Archive | Education

University of Guelph struggling to meet students’ mental health needs

Posted on 15 February 2017 by admin

It is the highest number of student suicides at University of Guelph in a single academic year.

“(It’s) very unusual,” said Brenda Whiteside, the university’s Associate Vice-President for Student Affairs, adding that there have been years when as many as two students have died by suicide.

The string of tragedies has generated serious concern in the student body about the quality and availability of mental health care on campus.

An online petitioned, calling for “change and transparency” in the school’s mental health services received more than 2,800 signatures within two weeks.

School officials and mental health experts say universities cannot be the sole source of help. They need the support and partnership of outside care providers to adequately meet the growing demand for mental health services amongst students.

The majority of mental health issues surface during a person’s teens and early 20s.

Because of age restrictions on many mental health care programs, young people are often forced to leave the services they have accessed for years, right around the time they begin university or college.

And life in post-secondary education comes with added challenges.

University of Guelph is now working with the Canadian Mental Health Association charity to address student mental health in the short and long term.

“The focus right now has been on this immediate situation and making sure students can get help,” said Fred Wagner, executive director of the CMHA’s Guelph and Waterloo-area branch.

“We’re really trying to ensure that the counsellors at the University of Guelph have support, and that we’re able to fill in any gaps.”

That has included bolstering the university’s counselling services with CMHA staff and co-ordinating drop-in clinics where crisis professionals are available to talk.

CMHA and the university are also discussing long-term plans for mental health and suicide prevention strategies.

Guelph currently has 14 counsellors, two psychiatrists, a medical clinic staffed by doctors with training in mental health, and specialized therapy groups.

Residence workers are trained to provide mental health support to the 5,000 students who live on campus. The university runs a peer support drop-in program that offers information, referral services and “non-judgmental listening,” noon to 10 p.m., Monday to Friday during the school year and noon to 8 p.m. during exams.

Students can also call a pair of local 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week helplines: Good2Talk and Here 24/7.

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Optional attendance is killing neighbourhood schools

Posted on 15 December 2016 by admin

Jason Kunin 


After 90 years, Vaughan Road Academy — the high school where I have spent the past 17 years of my teaching career — will close at the end of this school year.

Unfortunately, I’ve been down this road before. In addition to the fact that our main feeder school was closed three years ago, this will be the fourth school I have taught at that will have closed.

The string of school closures that has trailed me throughout my career is partly due to declining enrolment — a result of exploding housing costs that have priced many families out of the Toronto market — yet it’s also a byproduct of TDSB’s “optional attendance” policy, which is killing the neighbourhood school.

Since 1999, the TDSB has allowed parents to opt out of sending their kids to their local school and send them out of their catchment area. Introduced in the chaos of amalgamation in the late 1990s, optional attendance bears the free-market thinking of the right-wing Harris government that created the TDSB. It was all about giving families “choice” and making schools compete for “customers.”

While this might sound good in theory, what we’ve seen as a result of this policy is a consolidation of students at a small number of schools perceived to be the “good schools” where the demographic, not surprisingly, is richer and whiter. And so while some schools are desperate for students, others are packed to the gills.

The TDSB’s own data confirms this, revealing 117 elementary schools and 29 high schools at or above 100 per cent capacity. Lawrence Park Collegiate, for example, was at 146 per cent, with 1,290 students in a school that holds 882, while George Webster Elementary School, with 657 students crammed into a building that holds 299, was at 220 per cent capacity. And these are just two examples.

My own school, Vaughan Road Academy, with a capacity for 1,179 students, is currently sitting at an enrolment of 223 students, while parents in our catchment area apply for — and continue to be granted — optional attendance for their kids at neighbouring Forest Hill Collegiate, a smaller school that is currently packed at 120 per cent capacity.

System-wide, if you add up the total capacity of the buildings and the total number of students, the TDSB data showed it operating at 75 per cent capacity overall — not exactly numbers that would suggest a need for the massive off-loading of school properties, which the Wynne government has been pushing as a way to pay for the $3.5 billion needed to meet the capital repair backlog in Toronto schools. Enrolment is simply not spread out evenly.

No one would deny families have often made decisions about where to live or buy a home based on the local school, and optional attendance in some form has actually been around for a while. Even in the preamalgamation days, parents had been allowed to send their children to a school out of their catchment area if, for example, the kids had special needs that could not be accommodated by their local school. Eventually, a loosening of the rules allowed for the proliferation of alternative programs in the 1980s.

With optional attendance, however, parents are able to shop around much more freely. Consequently, sending a child to school is no longer necessarily an act of investing in one’s community but about investing in one’s child, period. Rather than being vital centres of their communities, schools are being reduced to mere service providers.

There are definitely good arguments to be made for allowing parents to find programs suitable to their child’s interests and style of learning. Yet while granting families choice may often benefit children and families, the reality is that choice is more often likely to be accessed by those with more mobility. Families for whom even the price of TTC fare is a barrier to coming to school are far less likely than more mobile, affluent parents to take advantage of the optional attendance policy.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of special programs and boutique schooling in TDSB over the past two decades mostly target the same shrinking pool of “academic” students.

Simply put, the poor have fewer options about where to live and go to school.

It’s not a surprise that, as the Toronto Star reported in February 2015, the bulk of underenrolled schools happen to be located in poorer neighbourhoods.

While the Liberal government is demanding that TDSB consolidate low-enrolled schools, informally, consolidation has been happening for years based on where parents and students have been choosing to go, with those choices based sometimes on the ways in which factors such as race and class have shaped the school’s reputation.

No matter how much the board or the Ministry of Education can talk about how they believe schools should be “community hubs,” this is what the market model does to the neighbourhood school.

Jason Kunin is a teacher at Vaughan Road Academy, which is scheduled to close in June 2017.

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U of T library acquires a 500-year-old classic

Posted on 28 September 2016 by admin

When librarian P.J. Carefoote saw the opportunity to add what would be the oldest English-language book to the University of Toronto’s collection, he literally couldn’t wait to put his hands on it.

For Carefoote, medieval manuscripts and early books librarian at U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, purchasing a 1507 copy of The Golden Legend is a significant milestone for the university.

Considered more popular than even the Bible at one point during the Middle Ages, the book blends fact and fiction in telling the stories of saints’ lives.

“People loved them because they were good stories,” Carefoote said. “The text itself is interesting, but for us I think what is important is the fact it’s an early instance of English printing.”

Compiled in the original Latin during the 1200s by the Italian Dominican archbishop Jacobus De Voragine, the stories became “immensely” popular two centuries later after being translated into the living languages of Europe.

 “Certainly by the 15th century, people were reading them in French, German, Dutch and English,” said Carefoote. “The Bible was in Latin, so that was not as readily accessible, whereas this was in vernacular languages, so people could understand without anyone doing interpretation for them.”

William Caxton, who established the first printing press in England, translated The Golden Legend to English, and one of his students printed his version after his death. That’s the version now available at U of T.

Like all of the Rare Book Library’s works, it’s available for the public to read, and even touch, with their bare hands. Its pages, which total about 800, are made of rag, more durable than modern paper made from wood pulp.

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Canadian high schools getting creative in push to raise graduation rates

Posted on 15 September 2016 by admin

Three retired guidance counsellors from an Ontario school board will be reaching out to hundreds of wayward high-school students this month, making phone calls as part of an inventive strategy to persuade dropouts to return to class.

Strengthening graduation rates is a priority across the country, and, as Canadian students head back to school this fall, educators are also focused on the thousands who have turned their backs on the classroom.

They may drop out because of personal issues or missed assignments. But the evidence is clear: More education helps students lead healthier and more productive lives. One study, by a former federally funded non-profit organization, estimated that high-school dropouts cost Canada’s social and criminal justice systems $1.3-billion each year.

“There is a real moral imperative here,” said Nick D’Avella, superintendent of education – student success, at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. “Kids need to have their high-school diploma in order to get into a whole variety of postsecondary programs.”

His school board’s approach to getting students to complete their high-school diploma involves a team of three retired guidance counsellors who provide a personal touch. They each receive a list of students who did not register for school but are close to meeting their graduation requirements. The counsellors are determined to bring these students back to school – they call in the morning and later in the evening, refusing to settle for voice-mail.

Zavina Kheir, one of the three retired guidance counsellors who will be setting aside time each day to go through their lists, has been frustrated at times in the past, especially when phone numbers and addresses have changed.

But when she does reach a student, Ms. Kheir gives them options to return, which could involve a night-school class or a co-op program.

“It’s a challenge, but when you get them to do something you want them to do, the reward is unbelievable,” she said. “I feel good saving students.”

Since the initiative began at the school board six years ago, the counsellors have been able to bring 1,178, of the roughly 1,700 students contacted, back to school. Half of those students received their high-school diplomas.

Graduation rates across the country have generally been climbing. In Ontario, 85 per cent of students graduate within five years, in part because of specific grants from the province such as the one that paid for the Toronto Catholic board’s initiative.

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Education system helping create skills mismatch

Posted on 15 June 2016 by admin

Economist Craig Alexander thinks high school guidance programs are ill-prepared to help students make informed career decisions.

“God, there’s a lot.”

That’s economist Craig Alexander exhaling deeply in an interview about the labour market. It’s not an expression of exasperation about the latest labour force survey from Statistics Canada, in which we see a relatively flat job market and the ongoing structural adjustment to lower energy prices. But the substantive issues that lie behind the changing profile of the labour market and our readiness for the future demands of work.

Education, by example.

“The global labour market is evolving quicker than our institutions seem to be able to change,” Alexander says. “So as the labour market changes and skills demand change, the education system doesn’t actually change the way it’s delivering that education, or the outcomes our kids are experiencing. As a consequence you fall behind and you fall behind and you fall behind until there’s a feeling that there’s a crisis that needs to be dealt with and you get some policy action.”

Alexander is vice-president of economic analysis at the C. D. Howe Institute and ex of the TD Bank, so he’s lived the life of monitoring financial market responses to statistical data. But today he’s wondering about high school guidance programs that appear ill-prepared to help students make informed decisions as to what programs to take in university. Parents about to send their daughters and sons off to their first-ever university experience this fall can no doubt relate.

“I think most kids take programs based on what they’re interested in, not on what employment opportunities are going to look like on the other side of the degree. That contributes to the skills mismatch,” he says.

Alexander has worked up a chart, as you might expect. He charted graduate rates by discipline — “How many students are going through the university system and graduating with a general arts degree and what percentage are coming out with degrees in engineering, math, sciences. If you compare the graph of what kids are studying in university with a graph that shows employment rates by graduation, they’re inverted.”

Those who have followed labour force mismatches have known this for some time.

“I think [the education system] has fallen very far behind where we need it to be for the labour force in the 21st century,” Alexander continues. “Their structures and their programs are often delivering the experience that students needed in, for example, the Nineties, not what they need today.”

We could talk about financial literacy for days. More than four years ago Ontario’s Ministry of Education adopted a strategy of weaving financial literacy into the curricula for students in Grades 4 to 12. Entrepreneurism — a vital focus, in Alexander’s view — is knitted into the introduction to business courses in high school, electives in Grades 9 and 10, and standalone courses in Grades 11 and 12.

“We need to encourage more entrepreneurism among our young people,” Alexander says. And offer expanded apprenticeships and co-op programs. And place an enhanced focus on literacy. “If you don’t have strong literacy and numeracy skills going in to university, you often won’t have them when you come out of university. I think employers have been very clear about the fact that they want work ready employees.”

“There are a lot of things we should be doing to improve the education system to help our students be better prepared before they even go into the post-secondary system,” he says. “And once they get into the post-secondary system we need that system to start delivering a better outcome in terms of delivering young people to the labour market who are going to have good outcomes.”

Alexander is conscious of the fact that he has gone quite negative on the education system throughout the interview. “Education in Canada compared to other countries is quite good, it’s just that we could be doing more. We have a skilled work force. But we have the possibility to make it even more skilled and more productive.”

The nature of the economy is changing. The changes are structural and long term. “The world is moving very rapidly,” Alexander says. “Unless we change the way we do things we are going to end up with the same outcome.”


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There’s just one problem with French immersion … well, several, actually

Posted on 09 June 2016 by admin


Nothing is cuter than tiny tots speaking French. Their accents are impeccable. Their vocabulary is much larger than mine. I took French for years, and I can barely order lunch. These children are formidable! No wonder Canadian parents have gone crazy for French immersion. Who wouldn’t want to raise a bilingual kid? Across the country, demand is soaring through the roof. Schools are scrambling to cope. In some districts, 25 per cent of the primary-school kids are in French immersion. School officials say there would be far more if they could only find more teachers.

Just one problem. Well, several, actually. For many parents, French immersion is a way to game the system. It filters out the kids with behavioural problems and special needs, along with the low achievers. In short, it’s a form of streaming. Most French-immersion students are from affluent, high-achieving families that work hard to give their children an edge. And who can blame them? It sure beats forking over $27,220 a year for the Toronto French School (and that’s for kindergarten).

Unfortunately, this selfish but entirely natural parental tendency is at total odds with the gospel of the Canadian school system, which strives to be equal and inclusive above all else. For schools, “streaming” is a dirty word. We are constantly assured that high-performing kids actually do better in classrooms that include all those other kids. And vice versa.

This tension between the school boards and the parents has created an impossible dilemma. Some schools’ English-language programs are being hollowed out. In dual-track schools, they now have a much bigger ratio of disadvantaged, behavioural, etc. kids than the French programs do. The schools are being accused of entrenching inequality. As one immersion advocate told Maclean’s, “If we’re going to offer this program, how can we justify it if we don’t give kids – from whatever background – the tools they need to succeed?”

What to do? Some school boards (Ottawa-Carleton, for example) havedecided that the answer is to give everybody a little bit of French immersion in kindergarten, to see if they like it. The students will be only semi-immersed. But at least everyone will be equal.

French immersion was born during the age of Trudeau the First. The vision was of a bilingual nation, where citizens would be fluent in a second language. It was both inspiring and patriotic – part of a nation-building effort that would bind us together and broaden our horizons. Most Europeans manage to speak at least two languages, so why can’t we? On top of that, research seemed to show that speaking a second language has significant cognitive benefits. Bilingualism makes you smarter! Today, the idea of French immersion as a magic smart pill is virtually unquestioned.

Sadly, there’s not the slightest shred of evidence that French immersion has accomplished any of its lofty goals. After 40 years of ever-expanding immersion programs, the percentage of Canadians who can speak both official languages has dropped. At two of the Greater Toronto Area’s largest school boards, half of French-immersion students bail out by Grade 8. By the time they graduate high school, only 10 per cent achieve proficiency in French (which is not the same as fluency).

The reasons for this miserable success rate are no mystery. Their entire world outside the classroom immerses kids in English. They play in English. They live in English. Everybody they know speaks English. If you want them to be bilingual, you’d better take them to live in France or Quebec – or at least make sure you’re married to a French speaker.

The downsides to French immersion, though seldom mentioned, are also real. Kids who struggle with English will also struggle with French – and who needs that? Dual-track schools create separation, not cohesion – immigrant kids (who normally do not enroll) against Canadian-born ones, girls against boys (many of whom drop out). For an unvarnished account from a parent, read what Emma Waverman (who also writes a cooking column for The Globe) had to say in Today’s Parent. Among her discoveries: The programs aren’t very good. In the early years, they focus on rote memorization of vocabulary lists. Brighter kids are likely to get bored. Not all the teachers are terrific either.

Yet the dream lives on. As enrolment shrinks, school boards are desperate to keep parents happy so that they don’t defect from the public system. Like all-day kindergarten – which was also supposed to make kids smarter – French immersion turns out to be too good to be true. But too many people have too much invested in it to say so.

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Sorry, no sex-ed, please — we’re Canadians: Cohn

Posted on 18 May 2016 by admin

Straddling the divide between public policy and private parts, a Toronto school has found the middle way.

We take you now to Thorncliffe Park School — Ground Zero for the parental protests that erupted last year over modernization of a curriculum two decades out of date. Keen to ward off yet more class boycotts, the school’s principal has come up with a classic Canadian compromise: Sanitized sex education that covers up the explicit bits.

The school opted to excise any reference to penis and vagina for Grade 1 students whose parents couldn’t countenance such words.

Is this yet another example of “reasonable accommodation” gone awry, further evidence ofculture wars erupting around us? Or did an elementary school do the right thing for wrongheaded parents?

Let’s consider the first rule of sex education: Slow down, because in a world of relentless sexting and texting, we need more contexting.

All the evidence from other jurisdictions shows this curriculum was carefully thought through, not least the discussion of body parts for first graders. Teaching students anatomically correct terms — enabling them to accurately describe any inappropriate touching or sexual abuse by adults — benefits police and other investigating authorities trying to combat the scourge of child abuse.

Explicit references to body parts help students protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted illnesses. It’s important to explain human rights and homosexuality at the appropriate age, and for teachers to have answers when students ask about touchy matters like masturbation.

Persuading some parents of these facts is easier said than done. But even if you can’t win them over, finding a way to reach — and teach — students is the ultimate goal.

The most maddening and exasperating aspect of last year’s protests was the attempt by a minority of people — motivated by religion, culture or ideology — to impose their views on the vast majority of parents who support modern sex education for their children. The protesters argued, absurdly and selfishly, that if they disliked the sex-ed curriculum, everyone else’s children should also be deprived of that education.

It was an utterly anti-democratic example of the intolerance (and tyranny) of the minority imposing its unsupported views on everyone else — aided by some opposition Progressive Conservative MPPs and abetted by their current leader, Patrick Brown. What made their anti-sex-ed campaign even more objectionable was that their protests were so pointless — for the simple reason that anyone with a religious objection could easily opt out, taking their child out of class.

Don’t like it, don’t take it. But don’t take away my child’s right to a modern education.

Despite that opt-out option, hundreds of parents escalated their protests by withdrawing their children from all classes last spring (not just sex-ed instruction). Many of them also delayed enrolment in the public school system last September to ratchet up the pressure.

Against that backdrop of disruptive protests, Thorncliffe Park principal Jeff Crane undertook extensive consultations. He proposed an alternative class for those first graders whose parents refused to let them see or hear any explicit references to their anatomy — exposing them, at least, to the rest of the health and physical education curriculum.

Did he go too far in acquiescing to unreasonable demands?

In sex-ed, as in sex itself, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Compromise can be a good thing if it minimizes the harm that might come from depriving first graders of any sex-ed at all should their parents persist with boycotts.

The religious objectors had the right, under our existing system, to deprive their children of essential learning. Now, these students will at least benefit from the rest of the curriculum, notwithstanding their parents’ obstinacy.

That’s better than the alternative of an outright boycott. The key point is that all other students, in this school and across the province, will still get unexpurgated sex-ed classes that don’t dilute the overall curriculum.

A child’s interests should always come first. In this case, a principled principal at Thorncliffe Park has shown us that “reasonable accommodation” with unreasonable parents can produce a rational compromise that serves society.

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Young grads need to brush up on 3 R’s, employers say

Posted on 25 February 2016 by admin

Executives in surveys said they want to hire people with “essential skills” — communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork — yet this is where they see students being deficient.

It’s a familiar corporate rant: Young grads today can’t write worth beans, are weak in math and lack the analytical chops to work their way through the problems we’ll need them to solve.

Executives in 20 recent employer surveys said they look to hire people with so-called “soft” or “essential skills” — communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork — “yet this is where they see students being deficient,” said Harvey Weingarten, president of Ontario’s higher education think-tank.

If these skills are so important, it’s time to actually test students for them when they enter university or college, and again when they leave, said Weingarten, whose Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) advises Queen’s Park on higher learning.

In a groundbreaking pilot project this fall — the first of its kind in Canada — HEQCO is looking for several colleges and universities to submit their incoming students to a 90-minute online test of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills, and give the same test to the graduating class as they leave.

It won’t be required to get in or to graduate, but results of the globally recognized Education and Skills Online assessment from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development “will show quite simply whether students have these skills or not,” said Weingarten.

If the tool proves useful enough for Queen’s Park to want to have all institutions use it in future, Ontario would become the first jurisdiction in North America to give entrance and exit exams in the 3 R’s to all post-secondary students.

“We don’t want to test because we’re interested in ranking institutions. But students spend time and money on post-secondary education, and the public invests in it, so we need to know if students are acquiring the skills that are going to serve them well,” said Weingarten, former president of the University of Calgary. “If we’re not doing as well as we’d like, then we need to do a better job.”

It’s not clear who’s to blame for the shortfall in these basics. Some accuse schools of dropping their standards. Others point to a distracted screen-crazed culture. Still others suggest helicopter parents kept a generation from learning how to solve problems themselves.

Whatever the cause, the complaints are common.

“A significant minority of students are graduating from post-secondary education with a shortfall of the skills they need — in core literacy and numeracy and problem-solving,” said Michael Bloom, the Conference Board of Canada’s vice-president of industry and strategy. “And if they have trouble using language and numbers, they’ll have trouble operating in real time at the level they should.”

Still, many universities and colleges think things are fine.

A landmark 2015 study called Youth In Transition: Bridging Canada’s Path from Education to Employment, showed a staggering 83 per cent of educational institutions believe their grads are equipped for the workforce, whereas a mere 34 per cent of employers agreed, and just 44 per cent of students themselves.

“You won’t find a college or university administrator who doesn’t claim ‘We enhance these (soft) skills’ but the story gets kind of lame if you don’t have any evidence,” said Greg Moran, HEQCO’s director of special projects and former provost at Western University. “You can wave your hands and cite anecdotes (about how great your students are) but if these are the skills universities are looking for, people are going to want us to be able to demonstrate it.”

The conference Board’s Michael Bloom said the idea of entrance and exit tests of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving has value.

“Sampling students at the front end would be useful to give us an idea of the state of people coming in, and offer immediate, focused help to get the student up to standard,” said Bloom. “It also would give professors a greater consciousness about the importance of these transferable skills, and students could use it at the end of their degree to show employers the skills they have.”

David Lindsay, president of the Council of Ontario Universities, said assessing soft skills could be useful but warns against using one test as a be-all and end-all.

“You have to be clear about what you mean by being ‘prepared for the workplace.’ A forestry graduate might not have learned about drone technology in school, but does that mean they’re not prepared for a job in the sector, which now uses drones to check forest fires and insects and floods? Or do you want a graduate with the cognitive skills to figure that out on the job?”

Community colleges don’t oppose the idea of testing for essential skills, said Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario, because “employers have had concerns about these skills for a long time, so if we have that data, there may be things we can do to improve.”

Even students welcome a yardstick that would show which universities do a good job of teasing out these skills, said Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance.

“Students say they don’t always see an emphasis on those skills of teamwork, communication, confidence, critical thinking, so if we can have something that communicates this to employers — that would help.”

Said Weingarten: “Universities and colleges boast that their grads are great thinkers, great researchers — but I know a lot of people who think that’s not true. And I know a lot of people who think it is true. I don’t actually know what’s true, but I do know how to find out, and that’s to measure.”

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Schools are not powerless to address racial disparities

Posted on 21 January 2016 by admin

By: Sachin Maharaj


When Donna Quan resigned as director of the Toronto District School Board to become an adjunct professor at York University’s faculty of education, many viewed the new position as nothing more than a sinecure provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Education in order to put an end to her tumultuous tenure as head of Canada’s largest school board. After all, she will continue to collect an annual salary of $272,000, which is substantially larger than any education professor could ever hope to make. However, the project that Quan is tasked with, assessing the feasibility of requiring all of Ontario’s school boards to collect detailed demographic data on its students, could signal a major shift in the way we approach education in this province.

Debates about whether we should collect information on the socioeconomic status and race of students have raged inside the Ministry of Education for years. Some argue that the government’s policies are good for all students, and amidst our high performance on international tests and ever increasing graduation rates, there isn’t really a pressing need for such information. Meanwhile others note that large disparities still exist between children from different racial backgrounds, and that family income continues to be the largest predictor of student achievement.

One thing we do know for sure is that students in our school systems are not all given the same opportunities. Data from the TDSB, one of the only boards to collect detailed demographic information, has shown that students from lower income neighbourhoods are much less likely to be identified as gifted, more likely to be identified as having a learning disability, and more than twice as likely to be placed in applied-level classes. Race also plays a major role in how schools treat children. That is why black students represent 13 per cent of the TDSB population, but only 3 per cent of its students identified as gifted. Meanwhile white students, who make up 32 per cent of the TDSB population, comprise more than half of its students identified as gifted.

While some have disputed the role that racism plays in such inequitable treatment, we have empirical evidence that should put such notions to rest. A 2015 study by researchers at Stanford University gave teachers copies of student records with names that had been changed to be either stereotypically black or white sounding. When teachers saw records with black sounding names, they were much more likely to recommend that those students be suspended from school than when they saw identical records with white sounding names.

Given this reality, having demographic information on our students at least gives us the opportunity to address these glaring inequities. But not everyone thinks this is even a real problem. A Toronto teacher who teaches in a low income neighbourhood once told me that the reason black students and those from low income households are disproportionately placed in lower academic streams is due to “the conditions of their upbringing.” It is this culture of resignation which can be the downside of school systems having an excessive focus on poverty and race.

We see this attitude in some parts of the United States, which has collected detailed race and income statistics for years. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and one of the most prominent voices in American education, demonstrated this when she told a 2011 rally of teachers in Washington, D.C. that “our problem is poverty, not schools.” It was no coincidence then that when Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley later interviewed D.C. teachers, many stressed all of the disadvantages that their students faced. One teacher relayed the common complaint to Ripley that “parents on this side don’t have the know-how to raise their children.” The result of this type of attitude was that at the end of the school year, students in this teacher’s class fell further behind grade level in reading than when they started, and performed significantly worse than other low-income students in D.C. who had started the year at the exact same reading level.

On balance, it is a good thing to have more detailed information on the students we serve. Burying our heads in the sand and pretending that problems don’t exist is clearly not the solution. But as we better understand the racial backgrounds of our students and the issues of poverty they face, we should be careful to not let that lead to a culture of fatalism and low expectations in our schools.

Sachin Maharaj is a PhD student in educational policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and is a teacher in the Toronto District School Board.


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Federal Government Considers Letting Students To Use Travel Points To Repay Loans

Posted on 04 November 2015 by admin

Graduates who owe the federal government money on their student loans could soon have the chance to use travel reward points to help pay their debts.

The previous Conservative government gave the political go-ahead in February for Employment and Social Development Canada to work out a deal with Higher Ed Points, a private company that lets registered students put reward points like those collected through Aeroplan towards tuition and loan payments.

The program is in place in two provinces — Alberta and Ontario — but a move to the federal level would reach the hundreds of thousands more students as the majority of student assistance flows through the Canada Student Loans program.

The company told federal officials that up to 820,000 student loan recipients who still owe the government money could end up paying off part of their debt with Aeroplan points. For instance, 35,000 Aeroplan points would repay $250 of unpaid debt.

Officials viewed the number with some skepticism, based on the briefing note, telling then-employment minister Pierre Poilievre “there is little data available about how students are using Higher Ed Points for student loan repayment.”

It seemed like a win-win for the federal government: the government could collect on outstanding debts and do so at no extra cost to taxpayers, officials told Poilievre.

“From a government perspective, this provides a no-cost method of repayment and another source of debt reduction to help students pay down their student loans more quickly,” reads the briefing note, a copy of which The Canadian Press obtained through the Access to Information Act.

Suzanne Tyson, founder of Higher Ed Points, said the only thing standing in the way of a federal deal was having the company translate their website so it could be offered in both official languages. She said the French website should be ready no later than the first quarter of 2016.

Once that happens, the two sides would have to negotiate an agreement because there is no official deal in place and it would be up to the incoming Liberal minister in charge, whomever that may be, to approve an official agreement.

Employment and Social Development Canada would only say that there is no deal in place and it was exploring options with Higher Ed Points. The department didn’t say why it couldn’t sign a deal with the company.

The amount of student debt owing to the federal government has topped $16 billion, according to government documents, with millions written off every year for a number of reasons: a debtor may file for bankruptcy, the debt itself passes a six-year legal limit on collection, or the debtor can’t be found.

Two years ago, the federal government wrote off more than $300 million.

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