Monday, May 23, 2022

On Optional Grade 13 - aka Breaking the 34-Credit Threshold

When Conservatives Mike Harris and Ernie Eves decided to get rid of grade 13 and the OAC year - Ontario Academic Credit - in 2003, I was opposed to the move even though Ontario was last in Canada to offer it. At the time, everyone had to finish grade 12, but students who wanted to go to university also had to take six OAC credits. This year was typically made up the more academically rigorous courses in most disciplines. When they ditched this fifth year, they also added 10 days to the school year. Remember when exams started nearer the beginning of June and were only for students who got below a 60 in the term?? For many students, they'd end up with between 30 and 40 credits over the five years, with many taking 8/year for 4 years, then 6 in their final year. I remember the excitement of finally being allowed to take a spare, but my school was one of few, it seemed, that forced us to remain silently working in supervised conditions for that period. Going home early or arriving late wasn't an option, and I felt pretty ripped-off for that at the time! 

Then in September 2013, McGuinty's Liberals introduced the 34 credit threshold, which meant schools wouldn't get funding for students taking more than 34 credits as a cost-savings measure. Although there are some exceptions (e.g. kids with IEPs), kids have been typically strongly discouraged from taking more credits. 

Grade 13 or a Bonus Year

Now the Liberals are walking that back, but not in so many words. They won't say they're removing the threshold to allow students to take more courses; instead they're calling it "optional grade 13," which is very confusing. It could lead students to wonder if they'll need to do that extra year in order to be competitive for universities. I mean, grade 13 was always optional for people who didn't want to go to university, and this wording might make kids with no intention of going to uni more likely to ignore the option. I'm pretty sure Del Duca means it will be optional even for the university-bound, which means, again, it's not really grade 13 - it's an extra year to finish grade 12.

On the face of it, how is this change any different from being more accepting of victory laps by just removing any pressure to finish in four years and not providing that information to universities so they can't discriminated by the time it took someone to finish, except, you know, that it might seem to be admitting they made a mistake adding in that limit in the first place? Or is it a way of making it seem like it's bigger than just removing a cap?? Is it hubris that put this spin on it instead of just removing the cap they added in order to help at this difficult time. I don't think the spin was necessary. Kids love getting something for nothing, so maybe we'd be better off referring to it as a bonus year! 

Offering more courses, especially coupled with their 20-student cap in classes, will be very expensive, so I wonder how long it will last if it even begins. They need to increase taxes somewhere to pay for it, and they might have to reduce teacher's college to one year again to find instructors. BUT, I hope it does last even beyond Covid (if that time will ever exist). I definitely support encouraging kids to get more free education. It's good for the kids to be able to explore more thoroughly and for society in general to have a better educated populace. There was a significant difference in student capability over the years following the removal of OACs, and many teachers missed it. I also missed teaching a group of students just one year older. It makes a huge difference in their maturity level even pre-Covid, but now that we're anecdotally seeing some stunted social and emotional development in the kids, that might be remedied with just one more year of time in this setting.

I've always encouraged kids to take advantage of their last chance at free education, to take a lighter load starting in grade 11, instead of two years of 8 courses each, they'd take 3 years of 6 courses each, including the fun electives that could end up helping them find their passion. But that advice was largely discouraged by my school and board. And many students are in a rush to leave anyway. Did we used to want out so desperately? It took me six years to not finish, but I enjoyed my time regardless, focusing a little too much on the social aspects of school. I've heard arguments that kids need to get through school faster in order to get a job to pay bills and help support their families, but that just reveals a different problem in our system that could also be remedied with a larger tax base and Universal Basic Income. 

What Should It Look Like?

Del Duca suggests having courses in personal finances, civics, and mental health, which aren't bad ideas, but we can do so much better. Mike Gibbs, a media relations advisor, asked teachers what they thought about reinstating an optional 5th years, and some of the responses were gold! My favourite ideas are offering more dual-credit courses and co-op courses, or going the route of Quebec with two years of publicly-funded college (CEGEP) after grade 11.

However, adding a full grade with more courses, or significantly changing the structure, could take years to design. A Toronto Star poll showed 64% in favour of financing another year, but "Del Duca acknowledged the Grade 13 plan is 'ambitious' and suggested it is unlikely to be ready by September." If it's about helping the kids most affected by missing in-person learning, then it has to be ready by September. In order to make that happen, the year doesn't have to include new courses, only the encouragement to stay and the financing to allow it by removing that darn 'threshold.' We don't need new courses, but just tacit permission for kids to slow down and explore their options further. 

On Friday, university student Taryn Herlich explained the benefits of uncapping credits, 

"A great portion of Grade 12 students feel completely lost, with no clue of what they want in a career, let alone university major. I see absolutely no shame in taking a year to reflect and review your options and interests. University is neither cheap nor easy--why rush into it if you're not emotionally or financially ready?

Absolutely, but I'm curious about the shame she mentions. Why was it ever a shame to take an extra year, to slow down? In Finland, students can attend high school to age 21 (which used to be the case in Ontario too). After grade 9, the three final years of high school are no longer divided into grades, so classes have a range of ages, and students can leave and return without feeling behind. They're not expected to graduate with everyone else of the same age. Somehow in Ontario we've made students embarrassed to take their time to finish. 

In 2017, there were a few articles voicing concerns about how long students are taking to graduate. "Students who did graduate also took longer to do so than almost anywhere else." They present that as if it's a bad thing! They worried that some students got discouraged if it took them longer to finish, but isn't it possible that's just due to stigma that the ministry, media, and boards created around timing?? I mean, I took a stab at grade 14 back in the early 80s, and I wasn't the only one willing to attend for six years! 

I believe that, when the government wanted kids to take fewer courses in order to save some money, they set them up to be ashamed of working slowly, which goes against any mental health and trauma-informed advocacy out there! We need to reverse that messaging and recognize the benefits of taking the time to really learn in high school while it's still free for the taking. 

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