A personal view of educational reform in the last 36 years

When I started teaching in 1976, Ontario was in the grips of the Hall-Dennis report.  This report had recommended progressive, liberal changes to a rigid, rote-dominated system.  The changes were supposed to create child-centred classrooms, encourage creativity and learning and de-emphasize grading and marks.  Open-concept schools were built, discovery learning and learning centres were set up in elementary classrooms and traditional teaching of writing and grammar was replaced with the mantra that students should be taught writing without these inhibitions.  It wasn’t long before many of these ideas were discarded and walls went back up within schools.  In theory, some ideas were admirable but in practice, there was at times, a feeling of chaos.

In 1984, OSIS created guidelines for the secondary curriculum.  For an English teacher, this meant that there were 5 areas emphasized for evaluation purposes:  group work, writing, tests, an independent study and a final exam.  The most remarkable idea that came out of OSIS, was that of the writing process and a writing folder.  Although this is standard practice today, the whole writing process idea was new and made a great deal of sense.  English teachers were also encouraged to mark holistically because the content was not separate from the writing style.

In the mid-nineties, Ontario introduced Transitions in grades 7-9, one of the recommendations of the Radwanski report.  The theory was that students were streamed too early in high school and that all students should receive the same program in those 3 grades so that they could make better choices in grade 10 onward.  Transitions was accompanied by some vague educational ideas about how to make the learning more relevant and teachers attended various PD workshops given by presenters who had to face a very hostile secondary audience.  Transitions was a massive failure because again it was more useful in theory than in practice and because no one really knew how it was supposed to be implemented.

In 1999-2000, the Harris government overhauled the secondary curriculum ( along with a lot of other things in education) and brought in the largest changes that I have experienced in my career.  The most dramatic change for an English teacher has been in the area of what is now called Assessment and Evaluation.  Holistic marking is seen as a negative because it is not transparent enough for the student; hence the use of rubrics to explain what is being evaluated.  The new curriculum also introduced 4 categories for evaluation: Knowledge, Thinking, Communication and Application as well as 4 strands that must be covered within the curriculum: Reading, Writing, Oral Communication and Media Study.  Any one who teaches English knows that the 4 categories are not discrete when we evaluate most assignments but originally my school board, the OCDSB, decided that all secondary teachers should use these in determining  marks.  It was a period of adjustment for most teachers and a great deal of time was put into creating rubrics for this purpose.  However, 10 years later there has been an about-face and the categories are not considered useful any more.  Teachers are now being told to evaluate according to the expectations in the 4 strands.  As well, we are supposed to be using levels, something that was brought in 1999 but never completely implemented, and only provide a number grade on the report card.  This mark is arrived at by eye-balling the levels and deciding what the approximate average is.  Personally, I have no problem with levels but I do take issue with converting these to a number.  This is impractical and open to all kinds of criticism by both students and parents.  We don’t need 2 systems; if we are going to use levels, then put that on the report card.  The universities will cope with it somehow ( most of them use letter grades themselves) and parents will get used to it eventually.  And as my brief history has shown, ultimately things that work only in theory don’t last.  Into that category of the impractical, can be placed the misguided policy of not allowing late marks on assignments, not allowing zeroes for missed assignments and creating alternative assignments for certain students.  I know the explanation is that this is evaluating behaviour not product and that the punishment for not doing something should be that you have to do it.  The theorist behind this brilliant idea is either ignoring human behaviour or has a rose-coloured view of the teenage brain.  This theory and the present dual method of evaluation will both disappear like all the other ineffective practices of the last 40 years.

I am all in favour of teachers constantly learning and evaluating their own teaching but the reality is that since 1999, we have been hit with an explosion of theories and changes to our system.  Who can even remember what we were supposed to be embracing for the past 10-plus years ?  Was it multiple intelligences, balanced literacy,differentiated instruction, critical thinking, character education, multi-culturalism, assessment for learning, as learning or of learning ( note the change in the word assessment since 1999)and of course, all the various technology that is supposed to make learning so much easier.  How many marks programs have come and gone in that time?  Under the new system of levels, you won’t even need one. I can almost sympathize with those colleagues of mine who have paid lip service to the changes because they are right-most of the ideas have produced little change.  I may sound bitter but I am not.  I have enjoyed teaching in spite of all this. However, the powers that be have no idea what goes on in the average classroom and no idea how to implement successful reform.

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2 Responses to A personal view of educational reform in the last 36 years

  1. imanze says:

    This is a very accurate and refreshing synopsis. I, myself, am getting tired of jumping on the bandwagon every four years when it does not really lead us to where we should be in our classrooms.

  2. Anthea says:

    You could have swapped ‘England’ for Canada, and have reproduced the final paragraph to accurately sum up our situation here!

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