Archive for Peter Shawn Taylor
Textbooks remain costly in an increasingly electronic age
From the 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings
It’s a textbook case in how to annoy students. This year, OCAD University in Toronto required students in its first-year visual culture course to purchase a “custom reader,” comprised of parts from two American text- books plus additional material on Canadian and Aboriginal art. Separately the items retail for over $300. The custom text was priced at $180. But there was a problem—this art book didn’t include any actual art.
Due to unexpected expenses in obtaining copyright, the publisher simply left large white boxes where the pictures were meant to go; students were told they could look at the art online. They got outraged instead—a petition was organized, parents began blogging and local media soon picked up the cause of the artless art book.
Catch up on everything you wish you’d learned in school
You’ve grasped the intricacies of quantum mechanics, toured the great museums of Europe, understood the significance of the Peloponnesian War and come to terms with why evil exists. So what’s next? Perhaps wine appreciation, the mysteries of brain science or Hitler’s rise to power.
Welcome to The Great Courses, a company that’s been selling erudite audio and video lectures delivered by top-notch professors to well-heeled and inquisitive American customers for over 20 years. Now it’s planning a big Canadian presence too. Minds: prepared to be expanded.
The course selection at The Great Courses reads like an educational playground for the intellectually curious. It’s as broad and detailed as any university course calendar, although much more convenient. Courses typically consist of 12 to 36 half-hour lectures on CD, DVD or audio file. Packed with undergraduate-level information, each lecture is short enough to enjoy while commuting, after dinner, or while killing time during your kid’s dance lesson.
Book by Andrew Ferguson
If the purpose of art is to elicit an emotional response, then this is a book of intense artistry. The reaction from most Canadian parents who read it will be intense, hand-raising, thank-you-God relief they don’t have to participate in the madness that is the U.S. college application process.
Crazy U combines U.S. writer Andrew Ferguson’s first-person account of helping his son get into college with a behind-the-scenes investigation into the American university industry. It is a world of competition, conflict and confusions that can apparently only be solved by generous applications of cash.
Ferguson provides a brief history of the controversial SAT test, its opponents and the various prep courses that cling like remora to its underside. He visits with Kat Cohen, an independent college admission counsellor who charges $40,000 for her “platinum package” of advice on how to get into the school of your choice. As personal essays are now a major component of applications, and since these unfairly favour Type-A boasters, Ferguson finds a “model essay development service” that promises to turn every student into a mouthy extrovert. He spends $199 on an essay and finds “every sentence contained a little stink bomb of braggadocio.”
While fascinating in their own right, Ferguson’s experiences—thankfully—have limited applicability to Canada. Some Canadian schools do require personal essays. But aggressive competition for spots in top schools, driven by what Ferguson calls “that feral look of parental ambition,” is largely absent north of the border. For that we can thank the uniform quality of Canadian universities, a more civilized application process and our muted interest in the provenance of degrees.
Regardless of cross-border differences, however, Ferguson is a witty writer worth reading for his talent alone. Describing the university brochures sent to his son, he says they “were printed on paper so thick and voluptuous they might have been mistaken for the leaves of a rubber plant—you didn’t know whether to read them or slurp them like a giraffe.” There’s plenty to slurp here.
Could California be a model for Canadian research policy?
For all the erudition and scholarship that goes on at Canadian campuses, ambition is what really drives most colleges and universities. Colleges want to be small universities. Small universities want to be big universities. And big universities want to be Harvard.
Evidence of this aspiration is everywhere. In Alberta, a pair of community colleges just became universities. The same thing happened last year in British Columbia. In Ontario, Brock University in St. Catharines has embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign to rebrand itself from small regional university to higher-status research centre. And then there’s the recent furor created by the aspirations of five of Canada’s biggest universities.
In an exclusive interview with Maclean’s in August, the presidents of the University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, McGill University and Université de Montréal outlined a controversial proposal to realign national post-secondary funding. Under the Big Five plan, a few schools would emphasize high-level research while the remaining schools would focus primarily on undergraduate education. That would allow a more efficient distribution of scarce research funding, vault the Big Five closer to their international peers, and tackle the issue of Canada’s underperformance in producing world-class university research.
It’s clearly an ambitious plan, as far as the Big Five are concerned. But is limiting the ambition of every other college and university the best plan for Canada? And what would such a plan look like?
You have to look elsewhere for an example. In the U.S., many states set out explicit expectations for all public post-secondary institutions, and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, created in 1960, is one of the best known.
At the top of the state hierarchy is the University of California, which boasts many of the world’s most famous campuses, including Berkeley and UCLA. Its nine institutions receive the bulk of research funding, focus heavily on graduate students, and are the only public universities in California allowed to grant Ph.D.s. UC accepts the top 12 per cent of all state high school graduates. Next come 23 California State campuses. Cal States are primarily undergraduate institutions. Professors teach twice as many classes as their peers at UC and do much less research. The top third of California high school graduates are guaranteed a place in the Cal State system. Finally, more than 100 state community colleges act as feeders for Cal State. They are required to offer a spot for every high school graduate in California. “The two key aspects of the master plan are a clear differentiation of which students go where, as well as which schools do what,” says Todd Greenspan, director of academic planning at the University of California office of the president. “Everyone knows their place.”
Principals are managers, says the OECD, so pay them more
A trip to the principal’s office may strike fear into students’ hearts. And parents often see principals as obstacles to be overcome. But according to a recent international report, school principals are an underappreciated — and under-paid — component of the education system. The first step to improving schools in Canada may be to pay them more.
Last month the OECD released a 500-page report called “Improving School Leadership,” which took a close look at what principals do. Around the world, schools are being pushed to boost educational performance and respond to local needs, which has increased the expectations of principals, the OECD observes. Managerial skills are now just as important as pedagogy in a principal’s office.
“It is a job that’s becoming more complex all the time,” agrees Terry Young, who does everything from answering the phone to dealing with substance abuse problems as the principal of Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Young, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Principals, is concerned that the expanding workload is making recruitment more difficult. “It is getting tougher to find qualified people,” he frets.
Among the OECD’s recommendations are that school boards consider credentials other than teaching certificates when hiring principals (possibly even considering non-teachers for the job), and that salaries be raised substantially. Canada appears to lag significantly in this regard.
International data shows principals in England are the best compensated — their maximum salaries are double that of teachers. Similar figures are not available for Canada, but we would likely rank near the bottom of the OECD’s list. In Ontario, for instance, elementary school principals typically earn around $100,000, while the average elementary teacher makes almost $80,000 in salary and benefits. “In some schools, the principals are making less than experienced teachers,” notes Young. “But, as principals, we’re always on call. And remember, we often have to work through our summer.”