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The truth about private schools: regulation and credit mills

The deadline looms. The marks are not impressive. The pressure mounts. What do you do?

For struggling students desperate to get into university, "credit mills" – rogue private schools that allegedly inflate marks and grant high school credits for a fee to those who fail to earn it – are their lifeline and a growing industry in Ontario, a joint Toronto Star/Ryerson School of Journalism investigative series reported over the weekend. As a result, cheating students are allegedly buying better grades and stealing university spots and scholarships from more deserving teens.

The Truth About Private Schools: Regulation and Credit Mills

"There are kids who would be failing but are instead getting 80s in these schools," George Benedek, the newly retired principal of Stephen Leacock Collegiate Institute in Toronto, told the Star. "There are kids getting scholarships based on false documents. They take (university) spots they shouldn't be getting and then flunk out because they're not ready. It's undermining the integrity of education."

Provincial inspection reports obtained by the Star showed that marks were boosted upon request; credits were given despite students attending class for less than half of the required time; difficult exam questions were removed; students took courses without prerequisites; students were hardly supervised and were allowed to use the Internet while writing tests.

The private school operators told the Star that the higher grades were the result of smaller class sizes and personal attention for each student.

Educators and industry insiders say that better regulations are needed for the private school industry in Ontario, and families must exercise due diligence and do research on each school.

Toronto School Administrators Association, which represents guidance counsellors, has raised their concerns with ministry officials but with little proof that much is being done about the problem, the Toronto Star reported. Since 2009, the ministry has received a total of 30 complaints about inflated marks from public school officials, according to records obtained by the Star through freedom of information legislation.

With help from industry experts and private school leaders, Our Kids Media provides the facts about private schools in the wake of concerns about unscrupulous operators.

1. Lax oversight has allowed the credit mill industry to grow in Ontario.

Among the thousands of private schools in Canada, more than 358 schools grant credits in Ontario. At least every two years, 28 inspectors visit the province's private schools. Since 2006, Ontario ministry inspectors revoked the licenses of eight private high schools. Still, some school operators with revoked licenses were allowed to operate or reopen under different names, including three of the four shut down last year, the Star reported. The fourth operator now runs a private career college for adults.

Private or independent schools are a loosely regulated sector in Ontario, according to George Briggs, the newly retired and former executive director of the Conference of Independent Schools (CIS). "Anybody can start a school with only a Notice of Intention to operate (submitted) to the Ministry of Education," he says in an interview with Our Kids Media. "Parents should be looking for schools that belong to larger associations."

The ministry doesn't conduct inspections of private elementary schools and private secondary schools that do not offer credits towards the Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Both types of schools are not required to use the Ontario curriculum. However, the Ministry of Education inspects all private secondary schools that grant credits for the OSSD. It inspects only the standard of instruction. (Click here to find out the status of a school on the ministry's website.)

Private or independent schools across Canada are not all required to follow the government curriculum, essentially operating independently from the ministry if they don't receive any government funding. Still, many private schools meet or exceed provincial standards, according to Michael Zwaagstra, co-author of the book What's Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

"Students at private schools usually do quite well on standardized achievement tests," Zwaagstra says. Private schools that are included in the rankings often score high in the Fraser Institute's report cards, measuring academic achievement among all school types that take standardized tests. (Click here for news and analysis on the Fraser Institute rankings.)

Most schools have their own accountability systems through a governance structure, such as a board. However, there's a caveat for parents to do research on the schools; for example, membership is voluntary to reputable associations such as Ontario Federation of Independent Schools (OFIS), Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) and the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario (CIS), that require schools to meet certain standards.

2. It's important to keep in mind that not all independent or private schools are alike.

"Parents need to do their research because not all independent schools will be best for their children," says Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of CAIS. "For starters, you want to find out if the school is accredited or not, you want to know what kind of commitment the teachers have to professional development; you want to know about the qualifications of the teachers. . . Parents really have to invest time in learning about the different schools and do their homework."

Kee also encourages parents to visit the school to understand and experience its culture.

"It's really important to spend time in the school, to meet with the administration and ask good questions about where the students are going to university and how do they know that they are being successful there," she says.

CAIS schools voluntarily apply and must meet national standards for programs and operations in order to gain membership and accreditation. "You can't assume that all schools are going to meet that kind of a higher standard," she says. "So schools can apply to be a CAIS school, but they have to go through an accreditation process every seven years. And it's rigorous standards and not all private or independent schools will be able to meet them because it's setting a higher standard."

Kee says it would be difficult to understand what kind of accountability exists within an independent school without accreditation from a reputable organization like CAIS.

"These (CAIS) schools are tracking the success of their students in university so they can't be inflating the marks just to get them in," she says. "They actually have data to look at how well the kids have done once they've spent time in university. So that's just higher standards that we require from our schools. . . I can see that a CAIS school will track its graduates to ensure that they're successful and use that data for school improvement purposes and to ensure that their marks are an accurate reflection of their abilities. . . Certainly I don't think there's such a thing as buying marks at accredited and credible schools."

Independent secondary schools issuing credits for the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, including all OFIS schools, are rigorously inspected by the Ministry of Education, even paying for those inspections themselves, adds Barbara Bierman, executive director of OFIS.

"In fact, they are more regulated than their public school counterparts, which do not get inspected at all," she says. "All independent schools, elementary and secondary, must regularly submit to the toughest critics of all – tuition-paying parents who will 'vote with their feet' if the educational quality is in question."

Since education is provincially mandated in Canada, requirements vary from province to province.

For example, in British Columbia, schools that meet certain criteria are funded by the government. "There's a high level of accountability in our schools," says Peter Froese, executive director of the Federation of Independent School Associations, which includes 92 percent  of private schools in British Columbia. "We have our own accountability measures where we place expectations on our schools to serve the constituencies fairly and justly."

As a result of receiving some government funding, private schools in B.C. are regulated by the office of inspector for independent schools, and inspections occur every six years, according to Froese. The schools are monitored every two years within that time period by the inspectors as well.

"They look at all forms of governance – registration policy, bullying and a wide range of governance issues that hold them accountable to the public in general, not just to the constituents they happen to be serving," he says.

3. Some teachers are not well qualified.

Teachers in the problem schools used outdated curricula, didn't understand evaluation and assessment, and had no lesson plans or course outlines, according to provincial inspection reports obtained by the Star. In Ontario, principals and teachers in private schools are not required to be certified by the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT). Certified teachers are listed on the OCT's public register at www.oct.ca However, in most provinces, private schools funded by the government must hire only certified teachers, says Michael Zwaagstra, co-author of the book What's Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them. "Teachers at private schools receive the same training as teachers at public schools," he says.

Requirements vary across the country and may depend on whether the school is part of an association with those standards. For instance, all OFIS schools have certified teachers, many of them belonging to the Ontario College of Teachers and some certified outside of Ontario, Bierman says. Ninety-seven per cent of teachers belonging to the Conference of Independent Schools (CIS) are members of the Ontario College of Teachers and have acquired teacher training qualifications, Briggs adds.

4. The rogue schools flagged in the investigation are different from the many legitimate private schools with established or growing reputations.

Students who sign up for these fly-by-night operations reportedly pay to get higher grades in less challenging high school courses outside of their public schools in order to boost their chances to get acceptance and a scholarship in university or college. However, many parents are choosing to enrol their children in private schools at younger ages, even in a preschool or daycare, and for reasons other than boosting grades. Some of the most common reasons parents choose private school are disappointment with the public or separate schools (94 per cent), dedication of the teachers (91 per cent), emphasis on academic quality (80 per cent) and safety (84 per cent), according to the Fraser Institute's study entitled Ontario's Private Schools: Who Chooses Them and Why. While the study surveyed Ontario-based parents, trends across Canada are similar.

"I think parents are very savvy as they should be," says Kee of CAIS. "So they're looking for a school that is really going to challenge and support their students, not just give the highest of marks. All parents want what's best for their kids, but you want it to be an authentic learning experience as well."

The study found that independent school enrolment in Ontario rose by 8.8 per cent between 2000 and 2005, while public school enrolment dropped by 1.1 per cent over the same period. Many parents who choose private schools are looking for schools with religious affiliations (such as Christian and Catholic schools) that can reinforce their religion (83 per cent), teach their children right from wrong (90 per cent), and support the family's values (88 per cent). Parents seeking academically-focused schools choose private schools because they think they'll do a better job of motivating students (85 per cent), offer individualized attention (82 per cent), and have small class sizes (75 per cent). Many parents of children with special needs turn to private schools to ensure their children receive extra attention and access to specialized teachers.

Another study called Public Education and Parental Choice, by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, came to similar conclusions. In addition to teacher dedication, safety and academic quality, the study's authors note: "Parents from both kinds of school, religiously defined and academically defined, were equally likely to select as 'very important' features such as educating the whole child, setting high expectations for students, being well administered, offering frequent, detailed and open reporting to parents, preparing graduates who are typically accepted at the universities of their choice, catering to the particular needs of children, and having teachers who regularly assign homework."

Cracking Down on the "Pay-for-Credits" Industry

The concern over alleged credit mills is not new. In March 2007, five independent high schools in Vancouver – Century, Kingston, Royal Canadian College, Pattison and St. John's International– got warnings from the B.C. government to address concerns about major grade disparities on English 12 provincial exams and class work, reported Macleans.ca.

Hassan Mirzai, principal and owner of FutureSkills High School, wrote a letter to the Ministry of Education opposing the requirement that all students who acquired private school credits must have their transcripts marked with a "P" when applying to post-secondary institutions, reported the Eyeopener, the Ryerson School of Journalism's student newspaper. The measure was the ministry's response two years ago to address the grade inflation concerns. "The main problem with your proposed revision is that, intentional or not, it seems to tar ALL private schools with the same brush. It is arbitrary and patently unfair," he wrote in the letter. "The public will assume that it is a warning – similar to the ones placed on restaurants."

In May 2006, an inspector found that students at FutureSkills private school weren't being assessed consistently by teachers, the Eyeopener reported. Out of the 92 students enrolled, 80 were taking Grade 12 credit courses.

Mirzai recommended that the ministry send inspectors out more often and randomly; the ministry should regulate the teaching practices, and check teacher qualifications and their relevant experiences.

To create a level playing field for all students, a nationwide standardized test like the SATs in the U.S. should be created, suggested some readers in the comments section on thestar.com.

"I'm old enough to have been subject to standardized tests in Grade 13. Exams were taken in a huge room, with many supervising teachers, and the only questions permitted were requests to trade dull or broken pencils for sharpened ones," wrote one commenter on thestar.com. "Teachers were put in different sections of the room than the students they taught. I suppose a few students figured out ways to cheat, but it certainly wouldn't have been easy. Since the teachers didn't see the tests beforehand, the only way they could help was to teach the curriculum and hope for the best. We need that again, or, even better, we need something like the SATs, a countrywide test that all university entrants must take. Foreign students could take it at our embassies or consulates abroad. Then, universities would have at least one reliable and fair indicator of a student's ability and, knowing that inflated marks from schools like this wouldn't help, parents would stop enrolling their children and the schools would go out of business." - With a file from Annette Bourdeau

Consumer Tips

The Ontario Ministry of Education offers tips for consumers below. Private schools are not required to have these policies or procedures in place in order to operate under the Education Act. Does the school:

  • conduct criminal reference checks on staff?
  • use the Ontario curriculum?
  • employ teachers who are members of the Ontario College of Teachers?
  • administer Education Quality and Accountability Act testing?
  • publish its admissions policy?
  • enter into contracts with parents regarding fees, refunds, and other policies?
  • have a procedure for resolving complaints by parents and pupils?
  • publish the number of years it has been in operation?
  • have liability insurance for accidents involving students?
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