Prof. Lukacs exposes Univ. Manitoba “no-fail” policy at Ph.D level

Can you believe it?  The University of Manitoba’s Mathematics Department has succumbed to the politically correct policy of promoting a student who was not ready to graduate. Only, this time we are talking about a student who has already had their Ph.D conferred — even though they did not pass one of their required comprehensive exams.

No big deal you say? Sorry, but it “is” a big deal because it is the comprehensive exams that decide whether or not a Ph.D candidate is ready to be identified as a scholar and a professor.

Been there and done that. Tough? Stressful? You bet it is.  Did I suffer from test anxiety? Absolutely. The thing is, there were only four of us in a large room. At the doctoral level, there are not hundreds of students, or even dozens. Likely, the student involved wrote their exam alone. But, because they are usually timed (anywhere from three hours to eight hours), you have to think fast and you have to know your research paradigms. My guess is that this student still doesn’t understand the purpose for the exam.

In any event, good on Professor Gabor Lukacs! Suspended without pay for three months, you sure have to hand it to him for exposing all this! I have taught in two universities. I know only too well the fortitude it would require to take on the administration and the politically correct “let’s lower our academic standards in this case” attitude, particularly since the student had a medical letter.

While this matter may be happening in Manitoba, it is also alive and well in Ontario. The McGuinty government call their lowering of academic standards at the high school level, their  “success” initiative — which I call their “no-fail” policy.

Odd isn’t it that the person who exposes this travesty is suspended but the person who failed the comprehensive test is out there somewhere pretending to have successfully completed all of their doctoral program. For full details, read yesterday’s special to the National Post. Written by Joseph Brean, it just has to be a wake-up call to everyone.

Obviously, what started out as well-meaning accommodations for students with average to above average ability, who also had learning or other disabilities (including severe math or test anxiety), has now become a crutch and a detriment to academic accomplishment.

And, unfortunately, nearly twenty years ago, I had a hand in that process when I wrote a text-book about accommodations and compensations — used world-wide in university special needs departments. I also worked with dozens of college and university students in my private practice who needed help learning essay-writing techniques, study and test-taking strategies. However, I never would have suggested waiving an exam, most especially a failed comprehensive exam. Nor, would I have suggested accommodations at the doctoral level.


While no one at the University of Manitoba has asked for my opinion, I intent to give it anyway.

  1. The President of the University of Manitoba and the Math Chair have to stop blaming the whistle-blower, Prof. Lukacs.
  2. While they can’t take away a Ph.D once it has been conferred, they can insist the person involved rewrite the test as many times as it takes for them to pass it — marked by an outside neutral source.

Otherwise, all those who have a part in this fiasco have ruined the University of Manitoba’s reputation, as well as put in question “all” previous Ph.D’s conferred there.

For the rest of society, it is long past time to stop promoting students who are not ready, for whatever reason. If that means, a higher drop out rate, so be it. And, yes, having taught sociology, I know there will be those who say dropping out creates strain and the likelihood of higher crime statistics. Well, young people have choices and those choices have consequences. My point is to stop making excuses for them because  chances are most will return to school once they find out they can’t get meaningful work.

I am just glad that someone said “enough is enough” and exposed the University of Manitoba’s implicit “no-fail” policy.  Thank you Professor Lukacs!

Endnotes: Professor Lukacs was a child prodigy, meaning he was a “gifted” child. The fact that he is willing to buck his university’s administration shows he is made of different stuff and not afraid to rock the boat. Check out Paul Bennett’s blog EduChatter and his latest post on where gifted education should be going. While you’re at it, read the comment thread as well because there is an excellent discussion going on that deals with the “lowered academic standards” we see in this situation.

Carleton Univ. provides help to students who are “flunking out”

Unlike high school where teachers and parents can direct and influence what students do, the opposite is usually true of university. Total freedom! As a result, even though good marks are what get young people admitted to university in the first place, the characteristics and skills that are most needed to succeed are self-discipline, organizational abilities and perseverance, as well as knowing when to ask for help.

The importance of first-year university mid-terms exams

But before I get into those issues, a little reminder. Absolutely everyone who attends university at some point in their lives remembers the mid-point of their first course or first year. In most universities there are what are called “progress exams” or “mid terms” in first year at the end of November and into early December. They exist for very good reasons and primary among those reasons is a wake-up call as to how well (or not well) students are doing.

The results can sometimes be very demoralizing because unless the students are self-disciplined and organized, they usually don’t do very well, sometimes even failing.  Why? Well, I hate to inform parents about this (as though they don’t already know), but the first semester in first year is usually all about partying and students discovering the world around them — without anyone supervising them, particularly if they are not living at home.

The reality is, universities are totally free of the constraints of high school. No one telephones or texts students when they sleep in and don’t show up for class. Similarly, no one telephones or texts when they don’t hand assignment in on time, or nags them to study for their mid-terms — although many profs do try to find ways to communicate to those students who are not fulfilling their obligations.  However, the first honest-to-goodness wake-up call is when they get those exams back.

The effect of never learning how to fail

As a former university teacher, I have seen the long faces and the tears. I have also heard “but I didn’t realize….” more times than I care to remember.  Why did they not realize? Well, in hindsight I have now come to the conclusion the reason they didn’t realize was because they are seldom taught the consequences of what happens when they don’t do what is required of them.

For example, I have written many articles about how our current high school systems in this country are passing kids even when they don’t deserve to pass. Why? Because there is a deep-seated belief that a child’s self-esteem will be adversely affected if they fail at anything. Here is a link to the Ontario Ministry of Education’s “success initiative,” which I and many others have relabelled a “no-fail” policy. Well, let me tell you, the falsity in that view hits home really hard when the results of mid-terms arrive.

What universities can do to help students succeed

However, all is not lost if the students will take the time to get help.  That is the first and most important step. Yes, they blew it. But, if they can learn from that and accept help, they will learn what it takes to really be successful. Yet, as Carson Jerema writes in Macleans, only 30-40% of Carleton University students accept the help that is offered them — even when Carleton staff approaches them.

That is most unfortunate. Because, attending and being successful at university is no different from high school, except it is the learners who must supervise themselves, something they will need to do in whatever path they take in life. So, that is where self-discipline and perseverance comes in.

What should universities do? Like Carleton, they should use the results of mid-terms and first year finals to find out which students are “flunking out” and offer to help them. For students who are having difficulties adjusting to university expectations, it is my hope that they will, in turn, accept the help offered.

Some endnotes regarding the Macleans article

  1. What I found especially interesting was the fact that those who are “flunking out” are not necessarily what progressives like to promote as disadvantaged or minorities. Rather, they are just students who are failing and dropping out because of their low marks — from all walks of life regardless of their cultural or socio-economic status.
  2. Moreover, universities themselves had better look at their retention rates after first year. Jerema writes, for instance, that the retention rate at Queen’s University is high at 95%, whereas at Brandon University in Manitoba, it is only 70.3% (meaning that 30% of Brandon first year students are either quitting or flunking out).

Was Canada’s high school drop-out rate halved by lowering standards?

Yesterday, the news came out that Statistics Canada had found that the high school drop-out in rate in Canada has been cut in half over the last twenty years.  While print and television news reports were all overflowing with praise (e.g., see this Ottawa Citizen report by Mark Iype), my immediate reaction was “why.”  Why did the drop rate go down so dramatically? Unfortunately, Stats Can numbers don’t tell us anything about why more young people are staying in school long enough to graduate.

Well, as a former university teacher, I can tell you it isn’t because students are being better prepared. In my last few years teaching, for example (early in this decade), I found spelling and grammar in written assignments was worse than it had ever been — and remember, like now, that was the age of computer spell checkers. 

In my opinion, and it is the opinion of an awful lot of people in this country, the reason for the decrease in drop-outs are provincially directed “no-fail and social promotion policies.” In fact, I was on the Dave Rutherford Radio Show last May, talking to Roy Green and his callers about that very subject. For those who are interested, here is my blog’s archive on that topic.

Now, I am all for motivating students to stay in school. But, lowering standards to do it is, in the long run, counter productive to society as a whole. Yet, Andrew Parkin, Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education, doesn’t seem to question why the rate had been reduced by half, just that: “It’s a dramatic change over time, and hopefully that means we can keep it going…I think it shows that the value of education and the recognition of that value has been increasing.”

I wish I could say I think it shows the recognition of the value of a high school graduation diploma, but I rather think it simply shows that: (a) more kids are promoted who shouldn’t be, particularly from elementary school into high school, and (b) academic standards have been reduced in order to accommodate those who would otherwise have dropped out. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t know. I guess only time will tell.

Perhaps parents and today’s employers can leave a comment here and tell me if they think their grown children, or staff, were adequately prepared for working in the real world. Because, it is only with that kind of information that we can know the reason Canada’s high school drop out rate has dropped so dramatically.

“No-fail” policy divide between teachers & public widening

Imagine my surprise when a fellow retired educator by the name of Ken O’Connor left comments on this thread that basically said I was wrong about everything I have written related to no-fail policies and teachers being allowed to give zeros.  Judging from his website, he is obviously a very credible professional.  Yet, I have rarely encountered a more single minded arrogant visitor in the nearly five years I have been blogging. Readers will find his comments here, here and here

There is no doubt whatsoever that O’Connor is entitled to his opinions based on his own education and experiences. However, what I found problematic was that he didn’t seem to feel I was entitled to mine. Initially, for instance, he seemed to assume I didn’t know what I was writing about. Well, I do know what I am writing about as I have done, and continue to do, my own research and publishing.

The problem, as I see it, is that there are three paradigms or world views, as explained in Curriculum Perspectives and Practice by John Miller (a former teacher of mine) and Wayne Seller. And, unless you are going to debate at cross purposes, it is always a good idea to figure out where a person is coming from in terms of their beliefs about curriculum and instruction and everything in between. 

In any event, while neither O’Connor or myself have all the answers, each of us should be allowed to have opposing opinions as professionals. However, since that was not the case, the one thing I learned from his visit here is that the no-fail policy divide between teachers and parents is widening to such a degree that there is soon going to be a complete inability for either side to effectively communicate with the other.

And, unfortunately, the crux of the matter is that stuck right in the middle of the debate are the students who will one day be adults in a world where employers do not differentiate between “learning” and “behaviours.”

So, Saskatoon high schools think plagiarism is okay?

What next? Just when you think you have heard it all, the CBC is reporting today that Saskatoon’s high schools will not be treating plagiarism as cheating or taking marks off for handing in work late or incomplete  (H/T Paul). Why? Because they are supposedly “behaviours” and not learning.

Do these people have any idea how wrong that view is? As a learning specialist I can tell you that BOTH cognition and behavioural changes are about learning. I mean, think about learning to drive a car. Should we allow new drivers to have a licence as long as they get a good mark on the preliminary written and visual tests, since the practical driving part of the test is only looking at behaviour?  

Yes, no fail-policies are truly that narrowly focused and irresponsible! It’s like education ministries in Canada think learning stops at high school graduation.  For example, the CBC item states:

“Some educational experts are critical of the move — an apparent first for Saskatchewan — saying it creates an uneven playing field for students in other parts of the province. But the Saskatoon Public School Board, administrators of the school division and some teachers say the new report cards encourage learning by removing penalties for poor behaviour.

English teacher Katie Kehrig said it’s taken her 30 years of teaching to realize the benefits of separating academic marks from behaviour evaluations. ‘I don’t give late marks, or deduct marks if students are late,’ Kehrig said in support of the new evaluation method. ‘I don’t give bonus marks. I don’t have participation marks. Those are behaviours. As long as a student hands in an assignment at some point, no marks are docked. The same applies to students caught plagiarizing.'”

Have these people lost all sense of reality? Truly, they must have because surely they must know that post-secondary institutions will not put up with this nonsense. As a former university teacher, I can tell you that most professors will not split hairs about what is learning versus what are behaviours. 

I mean, an assignment that is due on a certain day is due on that day, unless there is proof there was an extreme family or health emergency. However, barring that type of emergency, marks will be taken off if handed in late or incomplete. Moreover, a student caught plagiarizing will not only fail the assignment and the course, but will be thrown out of the university. Plus, they will forever have a note on their transcript that they cheated. 

In other words, you can’t separate “behaviours” from learning. It’s all about learning.  

  • It’s learning right from wrong.
  • It’s learning about personal responsibility.
  • It’s learning that there can be negative consequences to what we do or don’t do.
  • It’s learning why it is important to get work done on time — because employers will expect that.
  • It’s learning that claiming someone else’s work as your own is not only cheating but intellectual theft.
  • It’s learning that not handing work in on time is failing at a task.
  • It’s about learning “how to work” and what it will be like to go to college or university and what an employer will expect.

So, the school districts and teachers in Saskachewan, or anywhere else in Canada for that matter, who are defending this “no-fail” type of policy (see my archive on similar Ontario policies) are failing in their jobs as educators because, in their misplaced zeal to graduate more students, they are NOT preparing them for life beyond high school.

Ontario secondary students can now get “zeros!”

What grades are supposed to reflect…

Traditionally, when most parents and educators thought about grades, whether at the high school or university level, they assumed they were a realistic measurement of a student’s work.  Sure, most knew that teachers included a small percentage for effort and participation in every grade, but that a total grade could be counted on as a clear indication of how well a student could duplicate a skill or had covered a certain body of material. 

Ontario government’s “success” strategies…

Well, not so in Ontario since the Dalton McGuinty government came to power in the fall of 2003. In fact, in the government’s quest for “inclusion” and “equality,” they have watered down what students have to do to the point that academic standards are now meaningless.

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Do StatsCan numbers mean we are a country of illiterates?

I would swear that each and every time there is a major literacy study, the percentages get higher. Now, either the teachers in our publicly funded schools are totally inadequate (which some would debate is the case) or it is how illiteracy is defined that is responsible for the ever increasing statistics. And, while I think that decades long social promotion and no-fail policies are likely not helping the literacy rates, the latest StatsCan report is, without a doubt, misleading. 

Specifically, to read this CBC story titled “Canada’s Shame,” is to think Canada is a country of illiterates. Yet, that is simply not true. It is not true because it all depends on how the numbers are collected and analyzed, what assumptions one makes about what it takes to become literate, as well as how one defines illiteracy or semi-literacy. And, in my opinion, StatsCan misses the mark on all three with their seven-country international survey.

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