Monday, January 28, 2013

# 37 Cruel to be Kind

   I get my latest Provincial Property Assessment in the mail the other day and I almost feel like someone let the air out of the building. Horrified, I study the numbers several times and think, there must be something wrong, these numbers are inflated. So, I fill out the appeal form and mail it the next day. Confident that I have an argument to successfully present; I'm determined to complain about this failure on the part of the system!

   As a society we have learned to complain about anything and everything which we feel is bringing us, an injustice. Most people never do take their complaints beyond the grumbling stage, they just turn the other cheek. However, for a minority, failure is not an option. In a game of politics, they instinctively know that if they are aggressive enough, the probability is that public opinion can be altered. If they can motivate the politicians to step in to support their cause, then they might have some success with their complaint. Personally, I have learned from experience that if you contest unpopular decisions you will stand a better chance of success in the face of failure, if that makes any sense.

   Such is the case in the schools now. Failure has become dirty word. The implication is that teachers have not been doing their job, "the system has failed our children", but this logic is flawed. Can you imagine telling the doctor treating your child's flu that failure is not an option, and he had better cure her of the illness? There are so many variables involved in the learning process, it is simply unfair to place all of the blame on teachers.

   I have watched our premier (The Education Premier) sit in front of a media camera many times and boast about how his government has raised the graduation rates in the province. I tell ya, vomit almost rockets out of my ears when I listen to this political pandering. I know the numbers have increased, but the expectations of quality has also plummeted as a result.

   When I started my career almost thirty years ago, teachers were complaining about the "lowering of the bar", but now, I feel like the bar hasn't just been lowered, it's buried under the school parking lot. It is now possible for students to: miss 50 classes, arrive to class with no books, pens, sleep through lessons, not hand in assignments, and still be awarded a credit. Numerous times I have taught students in grade twelve who are reading and writing at a level which is far below their age group. These kids are the ones who have been pushed through the system to keep the graduations numbers moving upwards.

    So, you might think, well, if they can pull it off then maybe we don't need teachers and schools.  Yes, that is possible and maybe even desirable for a select few people, but most can't function very well when the initiative is left to them.  However, much of the system now caters to a minority and consequently, the whole group suffers as a result.

   For this minority, the schools have a group of fully paid teachers who do nothing but hunt down the delinquent students and beg for assignments from them. Many times, these kids will reject all offers and administration will still ask a teacher to push up the mark over fifty at the end of term.

   Teachers are told not to enter a mark between 45 and 50 on a report card, either make it 45 or 50. Now, I have just been told, if the mark is a boost to a pass, then make it 50, and if the student earned a 50, make it 51. So, the marks between 45 and 50 have become no mans land.  Apparently, they are marks which are just too politically damaging to be expressed publicly.

   Reader, this is how we have raised our graduation rates in the province, by inflating the success for political optics. Students who should fail, do not. Unfortunately, students who are willing and able to be challenged to attempt grasping beyond their reach, do not learn the benefits of working harder to achieve an academic goal. The crazy part is that no one seems to ask about the quality of student coming out of the system. They may point to the standardized tests, but I have read and done these tests - they are very, very simple.

   It appears that as an education system, we have gone from telling the public to send us your kids and we will educate them to telling them, send us your kids and we will pass them, guaranteed. I blame the acceptance of this philosophy squarely on the voters who do not ask the questions and demand answers from their politicians.

   The increasing pressure on teachers and schools to produce more graduates is creating an environment where teachers teach to tests so they don't look bad, and administrators tacitly threaten teachers who do not push students through. As a result, post secondary schools dumb down their admission standards to keep the customers knocking at their doors. It has become about dollars and political sense not intellectual development.

   The fact is, everyone can't be a winner, there must be losers. You can spin it anyway you like, but for the all the people who come in after first place, the fact is they failed. If they possess the fortitude to succeed, they will learn from the failure and strengthen for the next attempt.  When we lie to students and parents and tell them that the less than adequate performance is worthy of a spot in the winner circle, it damages the whole population. Sometimes we need to be cruel to be kind.

   I failed to win my appeal to have my property assessment overturned, but it was worth it to go through the process. I went in front of the board prepared with a weak argument based in emotion rather than reason. I should have prepared a position based on comparative facts and presented my case with more reason. However, I was notified later that, if I am unwilling to accept the decision of the assessment appeal board, I am still entitled to appeal that second decision. After some thinking, I chose to accept the ruling. I concluded, that I tried, I failed, and I will live with it. What I thought of as an unjust and cruel attack by an unjust body taught me about the system in which I live.  I will know better next time.