An investigation into a complaint made by the head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union — that teachers are not able to enforce deadlines on classroom assignments or give zeros to students who never deliver — spurred a series called Making the Grade on CBC Radio's Mainstreet last week.

There were conversations about whether teachers have the time and resources to cater to the varying levels of ability in their classrooms, and talk about standardized tests and what they do and do not measure.

We asked three teachers to share their thoughts with us. This is from Ben Sichel, a high school teacher in Dartmouth:

Kids 'have it easy'

Academic standards in Nova Scotia schools are in steady decline.

Or so you've probably heard.

Judging by the comments in certain quarters, we're in the midst of a full-blown crisis. Students pass courses without doing any work. Assignments have no deadlines. Test scores are dropping.

Kids today, they have it easy. 

I understand where these sentiments come from. My colleagues and I can get as frustrated as anyone when students don't meet our expectations. I believe kids have the right to fail when they don't put in the necessary work to pass a course.

But I also wonder where this "crisis" narrative leads us.

Second chances

When I hear people wax nostalgic about how much harder or more serious school was back in their day — and I hear this from folks in their 20s as well as in their 70s — I tend to think two things. 

One: whatever your experience was like in school, it wasn't universal. The kid in the next row, or down the hall in the other classroom, or on the other side of town, had an experience that was different from yours. 

Never had any second chances on assignments? That probably wasn't the case for everyone, all the time. I'm going to throw out there that at some point, in all your years of schooling, maybe even you had a second chance once.

Expectations have changed

Two: society's expectations about universal public education have changed.

Decades ago, we didn't expect that virtually everyone should finish high school. Many people used to leave school before the end of Grade 12.

Today, we view high school completion as a bare minimum for employability and citizenship. The base knowledge and skill set we expect from everyone has expanded.

Ben Sichel

Ben Sichel teaches in Dartmouth and runs a blog on education issues called No Need to Raise Your Hand. (Submitted by Ben Sichel)

I think most people would agree that this increased access to education is a good thing. But it's also changed our notion of schooling, forcing us to think about what exactly our schools are meant to do and how they do it. 

We should continue to have healthy debates about academic standards. I certainly wouldn't argue that we've got everything exactly right. But these debates should take place in the context of thinking about what purpose these standards serve. 

Questions to ask

Do schools exist for the purpose of creating workers for businesses? Are they for shaping citizens who can participate in a democratic society? What about fostering empathy and openness to diversity?

Framing the discussion too narrowly can lead to solutions which sound good politically, but are unlikely to improve the overall quality of education by any metric.

This is especially true since we know that the factor which most impedes students' success in school (measured in a traditional sense) is an external one — poverty, which stunts kids before they even set foot through the school door.

One in five children in Nova Scotia lives in poverty, according to a recent report, and the number is even higher in pockets such as Cape Breton and New Glasgow.

Role of poverty

Want to make sure every child learns?

We can start by making sure their parents have an adequate income and that things like early childhood education, transportation and health care — including dental and pharmacare — are universally accessible and affordable. 

If we paid serious attention to the crisis of child poverty and inequality — and we can — we'd hear much less about other supposed crises in education.

Ben Sichel teaches high school in Dartmouth and writes an education blog called No Need to Raise Your Hand.