Archive for Sandy Farran
Students get credit for community work
From the 21st Maclean’s University Rankings—on sale now. Story by Sandy Farran.
Over the past decade, Canadian universities have made it a priority to provide as many students as possible with hands-on learning experience. Traditionally, students take part in programs with a co-operative education or internship component. But increasingly, schools are offering students more ambitious options, such as participating in an international field placement, a university-organized volunteer opportunity, or a course with a community service learning (CSL) component. CSL is a special form of experiential education that connects course material to real-life experience. During the course, students either work in small groups or individually with an organization—often a not-for-profit agency—toward a specific solution or a goal that is mutually beneficial. As part of their grade, students are required to reflect on how their community outreach experience is explicitly linked to what they’ve learned in the classroom. Ultimately, students present their findings to the organization, professor and class.
If you need better marks, some private schools are happy to oblige—for a fee
One afternoon in the spring of 2007, teacher Peter Hill was recording marks when he confided to a colleague that one of his Grade 12 English students was in danger of failing. In fact, Hill explained, he’d been concerned about the grades of several of his English 12 students at University Hill Secondary School in Vancouver, and he thought it strange that none of them had come to him for extra help.
“I was used to handing back essays to kids and if they weren’t doing well they’d come to me after school and they’d want to know how they could improve,” says Hill. “But in this case I handed back the essays and they’d just sort of grin at me, throw the essay away or whatever. And I was like, ‘God, that’s different.’ ” His colleague, a guidance counsellor, told Hill not to worry: the student would likely get a good mark anyway because she was taking the same course after-hours at a nearby independent school. Hill was stunned: “I just said, ‘Huh? What other school?’ ”
It turned out that five of Hill’s students had been taking Grade 12 English at Century High, an independent school that catered largely to international students hoping to attend a prestigious university in Canada or the United States. The students would regularly attend Hill’s class during the day, then take the same class at Century in the evening or on Saturday. “The weird thing is that kids were enrolled here [at University Hill] taking English with me and they were going to Century High, and if they decided they wanted the Century High mark, then it would go on their transcript and it would appear as if the mark came from this school,” says Hill. In British Columbia, that was made possible a few years ago when the province introduced a new policy allowing students to take courses from different institutions. The change was intended to provide choice for rural students, who could take online courses not offered in their home schools and then choose their “best mark” to appear on their transcript. But the policy has led to so-called credit shopping, too.
It bothered Hill considerably that a student could be taking the same class at two schools at the same time, then use the higher marks on her application to university—so much so that he decided to do a bit of sleuthing. He found a B.C. government website that lists class marks and provincial exam results for every school—private and public—in the province. And he found some disturbing information: for the year 2006-2007, 101 Century High students (60 per cent of the class) received a B grade or higher in Grade 12 English; just three failed. When he looked at how the same group of 138 students performed on standardized provincial exams, the results were just the opposite: 108 had failed the exam and only eight students got a B grade or higher. He found similar differences dating back to 2003-2004, when the online records begin. And Century wasn’t the only independent school showing a large difference between marks awarded by teachers and provincial exam results.
Hill decided to blow the whistle. He reported his findings to the local media, and a few days later then-minister of education Shirley Bond ordered an inspection of Century and any other school—public or private—that had big discrepancies between class marks and standardized exam results. In March 2007, the B.C. government issued warnings to ﬁve independent high schools in Vancouver — Century, Kingston, Royal Canadian College, Pattison and St. John’s International— insisting they move quickly to address concerns about large disparities between English 12 marks on provincial exams and the marks awarded students for class work.
International studies say Canada’s high-school students are tops—so why do so many struggle in university?
Are you smarter than a 10th grader? Try this math problem: Nick wants to pave the rectangular patio of his new house. The patio is 5.25 metres long and three metres wide. He needs 81 bricks per square metre. How many bricks does Nick need for the whole patio?
The preceding is a sample question from the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a two-hour test that measured the math, science and literacy levels of 15-year-olds. More than 400,000 students from 57 countries took part, and Canadian kids were once again among the best in the world, finishing third in science (behind Finland and Hong Kong), fourth in reading (behind Korea, Finland and Hong Kong), and seventh in mathematics.
Want to know how Canadian students measure up? Check out the charts in our 18th Annual Rankings issue, on newsstands now!
Canada’s impressive PISA results are not an aberration: when international studies of teenage and elementary student achievement are conducted, Canadian students and the Canadian education system shine. Over the past decade, Canadian elementary- and secondary-school students have repeatedly ranked among the world’s best in mathematics, science, reading and writing.
But while international tests say that our kids and our high schools are tops, there’s compelling evidence from universities and colleges that paints a very different picture. “[High-school] students have done math programs that are supposed to have prepared them for post-secondary,” says Memorial University mathematics and statistics professor Sherry Mantyka, “and they’re desperately not prepared.” Before students at Memorial can take a math credit course, they must take a math placement test; each year, 25 per cent to 50 per cent score at a Grade 6 level or lower. A study of more than 10,000 students who entered college in 2006 in the Toronto area showed that 35 per cent earned a D or an F in first-term college math.
And it’s not just math: at the University of Ottawa, to catch the large number of students falling behind and falling through the cracks, the administration in the last few years has felt it necessary to expand its student help centres and hire hundreds of student tutors. The University of Waterloo has first-year students write a five-paragraph essay, which is graded on grammar, punctuation and structure. Each year, roughly one-quarter fail. Waterloo is a university where admission is highly competitive, and generally awarded to only well-above-average high-school grads.
What’s going on? Are Canadian high-school students among the best prepared on earth—or are many shockingly unprepared for higher education? The answer is yes. And yes.
An ‘A’ from one high school isn’t the same as an ‘A’ from another. That’s why some admissions offices are ‘adjusting’ grades accordingly
It was a beautiful October day as a group of about 20 high-school students and their parents milled about outside the offices of the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo, waiting for the tour to start. Many had taken off their jackets as the afternoon temperature climbed into the mid-20s. Engineering students—most dressed in trademark jeans and T-shirts—dodged their way between the young visitors, greeting friends with high-fives and talk about Friday night plans. Attentions focused when tour coordinator Shirley Norris appeared. “Okay,” she announced, “we’re going to break everyone into smaller groups. Those interested in electrical or computer engineering can go with Jean-Michel and Mark.” She gestured toward the upper-year student guides, standing on the outer edge of the hall. Two high-schoolers stepped forward.
Adrian Falcomer, 16, and Jesse Haber-Kucharsky, 17, have come with their parents to take a look at one of the country’s most competitive engineering programs. The students had never met before but it turns out that, no surprise, they have a few things in common: both are from the Toronto area, both are in Grade 12, and both hope to one day become full-fledged, ring-bearing engineers. The tour gets off to a slow start as Falcomer and Haber-Kucharsky’s parents begin to ask questions. Lots of questions: starting with co-op placements, moving on to residence spaces, back to co-op placements, on to tutoring and special help services, back again to co-op placements. Then there’s a bit about the pub and the activities for underage students. And then the question everyone’s been waiting for: “What marks did you apply with to get in?” Haber-Kucharsky asks the student tour guides. High-schoolers and parents alike move in a little closer to hear what Jean-Michel and Mark have to say.
Haber-Kucharsky, who attends North Toronto Collegiate Institute in midtown Toronto, and Falcomer, who attends Maple High School in Maple, Ont., a bedroom community just north of Toronto, are both excellent students with marks in the 80s and 90s. But is an 85 per cent at North Toronto equal to an 85 per cent at Maple High School? Or does a university, considering for admission two students from two different high schools, have to adjust the grades, like converting kilometres to miles or metres to feet? The question is one many universities are uncomfortable answering. But some universities are willing to admit that not every 85 is an 85—and that they do, sometimes, adjust grades when weighing applications.
Waterloo is one of those universities.
Over the years, there has been significant grade inflation at the nation’s high schools—for example, the average grade of an Ontarian entering university rose from a 76 per cent in the mid 1980s to over 82 per cent in 2003. But that, in and of itself, is not necessarily a problem for university admissions officers: it doesn’t matter whether average is 76 or 176, so long as everyone is being graded on the same scale. But in some provinces, there is no common scale. Standards vary, because many provinces—Ontario being the prime example—do not have standardized provincial tests. Each school grades differently.
In the late 1990s, administrators at the University of Western Ontario did a study. The purpose: to find out whether some Ontario high schools were academically more challenging than others, and to determine whether high schools had different grading standards. Greg Moran, at the time Western’s provost and vice-president academic, headed up the project. “The only reason we were really interested in students’ grades is because in an institution of this size, grades are the best indicator we have to judge whether students are going to do well,” said Moran. “We don’t [want to] put students into a situation where they are not going to succeed. That’s a big part of the job.”
Moran’s researchers looked at the average grade that high-school students achieved in their first year at Western, and compared it to their entering average from high school over a five-year period in the late 1990s. The difference—referred to as the “grade drop”—showed a 14 per cent decline in the average student’s grade. But “it varied from school to school,” said Moran, “with some schools experiencing no average grade drop.” Students from other schools, on the other hand, saw average grade drops of “much more” than 14 per cent. Western had asked the question of whether an 85 at Apple High meant the same thing as an 85 from Orange Secondary, and had discovered that the answer was “No.”
Moran shared his findings with high schools, the provincial government, and other universities. In doing so, Moran hoped they could work together to create a province-wide initiative to collect the data, controlled for factors like second languages and socio-economic differences. The response was lukewarm. “It’s a shame,” says Moran. “We need informed decision-making.”
In the end, Western used the data in admissions, but only on a limited basis. “If we still had space remaining at the end of the day, rather than lowering the standards, we would look at students who were very close to the cut-off but came from some of the better schools,” says Moran. “We used it in a modest way.”
Many universities, however, say that they are opposed to tracking and ranking high schools. A spokesperson at the University of Toronto gave an unequivocal “no” when asked if that institution ranked high schools. Laurie Pushor, admissions director at the University of Saskatchewan, said the same: “Why? If there is a drop in marks, is it the students’ fault or is it us? We’ve set the criteria. Our job now is to help them be successful.”
Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., does not adjust high-school grades, but tries to somewhat downplay the role of marks by asking applicants to provide a “personal statement of experience.” According to university registrar Jo-Anne Brady, it is Queen’s policy that “no more than 20 per cent and not fewer than five per cent of the classes will be admitted on the basis of more than just marks.” That’s where the personal essays come in. For some highly competitive programs such as commerce, she says that admissions officers read almost all the statements because of the high number of students with averages above the “admissions selective range.”
At McGill University, where more than half of the undergrads come from overseas or another province, administrators have gathered information to try to compare high-school grades from different jurisdictions. But according to Morton Mendelson, deputy provost of student life and learning, after completing an “informal” study, the university was “satisfied” that kids from other provinces were doing as well as students from Quebec. “That’s partly because the students we get are in the top 10 per cent of high school,” says Mendelson. “We’re so far over the level of where students succeed. Even if a 90 per cent in Province A is only 85 per cent in Province B, 85 is still good. We get the best of the best.”
Yet there are other universities who say they find comparative high-school data quite useful. Sean Riley, president of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., says that the information from interviews with students, personal essays, portfolios, along with data ranking high schools, is helpful, particularly when deciding who is more deserving of a scholarship. Riley says St. FX evaluates each high school that has had at least 10 graduates at the university. “We do pay attention to certain schools,” says Riley. “We consciously look at students and we have a good idea year after year of the fall-off rate and where [the student] is coming from. It gives us an idea of the high-school differential.” Riley noted that St. FX often asks high schools to provide a ranking of where a prospective student stands in relation to his classmates.
The issue of ranking high schools is a land mine that many educators and politicians would rather not touch, because it inevitably leads to a debate about a third rail of the teaching establishment: standardized high-school tests. They exist in several provinces, such as Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, but have long been opposed by the educational establishment in Ontario. Which leaves a university like Waterloo looking for other means to accurately evaluate its applicants.
Grade 12 students Haber-Kucharsky and Falcomer are still waiting for the student tour guides to answer their question about grades. Everyone in the group knows that a student needs good marks to get into Waterloo. According to figures released by the university, the entering average for Ontario high-schoolers admitted to Waterloo’s engineering program last fall was 88.1 per cent. Fewer than three per cent of those admitted had an average below 80 per cent. And just shy of four out of 10 of those admitted to the program had an average of more than 90 per cent, with nearly a quarter of those over 95 per cent.
What neither the students nor their parents realize is that during the application process the admissions department for the faculty of engineering may very well be considering an internal ranking of Haber-Kucharsky and Falcomer’s high schools. For more than 25 years, according to Kim Boucher, associate director of undergraduate engineering admissions, Waterloo’s engineering program has collected and compared students’ high-school averages with their marks from first-year university. Based on this data, each high school has been assigned what is known as an adjustment factor, shown as a percentage. So if Apple High has an adjustment factor of minus-five per cent, then any student who applies may have that much deducted from their high-school average.
So what’s the adjustment factor, if any, for North Toronto or Maple High? It’s not something Waterloo is willing to talk about. According to Boucher, making those numbers public would be misleading to potential students. “It’s just one of many things we consider,” said Boucher. “It’s used very, very carefully. It’s a complex process so to just simply say two numbers is misleading.”
She describes grade adjustment as “just one small factor in the overall consideration,” and a factor whose weight has been reduced in recent years. “There is no mystery to the process,” she said. “I have students ask me what is the trick? And seriously, there is no trick.” But the adjustment factor at Waterloo engineering, as at other universities that use this approach, and the degree to which it weighs into the admission decision, is not made public.
So what high school marks did the student tour guides have in order to be accepted into engineering at Waterloo? Jean-Michel says he got a 94 per cent. Mark says he had an 86—plus “a lot of extracurricular.” Nobody asks about the ranking or adjustment factor for their high schools. Nobody knows to ask.
They’ve got Ph.D.s. They’re paid like fast-food workers. And they’re your teachers
Allison Dube is the kind of professor who greets students by name even though his classes often have more than 100 people. He regularly extends his office hours and provides his home number so students can reach him at any time, and he uses words like “magical,” “joy”, “adventure” and even “love” when describing the “amazing journey” he takes with each new class. By his own admission he “sounds like a Hallmark card.” It would be easy to dismiss it as rhetoric if it weren’t for the fact that his students express similar sentiments when describing Dube in course evaluations: “I would take a course from Dr. Dube even if I was assured a failing grade,” says one student. “My vocabulary does not contain adjectives positive enough to describe Dr. Dube’s teaching,” says another. The 55-year-old University of Calgary political science lecturer has won three student-nominated Excellence in Teaching Awards.
And yet Dube doesn’t have a full-time faculty position at Calgary, known as tenure or tenure-track status. He probably never will, although he would desperately love this appointment. He is a part-time instructor—also known as a sessional lecturer, contingent faculty or contract acadmic staff—who is paid on a per-course basis. His pay is low: $6,150 per three-credit or half course. Last year, he made just over $26,000, about a quarter of what a professor his age at Calgary makes. He also has no job security, no pension and few benefits. He is part of a large and growing group of academics who refer to themselves as “the invisible faculty.”
Over the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in the use of contract academic staff at Canadian universities. Critics argue that university administrators are doing it primarily for one reason: it’s cheap. “They don’t pay them equivalently, they often don’t get benefits, they don’t have the same access to offices and other kinds of things,” says Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers(CAUT). Turk calls it “a response in large part to inadequate funding from the federal and provincial governments.”
Anecdotal evidence from Canada’s campuses suggests that the percentage of classes taught by sessional faculty is high and growing. At the University of Saskatchewan, 320 sessionals teach roughly a third of the undergraduate classes, according to the union representing part-time workers at the university. At Carleton University, there are almost as many part-time sessional lecturers as full-time academic staff, according to the most recent figures available for the fall of 2005. In an interview with Maclean’s, the president of the University of Toronto, David Naylor, said about 22 per cent of his university’s courses in the humanities, social sciences and sciences are taught by sessionals.
National numbers don’t exist, because each university measures its sessionals in different ways. Some include graduate students and research assistants; some don’t report figures at all. The most recent StatsCan numbers available show that there were 28,200 part-time faculty hired by universities in 1997-1998, a growth of nearly 10 per cent since 1990. During the same period the number of full-time faculty hired by universities decreased about eight per cent. StatsCan stopped collecting this data years ago, because “part-time faculty” was defined differently by each university, making national numbers arguably meaningless. “It’s almost embarrassing when people ask, ‘What do you mean you don’t know how many faculty [you have]?’ ” says Bob Truman, director of institutional analysis and planning at the University of Waterloo.
For the bigger picture, experts look south of the border. According to the American Association of University Professors, since the 1970s, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty members at U.S. universities has dwindled from about 57 per cent to 35 per cent, while the proportion of those not on the tenure track has grown from 35 per cent to 65 per cent during the same period. In Canada, too, there appears to have been an increase in the use of sessionals.
For the past four years, George Williamson has been a part-time philosophy instructor at the University of Saskatchewan. The most he has earned in a year is about $15,000 teaching two three-credit courses in the fall and one course in the summer. To help pay the bills, some sessionals teach courses at more than one university. Williamson doesn’t have that option. Instead, he works part-time at a call centre in Saskatoon taking reservations for Marriott Hotels. “Ideally I’d like to settle at some university and get research done and teach at a reasonable level of pay,” says Williamson, 44, who did his first two degrees at Saskatchewan and a Ph.D. at the University of Warwick in England. Last week, members of CUPE 3287, the part-time union that Williamson belongs to, voted 78 per cent to go on strike if their employer does not table a better offer, particularly on wages. Saskatchewan sessionals earn between $8,616 and $9,276 for a six-credit or full-year course.
Sessional pay at all universities is considerably below the salaries of full-time faculty, ranging from $6,000 to over $13,000 for a full-year course, depending on the university. In addition to wages, part-timers have significantly different working conditions than regular faculty. Amenities such as office space, a telephone, mailbox, library privileges, photocopying and a computer are not necessarily available to contract academics.
Williamson chuckles when describing a construction trailer that for three years he used as an office, until the university finally upgraded him last fall. “Occasionally the heater broke down, and at the far end they had a hole in the roof that was fixed.” In an effort to help students find him during office hours, Williamson posted a map of the campus on the website with a big red arrow pointing to the trailer. He used a computer that a friend had lent him and he shared a phone. He now shares an office in a building.
This year, professor Brent Wood is teaching two full-year English courses, one at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and another at the University of Toronto at Mississauga(UTM). He is part of a large group of academics who jokingly refer to themselves as “road scholars” or “gypsy scholars.” Every Monday morn-ing Wood teaches a 9 a.m. class at Trent and then hits the road for a more than two-hour drive to UTM in the afternoon. He has a similar schedule on Tuesday. He’s taken on fewer courses this year because he’s doing research on his own time, in an attempt to produce published work that will get him off the sessional treadmill. When he’s at Trent, Wood generally holds office hours at the Seasoned Spoon Café, because the office he shares with several colleagues isn’t ideal for private discussions. “It’s really not so hot for creature comforts,” Wood says of his working conditions at Trent.
What bothers Wood more than office space or commuting is not knowing until the last minute if he has a course to teach. “If they get a last minute surge of people enrolling at the end of August then the call goes out,” says Wood. “You don’t want the students to know that you just hired a prof a week before the course started.”
Does any of this affect students? Most students might find it difficult to distinguish between part-time and tenured faculty. The difference in the classroom is not always apparent. But when asked, academics identify three broad areas where not only students but all faculty lose. Arguably the biggest issue is the hallmark of the university: academic freedom. “If you’re on a fixed term, limited-course contract and somebody powerful doesn’t like what you are doing, they don’t have to fire you, they don’t have to discipline you, they just don’t renew your contract,” says Turk. “Once you have a significant proportion on contract you change the whole character of the institution.” In the U.S., the shift toward non-tenured academics and its impact on academic freedom has been one of the most worried-over trends in higher education.
Another area of concern is the pay. Sessionals either have to find other jobs or teach more than a full-time load at more than one university in order to make a living that’s a fraction of what a regular faculty member makes. As a result, part-timers are often so harried that it is sometimes hard for them to prepare for class or meet with students.
Finally, part-timers aren’t given funding to keep on top of their field, publish and research. That may be bad for students; it’s certainly bad for sessionals. When a tenure-track job opens up, they can’t compete because they have no publications and no research, and faculty are hired overwhelmingly on research, and their potential to do more research. Once someone gets on the sessional treadmill, it’s hard to get off. Says Turk: “After four or five years you get locked into a job ghetto that you can’t get out of.”
Allison Dube at Calgary is a victim of the sessional trap. Last year he applied for a tenure-track position in political science and he was shocked to learn that he hadn’t even made the short list. “I put a lot of hope into getting that job,” says Dube, who admits that he has done little research since graduating from the London School of Economics in 1989. Given that Dube earned $26,652 last year, a higher salary would have made a big difference. A bigger disappointment was not getting an upper-year course he “literally begged” the department for that would have reunited many students—some who wrote letters asking for the course with Dube as the instructor—he taught in three previous courses.
It was especially grating when, at the Teaching Excellence Award ceremony where Dube was honoured, the vice-president academic talked about the university’s plan to inject millions into teaching. “If the kids are asking for the course, and they are really serious about lecturing, why not say, ‘give the poor sap $6,000 to teach the course,’ ” says Dube.
No one argues that per-course instructors have no place at the university, particularly in programs where a certain level of practical expertise is necessary, such as journalism or business. And there are many sessionals who are happy to remain teaching on a per-course basis. University of Toronto president David Naylor says that concerns about sessional lecturers are related mostly to undergraduate programs in the humanities, social sciences and sciences, where they tend to be most heavily employed. He would like to see a reduced reliance on sessionals, but believes they still have an important role to play. “Provided that there is careful mentorship to ensure that they are effective teachers, this is a win-win situation,” says Naylor. “It brings enthusiastic young instructors into the classroom, while letting universities be more responsive to students’ shifting interests.” That said, Naylor recognizes that some individuals return to sessional lectureships over and over again as they look for more permanent positons. To that end, the university has developed two categories identified as Sessional Lecturers 1 and Sessional Lecturers 2. Approximately 20 per cent of these teachers have been promoted to the second level based on classroom visits by the department chair as well as student feedback. As a result, Naylor predicts that the number of sessionals will likely fall as these people fill vacancies that come up in the tenure stream.
Despite low wages and poor working conditions, many part-timers are optimistic that things will improve. The reason: roughly 85 per cent of sessionals are now organized: “We are increasingly making these issues a priority,” says Turk. “I think we can arrest this devel-opment in the name of protecting the integrity of the university and our students.”