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Michael Zwaagstra: Promoting failure in Canadian high schools

Posted by Oped 2857 days ago National Post|
http://network.nationalpost.com — With orientation sessions over and
several weeks of classes under their belts, first-year university
students are realizing they face a challenging academic year.
Unfortunately, several recent studies have revealed what many of us
already know: Too many high school graduates are unprepared for
university.


Using data from Statistics Canada, the Persistence
in Post-Secondary Education in Canada report found about 14% of
university students drop out in their first year. Reasons cited for
quitting include failure to meet deadlines, poor academic performance
and inadequate study habits.

This report comes as high schools
continue to lower their academic standards and focus more on promoting
student self-esteem than covering academic content. Considering the
large number of students who enrol in post-secondary education after
completing high school, it is disappointing that schools do not place
greater emphasis on preparing students for life beyond their walls.



Many
schools do not allow teachers to deduct marks for late assignments or
academic dishonesty and make it almost impossible to assign zeros for
incomplete work. As a result, students who achieved good marks in high
school with minimal effort find out the hard way that things are quite
different in university.

In a separate survey conducted by the
Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, professors
made it clear that they do not believe high schools do enough to
prepare students for university. More than half of the professors
surveyed stated that today's students are less prepared than students
from just three years earlier.

Among other things, professors
cited lower maturity levels, poor research skills and expectations of
success without the requisite effort as areas of concern. Sadly, none
of this should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with educational
trends in Canada, since these are the type of graduates often produced
by our system.

The problem begins in the early grades where
social promotion -- the practice of passing students to the next grade
regardless of their academic achievement -- is commonplace across the
country. Personal self-esteem receives a higher priority in many
schools than actual performance.

Thus, large numbers of high
school students find themselves unable to handle the academic material
at their respective grade levels. Although failure occurs at high
school, teachers are still strongly encouraged to do everything
possible to ensure students graduate. This often means watering down
the curriculum content under the overused slogan, "We're teaching
students, not subjects." As a result, classroom teachers see their
subject matter expertise downplayed and replaced with an emphasis on
"holistic" learning.

The problem with this approach is it
undermines the academic integrity of a high school diploma. Employers
and postsecondary institutions assume students possess a certain amount
of academic skill and knowledge when they receive a diploma. Graduates
lacking in these skills find that the real world is considerably less
accommodating of their unique learning styles.

Yet provincial
education departments consistently give low priority to university
preparedness. In provinces such as Manitoba, all provincial standards
tests except those in Grade 12 were eliminated over the past decade.
Meanwhile Alberta's education minister, Dave Hancock, recently mused
about overhauling the School Act to place less emphasis on teacher
instruction and more on student-initiated learning. These are not the
type of reforms our students need.

Education ministers must
pay attention to survey results showing how woefully unprepared high
school graduates are for university. Provincial education departments
should not reduce the number of standardized tests administered,
discourage teachers from lecturing to their students or downplay the
importance of learning content. These are the very things students need
if they are going to be successful in their academic studies beyond
high school.

We've spent enough time focusing on the
self-esteem of our students. Let's raise our standards and make sure
students get the education they deserve. This may make high school more
challenging to complete, but students will benefit in the long-run. And
they'll feel better about their real, as opposed to imagined,
accomplishments.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research
associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy ( fcpp.org)and a
high school social studies teacher in Manitoba.

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