School board official responds to employer’s criticisms of education today

By Roderick Benns

“Look to that section. These are the aspects that develop the whole person.”

A superintendent of learning at the local school board is urging employers to reflect on the great students they have hired over the years, instead of the ones that haven’t worked out, to try and replicate those successes.

Trillium Lakelands District School Board’s Bruce Barrett spoke to the The Lindsay Advocate about student success in the workplace, after critical comments were made by one of the town’s largest private sector employers, Mariposa Dairy.

The owner of the dairy factory, Bruce Vandenberg, suggested there were a lot of issues with reliability within the 18-35 age group – and he in part blamed the school system and parents for not letting kids fail or face consequences for their actions. The story was shared more than 4,000 times on Facebook and has been read nearly 60,000 times.

School board official responds to employer's criticisms of education today
Bruce Barrett, superintendent of learning, TLDSB.

Changing Family Structure

Barrett says he doesn’t believe a business owner would make the comments he made “without basing it on observation.”

He says he believes Vandenberg’s company is struggling to find the right mix of people for its vacancies, despite paying what he says “seems to be a fair wage.”

What he doesn’t buy, however, is the assertion that maybe schools aren’t playing their part.

One of society’s great challenges, he says, is the changing nature of the family. Given this, it has become more important than ever for employers to play a crucial role.

“If you look at things traditionally, family life and school life had a kind of synergy together to develop young men and women,” says Barrett.

With the rise of single parent homes, blended families, two-home scenarios, and the overall fracturing of what we understand the traditional unit to be, “the very definition of family has changed fundamentally.”

“Whether or not employers like it or recognize it, the community plays this new role as much as family does, and I think employers play a seminal role in helping kids develop into young adults.”

Barrett appreciates how trying that can be for an employer sometimes.

“I know it can be enormously frustrating. Maybe if they (employers) took the opportunity to talk about young employees who turned out to be gems for them…if they can reflect on their learning with those young people, those good stories, and maybe say ‘what did we do here’ that was perhaps different, it could be rewarding.”

Skills and Attitudes

Barrett says that “skills and attitudes are most definitely addressed in schools.”

In fact, he says, the entire report card is predicated on this.

“Whether that’s a percentage or letter grade, there has always been some form of measurement on how you’ve mastered a subject area,” he says.

The superintendent says even more important than those grades, though, are the six learning skills areas that are also on the report card.

They are responsibility, organization, independent work, collaboration, initiative, and self regulation. Students are assigned a letter of E for excellent, G for good, S for satisfactory, or N for needs improvement in all six areas.

In his time as principal, Barrett says he always told parents this is the most important aspect of developing young men and women.

“Look to that section. These are the aspects that develop the whole person.”

Barrett wonders if, for whatever reason, Mariposa Dairy is attracting more N’s and S’s who come through their door.

“Just because we measure that, it doesn’t mean all our students are sitting there with E’s and G’s.”

Challenges and Engagement

Barrett says he does not look at this generation and say to himself ‘wow, they’ve got it good.’

Millennials face a challenging economy the likes of which has never been seen before, including a glut of precarious jobs that are often part-time, contract, and without benefits.

Costs relative to incomes are much higher now than for previous generations, so money doesn’t go as far.

School board official responds to employer's criticisms of education today
The challenge of technology.

As so-called digital natives, they have also grown up with highly addictive technologies and have been both blessed and cursed with immediate access to information or engagement with the touch of a button.

“There is no question the draw and immediacy of technology is a challenge for today’s kids,” says Barrett.

“We can’t teach in the same way because of that. There is a competition for engagement that’s absolutely tangible. You can feel it in the classroom. Teachers are no longer keepers of knowledge when the students can get that anywhere,” so this has shifted the dynamics of school itself, he says.

He points out that “YouTube is the new lottery for young people,” with so many of them glued to YouTube channels of people their own age or slightly older who found fame, money and a following.

“Too many of them think this is a viable path.”

On the plus side, Barrett points out that this same generation is far more socially attuned than previous generations, in the sense of being aware of the larger world and the big picture impact of decisions made by policy makers, including on sustainability and the environment.

“The world is smaller, they even have more awareness of their own health,” says the superintendent.

He says to look at the goat cheese industry itself.

“I’m going to suggest part of their growth (at Mariposa Dairy) is absolutely because of people wanting to take better care of themselves, and that’s a feature of this generation. Goat cheese is a part of the health food industry. Young people are more attuned to health and ecology.”

Due Dates

One of the Mariposa Dairy owner’s comments had to do with ‘flexible’ due dates for school work.

But Barrett says assignments still come with due dates and that teachers are hardwired to create them that way.

“The question is how you respond when something doesn’t come in,” Barrett says.

He says what they know for sure is that there are two kinds of students who might not make those due dates. One is the kind who has all kinds of support at home and who just didn’t do the work. The other kind of student doesn’t have support at home and often doesn’t even “get” the assignment.

“Giving that student, who has no support, a goose egg, a zero…we know statistically that group of kids will take the zero and go on their way,” rather than choose the other options the teacher might give, such as lose 10 per cent a day until it comes in.

Barrett says zeros “can crucify students in their achievement of credits.”

“The basic notion that failure is a good thing,” says Barrett, “that it builds resilience and time management skills and so on…doesn’t work for a core group of students,” according to research from the Ministry of Education.

He says the Ministry found repeatedly that those students will perform poorly in other ways, too. Even if that same type of student is down just one credit by the end of Grade 9, it will “greatly diminish their chances of graduating,” Barrett says, reducing that likelihood by 20 per cent.

He says the main frustration is for those students who are capable and are just not getting their assignments done.

The superintendent points out that at a province-wide level, about 75 per cent of students study at the academic level (courses that will allow them to be university bound) and about 25 per cent study at the applied level (courses that will allow students to graduate into the workforce, trades, or college.)

At Trillium Lakelands, though, well over 40 per cent of students are studying at the applied level, says Barrett, signifying that “learning does not come easily for them.”

Barrett says this is not a comment on what strand is better, for he points out there are many university graduates who have difficulty looking for gainful employment.

“We know there is a significant need for skilled trades,” for instance, which can be accessed along the applied path and turned into “gainful employment and happiness.”

School board official responds to employer's criticisms of education today
Bruce Vandenberg, Mariposa Dairy.


Barrett points out that often experiential learning is best for many of these students, such as a co-op environment, and he wonders if Mariposa Dairy has tried using co-op students before. School boards today also offer the Pathways to Success program for Kindergarten to Grade 12, and the Specialist High Skills Majors that lets students focus on a career path that matches their skills and interests while still achieving their diploma.

Using this path, students can gain important skills on the job with actual employers, and move right into apprenticeships after graduation. There are also dual credits that engage kids at high school and college at the same time.

“Mariposa is saying they can’t find these people. The programs that we offer and that the Ministry has put in place have really extended opportunities for students. These programs should be putting our kids in a much better position.”

Barrett says he believes Mariposa Dairy “is an incredible success story” for Lindsay and Kawartha Lakes.

He also notes the Vandenberg children were “fantastic kids” who went through the Trillium Lakelands system successfully, and he notes that “many of our students have gainful employment at Mariposa Dairy today.”

Barrett says the kind of apathy from some young people that Mariposa Dairy and other employers are seeing should be a “small fraction,” given that “today’s kids are in a better position than ever,” when it comes to learning opportunities.

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