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A Call to Action: Academic Skill Deficiencies in Four Ontario Universities

A Call to Action:  Academic Skill Deficiencies in Four Ontario Universities. April 2019 Contributors J. Paul Grayson (York University) James Cote (Western University) Liang Chen (University of Toronto) Robert Kennedy (York University) Sharon Roberts (University of Waterloo)

This study came to my attention as a result of an article appearing in the National Post discussing it and also providing a link to the original study.  It is well worth reading in full but I will provide here an overview of its findings and arguments.

The study arose out of concerns with respect to perceived weakness in undergraduate university students and graduates.  A prior study had already been conducted by Statistics Canada indicating an alarming number of university graduates with low levels of functioning literacy and numeracy skills and the study in question was intended to further explore these results.  Four universities in Ontario were represented which together comprised 41% of all Ontario undergraduate students.  As such, the questionaires and surveys conducted in 2017 and 2018 were based upon a compelling number of participants.

The questions asked in 2017 involved self-assessments focused around abilities in writing, taking tests, analysis, time and group management, giving presentations and elementary numeracy skills.  As a result of the testing 51% scored as “functional” 27% were classified as “at risk” and 22% were categorized as “dysfunctional”.  The same testing conducted at three other universities at the same time the following year yielded 44% as “functional” 41% “at risk” and 16% as “dysfunctional”.  Interestingly, this testing revealed no variation by year of study thereby indicating that students entered and left university without mastering very basic academic skills.

Important conclusions were drawn from this data:

“Although the provincial system has clearly articulated and laudable objectives, these desiderata are not being met to the extent that most people assume.  Our results suggest that large numbers of unprepared graduates of Ontario high schools enter the provinces’ universities.  Moreover, their deficiencies are often not remedied over the course of their studies. As a result it is likely that many employers end up with new employees who are unable to live up to expectations regarding their ability to process more abstract types of information.”

And again:

“What is to be done?  Most importantly, steps need to be taken to ensure that, consistent with provincial objectives, graduates of Ontario’s secondary schools possess the basic academic skills necessary for university success, future employment, and democratic citizenship.  Once these skills are established, they need to be further honed at the university level.”

It is also of interest to note the acknowledged issue of grade inflation which the study maintains is either widely ignored or denied by school administrators.  According to the study 45% or almost half of the students in the study who were designated as dysfunctional achieved an A average or higher in their final high school year.  The study concludes “…it was possible to be dysfunctional as defined here and still pass high school courses with flying colours.”  Of the dysfunctional group 45% had received an A average or above in high school but only 5% were able to achieve a A average at university. With regard to math and science students specifically, among the students that the study identified as functional, 82% received high school grades great than or equal to an A average.  However for the groups identified as at-risk 73% received these grades and  among the group identified as dysfunctional 77% received these grades.

The rest of the study proposes various solutions or partial solutions to address the issues.  These include a standardized entrance test to be conducted at the time of application to university, offering courses at university to teach the skill sets assumed to have been taught at the high school level and revising the current high school system to address the core skill sets required.

However, before addressing the possible solution sets available to address these issues, it is important to make a digression into the material circumstances and assumptions defining the context of that discussion.  For it is abundantly clear that there are perspectives from both sides of this fence involving very different views as to the roles and priorities of each.

Having taught at both the university and high school level, I am personally and acutely aware of the growing gap between a high school and a university education.  Being old enough to have experienced an Ontario 5 year high school programme, the Grade 12 four year diploma was identified as a graduation directed either towards the work force or community college.  The Grade 13 diploma, on the other hand was invariably identified as a year preparatory and preliminary to university. Grade 13 involved the writing of standardized provincial exams that were compiled by the government and marked independently.  This ensured a more or less even playing field in terms of basic levels of competency and knowledge to be factored into the university admission process.  As of 1970, provincial exams were eliminated in Ontario and therefore the retention of standards became primarily the responsibility of individual schools. With time, this philosophy spread to most of the other provinces with only a few retaining independent examinations.

When Grade 13 was eliminated in Ontario and replaced by the 30 credit single diploma fondly referred to by some as Grade 12 ½, the Grade 13 courses were replaced by OAC credits.  These courses incorporated suggestions and input from university professors with a view to transition to university first year courses.  However, by the year 2000 when the new grand strategy to improve education in the province was unveiled, no such pretense or intention was preserved and the concept of education as a hierarchical meritocracy was entirely dropped.  During a presentation given by the Ontario Ministry of Education to private school principals that I attended, a spokesperson defiantly announced that high schools were not “clearing houses for universities” and would never return to that role.  At this point, it would seem, the entire concept of ‘higher’ education was abandoned in terms of high school to university in favour of high school and ‘other’ education with there being nothing necessarily ‘higher’ about it.

Of course in the intervening decades that have since passed, public education has moved on and continues to be viewed internal to its own operation as a story of perpetual improvement.  As such, it is regarded by its own administrative stakeholders as better than anything that has existed before.   Curiously, however, there is no tangible or demonstrable proof of these claims other than in the rhetoric of the objectives that it claims to have achieved.

My point in saying all of this is to point out there is a rift greater than the Grand Canyon between the philosophy and governance of the public educational system and universities.  Apart from not seeing their job as preparing anyone for university, the skill sets assumed by universities as being an integral part of education such as fundamental numeracy and literacy are not valued in the same manner.  Indeed, at virtually every juncture, the substantive mastery of content is sacrificed in favour of the emphasis upon the student’s own perception of their own success and finding different methods of assessment to ensure as much as possible that success.  As such, public education has assumed other priorities central to which is a process of socialization in which ideas and values are stressed and promulgated as integral parts of the educational environment.  The other purpose is to keep children off the streets as a kind of holding tank until such time as they can be either introduced to the work force or passed on to college or universities.

It is also important to note that the traditional curriculum has given way to a vast array of various credit courses that depart from core subjects and core content within those courses. In stressing specific learning objectives as opposed to the development of the requisite skills required to reach independent decisions, the inherent assumption is that it is more important that students reach the right conclusions than it is that they posses the skills to reach those conclusions themselves.  The main point to be made here is that the student centered philosophy of education that came to characterize all levels of junior, intermediate and senior level schooling became increasingly entrenched to the point that mastery of content was of less importance than attempts to make content palatable.  Arguably, the student was not brought to knowledge but rather knowledge was brought to the student.  As university level instruction is subject centered and not student centered, it is clear that as the student centered orientation of education has increased over the years, the gap arising from that difference has broadened and hence the problems with adjustment and adaptation substantially exacerbated.

Even a very preliminary study of the history of education will suffice to prove that the traditionally inherent danger in all publically funded education has been that it has not only served to provide skills required by employers but also that one of its primary functions has been to serve the interests of political orthodoxy.  As such, there has always been a good deal of  stress upon what now could be referred to as political correctness or simply put opinions deemed to be unquestionable truths.  At one point this took the form of unquestioned loyalty to the monarchy and the moral supremacy of one’s own country coupled with a willingness or eagerness to attack and kill those identified as enemies.  However many other norms and attitudes were imbedded within the content and even manner of delivery of state run education.

Examples of these things are easy to identify in the past as a result of the distancing of ourselves in time and space from beliefs and attitudes that have become outmoded.  It is less easy to do this when in this time and space because the assumptions that are now identified as being clearly wrong have now become replaced by other unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions that form our current view of reality.

Universities however, outside of fundamental issues such as loyalty to the country traditionally embraced a substantially more liberal and critical approach to subject content especially beyond the undergraduate level largely based upon three assumptions: 

  1. That a critical approach to what was taught was necessary to academic progress both in the sciences and humanities.
  2. That university educated members of society would form part of the social elite and would require the ability to think outside of the box whereas their political orthodoxy would be largely retained due to self-interest and social status.
  3. That good and bad ideas placed into an intellectual free market context would sort themselves out through natural attrition.

In the 19th century champions of free speech such as John Stuart Mill would state that he could disagree entirely with what someone said but would still defend his right to say it.  Progress, it was maintained, had come about through the questioning and re-examining of beliefs and ideas and would continue to do so.

Political orthodoxy on both ends of the political spectrum has reached new heights in present society by now not only presenting views as unquestionable facts but also increasingly denying the right of individuals to question them to the point of providing sanctions legal and otherwise.   The view that people have a right to free speech is giving way increasingly to the pressure to allow free speech only if we agree with what they are saying.  Whereas there is increasing evidence of the effects of these growing tendencies in universities, the majority have so far resisted them based upon the perceived necessity of allowing for freedom of expression filtered if not culled by reason and evidence.  It is to be understood, however, that the characteristics of a good scholar may not be viewed as the desirable characteristics of a good member of the general public.  Universally and throughout time, governments have promoted uniformity, orthodoxy and obedience to authority. 

It is also important to note that historically all repressive regimes past and present have regarded universities and intellectuals as potential threats to the social order.  People capable of thinking for themselves and used to questioning authority do not sit well with totalitarian practices on either end of the political spectrum.  As such, universities and their professors and students have been the first targets of revolutionary left or right wing repressive political revolutions.  However, even liberal democracies have their limits and despite educational theorists and philosophers stressing the importance of the relation between the ability of citizens to make informed choices and the quality of a democracy, it could be maintained that little has been done in practice to pursue these ends beyond the level of rhetoric.   As such, we are left with democratic ‘forms’ of government in which popular consensus gives way to political expediency and a top down protection of vested interests. 

Education has always been a response to societal needs which determined who, what and what level individuals received.  Throughout European history churches provided much of it and this was done to promote the values and beliefs of the church but also as a means of exercising power, influence and authority over the general population.  To this end, Sunday school was sufficient.  Most education was delivered in terms of apprenticeship programmes for more complicated and demanding professions or simply learning by doing which, as childhood had not yet been discovered, started at a very early age.  As society became industrialized the demands of skills including literacy and numeracy increased requiring higher, longer and more pervasive approaches.  Countries such as England and Germany stressed mathematics and sciences as a preparation for entry into highly developed apprenticeship and trades programmes.  Universities continued to be largely reserved for the upper classes and to a significant extent as a kind of finishing school for gentlemen who would take on commanding roles in society.  Much of this stressed the classics and it was not until the third quarter of the 19th century that sciences gained significant traction and began to eclipse that emphasis through the efforts of reformers such as T.H. Huxley. 

It was in the national interest to make use of bright and creative minds and so scholarships were introduced to help those from modest backgrounds to access university education.  One such student was H.G. Wells whose mother was a domestic and whose father was an out of work cricket player.  Wells escaped his fate as a draper’s assistant and won a scholarship to the University of London where he completed his B.Sc. but who is now known primarily for his science fiction writing such as The Time Machine (1895) The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Words (1898).

Universities increased in size throughout the early 20th century and continued to increase in their emphasis upon science and technology.  However, the vast amount of educational delivery was accomplished through apprenticeship programs with varying degrees of qualification, difficulty and desirability.  Access to universities continued to be primarily a matter of financial means to do so with some allowance for competitive scholarships to provide access to the less privileged.  It is interesting to note that Banting, the inventor of Insulin, first attended the University of Toronto as a business student and upon failing out of the programme was accepted to their medical school.  At present this could obviously never happen.  The point here being that admission to universities and programmes was very much a matter of having the willingness to do so and the financial means to make that possible—a situation that persists in the third world and developing nations and is becoming increasingly true in the developed ones. 

It was after World War II and the resulting baby boom that saw an immense increase in the size and then later number of universities.  First as a result of GI programmes that enabled returning servicemen to access retraining and free or heavily assisted university education and then as a result of their burgeoning progeny who wanted the same access.  However, even at that point, it was not perceived that a university education was a requirement for employment. Elementary teachers, for example, could take a teacher’s certificate right after high school and enter the profession and high school teachers could do the same after attending one year of university.  It was not until the late 60’s to early 70’s that high school teachers were required to go back to school on a part time basis to complete a pass B.A. and this most did very reluctantly.  As such, when I was attending a summer course in Ancient History in 1970 who was in the class with me but my Grade 11 high school teacher who hade taught ancient history having never taken a course in it?

As apprenticeship programmes have increasingly become less prominent and were perceived in part as being replaced by Community Colleges, the expectation of attending university became more prominent.  This resulted in huge increases in university enrollment which has been now further fueled by thousands of international students and the deregulation of universities in and around setting fees and offering programmes for them.  This in turn has given rise increasingly to a ‘corporate’ model of university functioning tending more towards increased size, complexity and a focus on money.  Rather than sharing in this boom, university professors have found themselves with less job security, larger classes and increasingly more scrutinizing of their political and social views.

To return to the conclusions drawn by the study in question, it is important to view possible solutions not in terms of what is logically possible but more in terms of what is practically viable.  Attempts to rein in public secondary schools to ensure master of skill sets required for higher education is not an option without a complete readjustment of the philosophies and assumptions as to priorities that govern them.  This is improbable at best.  Standard entrance exams set by and marked by universities or third party organizations is an option that is useful in the interests of fairness to applicants as well as identifying areas of weakness prior to admission.  Courses offered at the university level to specifically address these skill sets are other practical alternatives.  These in fact have already been adopted by many universities to a lesser or greater extent.  It is perhaps therefore a matter of formalizing them. 

A standard entrance test would provide a comparison of home school results with a diagnostic reference.  The universities would therefore be presented with various options:

  1. To refuse to accept students whose performance on standardized testing indicated dysfunctional skill sets
  2. To accept students conditionally with testing deficiencies but with the insistence on taking additional courses to address these matters either over the summer or even into their first year of attendance.
  3. Maintain the status quo and continue to admit students and graduate them without having ever mastered the fundamental skill sets expected of university graduates.

It remains to be seen which of these alternatives if any will be adopted. 

It should be mentioned in closing that these concerns and problems are not new.  In 1980 I was doing postdoctoral work at university and assisting with the delivery of several courses.  I was used to students submitting essays with poor grammar and spelling, but on one occasion a second year essay was submitted where the student had no idea what a paragraph was, did not know to start a sentence with a capital nor that a sentence should have a subject and a predicate.  I was unsure how to mark the paper as there was a formula given to us in terms of the maximum amount of marks that could be deducted for these issues.  I went to the registrar’s office and was able to find out that the student had attended a public high school in the area and had received a final grade 12 English mark in the low 70’s.  I found it difficult to understand how this was possible and decided to see the department chairman to seek advice.  He knowingly suggested that I examine not only the question as to how this student had passed through to university but also how they had been able to pass through their first year university courses.  The implication of this line of thought was obvious and the essay was passed.