Listed below is the comparative report I did in collaboration with Tina Teichroeb. Together, she and I evaluated the Ontario curriculum in comparison with Alberta's. Our findings are below. Let's see if you agree with us...
The purpose of this report is to compare the high school curriculum between the provinces of Alberta and Ontario and make a determination on which aspects of the two visions best support the full integrity of study in English. The report will touch briefly on four areas of comparison: hours of study in English classes, models of streaming, mandated English standards in compulsory courses, and standardized testing. Because of its brevity and limited number of areas of comparison, this cannot be considered a comprehensive examination of the two educational models by any means; however, this report does touch on four areas of interest to individuals wishing to compare professional standards.
Time on Task
The Ontario English curriculum mandates that 110 hours of instructional time be spent on any English course. The allotment of that time, in terms of unit delivery, varies between grade and level. Alberta’s curriculum provides no indication as to how long each task should take, or the length of time spent for English as a subject. This is a flaw in their vision; although there is a level of academic freedom given to educators here in terms of how long to spend on units and how much time to allot for mastery of an expectation, no guidance as to how long to spend on one concept will be problematic in terms of consistency. From class to class or school to school there will undoubtedly be inconsistencies in terms of how the curriculum is presented. Ontario’s vision is much stronger; it provides a loose framework for educators to work within while allowing professional freedom to determine how long units of study should last.
In the Alberta curriculum, there are two course streams outlined in the curriculum, with the descriptors English Language Arts (ELA) 10-1, 20-1, 30-1 and English Language Arts (ELA) 10-2, 20-2, 30-2. ELA 10-1 / 2 relates to Grade 10, and so on up to Grade 12 (ELA 30-1 / 2). Both course sequences are organized according to
the same five “general outcomes,” which in Ontario’s curriculum relates to the overall expectations of learning from a course. In terms of student needs, there are different expectations for students in each course sequence. For example, in relation to the study of texts, standards vary according to the complexity of the material and the development of reading skills. Generally, these standards are lower for students in the ELA 10-2, 20-2, 30-2 course sequence. The course profile also states that “Student interests will directly influence their future aspirations for post-secondary study as well.” Since the ELA 10-1, 20-1, 30-1 course sequence provides a more analytical study of text, students who aspire to careers that involve the development, production, teaching and study of more complex texts need to register in this course sequence. The other stream involves a less analytical and more varied approach in terms of sophistication and is open a wider variety of learners due to this varied approach. The two streams have overlapping expectations for content, for example, the curriculum document states that both courses “maintain high standards to meet graduation requirements” and “feature the six language arts—listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing and representing.” Ontario’s streams, though specifically geared towards post-secondary placement, also represent each strand in the three different streams.In Ontario’s curriculum, the streaming is similar to the Alberta model, but with very different streams as students enter into Grade 11 from Grade 10. Grades 9 and 10 are split into “Academic” and “Applied” streams, and the document states that “students choose between course types on the basis of their interests, achievement and post-secondary goals” once they begin course selection for Grade 11. The Ontario curriculum seems much more accountable when examining choice of courses and student career paths. The descriptors “University preparation, “College preparation” and “Workplace preparation” are very clear indicators as to the level of post-secondary institution these courses lean towards. Thus, the course expectations can be geared towards the skills and expectations that will allow for student success on these academic paths. For example, University / College preparation courses are described in the document as “designed to equip students with knowledge and skills they need to meet the entrance requirements for specific programs offered at universities and colleges” (9). This aspect of the Ontario model best serves the full integrity of the study of English because it allows for students to learn the essential skills they will need based on their stream.
One flaw of the Alberta model of streaming is that some courses (such as the ELA 30-2, for example) are not necessarily enough for students to be granted entrance into college or university. The document states: “Not all post-secondary institutions, however, accept ELA 30-2 for entry. In general, students who plan to attend a post-secondary institution, regardless of their specific career aspirations, need to familiarize themselves with the entry requirements of the institution and program they plan to enter.” While this does call for the student themselves to be accountable for their career path (like the Ontario model) the idea of a course streamed as senior English yet with the caveat of not being a course that is recognized as sufficient into a post-secondary program is a fallacy of their model.
Overall, the Ontario method of streaming is a more fully-realized vision; with three streams as opposed to two, more attention can be paid to the needs of various types of learners and to students with varying degrees of academic prowess.
Both Alberta and Ontario have compulsory English courses required in grades 9 – 12. A brief examination of standard content in a compulsory course follows.
Alberta mandates six language arts strands – listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing and representing. Curriculum documentation states that “All of the language arts are interrelated and interdependent; facility in one strengthens and supports facility in the others” indicating that the strands, while delineated, should not be seen as existing in isolation. The documentation then identifies two major areas of focus, namely text study and text creation. For text study, there are two major categories where specific types of texts under the umbrellas of extended or shorter texts are identified. For example, in the ELA 10-1, which would be the equivalent to the Ontario grade 10 academic class, the category for extended texts breaks down further into sub-categories. Of the four options available, each is also designated as required or encouraged. For example, either a novel or a work of book-length nonfiction must be studied; a feature film must be studied; a modern play or a Shakespearean play must be studied with a Shakespearean play indicated as required and the modern play indicated as encouraged. This breakdown into sub-categories is repeated with shorter texts with the selections of poetry, short story, visual and multimedia text, essay and popular nonfiction as the subcategories. This process is recreated in other half of the grade requirements outlined for text creation. There is enormous specificity in the documentation for each grade and level. On the one hand, this does ensure greater consistency across the province in types of material studied and skills developed. On the other hand, this can indicate a certain rigidity within a system that does not encourage teachers to deviate from a mandated plan to accommodate various differences from class to class or from year to year.
Ontario also mandates strands for study which are identified as oral communication, reading and literature studies, writing, and media studies. Curriculum documentation states that “Literacy development is a communal project, and the teaching of literacy skills is embedded across the Ontario curriculum. However, it is the English curriculum that is dedicated to developing knowledge and skills on which literacy is based...”, which indicates that while English develops literacy skills and knowledge in greater depth than other disciplines, these skills are considered cross-curricular. As a comparison to the Alberta model, an in-depth examination of the grade 10 academic English programme reveals that each strand is broken into subcategories. For example, the oral communication strand has three subcategories: listening to understand, speaking to communicate, and reflecting on skills and strategies. Each subcategory has anywhere from nine to two specific expectations required within that heading. This format is repeated through each of the strands. What is interesting in comparing the two models is that while expectations are specified in the Ontario documentation, text allocation is not mentioned. For example, listening to understand requires the expectations of interpreting texts, analyzing texts and developing active listening strategies but does not indicate what type of text must be used to meet these expectations. Therefore, the Ontario model offers much greater leeway in text selection and text application in each grade. This allows teachers to choose texts based on both the type of school community as well as the level of student engagement in order to meet the expectations outlined. This is a far less rigid system and therefore a far more approachable system for many teachers and students.
As the subject of testing is too vast to tackle in its entirety, this comparison will examine only standardized tests.
The Alberta educational system requires that every student write the Grade 9 Knowledge and Employability English Language Arts Achievement Test. This test assesses knowledge and skills that are part of a “student’s daily classroom life” by the time that student reaches grade 9. The test is comprised of two parts: Part A is a writing test and Part B is a reading test. The test “will assess those learning outcomes that can be tested using multiple choice and numerical-response questions”. Each test is designed to be completed in 75 minutes, although an additional 30 minutes will be allowed if required. This test is not a graduation requirement; instead, it is part of a group of assessment tests administered in grades 3, 6, and 9. However, Alberta has implemented a Diploma Examinations Programme, a high school exit exam strategy. In order to graduate, all students must write at least two diploma examinations. They must write one diploma examination in English Language Arts at the grade 12 level and one diploma examination in social studies at the grade 12 level. There are three sets of opportunities throughout the year occurring in the months of January, June and August in which to write these tests, and they may be attempted more than once. This exam requirement exists to “certify the level of individual achievement” and to “ensure that province-wide standards of achievement are maintained”. Alberta seems to be following a number of American states, such as Texas, where students must pass exit exams regardless of the grade achieved in various classes. This seems a punitive measure, especially if students have passed the courses to which the exams seem to be connected.
The Ontario educational system requires that every student write the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. This test assesses knowledge and skills in reading and writing that pertain to all subject areas. The test is comprised of two parts: both Parts A and B combine reading and writing using both short answer and extended response to answer questions. Each test is designed to be completed in 90 minutes with no extension of time available to students without Individual Education Plans. This test is a graduation requirement. There is only one opportunity to write this test per year. Currently, the test is administered in March in any given school year. Students are given more than one opportunity to write and may choose to take the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course as an alternative to writing this test a second time. This test must be written and passed regardless of a student’s academic standing in the rest of their courses. This, too, seems a punitive measure as a student may excel in all their courses and still be prevented from graduating without the successful completion of this test. Neither Alberta nor Ontario seem to take into consideration the possibility that students could be detrimentally affected by their use of standardization as a graduation requirement. However, the fact that Ontario offers an alternative to the test with the completion of the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course is at least some attempt to offer students differentiated help.
In conclusion, while Alberta’s model is similar to Ontario’s in the sense that it does have streams that cater to different levels of achievement, the time on task is relatively non-existent, it caters to the same strands of learning and does mandate a standardized test for graduation, overall the Ontario curriculum has developed into a much more fully-realized vision in terms of its standards and employability. The time on task is loosely specified to provide a (very general) overall framework, there are three streams which cater to learners entering university, college or the workplace specifically, the text allocation for meeting the standards is not as rigid, and the Ontario Literacy Course is a viable option not provided in Alberta for those who do not pass the Literacy test. Ontario’s vision makes the education process more accessible to both teachers and students.