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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 2, October 2006

Graduation Portfolios: An unprecedented shambles

by Noel Herron

Mid-summer postponement of controversial graduation portfolio for secondary students leaves a trail of uncertainty. Since being appointed minister of education over a year ago (this is our third education minister in three years) Shirley Bond, has been called many things, from six-gun Shirley to flip-flop minister, because of her repeated pratfalls.

But nowhere has this pratfall-prone education minister been more vulnerable than in her handling of the mid-summer postponement of the BC Liberals’ much-touted graduation portfolio program for secondary students.

Imposed on school boards and their secondary schools three years ago (yet another Christy Clarke initiative gone awry) this controversial program was meant to showcase students’ non-academic achievements. Students were required to write summaries of their experiences in areas such as personal health, community involvement, and information technology. The portfolio was to be a graduation requirement starting in the 2006–07 school year.

However, Bond and her authoritarian deputy minister, refused to heed the numerous and repeated warnings of many critics about both the scope and direction of this mandatory program.

Now, with the official, mid-summer postponement we have an unprecedented shambles on our hands.

As the cheerleader-in-chief over the past year, Bond assured one and all that everything would be fine with this planned addition to the Grade 12 curriculum, despite the ongoing controversy. The ministry’s new program, she stated, would strengthen and enhance Victoria’s provincial graduation plan.

We were told that it would heighten the awareness of secondary students to the need for better planning about their futures. (What better example of good planning than a mid-summer deferral?) Indeed, it was all part of the BC Liberals Great Goals (capitals are the provincial government’s) for public education in this province.

The abrupt postponement until the 2007–08 school year of the much-vaunted graduation portfolio tells a different story.

Hoping to sidestep further controversy by announcing this deferral in the dog days of late July when schools were out and school boards would not return to work until September, Bond only added to the brouhaha with her inept handling of the issue.

With her own words she slammed the very program, which only a year earlier she was lauding as a major provincial initiative.

Listen to what the minister had to say in The Vancouver Sun in early August about Victoria’s graduation portfolio program in order to justify her most recent flip flop: "Over the last number of months, I’ve visited 17 school districts across the province and I can’t name one where this (provincial graduation portfolio) was not an issue."

The minister went on to echo the exact same criticisms previously leveled at this program when she stated, "There was a lot of concern addressed about the number of tasks, the hours it took to complete, the expectations, and the language involved."

Right on Shirley. So why were you and your deputy not listening when critics correctly labeled this program nothing but a burdensome, make-work project drenched in jargon and dumped on the 160,000 plus unsuspecting Grades 10, 11, and 12 secondary students?

Now with the opening of schools, secondary schools and school boards across this province are left to clean up the scheduling mess from this bureaucratic boondoggle. Never mind the wasted time, energy, and resources.

You, as the minister responsible and your out-of-touch ministry staff, owe thousands of senior secondary students, along with their parents, who laboured conscientiously for three years on an ill-conceived plan, a public apology. These students are in an educational limbo having worked for years on mandatory portfolios that are going nowhere.

In April, a thousand students in Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver signed an online petition to dump portfolios.

Add to this the difficult barriers that portfolios raise for many ESL kids and kids with special needs, and then throw in last year’s new Grade 10 add-on exams (by our testing-obsessed ministry) and you have a potent mix with serious equity issues emerging.

But the uncertainty surrounding your mid-summer announcement has far from disappeared.

Rather it only deepens as people recognize that your postponement is simply a carefully crafted strategy designed to ease the pressure on you, as education minister.

And when you visited the 17 school districts, as part of your recent provincial tour, and were confronted, in person, with the strong reaction, not to mention resentment, from parents about the unnecessary layers of check lists and forms imposed on their kids, postponement was deemed an acceptable political way out of this faltering initiative.

Lastly, a postponement, pending a review, if the latter is what you have in mind, of this badly executed program is the last thing we need.

It should in fact, given your recent experience with the grass roots revolt by trustees, teachers, and parents, be promptly dumped in the dustbin of failed education initiatives.

Noel Herron is a former Vancouver School Board trustee and elementary school principal.

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