Why Ontario needs education game-changers this election season

OPINION: The parties need to think big when it comes to improving education, not just maintain the status quo. Here’s what they’re doing — and what they could do better, writes Charles Pascal
By Charles Pascal - Published on May 16, 2018
empty desks in a classroom
Education improvements based on an a clear understanding of the problems that need solving and short-, medium-, and long-range plans are key. (iStock.com/imaginima)

When it comes to improving education, it often seems like “improvement” is the enemy of real change. Far too often, the response to bad practice or unmet outcomes is to make improvements around the edges, to hold constant the real things that make a difference while tinkering with low-hanging fruit that makes no fundamental change for the better. With the political silly season upon us, I sure would like to see some genuine change-making offers. Enough of non-improvements that do no more than maintain the status quo.

Examples of this tinkering abound. A few years ago, the Ontario government decided to extend teacher-education programming to two years. Will this actually improve teaching in our classrooms? Unequivocally maybe — depends on how the additional year is used. Adding more time to practise outdated approaches to teaching could do more harm than good.

On the other hand, the government’s recent electoral promise to add free quality daycare for two-and-a-half-year-olds until they have access to full-day kindergarten for four- and five-year-old kids, represents a stunning first-of-its-kind experiment that would provide high-impact support for learners until they reach Grade 1. But it is also important that the social, emotional, and literacy improvements that arise from full-day kindergarten’s unique play- and problem-based learning approach are built upon once the students enter first grade. If students who have been thriving in this pre-school curriculum are then exposed to old-fashioned “drill and kill” teaching in first grade, will those early gains be erased? This brings us back to the need to consider modernizing teaching and developing a curriculum based on creative problem-solving approaches for pre-school through high school. Building on the pre-school platform would be an educational game changer. It’s also good to see the NDP reinforcing the need for high-quality non-profit child-care support for kids and families. The PC tax rebate scheme, though, will do nothing to support the development of high-quality child care. Parents who qualify can hire Aunt Emma to mind the children. Duelling child-care plans? Easy to pick out the “impostor.”

But what was the government’s recently released report on educational assessment all about? Holy cart-before-the-horse tinkering. Why did the government launch a resource-gobbling process to study the measurement of learning without first discussing what should be measured? Was it about dealing with the unpopular and misunderstood aspects of the Education Quality and Accountability Office to secure political support? As I noted before, we need to know whether the progress that young learners are making before first grade can be sustained after. So why does this report recommend the elimination of Grade 3 tests that would provide an important guide to improving grade-school teaching and curriculum? The report goes through contortions to justify tinkering with the EQAO rather than making a clear case for either modernizing and improving the process or scrapping it as the NDP has suggested. It’s interesting to note that Finland, a global education leader, doesn’t have nation-wide tests at all, opting instead for constant assessment: teachers provide quality feedback to students on a daily basis. In turn, these Finnish teachers continuously improve their teaching based on feedback from regular student performance. So the NDP’s notion of scrapping provincial testing doesn’t mean they are anti-assessment — that will depend on their other suggestions for education improvement. I’m still not sure why the report was commissioned in the first place, but it is an example of “improvement” confusion. The minister was very wise to “accept for further consultation.”

Finally, at the post-secondary level, it’s good to see many institutions trying to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The salient response to date seems to be the implementation of required undergrad courses about the history of residential schools and the recurrent and horrific consequences that continue to sabotage the aspirations of Indigenous learners. This appears to be a great improvement to our collective understanding. The problem is that this will not fundamentally alter the organizations that continue to practise colonizing educational practices in research and teaching. If an undergraduate course is good for students, why isn’t widespread training available for academic leaders, professors, and staff in these institutions? 

When it comes to genuine change, improvements based on an a clear understanding of the problems that need solving and short-, medium-, and long-range plans are key. We also need to gather appropriate and transparent tracking information to plot progress and make necessary improvements along the way. Education is the cornerstone of a future that needs to be safer, healthier, more just, and prosperous for the many rather than the few. Whether proposed changes to education are genuinely offered with hopes for real change or not, think twice about whether what’s on the table is the real deal or simply cards dealt from the bottom of a phony deck.

Charles Pascal is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. He is also a former Ontario deputy minister of education.

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