What is essentially seen by learners as an educational access program is force-fit into an employment service system. Then, an impossible testing standard is established for the system using a falsified threshold level from international literacy testing. Ontario’s LBS system is made accountable for fulfilling the employment goals that most learners don’t have and for demonstrating test results beyond its reach.
In a previous post I wrote about how most learners In LBS do not have employment goals. Nearly 70% participate in local programs in order to access other educational programs (58%) and some (11%) are participate to address the institutional demands of healthcare, social services and the education of their children or to read books and access online information, like everyone else. Yet, all are asked four different times after leaving the program if the program helped them get a job, if they are still working and what they are making.
I also wrote about how policymakers are under the impression that Level 3 can be used as the ultimate measure of effectiveness for the LBS system, even though it doesn’t indicate competency beyond the testing situation, and is aligned with the completion of a postsecondary education.
Since education is seen to be a path to employment, education related aims are valued within the accountability system. However, it isn’t the diploma, certificate or completion of credits that are of main interest and countable in the system. There is no follow-up to see what happens if a learner enters a education program once exiting LBS. They are not asked if they completed a course, how many credits they earned or whether they are attending school part-time or full-time. What is valued more is a demonstration of testing competency without knowing whether that test-taking ability translates to competency beyond the testing situation. The achievement of a level and a test score aligned with international literacy testing results are the only outcomes that count.
Valued even less in the system are independence goals—that is developing literacy to support personal, family and community-related interests. Ever since LBS was positioned in the ministry as an employment support program 10 to 15 years ago the legitimacy of this category has been questioned. Last year I had a brief conversation with a policymaker who openly declared the independence path should be eliminated.
The LBS system’s primary focus on employment with a support role for education, (in so far as it produces improved test scores) means that those goals have value. Independence and the development of personal goals do not. This leaves community-based programs vulnerable, as they work with the most learners with independence goals, and do not have a direct educational partnership similar to school boards and colleges. It also leaves them carrying the burden of responsibility for demonstrating the ministry’s employment aims for LBS.
In 2015-2016 community programs had the largest proportion of learners with employment and independence goals and the smallest number of learners with education goals.
In a system built for all, in which people are free to express their learning interests and aims, wouldn’t it make sense that community programs would have an even distribution of goals?
Staff in programs have to do extra work to translate, trouble-shoot and work around an accountability system that isn’t designed to work for most of their students and local programs. Some of the work includes shielding students from the effects of the system.
Some program staff may not have the time and resources to do this extra work. Some, as one researcher has revealed, feel a great deal of pressure from ministry officials to support employment goals over people’s personal aims and ambitions. Others may agree with the misinformed policy vision, and then convince students that they should too.
Supporting the genuine employment aims of LBS participants is important. But how many actually have such aims when they first decide to enter a program? How often are people’s personal literacy related concerns and interests recategorized and subtly or overtly devalued?
One Ontario researcher has found that educators in community-based programs are actively pressured to disregard learners’ personal goals in favour of employment goals. Tannis Atkinson concludes that community-based literacy workers are experiencing particularly profound impacts as the ministry emphasizes employment goals over personal learning. She describes how and why informants in her study “turn away from helping learners achieve what they want to learn.”
The desire to simply learn to read—novels, online information or everyday documents that enter one’s household—is not deemed an acceptable goal, even though it is the anchor that supports the development of a comprehensive repertoire of literacy practices. Instead, explains Atkinson, personal goals and understandings of what it means to be literate must be transformed into a ministry sanctioned notion of literacy that is directly tied to employment. In community-based programs, “[t]he LBS focus on labour market outcomes rather than learning seriously restricts what adults struggling with print are allowed to learn.”
It seems that only those with literacy aims that could lead to a productivity pay-off, measured by wages or a score increase, are worth the investment.