Monday, April 29, 2013

Revisiting The Past

In this blog, I try as hard as possible not to repeat myself. True, that is often a difficult objective to achieve when, with the same fascination that train wrecks and natural disasters exert over some people, I have an ongoing obsession with the political outrages embodied in people like Stephen Harper and Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

But for this post, I have to revisit my teaching career, something I rarely do because it is part of the past, a completed chapter of my life. In today's Star, there is a story on a report from People for Education, a group that has been headed for many years by Annie Kidder that works toward monitoring and improving public education.

While the report admits that the roots and patterns of inequality are complex and interconnected, it makes the following observation:

... teens from low-income homes make up the bulk of those taking non-academic credits ... The numbers show the lower the average family income at a particular secondary school, the higher the percentage of students taking “applied” math.

In schools where families earn an average of $110,000 a year, fewer than 10 per cent of students take that course.

While I have no reason to question these statistics, they really do not tell the full story, rife as it is with the implication of some kind of class discrimination colouring the advice students receive from educators on their course selections:

Charles Ungerleider, an education professor at the University of British Columbia, said the government must pay attention to the findings. “Mathematical ability, like other abilities, is normally distributed across the population …. Why are youngsters being slotted into applied courses in disproportionate numbers?” said Ungerleider.

As my policy-analyst son has reminded me on more than one occasion, issues and problems are never simple, outward appearances notwithstanding. And it is this truth, I think, that needs to be applied to the above report.

A constellation of factors influence a student's academic performance: language skills (for example, whether or not the student is a newcomer to English), general intelligence, behaviour, attendance, home situation, and social-economic status are among them. In my own experience, although not invariably true, those whose parent are reasonably affluent can better advocate for their kids, but that doesn't mean that none of them are in the applied courses. Yet it seems to be true that those from homes of poverty or little affluence are over represented in applied programs, but one of the reasons for that is that they tend to be homes where parents, having less education, value education less themselves and transmit that attitude to their children, and often provide little oversight of their study habits, etc. Again, this is not intended as a gross over generalization, but merely an observation borne of my own teaching experience.

When a respect for the goals of education is weak, there are consequences that combine to detract from student achievement: lack of self-discipline, low completion rate on assignments, tardiness and absence, and disruptive classroom behaviour. Despite the public perception that teachers are trained and competent to deal with all of these variables and still deliver the desired educational outcomes is more myth than reality. Some teachers are better in such situations than others; in all frankness, I rarely felt that I did a particularly good job in the applied classes that I taught.

Hence, the problem itself becomes one of not only addressing the problem of growing poverty and income inequality in our society, but also of how to impart an appreciation of the importance of education to recalcitrant families and their children, and motivating them accordingly, no easy tasks, I can assure you.

Sadly, in my mind, there are no simple solutions to this problem, but I write this post only as an effort to balance what seems to me to be the temptation of People For Education to interpret the issue as a form of class warfare.

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