Sunday, September 21, 2008

And the Public Thinks Teachers are Goldbrickers?

Anyone who has taught for any length of time will become aware of, and perhaps acutely sensitive to, the unjustified public perception that teachers are mere layabouts milking the public purse, working only a few hours a day, enjoying both holidays and pension plans that mortals can only dream of. Anyone tired of this kind of invidious assessment may find an article in today's New York Times to be of interest. It details the unbelievable excesses that retirees of the Long Island Rail Road avail themselves of in disability payments, claimed by about 97% of employees immediately after they retire!

If interested, follow this link.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sarah Palin's Alaskan Governing Style

There is a rather explosive article in today's New York Times regarding the disturbing practices of the Republican Vice-Presidential canadidate, both as an Alaskan mayor and later state Governor. There appears to be a lengthy record of hiring and firing that suggest both cronyism (hardly anything new there) and personal vendettas. As well, suppression of information about global warming further suggests an abuse of power.

While the story will undoubtedly be decried as yet again an example of the 'liberal press' out to undermine all that is good and sacred in America, it is a thought-provoking article that at least gives the reader some information with which to balance the current rhetoric surrounding her candidacy.

If interested, you can read the article here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Transformational Power of an Election, or How Stephen Harper and I Saw the Light

There is nothing quite like unnecessary elections to bring out the cynic in me, although lately I’ve begun to question that cynicism and consider the benefits such excursions to the polls may offer, not only for the country but for the Prime Minister himself.

Like many, I have long viewed our Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, as a controlling, manipulative, aloof man with an especial disdain for the press and for the many opinions that differ from his. It is, for example, well-known that Conservative Members of Parliament, even cabinet ministers, cannot speak publically without the explicit approval of the P.M.O. (Prime Minister’s Office) lest they risk demotion, even denial of nomination papers at election time. This from a man who, in the last election, campaigned for more openness, Parliamentary democracy, etc.

Indeed, Mr. Harper went so far as to deny the parliamentary press gallery reporters access to him unless they signed a list from which some would be selected to ask questions at press conferences, a seemingly shocking breach of freedom of the press and a complete departure from the Canadian tradition of reporters taking turns asking their questions in a queue. The cynics suggested this was yet another means by which the Mr. Harper was attempting to control the message, thereby further debasing democracy.

I realize now that I have been wrong not to have given the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt.

What accounts for this transformation of perspective? Part of the answer, I think, lies in the public transformation of Stephen Harper. My family and friends tell me that the election ads they’ve seen suggest he is a changed man. Unfortunately I can only rely on their reports, as to this point I have been unable to watch the commercials featuring Mr. Harper and his blue sweater-clad musings, lest an unfortunate Tourette’s-like stream of profanity issue from me. I hereby acknowledge my weakness.

Apparently in one such ad, Mr. Harper talks intimately about his family, especially his children and the bond-strengthening activities they share; for example, son Harper plays the guitar while Dad plays the piano; after all, according to the P.M., son Harper is at that age when he doesn’t want to hang out so much with his dad (a sentiment, by the way, with which I would be able to readily identify, were Stephen my Dad), so those times, as in all families, are precious ones. Again, this from a man with a reputation for aloofness and disdain for public exposure; thanks for sharing, Prime Minister Harper.

There are apparently other ads including one in which he reminds all of us, in talking about military veterans, how fortunate we are to have had brave men and women defending our precious way of life and that we owe them a great debt of gratitude, a true departure from the impression some have of him as a Prime Minister willing to consign our contemporary military members to danger and death on mere ideological grounds. Indeed, as I write this I have just learned that Mr. Harper says he intends to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan in 2011, going well beyond the Parliamentary motion this year committing to the withdrawal of troops only from Kandahar province, the most dangerous part of the country where most of our troops are serving. I am beyond words in my amazement of and appreciation for the Prime Minister’s evolution.

Indeed, every day seems to bring new evidence of even more rapid growth in the development of Mr. Harper’s compassion. I just saw a news report in which the Prime Minister, obviously sharing our incredulity over the 13 cent a liter gas jump that has taken place today, September 12th, allegedly as a result of Hurricane Ike-driven threats to Texas oil refineries, has teasingly suggested that there will be some announcements regarding government intervention in oil companies’ gouging of consumers. Again, this from a man who earlier in the summer stated there was little government could do to affect gas prices, so no efforts would be made. I’m beginning to think that as this election continues, Mr. Harper’s growth will perhaps culminate in a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for his sheer humanitarianism.

Even his clothes reflect a changed man. Gone are the suits and ties, replaced by an array of blue sweaters. I guess it depends on your age, but when I see Mr. Harper dressed that way, I can’t help but think of Ward Cleaver at home with his family, dispensing all of the wisdom, love, patience, understanding, compassion, firmness, and fairness that we associate with Beaver’s dad..

I have been pondering what could bring about what seem to be such abrupt changes in Mr. Harper’s personality. Barring an undiagnosed medical condition, I am only left to infer that there is something humanizing and humbling about engaging in an election campaign. Perhaps it is the regular and daily contact with ‘regular’ people; after all, I am told that in one of the photo gallery series, Mr. Harper, accoutered in that ubiquitous blue sweater, is depicted sitting at someone’s kitchen table in a B.C. home, perhaps extolling life in Canada under his ministrations and demonstrating his understanding of ‘regular’ people. This is clearly a man attempting to forge a bond, especially meaningful for those of us who have ever fantasized about such a visit.

Or maybe it’s something in the coffee, croissants, or donuts in the diners Mr. Harper has been seen frequenting during the campaign, the very places we regular folks gather to strengthen community bonds. Or perhaps a humanizing synergy mysteriously emerges during the campaign of an unnecessary election. Who knows?

In any event, maybe it is only the result, not the explanation, that really matters here. Stephen Harper has worked his magic on me; he has restored my faith, which I long believed to have been obliterated, in the human capacity to change and to grow.

Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Good Staffrooms and School Morale

Although this month marks the beginning of the third year of my retirement from the classroom, September has always seemed to me to be about both new beginnings and reflections on past experience. With that in mind, please indulge my thoughts on something that I believe is vital to teachers, a supportive staffroom.

For me, a supportive staffroom is almost synonymous with, but not necessarily identical to supportive and nourishing colleagues. In my last 17 years of teaching, I was truly blessed to work in a collegial environment that emerged in part no doubt by both the geography of my school and the physical arrangements within the staffroom. Our school was a large one, divided into what was known as the East and West Wings. Fortunate to be a member of a department in the West Wing, I was part of a cadre that nurtured, supported, debated and sometimes vehemently disagreed with each another. For me, the staffroom was a refuge, an oasis, and a nexus of fervent ideas.

Why is the staffroom here not merely a metaphor for collegiality? Part of the answer lies in the fact that in this staffroom, which, over lunch periods, was the meeting place of between 20 to 30 people, dominated by the English Department but including staff from science, co-op, drama and art, had only one long lunch table. This meant that anyone seated there had to be prepared to join in the discussions or simply adjourn to the sofa, recliner, or computer workstation. Few chose those options. The majority lingered and participated. More on those discussions later.

The other reason the staffroom is not intended as a metaphor or metonym (I’m sorry, once an English teacher, always an English teacher!) is the fact that there was no administrative presence in the West Wing. In the early 90’s, the then principal moved her office to the East Wing, the main part of the school, which, of course made eminent sense. Although we sometimes complained that student behavioural problems in our wing were exacerbated by the absence of an office for one of the two vice-principals, I think we ultimately benefitted from their absence for a number of reasons.

To explain those reasons, a contrast with the East Wing staffroom is necessary. That room, serving the majority of staff which at one time numbered close to 100, was merely a few steps from the central office and the school’s administration. Indeed, the principal and the vp’s used it as their eatery as well. This fact, coupled with the arrangement of tables, worked against the development of the kind of collegiality I am talking about here. There were a number of small circular tables in that room, capable of accommodating probably six at the maximum, and the tables were not especially close to one another, so that each group or clique was essentially self-contained. Granted, in one end of that staffroom there were a couple of couches, but in occasional visits there, few sat after completing their lunches. Most tended to simply return to their ‘workstations.’ As well, I can understand how the presence of administrators nearby might have dampened people’s enthusiasm for voicing and debating strong opinions.

I believe the above two factors strongly militated against the development of the kind of culture that we enjoyed in the West Wing. Our discussions, ranging from pedagogy to politics, religion to remediation, domesticity to divorce, administrative traits and shortcomings, etc. knew few bounds; coupled with the resultant camaraderie, this atmosphere represented, for me, what effective education is all about; through the nurturing of the professional soul and the cultivation of the spirit of inquiry and healthy skepticism, I like to think we helped each other to become better teachers.

Viewed in the later years by administration as some kind of repository of discontent, our staffroom, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, seemed to make the administration feel threatened; hence 2 out of the 3 administrators present when I retired seldom visited. We were seen as a problem, and often times the principal would make sure that young teachers did not have classes on that side of the school, so as to minimize the risk of ‘contamination’ with non-corporatist thinking.

And the latter is to me what much of education has become; where independence was once fostered or at least tolerated, compliance to every last detail of educational orthodoxy, whether locally or provincially generated, is demanded.

So while the West Wing still exists, and former colleagues retain independence there, I know the clock is ticking very loudly. I salute them, I commend them, and I mourn the inevitable passing of a noble tradition.

Monday, September 8, 2008

My Letter to Margaret Wente

Since I enjoyed Margaret Wente's last two columns on education so much, my wife suggested I write her a letter. The following is what I sent her:

Dear Ms Wente:

Although I have rarely agreed with your perspectives over the years, as a retired high school teacher I very much appreciate the truths you’ve addressed in your last two columns on education. As well, I respect the fact that you chose not to ‘crank out’ a couple of quick pieces by blaming the usual suspects, teachers themselves.

The theme of your column today reminded me of something that happened around 1990. Although a veteran secondary English teacher by that point, I was relatively new to the school, located in an affluent community. During an early departmental meeting our head reminded everyone to make sure that we evaluated our students’ reading ability within two weeks of the semester. I then asked her, “What do we do with this information, Joanne?” She replied, with a laugh, “I knew you were going to ask that question, Lorne.” That comment was the end of the discussion of the issue.

Over the years I had often wondered about that ‘answer,’ and the conclusion I ultimately drew was that the directive toward early semester reading assessment was my department head’s subtle way of conveying the idea of making ‘accommodations’ without actually saying so. Having retired in 2006, I can assure you that there is no longer any such subtlety or ambiguity in school policy.

What deeply troubles me now is that the combination of political, parental and administrative pressure leaves new teachers little opportunity to develop their professional integrity. The problem is compounded by the fact that those teachers with knowledge and experience of the past who could provide some context for younger colleagues are rapidly disappearing through retirement. As well, I am sorry to say, although I am a supporter of unions and federations, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation has, in my view, become simply another political entity. The system now demands unquestioning acceptance of political and administrative fiat, and that is exactly what it will get. Unfortunately, such a result, while politically expedient, is anathema to real education.

One other aspect that you might want to explore is the role that ‘careerism’ plays in public education’s malaise. In the last portion of my career, it was rare to encounter either a principal or a superintendent who didn’t put his or her own career ambitions above the well-being of education. To question in any meaningful way the educational orthodoxy generated either by the local director or the Ministry of Education is, as they say, a career-limiting move. Yet is the latter too cruel a fate to endure, given the broader good that is at stake?

Once again, congratulations on your thoughtful education columns. I am still in fairly regular contact with several of my younger former colleagues, and will be emailing them to recommend the pieces.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Hit, A Very Palpable Hit

Apologies for the arcane, perhaps even pretentious title of this post, but being a retired English teacher, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to use a line from my favorite Shakespearean play, Hamlet. While the Bard’s work has nothing directly to do with today’s topic, it does relate to its subject: education.

I mentioned earlier that I have seldom agreed with Globe columnist Margaret Wente’s perspective, but her column today, just as her earlier one, speaks real truth in its exploration of causes of public education dysfunction. While obviously not the final truth, it is well worth considering, and I suspect few experienced teachers (other, perhaps, than those currying administrative favour) will disagree with her observations.


For whom the bell curve tolls

Students vary widely in academic ability, but we pretend everyone can be above average


September 6, 2008

Whenever I write about higher education, I get letters like this: "A large percentage of our students come into college woefully unprepared. Close to half of our first-year students in business are unable to maintain a 2.0 average in their first year, the standard required for advancement and graduation. ... A large percentage have poor note-taking skills, below-average reading comprehension skills, and an inability to solve problems and complete projects without being given step-by-step to-do lists."

The letter comes from a teacher at a local community college, where the first-year attrition rate - to say nothing of the costs in money, time and student self-esteem - is depressingly high. We all think we know what's wrong. It's the public education system. They're handing out high-school diplomas to just about anyone who bothers to show up.

But the education system (for all its shortcomings) doesn't really deserve to take the fall. The real problem is the cult of educational romanticism, which holds that students' abilities are far more equal and far more malleable than they really are. Educational romanticism has led us to believe that every student can become at least average, and that the right teaching strategies can close the achievement gap.
Not so, says Charles Murray, author of a provocative new book called Real Education. You may also know him as the much-loathed co-author of The Bell Curve, and stop reading right here. But hang on, because the central truth asserted by this book is one that is self-evident to every teacher (and every student) I have ever met: Ability varies, and it varies a lot.

Most teachers can tell within a week how their students rank in ability. (So can the students.) These rankings barely budge between 8 and 18. Neither do students' test scores, and neither does the spread between highest and lowest. In terms of academic ability, people stay pretty much where they started out, no matter how good the schooling they receive.

No one likes to talk about this fact, because it sounds both elitist and defeatist. So let's talk sports. A few of us are Mats Sundin, and a few of us are so clumsy that we walk into walls. The rest of us are widely distributed in between. Not all the practice in the world will get us into Junior A, because we simply are not Junior A material.

No matter how hard we try, argues Mr. Murray, "some people are just not smart enough to succeed on a conventional academic track." What this means is, we are asking schools to do the impossible. In the real world, even the best schools will always have students who perform below grade level. The ambitious goals we've set for raising academic achievement across the board are unattainable - unless we water down the tests. And the only way to reach a high-school graduation rate of 85 per cent (that's Ontario's ambitious target) is to grant diplomas to kids whose reading and writing skills are barely more than rudimentary.

So don't blame the schools for watering down their diplomas. The system made them do it. That's why a BA is now the entry-level credential for so many jobs, and why a postgraduate degree has become the new BA. It's a sorting mechanism for employers - a crude certificate of cognitive ability.

Educational romanticism does the most damage to kids who are the least able. For students with low levels of ability, toughening the standards (by, say, forcing "applied" students to take more demanding math, as Ontario recently tried to do) doesn't raise their ability. It just dooms them to certain failure. By forcing them to try work they can't do, we've condemned these kids to 12 years of frustration, misery and humiliation. And by forcing them to share classes with kids of much higher ability, we simply reinforce their sense of failure.

"Educational romanticism pursues unattainable egalitarian ideals of education achievement at the expense of attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity," Mr. Murray writes. How do we get out of this? Restructure the curriculum for vocational students in a way that prepares them for the world of work and channels their abilities toward work they can succeed at.

Educational romanticism has also led us to believe that a BA is a ticket to success - and that many, maybe most, kids should be capable of getting one. Both beliefs are wrong. The job market is exploding for skilled technicians of all kinds, in health care, entertainment, hospitality, and so on. Good community colleges and trade schools - not more second-rate universities - is where we should be investing. Good electricians are harder to find than good lawyers, and not badly paid. But middle-class kids and their parents have been brainwashed into thinking that, without a BA, they're doomed. Even guidance counsellors now see their role as encouraging everyone to go on to higher education. Too many of them don't talk straight with their students about their futures - and if they do, the parents protest.
There's more than one reason why so many kids arrive at business college or university so woefully unprepared. Maybe their high schools really did do a lousy job. But maybe their abilities are marginal. Maybe, no matter how hard they try, they can't do the work.

If you read The Globe and Mail, I guarantee that you are comfortably on the right side of the bell curve. (Don't be flattered. You did nothing to earn it.) You take your reading and calculating skills for granted. All your closest friends are more or less like you, and you probably have no idea what it means to be of average or below-average ability. Real Education might convince you that educational romanticism is the worst thing that ever happened to struggling kids. We don't live in Lake Wobegon after all. And the truth is, we never did.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Frasier Institute, Mississippi, and Quebec

Canada’s right-wing ‘think’ tank, the Frasier Institute (the term ‘institute,’ I guess, gives it the patina of academia, although, of course, it is affiliated with no university), in its latest evaluation of North American labour market ‘flexibility,’ gave Quebec the bottom spot. The jurisdiction with the top ranking is Mississippi. To find out the kind of simplistic thinking this ‘institute’ engages in, feel free to read the following article from today’s Globe and Mail:

Fraser Institute's labour ‘flexibility' too hard and fast


September 4, 2008 at 6:00 AM EDT

When the downtown Montreal borough of Ville Marie passed a bylaw last year requiring shopkeepers to keep the sidewalk in front of their stores clean, everyone agreed it was a victory for civic-mindedness.

Everyone, that is, but municipal workers. They filed a grievance, arguing the bylaw violated their union contract – and won. An arbitrator recently ruled that the regulation amounted to an illegal contracting out of a union task. The city, after all, could not make citizens sweep without pay.

Montreal's cols bleus, as the city's “blue collar” workers are known, never fail to live up to their hard-won reputation for work avoidance and basic unco-operativeness. Indeed, the bylaw would never have been passed in the first place if the cols bleus had been doing their job.

This Montreal street-sweeping saga may help explain why Quebec comes up dead last in the Fraser Institute's latest ranking of North American labour market “flexibility.” With the highest rate of unionization on the continent, at 40.2 per cent of all workers, and the second-highest minimum wage relative to per capita gross domestic product, Quebec has chosen a policy prescription for job market sclerosis. Or, at least it has in the Fraser Institute's pro-free-market world view.

And just which province or state has got it right in the Vancouver-based think tank's mind?

That would be Mississippi, among others. The Magnolia State is one of 22 with right-to-work laws. Such legislation allows workers to choose whether or not to join a union and make financial contributions to it. In Mississippi, the state constitution has made the closed-shop illegal since 1890.

That hostility toward unions is one of the reasons only 7.8 per cent of Mississippians belong to one. Mississippi has no state minimum wage, either. Yet, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that workers or the state economy are better off because of these “flexible” labour laws.

Just ask the Mississippi Poultry Workers for Equality and Respect, a group that's been combatting abusive labour practices in an industry dominated by underpaid blacks and Latinos. Just ask the 600 workers in Laurel who were hauled off to prison last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after a raid on an electronics plant there.

What has all this labour “flexibility” meant for the Mississippi job market? Employment grew at an annual rate of 0.3 per cent in the five years to 2007, putting Mississippi in 58th spot out of 60 states and provinces. Employment in union-crazy Quebec grew at an average rate of 1.5 per cent, good enough to earn it a 21st place ranking.

To be sure, a few Quebec unions have priced themselves out of the market with wage and benefit expectations that bear no relationship to their productivity or competitiveness. But that is the fault of short-sighted union leadership, not of unionization in and of itself.

What's more, the Fraser Institute study ignores some of the most important factors determining the state of the job market, such as education levels, population growth and economic diversity or lack thereof.

Then there's oil. But can you really say that Alberta has the “best-performing” job market in North America, when wage inflation means signing bonuses for burger flippers? When employee loyalty only lasts as long as it takes to get a better offer? When high-school students calculate that it's more lucrative to drop out than get a diploma?

Similarly, can you really label Quebec's job market an underperformer when it has nearly closed a yawning gap with Ontario? Three decades ago, the unemployment rate in Quebec consistently topped Ontario's by about five percentage points. In July, the difference was a mere point – 7.4 per cent versus 6.4 per cent. What bridged the chasm? Economists regularly point to education. Quebeckers now graduate – from high school, college and university – in equal proportions to Ontarians.

Desjardins economist Hélène Bégin recently predicted that the unemployment rate in Quebec could soon fall to 5 per cent, as slow population growth and retiring boomers cause the work force to shrink. But that would not in itself signify a healthy labour market any more than the rate of unionization would constitute an obstacle to one.
Ask Barack Obama. He promises to adopt a Quebec-style “card check” system under which workers can form a bargaining unit if a simple majority sign union cards. Current law requires a secret ballot. Mr. Obama's reform could reverse the three-decade-long decline in the rate of unionization south of the border, where it stands at 13.6 per cent.

Would that be such a bad thing? Somewhere between Montreal's cols bleus and those Mississippi poultry workers, there has to be a happy medium. The Fraser Institute hasn't found it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Margaret Wente on Education

Although I rarely find myself in agreement with her views, Margaret Wente recently wrote a column on the impact of political interference on education with which I found myself in complete accord. The only thing she didn’t address is the effect such interference has on the integrity and goodwill of committed teachers everywhere.

High-school daze: In Ontario, failure is not an option

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
August 30, 2008 at 1:10 AM EDT

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."