On Private High-School “Credit Mills” in Ontario

I don’t know whether you’ve seen it, but the Toronto Star has spent the last couple of days unveiling the results of its investigation of private high schools in the GTA.  The investigation appears to have been undertaken jointly by Star reporters and Ryerson students; this post includes links to five separate articles that the Star has published online (some of which might not have made it into the print version) — I encourage you to read them all.

To begin with, The Star reports a fact that some of us likely already know, which is that certain private schools inflate grades considerably (to an estimated 20%-30%), often seemingly in direct proportion with their tuition fees.  And the Star‘s main article leads with the significant fact that such a system skews the university-application and scholarship-granting process in favour of students whose parents can afford to send them.   In particular, the article reports that:

Provincial inspection reports obtained through freedom of information requests and interviews with students, teachers and principals, reveal:

  • Grades at some private schools arbitrarily increased upon request
  • Credits granted with less than half of mandatory class hours completed
  • Outdated curriculums, no lesson plans, no course outlines and missing student assessments
  • Difficult questions removed from exams
  • Teachers without proper qualifications and those who “do not understand” evaluation and assessment
  • Students permitted to take courses without the mandatory prerequisites
  • Rewriting of tests for $100
  • Students left to write tests with little supervision and access to the Internet.

The fact that some of this information came from provincial inspection reports is significant, since it indicates that — while reduced funding for education may limit the government’s ability to inspect schools — even when that inspection reveals abuses, the Ministry of Education remains unwilling to punish schools for violating ministry standards.

As an example, another article reports that one school:

. . . was inspected at least four times between 2005 and 2009 and consistently failed to assess and evaluate students in accordance with provincial standards.  Nevertheless, the Scarborough school was allowed to continue operating and granting credits. Between 2005 and 2009, at least 651 students have obtained high school credits from [it].

In fact, as the first article points out, there are over 358 credit-granting private schools today, yet, Since 2006, the Ministry has revoked licenses only eight times.  And even if a school’s license is revoked, “school operators are often permitted to reopen under different names.”

These articles do strain to differentiate between some of the less-reputable schools and their more prestigious, “legitimate” counterparts (who occasionally happen to purchase advertising space in that paper) — often by emphasizing the strip-mall locales of the credit mills.  But quotes from three different University officials indicate that they can or do make no such distinctions.

“As long as the ministry’s approved them I take the grades as they are. That’s the ministry’s job to verify the schools,” says Janice O’Farrell, director of admissions at Carleton University.

Right.  The ministry’s job.  We’ll get back to that later.

Another article brings to light the frustration felt by the humble public-high-school guidance counsellor or principal, in the face of this widespread academic fraud that has been perpetuated with (and through) the provincial ministry’s benign neglect.  And, in fact, it seems that guidance counsellors have been the most pro-active in trying to rectify the abuse:

Since 2009, the ministry has received a total of 30 complaints about inflated marks from public school officials, according to records obtained through freedom of information legislation.

In most cases, the ministry’s response is listed in the records as “reported to regional office.” In only once case is an enforcement action indicated.

Evans says she’s phoned and written the ministry numerous times complaining about “overinflated” grades from private schools.

“I’ve never had a response from the ministry. It’s one-way communication. We’ve stopped because it falls on deaf ears.”

The two remaining articles offer first-person accounts of what goes on inside the classrooms at these schools.  In the first, a student seeking higher grades in a math class reported that he managed to achieve them, thanks to:

Lax attendance policies, “unqualified” teachers who would walk out of the classrooms for exams, leaving students to share answers or use the Wi-Fi connection to find answers on their phones. . . .

“I (would tell the teacher) ‘I can’t do this,’ and I asked her how would you do this question and she just said don’t worry about that question”. . . .

[He] walked out with a 95 per cent which was transferred to his high school transcript [and] entered Waterloo in September 2009 with an entrance scholarship based on an overall average in the 90s. . . .

The second article is written by Jennifer Yang, a Star reporter who went undercover to take a class at Toronto Collegiate Institute, for $550.  She offers a short illustration of how she managed to achieve a “mathematically impossible” final grade:

Going into my final exam, I had a middling 60 per cent average. I was told my final exam would be worth 30 per cent of my overall grade — that means the highest mark I could hope for was 72, but I would have to get a perfect score on my final exam.

I did not score perfect on my final exam. Yet, I wound up receiving a final chemistry mark of 72 per cent anyway — and then, the teacher arbitrarily boosted that by another 13 percentage points.

My final grade: 85 per cent.

Which brings us to the relevant issue for this forum: The question of teachers’ responsibility.

Firstly, a little context.  One of the schools discussed reports paying teachers $20 per hour (presumably per class hour).  The principal of another school tried to blame the teachers for the fact that “his school gave out credits to students who received as little as 50 hours of instruction, less than half of the 110 hours stipulated by province”, claiming that “they (teachers) were not meeting the required number of hours.”  Needless to say, no mention was given of the number of hours they were asked/paid to teach.

Half the teachers at yet another school lack certification from the Ontario College of Teachers, since, “unlike public schools, private schools are not required to hire teachers certified by the Ontario College of Teachers and no education or training is necessary to open a private school”.

In his defense, the principle of that school claims that “by far the worst teachers I’ve had have been accredited (by the Ontario College of Teachers) . . . . Not everybody is a good teacher just because they get through teachers’ college.”

And indeed, Jennifer Yang’s report on her chemistry class would appear to confirm this.  Her teacher (who is listed on the College of Teachers’ website as having recieved a B.Ed. and a Ph.D. from universities in India) is depicted as utterly deluded, if well-meaning.

But the techniques that this teacher employed to ensure high grades are somewhat significant: Grade curving, teaching to the test, review sessions that specifically tackle questions that will be featured on the exam, stressing certain points of instruction right before handing out the test, arbitrary grade curving.  These are classic strategies employed by teachers who have a vested interest — not in their students’ education — but in their students’ grades.

They are the strategies employed by teachers whose continued employment or whose school’s funding depends upon the students’ receiving high grades.  They are, in short, the strategies employed by teachers who are pressured to “perform”, and whose performance is measured exclusively in terms of student grades, (short-term) student satisfaction, and student retention.

And indeed, in the final article, reporter Jennifer Yang reports that her teacher admitted to “fixing marks”, following “a lengthy, closed-door meeting with [the] school director”.

Personally, I take two lessons from this series of articles: The first is that tenured employment (in whatever form) for teachers is the foremost precondition of academic integrity.  Yes, obviously, tenured teachers are capable of inflating grades, but they are also the most able to resist outside pressures (whether from managers or students) to do so.  Just as we cannot speak of academic freedom where job stability is absent, so too must we recognize the threat posed to academic integrity when teachers can lose their jobs at the whim of a manager, rather than for any demonstrated malfeasance or incompetence.

The second lesson that I draw from this is a prediction: The Ministry of Education obviously needs to do a better job of enforcing its own educational standards — the Star articles implicitly suggest that one first step would be to bar the managers of schools found to violate ministry standards from working in Ontario schools thereafter.  Regardless of how the ministry might choose to crack the whip, if it continues to fail to do so, then Ontario colleges and (especially) universities will ultimately require all applicants to write a standardized test (much like the SATs in the U.S.), since the grades that would appear on high school transcripts would increasingly bear no relation to academic performance.

And that outcome leads to its own implications: Kaplan test prep courses for those who can afford them, and the general diversion of high school resources to prepare their students for that test.  In short, it would result in virtually all high school teachers being held responsible for grades on standardized tests — with things like merit pay for those whose students have good test scores, and increased scrutiny and job instability for those who do not.

Of course, this model for may have been precisely what Mike Harris desired for public high schools when he relaxed the regulations surrounding Ontario private schools in 1995.

But ultimately it would cause all high school teachers to resort to the exact same sorts of measures that were taken by the teacher who was mentioned in the Star‘s article.

In short, if the province permits private schools to continue to undermine provincial educational standards (and the quality of our graduates), then postsecondary schools will lose the faith in grades as an indication of those standards.  The consequent need for standardized testing would ultimately pressure all Ontario high schools and high-school teachers to adopt the same priority as the schools targeted in these articles: An emphasis upon grades over education.

Too many of our own students may already share that priority, and no doubt there are any number of directions from which they have been taught to do so.  In turn, job security for competent teachers (i.e., employment that does not simply hinge on student grades or student satisfaction) is one of the foremost elements that can help to maintain academic integrity, by limiting teachers’ personal stake in their students’ grades, permitting the teachers instead to privilege their stake in the students’ education.

And that’s a lesson that bears great significance for Ontario’s colleges and universities, where an increasing number of faculty are not full-time, and an increasing number report feeling that their continued employment depends on keeping students satisfied (care to guess how?) and on avoiding grade appeals (care to guess how?)

The long-term interests of our students, their prospective employers, and the province of Ontario all depend upon a powerful assurance that grades provide an honest reflection of academic achievement.  The ever-growing reliance on contract faculty in Ontario’s colleges and universities threatens that assurance.

E-mail your own related insights and experiences anonymously to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com

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