Noel P. Hurley
In Newfoundland, educators are used to looking outward to other Canadian provinces for inspiration and advice. How do they handle this issue in Ontario? What is policy on such and such an aspect of schooling in Alberta? When we ourselves are the focus of policy interest on the part of teachers and administrators in other provinces we are pleasantly surprised. Thus, we were pleased to receive a report on school retention policies in Ontario in which the author points to the Newfoundland experience vis-a-vis student retention as constituting a set of model procedures.
The author, Dr. Noel P. Hurley, is a professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Windsor. Prior to his University of Windsor appointment he was an Assistant Superintendent (Curriculum) with the Conception Bay North Roman Catholic School Board. His doctorate at the University of Ottawa was in the area of Educational Administration, where his special research interest was in the formulation and estimation of econometric models of schooling resource allocation processes and their relationships to both the affective and cognitive outcomes of schooling. In addition to a career in the public sector Dr. Hurley has worked in the private sector where he held directorships in several Newfoundland companies, and has held public offices at the municipal level.
Hurley argues that the November 1995 cancellation of an advanced
university placement program in Ontario high schools known as the Ontario
Academic Credit will adversely affect student retention rates. He
draws on his experience as a member of the Dropout Prevention Committee
of Newfoundland's Department of Education in 1989, as well as on the positive
results stemming from the implementation of policies recommended by the
Committee. In the paper he traces the origins of Newfoundland's dropout
prevention policies over the past 15 years, policies which have been bearing
fruit for several years now in this province, and which in his opinion
could well be heeded by the policy makers in other provinces during a period
of retrenchment in public education services. (Jeff Bulcock)
Retention Rates: The Ontario Case
Ontario has been the envy of most other provinces over the years, at least in terms of a few educational indicators. One of these areas has been its student retention rate. The number of students who have remained in school in Ontario has been consistently the highest or nearly the highest for the past couple of decades. It can be argued that this has in large part been a result of the existence of the Ontario Academic Credit (OAC) year.
Ontario students have been able to complete the equivalent of
first year university for modest direct cost in their home high schools.
On November 2, 1995, however, John Snobolen, Minister of Education, announced
the cancellation of the OAC year in Ontario beginning in 1997, becoming
fully effective in the year 2001. The province intends to compress
its five high school years into four years. Snobolen said, "It means
we're going to do some compression and have normal high school completed
in four years". How is the reduction of the number of years of schooling
likely to affect Ontario students?
Policy Implications of OAC
If one examines Snobolen's statement critically, it leaves the
Ontario government the option of off-loading the OAC year of schooling
onto the individual. In Newfoundland and many other jurisdictions
the equivalent of OAC is purchased privately by students in the form of
a junior studies or a general studies year at university. The likely
effect of the cancellation of the OAC year will be the reduction of the
number of students who complete that year of schooling. It might
be that Snobolen feels "ordinary high school" is schooling to the end of
grade 12. For the Minister and The Government OAC might no longer
be "ordinary high school".
Student Retention in Newfoundland
Student retention has long been identified as a problem in North
American education. Schreiber (1967) stated that it was 1950 before
the number of students who stayed in school until their normal graduation
year equalled those who dropped out. Newfoundland, too, has long
been concerned with student retention as was evidenced by the appointment
of the Crocker and Riggs (1980) Taskforce on Improving School Retention
and Post-secondary Participation. The Newfoundland Department
of Education established a student retention committee in the 1980's to
develop policies to address the still persistent problem of student retention.
The advent of the grade 12 program in Newfoundland saw an improvement of
the retention rate of students th at seemed to be the result of increased
academic success of students because the academic requirements were spread
over four years rather than three. Many studies such as Radwanski
(1987), Crocker and Riggs (1980), and Harris and Snelgrove (1983) identified
the main cause of student dropouts as student dissatisfaction with school.
What Researchers Find About Student Retention
Ontario recently appointed a sociologist to study the issue of the relevance of educational programs and the issue of dropouts. Radwanski (1987) reported that the dropout of students in Ontario was more related to student socio-economic background than to school factors. His arguments, similar to those of Coleman et al. (1966), claim that higher student achievement was related to higher socio-economic levels. Radwanski pointed out that students in lower socio-economic home environments receive less support and encouragement with regard to their school work. If this argument is valid then Newfoundland students would be much more likely to drop out than their more affluent counterparts in Ontario, but in recent years such has not been the case. The Newfoundland Department of Education, in the early 1980's, identified low retention rates as a major educational system problem. Only 55 percent of seventeen-year-old students were staying in school until their normal graduation year. These were the years when the Newfoundland high school program was compressed into three school years. The introduction to Grade 12 to the Newfoundland system increased the student retention rate in spite of predictions from a task force on dropouts in the opposite direction.
Two reasons are suggested for the subsequent increase in retention rates. One was the lengthening of the program from three years to four years which made it possible for academically challenged students to master learning outcomes which were too demanding over a three year period. The second reason that one can propose has to do with an increase in the expectations of students accompanying the additional year of schooling. Since the curriculum was made more manageable it was easier for a larger proportion of the student body to meet with success. Other recent studies, too, have reported that academically successful students have more favourable attitudes towards school and are less likely to drop out.
Radwanski (1987), for example, reported that surveys completed
by Decima and Goldfarb for his Royal Commission identified the main reason
for withdrawal from school as being school related. These findings
were consistent with similar studies in Newfoundland that identified problems
in school as the leading reason why students withdrew.
Potential Consequences of the Snobolen Initiative
The Snobolen initiative is likely to make the curriculum load more difficult for students to master over the shorter period of time. Average and slower students are likely to be more challenged by the contraction in the high school program. If the Newfoundland experience can be used as an example, then many Ontario students are likely to become discouraged; hence, they will be more at risk to drop out before graduation.
Thus the cancellation of the OAC year of schooling in Ontario
is likely to be a "double jeopardy" for many students, but especially the
disadvantaged. They will be more at risk to drop out before graduation.
If they persevere and successfully graduate they will have the further
challenge of trying to fund an additional year of post-secondary study.
One presumes that the Minister is unaware that Ontario's grade 12 students
are performing in aggregate below the level of grade 12 students in the
other 9 provinces. Thus, it is likely that fewer students will be
able to successfully complete the four year degree programs at Ontario's
Learning from The Newfoundland Experience
What then are the lessons that Ontario can learn from the Newfoundland experiences of the mid 1980's? Any answer to this question has to be preceded by a second question: Which goal is most important to the Ontario educational system? Is it equity, accountability, efficiency, or adequacy? In these conservative times of budget cutbacks, doing more for less, and more scholar for the dollar discussions, equity tends to take a back seat to efficiency concerns. Thus, Snobolen is not likely to be concerned about the possibility of Ontario students having to pay for a general studies year as Newfoundland post-secondary students do. It seems that the reduction of the OAC year will probably result in the reduction of student achievement outcomes by one year. Perhaps the years of schooling might have been more painlessly reduced by eliminating the junior kindergarten program which was probably begun as much to provide cheap day care as for educational achievement outcomes. One of the strongest features of the OAC program of studies is that it makes it possible for all Ontarians, regardless of socio-economic status or geographic location, to complete one year of education generally considered to be post-secondary in other provinces. Thus Snobolen's cancellation will tend to make the Ontario system more elitist. As tuition fees increase in response to transfer cuts at the post-secondary level fewer students from lower socio-economic levels will become post-secondary participants. The elimination of OAC will therefore promote greater inequity among different income groups in the province.
It seems that the two provinces are heading in different directions from an educational perspective. On the one hand Newfoundland adapted many strategies from Ontario that seemed to promote educational conditions favourable to student retention - it lengthened the number of years for its high school program and concomitantly raised its level of student retention. On the other hand Ontario is contracting its program, and that will likely frustrate students who are experiencing academic difficulty and increase student dropouts. Whether or not the cancellation of the OAC year actually saves the economy of Ontario money or causes an erosion of its stock of human capital and a student retention problem should be a subject of debate in months and years to come.
Clarke, B. & Snelgrove, V. (1983). Student promotion policies and some implication of nonpromotion. In V. Snelgrove (Ed.). The dropout problem and student promotion policies. Memorial University: The Department of Educational Administration.
Coleman, J., Campbell, E., Hobson, D., McPartland, J., Mood, A., Weingeld, F., & York, R. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. Washington: United States Department of Health, Welfare, and Education.
Collins, A. (1988). `Ontario study of the relevance of education and the issue of dropouts': A response. The Morning Watch: Educational and Social Analysis. St. John's: Memorial University.
Crocker, R. & Riggs, F. (1980). Improving school retention and post-secondary participation. St. John's: The Queen's Printer.
Harris, H. & Snelgrove, V. (1983). The dropout problem - Implications for Newfoundland schools. In V. Snelgrove (Ed.). The dropout problem and student promotion policies. Memorial University: The Department of Educational Administration.
McGrath, S. (1989). Report: Dropout prevention conference. St. John's: The Queen's Printer.
Newfoundland and Labrador Government (1989). Dropout prevention: Principles and guidelines. St. John's: The Queen's Printer.
Radwanski, G. (1987). Ontario study of the relevance of education, and the issue of dropouts. Toronto: Ministry of Education.
Schreiber, D. (1967). Profile of the school dropout. New York: Random House.