When I was a kid, everybody knew the rules and the penalties for breaking them. When the teacher walked into class, you stood up. If you arrived late, you got a late slip. If you were late a few times, you got a detention. If you handed in an assignment late without a good excuse, you were marked down, and if you were caught plagiarizing, you got a zero.
The teachers were expected to be fair but strict. I had one who used to prowl the classroom and whack our desks with a yardstick if we were daydreaming. "If you don't shape up [whack] you'll wind up selling ribbons at Kresge's," she'd warn.
Kresge's is long gone, and so is that teaching style. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. The world is now a more complicated place. The student body is far more diverse, and the education stakes are higher. Today, school boards and governments have decreed that schools must do everything in their power to help every kid succeed - even if they have to redefine "success" to do it.
In Ontario's secondary schools, teachers are told not to penalize students for late work. The Ottawa public school board has decreed that students who plagiarize will be allowed to do the assignment again. In some schools, students are allowed to stroll into class whenever they want. And a provincially mandated system of "credit recovery" means it's so easy for them to make up failed courses that they don't have to do much more than show up.
"Credit recovery" was devised as a strategy to help "at-risk students" (as they are now known) to stay in school. As one expert explained it, "Too many students are short credits and lose interest and hope." Instead of having to repeat the whole course, students are now allowed to make up only the parts they've failed. They can do this in different ways, including something called "experiential learning." The usual way is to attend a credit recovery class once a day for a few weeks. He doesn't have to pass a test. All he has to do is persuade his credit recovery supervisor (not the teacher who failed him) to give him a 51.
"There's a lot more leniency and a lot less work in credit recovery," says a teacher at one middle-of-the-pack Toronto school. "Kids know that, if they fail, they can do the class again in six weeks." Credit recovery is also a convenient way for some teachers to shuffle the losers out of their hair. "It has turned into a huge program here," says the teacher, who, like most, won't speak on the record for fear of professional consequences. "As long as you show up, you're not gonna fail."
The "success" rate of students in credit recovery is amazingly high, a fact that may or may not be related to the relentless pressure on the schools to boost their graduation rates. But teachers worry that credit recovery has watered down the meaning of a diploma.
"A credit for Johnny is not a credit for Janey," says Neil Orford, a history teacher and department chair at Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne. "The integrity of the credit is in trouble across the province."
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has declared himself the education premier. He's investing hundreds of millions more in the system. He's raising the high-school exit age to 18 and plans to introduce all-day kindergarten. He has also pledged to raise the high-school graduation rate to 85 per cent by 2010-11. (It's 75 per cent now.) To meet this target, large numbers of "at risk" students will need to be salvaged and given every chance at success.
One controversial part of this strategy is to stop penalizing students for late work. The reasoning goes that lateness is a behavioural issue, not a pedagogical one, and that students should have as much time as they need to do the work to the best of their ability.
Not surprisingly, teachers regard this policy as idiotic. It's something only an educational romantic could dream up, because it doesn't work in real life.
"The late issue is a real hotbed," says Mr. Orford. "We're really struggling with the ethical dimension of it."
The ethical dimension is obvious. Some kids can get away with murder, and all the other kids know it. The teachers have been pushing back, and the result is that every school (and often every teacher) has different practices. After much struggle with the authorities, some teachers at Mr. Orford's school have adopted a work-around known as "windows of opportunity," which means that students are given one provisional deadline and one real one.
At other schools, chaos prevails. "At the end of the semester, I have kids who say, 'What have I missed, what do I need to do to pass?' " says the teacher who asked not to be identified. She is younger and less experienced than Mr. Orford. "It drives teachers crazy. But a lot of them say, 'Oh, just do what the policy says.' "
Talking to teachers, you get the overwhelming sense that many of them are on their own, caught in a Kafkaesque world of bizarre policies imposed from on high that they can't do much about. "There are no tardiness policies at our school," says the younger teacher. "Kids are late to class more often than not, but you can't do anything about it, and they know it. I've tried giving them a quiz at the beginning of the class, but then parents say you have to give them a chance to make it up. You can't deduct marks. You can ask them to stay for a detention, but they don't come. I'm always asking teachers, 'What do you do?' But there's nothing."
Thankfully, most teachers still like their jobs. "I love what I do," says Mr. Orford, who adds that only a minority of students abuse the system. The younger teacher says, "The good kids make it all worthwhile." But both of them worry about what lessons their students - including the good ones - are learning about fairness and respect, responsibility and self-discipline.
Coincidentally, these qualities - fairness, respect, responsibility, self-discipline - are the very ones that Mr. McGuinty has promised to instill in every child across the province, in another of his big initiatives known as "character education." Which raises the tantalizing question: Why not make a start by rolling back the late policy?
"The teachers are desperately looking for moral leadership on this," says Mr. Orford, "and, in many cases, they can't find it."