Thanks to Richard Rolke for his thoughts regarding the state of public education in our province.
The editorial that appeared beside Richard’s column, however, showed extreme naivete. The writer seems to think that all that’s wrong with our education system is some “dog-eared textbooks, outdated computers, long bus rides and occasional gaps in supervision.” Everything will turn out OK, the editorial states. Kids are tough and they’ll accept school for what it is.
In the fairly recent past, students with various learning and behavioural issues were often in a separate setting, as were students with physical and mental disabilities.
There is much to be said for having them in regular classrooms. However, to put a large number of them into a class of 30 students, with little to no support, is ludicrous. We now have students with fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, dyslexia, blindness, deafness, severe behavioural problems, mental health issues and a host of other problems in our regular classrooms with no limit as to how many of these students are allowed in a single class.
Again, I must emphasize that there are many advantages to including all children in our classrooms. The problem is the numbers and the severely limited support. It used to be that there was a limit of three per class. Now there are classes in which there are anywhere from five to eight or nine students with these issues, and only one CEA (certified educational assistant). In the senior grades, there might not be any support at all.
On top of that, we seem to be funding our district through our international program, in which students from China, Korea, Japan, parts of Europe and elsewhere, come into our schools and pay enormous sums of money for the opportunity to learn English in Canada. Here’s the catch, though. Many of these students — in fact, the majority — do not have sufficient English skills to handle the regular classes, but are put into them anyway. Instead of our schools providing adequate ESL programs, these students are put into Grade 10 or 11 English classes to study fairly sophisticated novels, drama, non-fiction, and poetry, and to try to cope with the expected proficiency in writing skills that are well beyond their ability. Often they soon give up and just wait out the course to fail. A few years back, our senior-level English teachers were promised there would be only two or three international students per class, and that the overall numbers of Canadian students per class would be reduced. This failed to happen.
Teachers trying to cope with the large number of students with disabilities, along with the number of international students who can’t speak, read, or write English proficiently, simply do not have enough time to to give these students the attention they need.
Try teaching a class of 30 students when your class list consists of three severe behavioural problems, four learning disabled students, one student with mental health challenges, one autistic student, and five more teenagers who cannot speak, read, or write English beyond a very limited ability. Teachers are told any student who cannot do the regular work should be put on an individualized education plan, meaning different (easier) assignments, books with simpler vocabularies, and very basic composition requirements. If it were two or three students who needed this, it would be one thing, but when upwards of a third of the class needs it, something is very wrong with the system.
So what happens in the classrooms now? If the teacher actually expects that students passing English 11 have managed to demonstrate the skills necessary for that level, then either half the class will fail, or else the standards have to be lowered. I doubt that any teacher will tolerate seeing half the class fail, so inevitably the standards suffer, and students pass whose reading and writing skills are inadequate for that grade level. Also, when standards start to suffer, some of the other students see this as an opportunity to skip classes, ignore homework assignments, and hand in shoddy work–and still pass the course.
Students need only 50 per cent to pass a course officially, and often will pass with anywhere from only 47 to 49 per cent. Some students are motivated to do their very best, and teachers encourage all students to work hard and learn to the best of their ability, but there are those students who aren’t buying into it and are satisfied to scrape by, no matter how hard the teacher tries to challenge and engage them.
Teachers put up with dog-eared textbooks on a regular basis, and it’s no big deal, but trying to cope with a chronically underfunded school system for the last 12 years is discouraging and frustrating. Some school districts in our province have actually announced they will no longer hire librarians for their schools. With all of the emphasis on increasing the literacy rates in our province, this seems like cruel irony.
Just like the nurses, teachers do amazing work with few resources, but it’s at the expense of both the teachers’ and the students’ well-being. When teachers ask for modest wage hikes, this is only a very small part of the current job action. Many would be happy to stay at the same salary but instead have reasonably sized classes and a limited number of special needs students who have the support of enough learning assistance teachers and CEAs.
Unfortunately, though, teachers have many times settled for giving up wage increases in order to get proper class size and composition gains in their contract. These were hard fought battles, and then the government illegally ripped up the contract and took away all that teachers had bargained for in order to benefit their students.
When are things going to change? It’s been 12 years so far, with no end in sight.