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Boost Grade 4 Learning! OK, but How?

Premier Campbell vows all Grade 4 students will achieve at their age level in five years. Educators disagree about where to start.

By Katie Hyslop 17 Nov 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education for the Tyee Solutions Society, and is a freelance reporter for a number of other outlets including The Tyee. To republish this piece, please contact the Michelle Hoar.

Part of Gordon Campbell's plan for making B.C. the most literate jurisdiction in North America was unveiled three weeks ago, to much derision from the education community: spend $36.3 million to have all Grade 4 students learning at a Grade 4 level in five years.

"That announcement was such a clear indication of the premier's misunderstanding of how children learn. Children are not on a conveyor belt, they don't all pass the same goal post at the same time, nor would we want them to," says Susan Lambert, president of the BC Federation of Teachers.

Charles Ungerleider, professor of sociology of education at the University of British Columbia, and a former deputy premier of education under the NDP, thought the government's motives were noble, but agreed the task is impossible.

"We ought to have high standards, (but) there are going to be some youngsters who will not master Grade 4 expectations until Grade 5 or Grade 7 for a variety of different reasons," he told The Tyee. "And there may be some, a very small fraction of youngsters, whose cognitive abilities may prevent them even from reaching Grade 4 level."

But there is no doubt in the minds of educators that improvements can be made. Only 80 per cent of Grade 4 students in B.C. are reading, writing, and doing math at a Grade 4 level. It's not bad, but it's not enough, either, for educators, parents, or the government. However, it's coming up with a solution for bridging the gap where the disagreements begin.

Be more like Fort Nelson

Just two days before the premier's education announcement, George Abbott was handed the reins at the ministry of education and his first job became explaining to the media how the government was going to achieve this lofty goal. Abbott claimed four of the province's 60 school districts were already seeing close to 100 per cent of Grade 4s learning at this level: South Kootenay, Arrow Lakes, Revelstoke and Fort Nelson.

"We will build on those successes by sharing best practices, while providing resources, support, and staff training to ensure teachers can identify children's unique needs and work with those students to help them achieve at the highest level possible," a representative for the minister told The Tyee in an email, adding the government will spend $700,000 in the first year, and $8.9 million in subsequent years on the program.

Fort Nelson, one of the succeeding school districts, has 96 per cent of Grade 4 students meeting or exceeding the Foundation Skills Assessments' (FSA) baseline for Grade 4 learning. Superintendent Diana Samchuck says the district has been the top district in the province when it comes to FSA scores for the past three years, and it's all because of the Great Leaps reading and the JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) programs the district offers for at-risk students.

"(Great Leaps is) a reading fluency program that is based on one-on-one direct instruction. It starts out with sounds and phonics in an oral context, and then it goes to a timed reading for fluency," Samchuck told The Tyee.

"The program was introduced because on our reading measures, district and provincial, we had quite low scores. And our aboriginal students were not succeeding as well as our other students; there was an achievement gap there."

Aboriginal students have actually surpassed many of their non-aboriginal peers in reading scores, according to Samchuck, because the district put extra focus on helping them over their literacy hurdles.

JUMP is also a one-on-one program, starting with simple steps such as counting forwards and backwards, to teachers monitoring students as they work through problems to see where they go wrong.

But while Lambert agrees that it's important for districts to learn from one another, she cautions against implementing certain programs province-wide and expecting them to have the same results.

"You cannot translate from Fort Nelson to Surrey to Revelstoke to Burnaby -- there are different challenges in each of those different districts. In Revelstroke, for example, I'm sure that there is not the immigrant population that we have in Burnaby," she told The Tyee.

"What teachers ought to have is a vast array of instructional materials and instructional practices from which they choose given the particular child and the particular curriculum of that day. Teachers must have the autonomy to apply the particular instructional practice that that child is going to respond to."

Change how we teach the teacher

Instead of spending money on spreading programs used in one district to all the school districts in the province, Lambert recommends the government increase its funding to education as a whole. While the Liberal government maintains education spending is the highest it's ever been, the BCTF argues spending has not kept up with inflation and extra costs such as wage increases and the carbon tax.

"We've lost 25 per cent of the teacher librarians in B.C. We've lost I think 20 per cent of the learning assistants; we've lost counselors, we've lost all those specialist non-enrolling teachers that used to provide interventions for children who are diagnosed with learning challenges. So we need to restore that capacity to the system," says Lambert.

"If you're not providing library services to students, they don't have access to literature and resources, then that's a skill that's not getting developed. That's a literacy skill that's not getting developed."

Ungerleider says literacy education has improved in the past 25 years, citing the old practice of teachers assuming students who didn't read at grade level in primary would eventually catch up, now referred to as "waiting for failure." Today, armed with phonetic and phonemic awareness, as well as the importance of students understanding and interpreting what they read, teachers intervene the moment they recognize a student is having difficulty in these areas.

However, with only 80 per cent of Grade 4 students meeting the literacy requirements, Ungerleider recognizes that improvements need to be made and he recommends we start with teacher education.

"It's a controversial statement that my colleagues will not like. I'm not sure that we don't have to look at the priorities within teacher education programs and expand the emphasis on literacy instruction, and reduce it perhaps somewhere else," he says.

"It would certainly be a debate, of course, what gets replaced with additional time for reading instruction. But let me put it this way: it wouldn't take a lot more, another course, 39 hours."

Lambert admits that teacher education is not her area of expertise, and agrees with Ungerleider that there could be room for improvement there. But she worries that adding more literacy instruction could take attention away from other important courses.

"If there's room for more literacy, let's hope for example that it's not at the expense of numeracy. Let's hope it's not at the expense of Aboriginal learning needs," she says.

The BC College of Teachers, which grants teaching certificates in the province, works with the nine education degree granting universities in B.C. to determine a set of learning standards required to earn a teaching certificate. According to College Registrar Kit Krieger, there is no specific standard for teaching literacy in order to earn your certificate. But the College is currently looking at adding two new standards -- for special education and an aboriginal education program -- and it could look at adding more literacy instruction, in theory.

"It would be appropriate that the college committees, and then council as a whole, look at literacy to see whether the programs we currently have in place are sufficient in making sure that teachers are able to effectively teach reading and writing so that they can have a literate population," he told The Tyee. "But it is not currently on the agenda. Whether the premier’s speech puts it on the agenda, we'll see."

Putting aboriginal students on par

Ungerleider believes teachers with more literacy skills can successfully tackle the issue of educating one of the most at-risk populations in the province: aboriginal students. According to a recent report issued by the offices of the provincial Representative for Children and Youth and the Provincial Health Officer, aboriginal children in Grade 4 score 15 to 18 per cent lower than their non-aboriginal peers on the FSA, while aboriginal children in government care score even lower.

Instead of introducing a program specifically aimed at helping aboriginal children succeed, Ungerleider echoes Lamberts assertions that teachers should have a wide variety of instructional practices and resources that enable them to tailor their teaching style to the needs of the child.

"What you want to do, instead of just targeting those kids, is to equip teachers with the knowledge they need to lift up any low performing learner, because she or he has a repertoire of skills in the teaching of reading that will work with those youngsters," he says.

"I am much more in favour of building capacity in the teacher, and not putting the faith in the program, but in developing the capacity of the teacher to intervene, regardless of the background of the youngster, whenever he or she sees a youngster performing below expectations."

Mark Aquash disagrees. Director of the Native Indian Teacher Education Program at UBC, Aquash sees the traditional public school system as an attempt to assimilate aboriginal youth by ignoring their culture and languages, resulting in poor educational outcomes. He advocates instead for a First Nations-run schooling system similar to the Federation of Survival Schools started by the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, where culture and language were an integral part of the curriculum. American First Nations schools based on that model today have a graduation rate of 80 to 90 per cent, compared to less than 50 per cent of aboriginal students in B.C.

Aquash asserts he isn't advocating for segregation, but an alternative for parents looking to keep culture in the classroom.

"[Federation of Survival Schools] taught language, they brought in elders, community leaders, lots of people to share the indigenous knowledge, and then once the students made the connection to their success with their communities, they would excel in academics, and they would excel in sports, become involved with the communities, and they wouldn't be involved with so many different kinds of harmful activities that many have been involved with in the past," he told The Tyee.

Supporting parents supports students

An area where Ungerleider, Lambert, and Aquash agree, however, is in cautioning against expecting the schools to bear all the responsibility for a child's education. They argue that parents need adequate social supports in order to be able to support their children’s education.

"Decent minimum wage, decent parenting leave, allowances for parents who have to work shifts to go to school to support their youngsters, meet with the teacher, etc. All of those kinds of things help support families, and that in turn allows the families to support youngsters and their learning," says Ungerleider, adding the province needs a poverty reduction plan.

"If you come to school hungry, if you come to school from a family in which there's abuse, it isn't that you can't learn, but you've got other things you're addressing that take precedence over whether you learn to read or not. So we have to make sure that we have the right kinds of community and family supports in place, as well as the educational supports."  [Tyee]

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