A New Double Cohort? Disagree.

There is of course a lot of speculation going on about how the global pandemic is going to impact upon education. In terms of post-secondary education, we already see contingency plans being put in place for online learning into the upcoming Fall term and possibly Winter of 2021.

When this all started happening, I thought of the the Double Cohort in Ontario of 2003. I imagined it could look similar and then I saw a blog post that also used the language of the “double cohort” to describe what we might see in the coming months. However, their ideation of this Double Cohort was way different than mine.

I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re an education geek and the term “Double Cohort” means something to you, but in case you’ve wandered into this blog without the assumed background knowledge, in Ontario, the “Double Cohort” refers to the the doubling of enrollment of first-year post-secondary students in 2003 due to the phasing out of Grade 13. Grade 13 was required to attend university in Ontario until 2002, when it was eliminated. Thus, people graduating Grade 12 and Grade 13 in summer of 2003 were both eligible to enter university in the Fall of 2003. This resulted in approximately 10,000 more first-year university students in the Fall of 2003 compared to the previous year.

Of course, the Ontario government had planned this and saw it coming. They could build the infrastructure, work with the universities and colleges to achieve enrollment targets — they had the heads up. Not so much this time, given the rudeness of this virus.

When I had thought of the analogy of the a new Double Cohort, I had imagined a case where students entering in Fall of 2020 would simply be less prepared having graduated high school without a full year of instruction. This has been one of the adjustments that post-secondary institutions have had to make since the Double Cohort – the weakened skills that students have without Grade 13 – where first year university serves to fill the gaps, particularly in liberal arts programs. That is the only analogy I had thought of. And that would only last a year at most.

However, there is apparently some thinking in other people’s “Double Cohort theories” that many incoming undergraduates will defer enrollment because attending university online as a first-year student will be seen as undesirable. Instead, they will wait out a year (?) until they can attend in person.

This is what I disagree with. I don’t think you will see this happen en masse because of the severe economic downturn of the economy. From a purely autobiographical perspective, the only reason I stayed in enrolled university classes year-round in the early 1990s in Alberta was because 1) it was the only way I could get money (student loans), and 2) there were no jobs (and I don’t mean *good jobs* — I mean ANY jobs). So enrolling in university was the only way I could actually DO anything other than move into my parents’ basement and be broke.

I do realize that Gen Z has a lot more support from parents than us bitter Gen Xers, but I also know that Gen Z is facing an extremely crappy job market – and Millennials — those poor Millennials are now experiencing their second “once in a lifetime” financial disaster. School might be their only option to bide time. And students are always trying to individualize themselves now in a saturated BA market (all universities have seminars on how to brand yourself, for example)- they probably will not see “taking a year off” to volunteer or look for nonexistent jobs to be attractive to potential future employers. If this lockdown continues, online university might be the most interesting thing they can do, to be frank.

In fact, you don’t have to look far to see that university enrollments increase during a financial downturn. This happened after the 2008 financial downturn. It is also important to note that we may also see an increase in postgraduate applications in the coming year for the same reason.

I know that there might be hesitation by some to invest so much money in an online education. Perhaps a few courses here and there on the journey of a degree program – but to start out this way? However, I would argue that a lot of these extremely large survey courses in first year are the IDEAL place for online learning, as in-person learning is done in extremely large classes (300 or more students) where individualized student attention is very limited.

So, my analogy to the Double Cohort is that students will be less prepared given they have had a pretty incomplete final year of high school, but that any drop in enrollment will be marginal. Let’s see what happens.


Diving into the history of pandemic responses

One of my coping mechanisms for this pandemic situation has been looking at historical documents. I’m not sure why.

A month ago when we were first processing the magnitude of this pandemic, my mother-in-law told me this wasn’t her first experience with this sort of thing — she had survived the “Asian Flu.” I had never heard of this before, but Google had. I learned that this strain of flu (H2N2) spread around the world and took around 1-2 million lives, including 7000 in Canada. This was the first time a vaccine was developed in response to a pandemic.

I highly recommend watching the old timey video of how the CBC covered this back in the day.

It’s really interesting to look at the response to this mid-century pandemic. It is also incredibly difficult to find much information about it in Canada. One bit of information that really piqued my interest is that there was apparently a significant outbreak in Sudbury, Ontario with 6000 cases (at the time, around 10% of the population). I would be really interested to know about municipal and school responses to this, but the archival records for this are not easy to find and would probably require a physical trip to the city or provincial archives, which is not possible right now. The Sudbury newspapers archives from that time that are available online do not contain any information – at least that I can find (I’ve spent a good deal of time digging and even asking a city archivist in Sudbury!). Maybe they are in French or in a newspaper I’m not aware of. I will look further (I have the time).

I found a few articles about the flu on ProQuest, but they seem to have been focused on school absenteeism rather than school closures, although this virus seems to have hit young people rather hard. You can see the terms I was interested are still highlighted.

The flu was global – here is an article about Russia too.

I am just using this post to keep track of my recreational research. Maybe other people are interested in the “lesser known pandemics” and our institutional responses to them. If you know of further resources, please send me an email.


We all know that going online was challenging for many professors — but what about the students?

In the mad dash for all universities to become places of online learning in a matter of days, I have read about the struggles many professors are having with this shift. It is not a struggle that I personally experience because I have been using online learning features in my classes for over a decade. But for those of us who have not, and those of us that teach subject matter that is difficult to assess or teach online, there is certainly a steep learning curve.

Amidst my social media meanderings, I see seminars being held on Zoom (often with cameo appearances from family pets or small chidren), readings being discussed in online forums, exams being rejigged for weighting or turned to papers, and professors wondering how to combat cheating in an online world. I am struggling, however, with the ethics of this supposed “business as usual” perspective when there is certainly nothing normal about our current circumstances.

I watched this pandemic approach for months. I shopped early. I subscribed to the subreddits on it in January. I refused to hold my classes before the university officially cancelled them. I’ve been “on this” for awhile. Yet when the cases started to roll into Canada (and Toronto, in particular) I lost the ability to work. Almost entirely. I don’t know really what I did, except worry. My husband was working at a hardware store where “social distancing” was not possible given the size of the store and the narrowness of the aisles. My mother is old and in poor health. My in-laws live on extremely limited means and suffer from poor health. I was imagining various horrible scenarios and writing the next great research piece with all my new “spare time” wasn’t on my radar. It still isn’t.

I am fortunate that I can work from home as a professor. My husband refuses to go to his job, so he probably no longer has one, but that’s ok, and we are in a position where that choice was possible. We are lucky.

But what about the students? They were forced to leave student residences abruptly. Many work in the “frontlines” at the grocery stores and other essential services that will not close. Most are taking full course loads that were all just hastily put online. How are they coping?

I teach Sociology of Education. This is definitely a “sociology of education” issue. I had put together a great third year course this term where students had a community placement, were organizing a fundraiser for an Indigenous cultural centre, and were working on Wikipedia entries. Things started to go south when the teachers’ strike made attending placement impossible. When life gives you lemons…we talked about the strike and the issues at hand, and politics. All was not lost. But then the schools closed and campus activities were suspended.

I cannot assume everyone is ok. I cannot carry on with assignments like the situation is a minor inconvenience. The first week of this, I assigned a historical reading on school closures during pandemics and the good that they did in containing viruses. It seemed relevant to the subject matter and students seemed to find it useful, even encouraging. At least that’s what they said in the online forum.

However, last week I couldn’t bear to make them read. I just asked them to tell me (anonymously if they wished) what they wished we understood as their professors. I asked their permission to share their views.

Here are some of their responses:

…this entire situation has created a lot of stress for most, if not all students. Not only have our family, social, and work lives been affected but our school lives as well. Everything has now been shifted online, due dates have been changed, marking schemes altered, and some courses are being graded on a pass or fail basis. All of these changes for a full course load can become VERY overwhelming for students. In many cases we now have to self teach at home through slides, videos or textbooks, which takes away from our learning experience.

… being stuck indoors all day, our motivation to do work has gone down significantly. Many of us also do not have the proper working environment at home, especially if there are other family members around. Despite being able to work in our rooms or in an office area at home, there are still many distractions and a lot of students have made libraries their go to place to get work done. It also does not help that cafes are closed and the weather is not optimal for working outside yet. 

…I’d like to remind Profs is that a lot of us have moved back home with our families and there can be a lot going on. Everyone’s household is different and it can be a struggle to find time to sit down to study or even have a quiet place to focus since campus and libraries are closed. There’s also a lot going on with the world around us that we are trying to keep updated with. So, it’s quite difficult to balance both school online, family, and the world around us during the pandemic. Please also keep in mind not everyone is great with online learning.

…  I know we are all going through this experience together, but I think some professors need to be more lenient. Yesterday I saw a tweet that said “Oh you’re going through a world pandemic? No problem here are 3 exams, 2 projects, and a lab report due this week plus you have to teach everything to yourself goodbye” and I haven’t read something more accurate. I know professors are trying their best, don’t get me wrong, but there needs to be a greater sense of understanding as students handle stress differently. 

…A very close friend of mine does not have internet access where she lives and used to go to the nearest Starbucks or library that provided internet for her. She is now struggling and had to decide to stay in her student house by herself during this time so she would have the resources. Some so many students do not have resources because of their location or due to their financial status. Although this is not personally happening to me, it is still something I worry about.

…the one benefit of being stuck at home should be less distractions, thus easier to work. However, I cannot focus. I’m concerned about my safety, my parents’ safety, the well-being of my peers, my unexpected new-found role as ‘living with parents and unemployed’… I can’t focus. I can’t sleep. I can’t think straight. Amidst all of this I have 6 courses to complete which decide if I graduate or not, with final assessments all due around the same time. They have mostly all been significantly re-weighted, as such the successful completion of all these assignments is absolutely crucial. I’m really stressed out, and scared.

…Some students also are being indirectly affected by having their daily routine interrupted and this can cause a lot of mental distress as well as physical. There are people who are isolated from their family and friends. There are students who are in a precarious living situations, especially students in residence. 

… It’s not easy to focus on schoolwork which seems so trivial compared to what is happening outside our houses. It’s not easy focusing when people have to worry about the safety of their family and friends and themselves. The virus is developing at such a fast rate that literally changes to the world happens in a matter of hours. The uncertainty makes it difficult to carry on normally.

…I appreciate that it’s not fair for teachers to simply pass students without them meeting eligible criteria, however when that criteria was established, there was little assumptions that we would find ourselves as we do now. I think students would benefit from extensions that extend past the standard time frame for mark submission. I fear many students would not feel comfortable sharing these feelings with professors in light of gaining a poor reputation among their assessors. As such, they simply take the late marks, or reduced grades as the way things shook out because of the pandemic.

… My number one wish is that professors were more lenient during this time and understood all the changes we are going through.  Something that shocks me is that none of my professors have let us know what to do if we get COVID-19. It is likely that at least 50% of the population will get it, and it worries me that we don’t know of anything in place that will support us other than an [excused absence form].

…The first few days of quarantine, I found myself greatly disoriented and as though my brain went foggy. I am not close with my roommates, and have been in my room for days now without social interaction or routine, and have been feeling very down and lonely. Even though us young people are glued to our screens constantly, personally, I always prefer in-person interaction and have found that my learning abilities depend on that form of communication. There is pressure to be extra productive now that I am doing nothing else but work, however the past few days has proven to be the least productive ones yet this year. 

…the regularity in my life is absolutely in the trash and it’s messing with my ability to properly manage my time.

We are moving home to take care of loved ones, having to change our social and academic environment within a days notice, and are still having to keep up with the rigorous nature of academia. Another important note is that many students are going through financial hard times, many families are going through lay offs and EI only covers up to 50% of what you would typically be making. I wish that professors understood that the current problem for students isn’t just the curriculum change, all aspects of our lives are changing and it’s incredibly hard to manage all of the work they have assigned while trying to adapt to a million other changes. 

I guess none of this was terribly surprising to me, except the comment about what to do about their coursework if they happen to contract COVID-19 themselves. I think we have all been trying to rush this in the hopes we can finish the Winter term without our students being vulnerable to this –at least yet.

Listen to your students. Let them access you in different ways – don’t insist a single form of communication, allow for emails, calls, online messaging — if you can. If you have hundreds of students, this is not possible, I realize. Rethink if that massive final paper is really necessary. Maybe a short reflection piece would be just as useful? I don’t have all the answers — I just wanted to give the students a chance to tell us what they thought we should know.



Why do we care about PISA so much?

Karen Robson and Robert S. Brown

The results of international education rankings known as PISA are in, as of December. Canadians may have learned that Canada had a top ranking (along with Korea, Finland, Estonia and Ireland) among OECD countries in reading but was outperformed by China and Singapore and Macao, a Portuguese-speaking resort city within China with a population of around 700,000.

But what do any of these results mean, and for whom? 

As education analysts and researchers, we believe that much more needs to be known about student performance, and the contexts or characteristics that may be impacting student outcomes, than can be grasped through surface-level comparisons of different societies and educational systems.

As part of the Gateway Cities project at McMaster University, along with our research team, we spent some years examining the post-secondary paths of students in the Toronto District School Board compared to other large cities including Chicago

We found that whether or not high school students were admitted to post-secondary education was greatly influenced by large differences between cities such as the kind of track or academic stream that students enter in high school, whether or not they access special education programming and also their racialized identities.  

In our comparative research, we noted significant complexities in looking at cities that have many things in common (large, diverse English-speaking cities with high immigration). We found,for example, that Black male students in Chicago were more likely to go to university than male Blacks in Toronto.

Given these findings, we question just how much societies can usefully learn from the crowded scene of country-wide reading results and league tables, particularly when limited variables  are factored in. For example, PISA captures whether students are immigrants, but not whether they are studying in a lower academic stream or their racialized identity.

Predicting the future?

The OECD implemented PISA almost a generation ago, at a time when the use and credibility of one-time standardized tests or ranking tables were at their height.

Since then, the highest level of education for most developed nations has moved from secondary to post-secondary.

Outcomes for 15-year-olds are important  — but only insofar as they predict future post-secondary achievement. The PISA process, however, reflecting the earlier focus on one-time standardized tests, has no ability to do this.  The focus of PISA on three separate subjects likewise reflects the thinking of a different age that is worth re-examination. 

The reader of PISA reports could easily conclude that reading, science, and mathematics are subjects that are completely unrelated to each other, and are only important in isolation.  

Long-term cohort outcomes

Our examination of how all students in a single cohort or age group students do in the long term questions the current fixation on individual subjects without reference to each other. Achievement patterns between subjects is strongly linked, and measures that combine different subjects tend to be stronger predictors of post-secondary achievement than individual subject results.  

For example, one of us was part of a team that studied learning and achievement outcomes of students who attended both Toronto District Sschool Board (TDSB) schools and the University of Toronto.

We found that achievement in each of the four mandatory Grade 9 subjects (English, mathematics, science and geography) was strongly connected to university graduation. However, a much stronger predictor was combining the number of Grade 9 courses passed, with the achievement of these four subjects.

When we studied learning and achievement outcomes of students who attended both TDSB schools and the University of Toronto we found that [achievement in each of the four mandatory Grade 9 subjects (English, mathematics, science and geography) was strongly connected to university graduation]– but a much stronger predictor was combining the number of Grade 9 courses passed with the achievement of these four subjects.

Note that these outcomes are based on entire courses rather than standardized tests. Similarly, University of Chicago research has demonstrated that ninth grade GPA is a stronger prediction of college graduation than standardized tests like the SAT.

Long term achievement

Rather than fixating on individual PISA reading, science and math results, we should be looking at how these subjects relate to each other in a composite of student achievement – in particular, how the subjects relate to longer-term post-secondary achievement.

Another problem is how PISA data enables trend comparisons over time within the same system. In Canada’s most recent 2018 report, PISA measures reading scores over time a range from 2000 to 2018  (showing significant decline); math scores from 2012 to 2018 (showing a small but significant decline); and science for only two unique years (2015 and 2018).

Without manually cobbling together the data from various reports, it is difficult to know just how much math scores are suffering in Canada – but it is around 20 points (a slightly larger decline than that seen in reading).

More data needed

Education researchers have pointed out that educational systems in Canada are often behind others globally in collecting data that would help researchers better understand issues affecting how equitably communities can access education.

Large gaps in Canadian data infrastructure make it nearly impossible to examine associations between various student characteristics and their educational outcomes. This results in a dearth of evidence to create evidence-based education policy.

While it is possible for researchers to examine some public-release data files,  suppress Statistics Canada exclude “sensitive” variables.

Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom collect race data in their PISA survey. 

Visible minority status is discussed in reference to the 2009 data, but in no Canadian release since. 

The 2012 questionnaire posted online does not carry race questions.  The 2015 and 2018 questionnaires are not currently posted anywhere publicly (at least that we can find), but extrapolating from the [CMEC report, they did not carry any questions about race.

While PISA reports findings on low-income and immigrant students, glossing over this important factor of race associated with educational attainment and achievement in Canada severely compromises our understanding (and recognition) of systemic racism in the Canadian education system. 

It suggests race does not matter, when an increasing body of evidence is strongly indicating that it does.

Instead of comparing Canadian students to those of similar age in Estonia and Macao, we need to be asking ourselves what these exactly data are telling us and perhaps more important, what they don’t.


A blog about Canadian education stuff

This is a blog for Karen Robson and colleagues to post about education news and issues. Opinions are our own.