On February 19th, 2014 the EQAO (The Education Quality and Accountability Office) posted a news release – MOST ONTARIO STUDENTS CAN READ, WRITE AND DO MATH WELL BY THE TIME THEY ARE IN HIGH SCHOOL. MOST WHO CAN’T DO SO HAVE A TRAIT IN COMMON—THEY COULDN’T IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL EITHER. This release outlines statistics suggesting that students who failed the OSSLT were the same students who failed the EQAO testing in grade three. Anyone who has attended teachers college could have predicted these statistics because the most important lesson learned during your primary/elementary teacher training is that the skills taught between kindergarten and third grade will be the basic platform in which all learning after is based. Essentially, up until grade three students are learning to read and after that they are reading to learn. Simple.
During my primary training I had a fundamental problem with the process in which teachers in Ontario are allowed to approach literacy and numeracy – there is very little accountability. The EQAO tests were developed as a diagnostic approach to understanding literacy and numeracy gaps – great. We have been collecting data and making some positive changes to our education that has demonstrated some improvement. But why do we still have high school students who cannot read, write or do basic mathematics?
While working collaboratively to develop engaging lesson plans for our future primary aged students I struggled with the lack of accountability in terms of which specific skills needed to be mastered – particularly in regards to reading and writing. I do not believe in standardizing education by any means. I think we need to support the individuality of each of the students we are given in the moment but when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy there are very specific skills that must be mastered before students can feel confident and capable of learning independently through reading and expressing their learning through writing.
In case you are not an educator, please take a look at the curriculum documents that teachers are given to guide their lesson planning –
To me, this is not specific enough. When I was completing lesson-planning assignments, I wanted a list of specific skills that progressed from kindergarten to grade three that I could check off as students mastered each skill. Based on the research, my training and basic common sense we need a system that is going to ensure we are not just simply passing students through grades but is actually dedicated to ensuring all students are capable of applying these very important and basic literacy and numeracy skills that we already know will hold them back as they get older and older. As an alternative high school teacher I have seen what our system has done to students who were not successful in the primary grades. Most of my students will tell you that they have struggled through school since grade three and that now they are “bad” students who are too “stupid” to learn anything. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that we have young people who feel this way about themselves and it is unacceptable that we then dump them in alternative programs when they are too hard to deal with (that is another article all together).
There seem to be some very obvious answers to these problems; whether you agree or not these are my suggestions.
1) We need to address the issue of passing students onto higher grades before they have mastered needed skills. I have spoken to several parents in the past who have removed their child from our public schools because they did not feel their child had mastered the needed skills but the school refused to hold them back. I get it – there can be developmental differences and emotional issues involved in holding a student back. I can tell you from experience that those students who were passed on feel worse about themselves later in life when they are in grade ten and taking essential level classes because they are not “smart” enough to complete an applied level class. This student was not given a fair shot. When students do not have the skills to complete even an applied level course we are removing pathways for them (again, another article all together). We need to either adopt a preventative frame of mind and accept that students need to be held back in grades one to three if they don’t have the basic reading, writing and math skills needed to progress or we need a new system all together. I prefer the second option. We already know that teachers working collaboratively is effective and schools are beginning to experiment with team teaching and rotation teaching, but there needs to be a fundamental change in how much focus we put on age. A student’s birth date really does not tell us much about their abilities to learn. Even developmental theories don’t categorize development by specific year but rather larger developmental stages, so we should be more fluid with this idea when it comes to education as well. I imagine a system where play-based learning is the center of the day. The class is run by a team of teachers who can then divide the class into smaller groups based on varying levels of difficulty. When a student is ready to move on, they do. This kind of model would allow for teachers to focus on social-emotional learning in the bigger group, play-based settings while focusing on very specific skill based learning in smaller groups where those basic literacy skills can be practiced and mastered before moving up.
2) I think there should be very specific checklists of skills and assessments that teachers must use to ensure each student has mastered certain specific skills between grade one and grade three. If we know that students need certain specific skills before they are capable of learning through reading and demonstrating their learning through writing then we need to make sure they have those skills before we set new learning expectations for them.
3) We need more money invested in human resources. There needs to be a greater focus on team teaching. One teacher cannot possibly manage classroom behaviour, teach and assess student learning with the same effectiveness as several teachers and educational assistants working together. Every class is going to have children who need more social-emotional support. Students should not be removed because they are “too” difficult but they also shouldn’t disrupt and take away from time that the class could be learning. Having more educators and assistants who are properly trained to de-escalate and support a disruptive, disengaged and distracted student is vitally important. These are the students who need the most support to ensure they learning and mastering those specific literacy and numeracy skills. When there is only one teacher and (often times) no Educational Assistant, these students can interfere with learning for themselves and other students. If the goal is to make sure every child can read and write and understand basic math concepts by the end of grade three (and it should be the goal) then we need more people in the classroom to address behaviour and have the time to focus on tracking and assessing student learning.
4) Our Ministry of Education needs to stop putting money into hiring consultants and writing documents. They need to invest that money into grass root programs that allow teachers who have highly successful primary programs to meet with other teachers and to recreate the same success in other schools. Teachers in this province are doing great work and are successfully ensuring that their students are leaving grade three with the skills they need to be successful learners. Reading a long-winded document full of research findings is not nearly as helpful as observing a successful teacher, deconstructing their program and allowing teachers to collaborate with each other. Teachers need the time to do this work, so money should be invested into more professional development that is organized and planned by teachers for teachers. I am curious to know if the EQAO is able to track which teachers the most successful students had during kindergarten through grade three? If there are correlations between student success and specific teachers, then we should be learning from those teachers.