there who are doing their best to keep fighting the battle with very few resources.

    Leah – It makes me sad too. Of course a certain amount of blase is normal when a child gets older anyway. I think she can still recapture some of her zest for learning when she gets to uni.

    Ellie – Thanks

    Meanie – Ya, aren’t report cards useless these days? I still have mine. Coloured cardboard in that odd pale yellow envelope. The report card folded into thirds; one section for each part of the school year. The last page said whether or not I progressed into the next grade. All I get now is an 8 1/2 x 11 form letter.

    Trashee – Man, you’re old! But I still think if you had 5 teachers that you can remember as making a significant contribution to your education, I think that’s pretty damned good. What about your daughter? How many can she count. I think mine has maybe one so far.

  21. I stand corrected. I just found out that there IS a testing option for kids in our county. They make this information extremely hard to find on our own. We may do this. We may not. I’m just thrilled to know we have the option!

  22. Old? Hell no! I’m just rustic!

    But I am old enough to have received the strap on two occasions and to remember singing “god save the queen” instead of “O’ Canada”.

    Crap – I am old.

    I know of 2 teacher’s thus far (she started Grade 11 today) who, in my daughter’s opinion, haven’t been “totally lame”.

    I guess that’s a compliment?

  23. CP – Lucky you!!

    Trashee – Not a great compliment — not “inspirational/furthered my education compliment, but better than horrible. Still that’s only 2. Do you think she’ll come up with 3 more in the next 2 years?

  24. I remember singing God Save the King – beat that, can you? XUP, yes, I think there has to be a medium point where the poor students are actually the point of the exercise. In my ‘collegiate institute’, aka highschool, it was all about how well the Grade 13 class did on the departmentals, and the teachers fed us what we would need to do well on them and not much more! I had two good teachers, and they both were snatched out of my school and made Ontario wide Inspectors. Gah!
    My girls were in high school in the late seventies, early eighties. The older one became an anxious marks hoarder; the younger one was bored stiff and became a thorn in her teachers’ sides. Their peer from another school in Ottawa, my best friend’s daughter, did not know the name of the prime minister when she was sixteen.
    I believe that some of the fault lies in what we are teaching them. The school system as it stands is there to make them good citizens and loyal subjects of the Queen. Honest! Ever read the Education Act? It used to say that teachers were supposed to ‘inculcate by precept and example the principles of Judeao/Christian morality…’ and on from there. I have no idea what it says in these modern multicultural days, but I bet the basic premise is still the same.
    Why can’t the schools offer what a child and adolescent wants to learn? Yes, they need to be able to read and write and cipher, but after that…? I would let a child have books, and sigh, the internet, and let her find her own way a lot more than the system allows. My favourite classes have always been self directed, personally. Kids with a mechanical bent and interest in crafts or games could be supported much better and not experience as much failure and competition they are bound to lose.
    Ah, Erewhon.
    You sure have some thoughtful commenters; great thread here.

  25. Mary – God Save the King?? Seriously? What fun. And no, I can’t beat that. I’m also going to have to go read the Education Act. It sounds a little frightening.