High school curriculum reforms raise questions

Ever since Education and Training minister Dave Johnson unveiled the new secondary school curriculum last Thursday, both teacher and student associations across the province have been voicing opinions over it.
“The main problem is simply time,” said Andrew Hallikas, president of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, adding his primary concern is the rate at which teachers will receive course profiles.
“We’re into March and the minister says we’ll see the first two units in May. The remaining three will be planned over the summer,” he noted. “When will the teachers get time to plan?”
Hallikas also said the streamed curriculums–academic and applied–also are not clearly defined. “We can’t get a clear answer from the minister as to what the difference is,” he stressed.
“And we have almost a 30 percent ratio of students who are ‘basic’ level. Where do these students fit in?” he wondered.
“[Thursday’s] announcement on secondary school reform makes much of giving our students choices in high school but it gives them no guidance on how to make choices,” noted Liz Barkley, president of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation.
“In fact, the documents released make the choices more difficult by contradicting earlier directions,” she charged.
Barkley noted people were advised back in December that as long as students successfully met the expectations in a grade nine applied or academic course, they could go on to take either type of course in grade 10.
But the Program and Diploma requirements section of the revised curriculum states, “When a student plans to switch from one course type in grade nine to the other in grade 10 in the same subject, the principals must inform the student and his or her parents that the student will be strongly encouraged to successfully complete additional course work of up to 30 hours in order to demonstrate achievement of the learning expectations that are included in the grade nine course but not the other.
“This additional course work can be taken in summer school, or in a program outside the regular school hours or during the school day,” it notes.
From the perspective of teachers preparing students for high school, Sharon Preston, president of the local Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said the rapid implementation of the curriculum, along with the altered elementary curriculum, would only cheat students.
“You can’t expect grade eight students to know everything. They’re going into a system based on what another system assumes they know,” she argued.
“Students just won’t have the background,” she warned.
“Our experience with the reform of the elementary system was that this government did not give teachers enough training or provide student learning materials in a timely and appropriate way,” echoed Marshall Jarvis, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.
He suggested the secondary reforms should be implemented curriculum-first and then, after time, implement aspects of the reforms peripheral to the curriculum, such as the teacher-advisor program, the annual education plan, and the 40-hour community involvement requirement.
Although students are optimistic about the curriculum, the Ontario Secondary School Students’ Association said the rate and manner in which it is being implemented is a pressing concern.
“The curriculum is good,” said Javeed Sukhera, student premier of Ontario. “However, a good curriculum will go nowhere without proper implementation.
“We urge the ministry to work with teachers’ unions to address their concerns before the curriculum is implemented,” Sukhera added.
Sukhera also agreed there were some concerns regarding the clarification between “academic” and “applied” courses, noting it was very important that students fully understand the difference between the two.
But on the other end of the spectrum, the Council of Ontario Universities reacted favorably to the reforms.
“The secondary school curriculum is very important to ensure that students are adequately prepared with a well-rounded academic background for post-secondary studies, vocational training- or the workplace,” said Dr. Robert Rosehart, president of Wilfrid Laurier University and a member of the advisory council to the minister on secondary school reform.
Besides allowing for wider choice for students with different academic aspirations, Dr. Rosehart claimed the “full disclosure” policy in the new program will “ensure for a level playing field for students competing for admission to university programs.”
By showing all grade 11 and 12 results on students’ transcripts, universities will be able to review all the course attempts a student has made–and not just the best mark received.
But Dr. Rosehart has no comment about the so-called double cohort phenomenon, where students graduating from the current five-year program will enter the post-secondary arena at the same time as the new four-year students do in 2003.
Extra student aid, funding, and placements are all problems that could await these graduates.