Getting first-year postsecondary students up to snuff

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      After 41 years of teaching math at UBC, professor George Bluman is a little apprehensive about what’s going to happen this September. The department has already had to introduce a course called Math 110. It’s the equivalent of Grade 12 math, taught at university for university credit, for students who show up with numeracy skills too weak for them to succeed in first-year calculus courses. The prerequisite: Grade 12 math.

      Looking ahead to the fall, the department is bracing for the first crop of students to enter without having taken a provincial Grade 12 math exam. To Bluman, the government policy switch spells even more trouble.

      “We expect the situation to become worse,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from the department. “Math is hierarchical. If students are not doing as well in their math fundamentals, it’s going to delay them. We require a final exam in all university courses. In high school, it’s optional. That’s a mismatch.”

      UBC isn’t the only postsecondary institution that’s introduced courses aimed at getting students entering from B.C. high schools up to snuff. But at UBC, which has some of the tightest admission requirements in the country, it’s striking that any student would arrive unable to do the work.

      If university students aren’t being adequately prepared to succeed by B.C. high schools, are the schools doing their job?

      Stephen Guy-Bray, associate head of UBC’s English department, has mixed feelings. On the one hand, plenty of students show up in first year and find it challenging to write a comprehensible essay or understand an academically written textbook. On the other, he said, they don’t tend to be English majors.

      But the second-year-and-up students Guy-Bray sees are sharp, enthusiastic writers and analyzers of literature—well prepared for success at university. His department, he explained, is “in flux”, moving away from being a first-year clearing-house for nearly all university students to learn to write. The Language Proficiency Index test does a good job of screening out students who have poor writing skills. Many students with English as a second language, Guy-Bray said, simply don’t get to UBC because of the LPI.

      But the reality, he noted, is that many non-English-major students still arrive without adequate literacy skills. The department has created a course—Writing 098—to accommodate them. Guy-Bray resents it.

      “The university has a lot of money invested in getting students to where they can do the first-year work,” he told the Straight. “I think it’s inappropriate. I don’t think it’s the function of a university, and I don’t know why students are not up to first-year work. Perhaps my view is extremely draconian.”

      At BCIT, the chief instructor in the electrical apprenticeship program said many of his students struggle with both numbers and communication. Ted Simmons, who has been teaching since 1989, said that overall, students are better prepared to succeed than they were 20 years ago. Yet the department has introduced a course called Math for Electricians that reviews the old high-school standards of algebra, ratios, factors, and even addition.

      “Students coming in who don’t think math is that important have changed their minds,” Simmons told the Straight, noting that Grade 11 math is required for entry into the program and Math 12 is recommended. “It’s absolutely critical. Without math, you wouldn’t even be able to understand what electricity is.”

      Math problems can be fixed with a course, Simmons said. English problems, however, can really hinder students—and apprentices—in the workplace. Not only must students wrap their heads around the Canadian Electrical Code, a technical document that’s hundreds of pages long, they need to be able to write reports and communicate orally with bosses and coworkers on a busy construction site.

      “It’s not just an ESL problem—I see it across the board,” Simmons said. “Students can be overwhelmed if they have any problems with English or grammar.”

      High-school trades programs, according to Simmons, have improved drastically over the years. In one program at Princess Margaret Secondary School in Surrey, he said, students can graduate with both their Dogwood diploma and their foundation certificate for electrician apprenticeship. Some students are even able to start apprenticeships in the summer between Grade 11 and Grade 12, he noted.

      But one education researcher thinks preparing students for postsecondary education is just a small part of what high schools should be doing.

      “A whole lot of kids graduate with a Dogwood with no interest in pursuing university,” Daniel Laitsch, an assistant professor of education at SFU, told the Straight in a phone interview from San Diego. “Now, a lot of postsecondary students are adult learners. I don’t think everyone is ready or mature enough to succeed right out of high school. So my question is, has the model for postsecondary begun to change, in terms of how inclusive it is and the times at which we take students?”

      Laitsch pointed out that the percentage of people enrolled in postsecondary education in B.C. has grown exponentially, especially recently. According to numbers he compiled, full-time university attendance grew by 31 percent between 2000 and 2006 alone. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada anticipates that by 2016, another nine to 18 percent more students will be enrolled in postsecondary programs than in 2006. It’s not that Canadians have all become super-academic achievers, he noted. It’s that a postsecondary education has become so much more desirable. And now institutions have to contend with a more diverse student body.

      That’s why UBC and BCIT, among other institutions, have introduced courses to keep students in school.

      And postsecondary institutions want to retain their students, no matter how hard that is. “Historically, if students dropped out of an institution, they [the school] wouldn’t be that concerned,” Laitsch said. “Now it’s a fiscal problem. So we see a lot of work on how do we retain students? How can we give students additional supports so they won’t leave?”

      Back in 2002, Laitsch explained, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation sponsored a series of provincewide consultations that resulted in the Charter for Public Education. The organization found broad-based support for high schools creating whole citizens—not just pumping information into young brains.

      The charter reads: “As a community we promise to prepare learners for a socially responsible life in a free and democratic society, to participate in a world which each generation will shape and build. We promise a public education system which provides learners with knowledge and wisdom, protects and nurtures their natural joy of learning, encourages them to become persons of character, strength and integrity, infuses them with hope and with spirit, and guides them to resolute and thoughtful action.”

      B.C. senior-high teachers aren’t required to have majored in the subject area they teach, Bluman said. He sees the evidence when students show up at UBC, having been taught Grade 12 math by a teacher without a depth of knowledge in the subject. He believes provincial exams teach invaluable study habits that pave the way for postsecondary success.

      According to Bluman, the answer to student success is academic, and in high schools.




      Apr 23, 2009 at 7:13pm

      The economic engine of the 21st century is knowledge.

      The public education system should provide young people with sufficient knowledge to ensure that they can participate equitably in a world increasingly dependent upon science and technology.

      Numeracy and literacy skills are essential to acquire knowledge and competency. Let us not deprive our young people the skills they need to shape the world of the future.


      May 21, 2009 at 9:35am

      As a high school teacher and a part-time college instructor, I can tell you that the world of education is in a real bind. On one hand, the government and administrators are demanding ever increasing graduation rates. On the other hand, they still want high standards. In my view, the former has won out over the latter. It's not even close.

      When the government made most Grade 12 exams voluntary, it was largely based on a desire to save money and to improve grad rates. Exams were seen as an impediment to success. In other words, standards hindered completion. Then the universities joined the rush and made these exams voluntary, too.

      This has truly killed the Grade 12 exams (aside from English). One of the great untold stories is that these exams are now almost non-existent, all in the space of 2 years. And the post-secondary administrators who agreed to this are as complicit in the downward rush as anyone in the high schools. I hope the post-secondary instructors and professors will realize this, and not put the blame solely on high school teachers.

      So, we now have large groups of high school students who graduate with high GPA's (and lots of self-esteem), but have a dogwood full of weightlifting, stagecraft, photography, family management, etc. English is the only academic course they take, and it's a wonder that they can function in college at all. It helps the grad rate, of course, but it doesn't help these students when reality hits.

      What many of us worry about is the reversal of the pendulum. If universities soon call for entrance exams to improve standards (as they've done in the past), will the provincial exams still be there? Or will we move to a user-pay, private exam model like the USA? Then the old provincial exams will look pretty good.