Q: Isn't standardization good? Isn't this better than before? What else would you suggest for bringing all publicly funded ESL classes into alignment with each other?
A: Yes, I believe that having a system of levels is good in that it allows us to talk to each other in a common language and pass students back and forth with clear understanding of what level of communicative ability they have reached. (Not all scholars agree with me re the CLB; I speak only for myself here.)
Q: So what's your gripe?
A: I am personally not seeing an improvement in consistency under PBLA. At my agency, we have some students leaving our school because we are complying with the funder's non-negotiables. Some of the exiting students are seeking out schools that are softer on PLBA. There are other schools where the roll-out has been such a complete failure, with teachers up in arms, that they have been given special dispensation to delay implementation. Before PLBA, there were always some centres with competent management and good teachers; there were always some with incompetent management and poor teaching going on. PBLA does not change that. In my opinion, PBLA simply introduced a new and different sort of inconsistency. Also, I still occasionally see students arriving from the assessment centre with wildly inaccurate benchmarks, meaning that teachers still have to use their common sense in order to best place the client. (Please do not take away our ability to do that!) I am for anything that teachers can realistically accomplish while being fairly compensated that truly improves the quality of service delivery for the client, that truly enhances a client-centred model of service delivery while making efficient use of taxpayer money.
2. The learner-centred model
Q: PBLA makes our programs more learner-centred! Don't you believe in that?
A: Where I have the privilege to work, the program was more learner centred before PBLA, not less. I was already conducting regular needs assessments because that's how I was trained at CCLCS. I was using the Canadian Language Benchmarks and all the available documents when creating exit tests. I was keeping portfolios of work samples for all students and passing those on to the next teacher when students progressed. Although portfolio artifacts received a lot of weight in my decision, I was also free to use common sense and keep the wellbeing of the client in mind when making decisions regarding class placement. Formative assessment was a natural, regular, and ongoing part of my delivery of instruction because, again, that's how I was trained.
Now, with the current incarnation of PBLA, we are less free to put the needs of the clients before bureaucracy and dogmatic imposition of a one-size-fits-all prescription. I'll give you three examples.
We once had a teaching assistant who went from class to class supporting students struggling to learn to read by giving them one-on-one tutoring in word attack skills, phonics, etc. Almost all her time is now taken up with helping teachers with PBLA housekeeping. The struggling new readers have lost their tutor. THAT is taking a needed service away from clients who need it and thus is less learner-centred.
Next door to my class we have been blessed to employ, for just one term before she sails off to do post-graduate work, Maria Margaritis. If you've had the good luck to attend one of her workshops on PTSD in the classroom, you know why I say that our centre is fortunate to have her. Because she has a degree in psychology and has worked in other settings with clients who share some of the same challenges, her literacy classroom has become the safe and welcoming haven for: clients experiencing PTSD and its impact on ability to acquire second language; clients with acquired brain injury; clients with serious learning disabilities; clients needing extra patience and support due to physical disability.
Maria welcomes them all and even encourages other teachers to send her such students. She is amazing with them. And yet, in spite of her formal recommendation to excuse these clients from the rigours of artifact collection at a rate of 8 x 4 per term, she was not able to procure such relief for them. So, she has done her utmost to show them that the formative tests are not tests of their ability but simply feedback on her teaching. Only because of her gifts has she been able to turn the situation into one that does not add to their stress and nightmares. When she goes away to graduate school in the fall, there is no telling whether her replacement will be someone as gifted at that delicate dance of collecting work samples without further traumatizing and needlessly badgering these special clients. They have their own way of learning, their own pace of learning, and there should not be a bureaucratic requirement forced upon their class. We have all met those newcomers who will probably never hold jobs, except perhaps in sheltered workshops. We have all met those who will never make it to level 3 or 4 or be able to pass a written citizenship test. Well, imagine them all in one class. That's a class where the instructor should be allowed to put her allegiance to the code of ethics of her profession before the still young "rules" of PBLA implementation. Eventually the funders will have received enough feedback that they will realize some classes deserve exemption or should be allowed to modify PBLA. Until then, some teachers are faced with not knowing whether defiance in the name of protecting their clients will result in punitive measures or dismissal. It all depends on whether they work under administrators with the courage to stand up to the funders and say, "We have a situation at our agency that merits special consideration."
I teach a multilevel ESL class for seniors. Most of them found my class by word of mouth and have stayed because of how very learner-centred it was (before PBLA). Through regular needs assessments, I was able to learn why these older clients had migrated to my classroom and then tailor English instruction to their very different set of needs. They told me, for example, "We don't need to learn how to write a résumé," and "we already know how to write an essay." Because I believe in the learner-centred model, we have changed the class and do not spend an equal portion of our time on each of the four skills. Rather, we focus on reading or writing only when it is a natural part of that particular module. For the module on air travel, we learned to fill out a Canadian customs declaration form, for example.
|Seniors teach each other to use iPads.|
These clients--in their sixties, seventies, and eighties--do not progress through the levels the way their much younger counterparts do; they do not move on to other teachers. Over time, receiving feedback from them through a series of needs assessments, I have tweaked and sculpted the curriculum in order to give them what they need and nothing extraneous. They are gaining a treasure trove of knowledge about their communities and are mastering the language needed to: call 911, 311, and 211; become volunteers in their community; join a hobby club; avoid scams; report a crime; or communicate with every medical professional they encounter throughout the year.
This past five-month term of PBLA has been very interesting for us. From an aspect of PBLA implementation, it has been an utter failure. Each of these seniors has a Language Companion, and they are free to leave it at school or take it home. They take it home one or two nights when they first receive it and also during summer break. Otherwise, they find it to be a cumbersome burden (some of the clients weigh under 100 lbs; one uses a walker). Because I was collecting artifacts before our official PBLA launch date, each one of them has well over the required 8 per skill between benchmark changes. However, each of them does not have 8 artifacts at the "challenge level," so to speak. That would have required me to create 8 x 4 tasks for H at the 2/3 level, 32 tasks for N to see if he has moved from 7 to 8 in speaking, and so forth. Did I spend hours at home creating assessments spanning CLBs two to seven when these clients do not care about their benchmarks? No, I did not. I collected 32 work samples in a five-month term, each with a marked checklist or rubric attached in order to be able to say that I attempted to comply with the funder's mandate. I was honest with my group about this. By the way, I did once use a multi-level rubric when Rana Ashkar at the Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks provided it as part of a pilot. Although still not appropriate for a group of people whose L2 abilities have mostly reached a plateau, I would use one again in a mainstream settlement English class that spans just two or three levels.
So this brings me back to a question that an unidentified PBLA defender recently asked me in the comments section of this blog: what do I mean by unethical and unfair? I will present many reasons for that characterization here today, but here is one: I believe it is unethical to force special demographic groups such as Maria's special ed class or my seniors' class to jump through a hoop that has the strong potential to shine a light on their failure to move up in benchmarks over time. It is unnecessarily demeaning and demoralizing to repeatedly point out to a client, "No, your x skill still hasn't improved. Once again, there's been no change." Instead, I propose that teachers of speciality niche classes be given the freedom to use their intimate knowledge of their clientele along with good old common sense in order to design formative assessment methods that give the teacher needed feedback while NOT adding to the clients' stress levels, not demoralizing, not framing progress in terms of benchmarks in classes for which benchmarks are not and should not be the main focus.
3) Not fair?
Q: What do you mean by 'unfair?'
A: I will provide what I consider to be the most salient reason that the current iteration of PBLA implementation is unfair to teachers, and you will find on this blog post a few reasons why it can be unfair to students, some of them already mentioned above.
When this first rolled out, we were expected to continue to create the content of our courses while taking on the new responsibilities of creating all assessments and assessment tools, be those simple checklists or complex rubrics, as well as marking those 32 artifacts per client per term. As Patrice Palmer pointed out on an earlier post on this blog, many of us have been in the field close to ten years and have rarely seen a raise in pay. In seven years I have received, I believe, three raises--all of them around 1 or 1.5%. So while our workload has just increased exponentially, we are all actually having our pay reduced year after year. The costs of food, fuel, utilities, etc. have all risen dramatically since I entered this field. The Ontario government has raised the minimum wage an average of 4.5% per year over the past ten years. At the same time, my pay has not come close to keeping pace with the increased cost of living.
While I have been told by a coworker that our original contract considered our hourly rate to cover a certain amount of off-the-clock prep time, I have never been told how many minutes of prep this rate is supposed to cover. But I can tell you that when I first started trying to implement PBLA in a way that made me feel proud of the work I was doing, I was not being fairly compensated for all the work I was doing at home. I was cranky and sleep deprived, as were my colleagues. I'm told there are some schools where teachers have flat refused to give of their own personal time in order to meet these impossible new demands. My hat is off to them! If the rumour is true, this has left a bottleneck resulting in students unable to progress for lack of marked artifacts. THAT is unfair to the clients.
To roll out PBLA before all the supporting resources have been developed is unfair. To threaten teachers with dismissal and characterize them as "resisters" when they dare to speak out about a workload that has suddenly become ten or twenty times what it was when they agreed to the job description is wrong, unfair.
Q: All I see you people doing here is complaining. Where are the suggested solutions?
A: I have a few suggestions, and I'm sure we'll get some more in the comments section below this post.
- Put a moratorium on this entire project until more research has been done. And if you cite other instances where portfolios or passports have been used, know that the comparison loses validity if the other study was done with K-12 instead of in adult settlement. Apples are not oranges.
- Put a moratorium on mandatory implementation until all supports are in place. This means teachers have at their fingertips all classroom materials and course content as well as ready-made assessments and assessment tools for each module within each settlement theme.
- Pay teachers fairly for after class / before class work (module writing, content resourcing, materials creation, marking).
- Give all settlement frontline workers paid sick leave and extended health benefits as a show of investment in them, the most valuable resource in helping newcomers settle and integrate into Canadian society.
- Do away with dogmatic requirements regarding HOW portfolios are to be kept. Do not spend taxpayer money on an impractical 2-inch binder that is made unnecessarily heavy by housing together both the portfolio and reference book. Provide students with a 1" binder (or let them provide their own) for carrying class work home each evening, as was the perfectly workable case before PBLA. Allow for materials that do not need to go home each night, such as past assessments and reference materials, to remain at home or at school when not in use. This would be MORE client-centred and more fair to frail seniors, expectant mothers, those who have to wrangle strollers onto city buses, etc.
- Do not continue to spend taxpayer money on the printing or development of the Language Companion in its current form. Poll teachers to find out how many times they (or students on their own initiative) reference it, and collate these data by level. It is highly likely that, at least for literacy instructors, it is a complete waste of money that could be so much better spent.
- Allow school administrations, in consult with teachers, to designate certain special classes as "pre-PBLA" or "post-PBLA." These teachers would be free to adopt a lighter version or an adapted version of PBLA that truly serves their clientele.
In closing, I will let you in on what my plans are for my second term of supposed 'full' implementation.
I haven't said much about my literacy class. With only 10 students, marking is not a burden. However, I do not feel confident that my assessments are valid. All of the literacy teachers at my centre need time to sit down with the new ESL for ALL Support Kit so that we can (one can only hope) design assessments that better reflect a learner's progress from Foundations and up through the sub-levels of literacy learning. Until then, I will continue to use needs assessments, checklists to mark tasks, learning logs, and other things that help prepare students for the PBLA routines they can expect to encounter in subsequent classes. None of the teachers at my agency has found time to revisit students' goals individually at mid-term. We will probably begin to use the T.A. for that (formerly the reading tutor).
As for seniors, I have pointed out to my supervisor that all of these students now have accumulated in their portfolios well over 20 artifacts per skill since their last change in benchmark.
May I therefore slow down on the formal artifact collection and rubric marking for that group? Yes, I was told that I may do so. I'll switch almost exclusively to self-assessment and reflection, such as you see here on three assessment / reflection tools used with the seniors class.
I will, as always, provide seniors with as much marking of their work as they want. I always give them a choice between handing in work for me to take home and mark or going over answers in class so that they can check their own work. They have told me that taking it up on the spot is more valuable to them. The size of this class is limited to 15, so when it comes to marking, once again I get off easy compared to my colleagues.
To sum it up, I will continue to advocate for the clients. I will continue to protest any framework that is imposed in a dogmatic and overly bureaucratic way that does not make room for common sense consideration of individual client needs. I will do what I've always done in order to sleep better at night.