05/02/2019 12:35 EDT | Updated 05/02/2019 13:20 EDT

Insulting Ontario Teachers Isn't An Education Policy

Doug Ford's recent attacks seem more motivated by scoring political points than boosting students' scores.

Premier Doug Ford and his Education Minister Lisa Thompson, both inexperienced in education policy and singularly unqualified to be making decisions on it, are all but certain to find themselves in a nasty battle this summer with the unions that represent Ontario's teachers.

A few weeks ago Ford launched an early broadside: teachers should be required to take an annual math test. As policy, the idea is pointless. For it is hard to imagine that even Ford believes his proposal will meaningfully improve the consistently poor scores Ontario students have received on the province's standardized math tests over the past several years.

However, when judged through the lens of naked political opportunism, Ford's idea makes great sense.

PhotoAlto/Odilon Dimier via Getty Images

To begin with, it avoids thornier and more costly proposals, such as reducing class sizes, revamping the math curriculum (Dalton McGuinty tried that early in his tenure, and the kids' standardized test scores dropped), investing in continuing education for teachers, or reminding parents that they have a role to play in reinforcing lesson plans at home.

Rather than treating Ontario's math problem as a serious policy challenge, Ford has chosen instead to capitalize on it as an opportunity to demean and scapegoat an opponent.

When teachers are on the picket lines this September, the premier will be happy to remind the public that the province's educators are so obtuse that they couldn't even pass a middle-school math test. This latest expression of contempt also dovetails nicely with his announcement that his government will save itself some money by eliminating nearly 3,500 teaching jobs.

An insult to teachers

This kind of tough talk appeals to two distinct parts of Ford's base.

Teachers may not view themselves as part of the elite — a bogeyman Ford prefers to keep amorphous — but for voters who enjoy watching Ford rail against those who sip pink champagne, an attack on a well-regarded authority figure satisfies the same visceral urge to take someone else down a notch.

Meanwhile, wealthier voters continue to flock to Ontario's growing private schools. For them, the notion that public school teachers are unqualified and incompetent validates their decision to abandon the public system. Ford's rants also offer the mirage that one day his government will lower their tax bill.

In challenging Ford's proposal, Harvey Bischof, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, noted that high-school teachers are assigned subjects based on their expertise and that a capable history teacher who could not pass Ford's math test would be prevented from continuing to teach history.

It's a fair point, but a rhetorical disaster. For it concedes the possibility that all but a tiny fraction of qualified teachers in Ontario would, with sufficient notice and an opportunity to prepare, fail a middle-school math exam.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, centre.

It may indeed be unfair to prevent those people from earning a living by teaching unrelated subjects, but it is also not unreasonable to expect anybody who qualifies as a teacher to achieve a certain level of competence across all core subject areas. Indeed, that is the whole point of requiring teachers to complete an undergraduate degree and two years of additional training rather than a handful of classes in their preferred subject.

Allowing Ford to focus the conversation on the tiny minority of teachers who would not pass his math test plays into his hands.

The problem with Ford's proposal is not, as Bischof suggests, that it would disqualify capable teachers, nor is it that teachers are somehow afraid of the test. Rather, it is that requiring a remedial math test of people who have taken no shortage of tests and already achieved a qualification belittles their accomplishments and insults their intelligence.

Treat teachers like garbage, and you can be certain that fewer of the most qualified people will choose teaching as a career.

The insult is particularly acute for those who would pass the test with flying colours.

More troubling is the bad faith in Ford's pretence that his proposal would somehow improve the talent pool among Ontario's teachers. If he truly believes the problem with the education system is that the teachers are terrible, he won't attract more qualified people by wielding a cudgel. In 1980s teen movies the jerk may get the girl, but in real life, people have choices. Treat teachers like garbage, and you can be certain that fewer of the most qualified people will choose teaching as a career.

A premier who was truly concerned about finding better educators would remind them that they provide an essential public service, and would think of creative incentives to show the cream of the crop that they are valued.

This does not mean a purge of poorly performing educators is inherently illegitimate. Indeed, one gripe among intellectually honest conservatives is that the unions representing teachers spend too much time protecting their weakest members and not enough time advocating for their most talented ones.

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If Ford were, for example, to propose a merit-based component to teaching salaries, the idea would be controversial, but it would at least be a legitimate proposal worthy of debate.

When unaccompanied by changes that also validate and reward high performers, a purge of incompetents is nothing more than a self-serving catharsis, fraudulently peddled as education policy.

Ontario's kids have a real math education problem. It would be great to have some leadership from the grown-ups our electorate has tasked with solving it.

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