Sunday, May 28, 2017

First Term w PBLA Fully Implemented

This novel-length blog post is for anyone who feels I am being too negative about PBLA or simply am resistant to change. I want to lay it all out point by point so that there is less room for misunderstanding of my position. Specifically, I would like to address the questions that I see batted around again and again wherever critics dare speak out.

1) Standardization
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.

Example one:
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.

Example two:
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."

Example three:
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.
The class welcomes seniors with any level of English language ability. At one point the range spanned literacy to CLB 7; we somehow made it work. Currently the reading ability ranges from CLB 2 to 6 while the speaking ability goes from CLB 3 to 8. Before PBLA, this vast range in abilities was not an issue for me because their benchmarks are not the focus of the class. They have not come to me because they want to eventually pass the citizenship test or get a job. Their goals are social integration, combating isolation, learning to navigate every aspect of their lives in Canada without help from a child, grandchild, friend or neighbour. They love to be self-sufficient!

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.

4) Solutions
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.


  1. YES!! PBLA is a failure. Demeaning and demoralizing!!! absolutely and I don't teach seniors but ESL - students from all walks of life with all kinds of hopes and needs - of all ages. Seniors at school to get out of the house. Moms at school for the first time in their lives. Lonely people wanting to socialize. Workers who have been laid off. THEY DON"T CARE ABOUT THE BINDERS!!!! They want to learn. They want to meet people. They want to socialize and have fun and feel a part of Canadian society. They want to feel good again about themselves and their lives. Put a moratorium on it, end it, modify it, do whatever has to be done before ESL teachers all leave the profession. Students are leaving in droves. Binders are left behind. Teachers cannot keep up with this pace and why should they? It's unreasonable and ridiculous. Our schools should be a comfortable, transitional landing place for new Canadians to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Instead they are unnecessarily burdened with the ridiculous notion of completing 'tasks' and 'artefacts' and real language learning has gone out the window except for in the case of teachers who pay lip service (or risk being labelled resistant" ) and try to continue doing what they used to do. Endless hours have been wasted 'training' teachers; during this wasted time teachers could actually be imparting their knowledge to their students i.e., 'teaching' . I will advocate for my students until I am no longer in the game. It is impossible to fairly financially compensate teachers for the enormous amount of extra work involved. Teachers have lost interest and enthusiasm for their jobs because students - fearing that they will never be able to move to the next level - simply come to class to do tasks (or not - just drop out and leave the binders behind). Are we doing a task today? Oh no! Do I have enough tasks to move on? Will I be stuck in this level forever???! Teachers are unable to keep up with the marking so yes, a bottleneck everywhere you look. Waiting lists for classes for months at a time because students simply cannot move and teachers who have full time classes simply cannot do the marking without spending almost all of their free time. We can no longer use our (very good) instincts to teach what we know the students need. PBLA has not made ESL more consistent across the country. If anything the opposite is true. Our natural instincts have been suppressed, and those natural instincts were the basis for the consistency of programs. What can we do? How can we end this madness or make our voices heard?

    1. You nailed it.

      Enough of talking in the corridors at conferences and in the backchannels and social media. Enough of Leads trying to get responses to their feedback (changing the absurd Learner Feedback from two pages to one doesn't hack it). We are never going to get those who have vested interest in this to prove that this has value and is better than the "old way" you describe above ( which they disparage) BECAUSE THEY CANNOT. IT IS NOT BETTER. IT IS WORSE.
      Enough of the weak plaint "change takes time"...enough time has passed and enough feedback has been exchanged to show what a stupid government mistake this is.
      Today I received notice of an emergency meeting of our Union next week to discuss issues of PBLA. The voices here and elsewhere are not isolated cases. All over the country there are frustrations and questions about the wisdom of this.
      We know the issues are not only of "unpaid teacher time" (I and others regularly give unpaid time to make our lessons the most professional, the highest quality, the best they can be. PBLA "pap" is not what I consider quality.)
      Pretending the superficial, not-based-on-quality-research-and-educational-theory-and- practice "PBLA" training produces a verifiable "new assessment methodology" is intellectually dishonest.
      You and I both know that there is noone to talk to IN the profession. We have tried. Everyone is scared for their jobs. But keeping the truth hidden is never a good course. The only path I see now is to get political and public. How? Suggestions? I have a few but wsnt to think about them. Thanks for posting!

    2. Dear Anonymous,

      You can contact your local MP and MPP for advice.

      Burnt Out in Ontario

  2. Hi Kelly,

    I am so confident that something will change. I hope that the change comes before too many people find that PBLA has harmed them or their learners. There are many issues that need to be worked on from the inside out. I genuinely believe that the train can be stopped and issues worked on so that a better work/life balance can be obtained for instructors and a better method of classroom management that allows for the joy return to the classroom so that learners are more content.

    Keep your head up and your eyes looking to the future.

    Hugs Kiddo. You are not alone.
    Three Decades in the ESL Trenches

    1. My 1.7 decades in the trenches. 1.7 decades of joy
      Moratorium? Issues to be worked on from the inside?
      No. Bonfire.
      It is based on a flawed premise and construct. It uses an inaporopriate and unsustainable model (Train the Trainer). It wastes bucketfuls of taxpayer money on "Binders". What's to keep? Ontario Government sent at least $16 million to CCLB (which manages PBLA) in past four years (according to what I could glean from yearly CCLB financial reports - I got no answer to my question asked at PBLA Panel at previous TESLToronto conference about where I could get informstiin about the cost of PBLA.
      Please do not throw good money after bad.

  3. You all are my tribe. Thank you so much for coming here to share your thoughts and insights. Wish I could get the minutes to some of these emergency union meetings. :) Hugs to all four of you, Anon, Claudie, BOinON and Toni. --K <3

  4. so sad about PBLA. I'll be leaving the profession after just starting in it because I refuse to work for free. I work in Literacy and love the students dearly and I know they love my teaching style as well. I'll come back when the dust on this mess settles. A million monkeys on a million typewriters. Inconsistency. Asking teachers to be curriculum writers and test developers. Wrong.

    1. New Teacher,
      I am so angry that this mess of yes, a million monkeys on a million typewriters, has driven you out of what was until very recently the best job on earth. It was and can be SO rewarding. I applaud you for refusing to work for free. I also, as you know, work in literacy. It takes a very special person to be able to do it, and I hope to heaven the powers that be wake up before more like you are driven away. Thank you for having the backbone to call a spade a spade, the courage to walk away from an unfair setup.
      My heart goes out to you. Please keep us posted. --K

    2. My hope is that over time, people will write curriculum and assessments, and then have them VALIDATED, since we are after consistency??
      How would every individual teacher, writing separate tasks for each module according to their own rubric be consistent?
      I find it shocking. My learners just needs to learn consonants and vowels, so they can learn to read phonetically, where is this accounted for in the CLB competencies? I love the idea of standardization for learners- it is done in the language assessment field quite well.
      If PBLA continues, I certainly hope it evolves to real standardization with materials that are set and ready for teachers to use.

    3. Dear New Teacher,
      I feel your pain. As for your need for something to measure gains at the pre-benchmark level, I think the new ESL for ALL Support Kit will help you. (I haven't had time yet to study it; am hoping my admin pays for a few hard copies for our centre.) Also Conestoga College is working on a toolkit for literacy levels similar to the one they have put on Tutela for CLB 1 through 7.
      Yes, I think most LINC teachers agree that the LINC Classroom Activities binders were very helpful since they provided us with off-the-shelf packages aligned with the CLBs that included notes to the teacher on how to use the materials in class, suggestions for extending the lesson, other resources, audio files, worksheets, etc. They followed the twelve settlement themes, as well. I believe that the money spent on the Language Companion--a reference book that is poorly conceptualized and superfluous for teachers with access to picture dictionary sets-- could have been better spent creating a new volume of LINC Classroom Activities complete with rubrics or other assessment tools and audio files. Then teachers would still be using their after- and before-class time marking, but not also creating course content and assessment tools.
      Right now the mess that is PBLA reminds me of a little idiom my mother used when I was a kid: "It's neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring." --K

  5. I think it is obvious that whoever developed PBLA including the Language Companion, did not spend a great deal of time in the classroom. PBLA needed to be developed by teachers for teachers. It is a complete dismissal of what teachers already know and understand about the classroom. It assumes that they weren't getting it right in the first place. This is not the foundation upon which a program should be developed. Teachers know that learners need feedback. Teachers were using the CLB document. They recognize this is a valuable tool. But do a survey and ask teachers how they feel about PBLA. They know their students. They know their needs and they know how to teach. They also know what is useful and what is a waste of time, when it comes to PBLA.
    -Teacher who believes in teachers

  6. Dear Teacher who believes in teachers,
    I wish your comment, which is spot on, were on a more recent blog post where more readers would see it. You really nailed it when you said that the PBLA experiment assumes that teachers were not doing it right to begin with. At my centre, we were absolutely using the CLBs and documents, can-do checklists, rubrics for exit. We were keeping portfolios and doing regular needs assessments. If this was not happening at every school, then that should have been handled on a SPO by SPO basis or as a personnel matter if some teachers were not adhering to the funder's expectations.
    You have really summed up the very thought I had when I first started trying to implement PBLA with seniors and literacy. I asked my friend who sits on the CLB Board whether this whole project was just a way to catch out bad or lazy teachers. That's how it feels! The project completely steamrolls over gifted teachers, competent teachers, those who would very gladly have shifted a few practices were they told to stop doing exit tests and make sure student are involved in their portfolios. What we need now is to nail down the pushers and funders with this question: What was the original intent? What were you trying to fix? Why? How are you planning to measure success and ROI compared to what we were doing before (which for most of us was a lot of the same in a more common sense manner without the need for micromanaging or 5X more off-the-clock work)? Gah! --K