THE BLOG
09/07/2018 14:35 EDT | Updated 09/07/2018 14:41 EDT

7 Ways To Fix Ontario's Dismal Public Education System

It won't be easy to implement any of these recommendations. The educational establishment will fight every step of the way.

Ontario has serious problems with math. The just-released results of the provincial tests show that Ontario students' math scores are now the worst they have ever been in the more than 20 years since the tests were introduced.

The Ontario minister of education blames the province's "failed experimental curriculum called 'discovery math''' and is promising to "restore proven methods of teaching the fundamentals," as well as reform teacher training at the faculties of education.

However, it has been known for decades that in Ontario math is taught using ineffectual methods and inadequate textbooks by, in many cases, teachers who lack basic math skills themselves. Education minister after education minister has vowed to fix this problem, yet test scores continue to fall.

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Unfortunately, it is harder than it looks to make positive changes to the Ontario education system. As the former president of the Society for Quality Education, for 20 years I and my fellow reformers tried very hard - using all of our considerable intelligence and charm - to move the needle, but we failed totally. The province's education system is intractable.

The fundamental problem is that the system is deeply entrenched. Its four principal components – the unions, the school boards, the faculties of education, and the ministry of education, aided by an alphabet soup of other bodies that help glue the four together - are solidly aligned and impervious to outside interference.

In Ontario, the education establishment is in control, and pesky politicians are but a slight annoyance easily swatted away.

The bad news is it's impossible to reform the education system.

The good news is it's possible to do an end run around it by making it possible for more parents to send their kids to non-government schools.

NON-GOVERNMENT TUITION SUBSIDIES

Ontario is the only major Canadian province that doesn't pay part of the tuition costs of students who attend independent schools. These provinces – B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec – have been pleasantly surprised to learn that subsidizing independent school tuition actually saves them money, because they pay the full cost of fewer government school students. And, as someone who eventually gave up on the government schools and sent her children to independent schools, I know that non-government schools are far more responsive to parents' and students' needs than are government schools.

Recommendation #1: Subsidize non-government tuition

(Will save money!)

When governments subsidize non-government school tuition, many parents decide to transfer their children to independent schools. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the government schools dislike losing their students to independent schools. In fact, they are so motivated to keep their students that they start to improve their teaching methods and involve parents in order to compete.

I have watched the gradual dumbing down of the curriculum with great dismay over many years.

By definition, these are the positive changes parents want. And the government can help speed up the process by introducing additional supportive measures.

TEACHER TRAINING

Most Canadian faculties of education are doing a poor job of training new teachers. An Ontario College of Teachers survey found that Ontario teachers ranked their own teacher training as less valuable than "common sense" and "the teaching of their parents." As someone who attended an Ontario teacher training facility myself, I can personally vouch for the accuracy of this assessment. All I learned was stuff like how to make a leaf collection and do primary printing. Yet the faculties of education continue to enjoy a monopoly.

Recommendation #2: Accredit non-government teacher training institutions

(Will save money!)

CURRICULUM

Written mostly by ministry bureaucrats who lack subject expertise, the Ontario curriculum is non-challenging, inaccurate, and unwieldy. I have watched the gradual dumbing down of the curriculum with great dismay over many years.

Recommendation #3: Contract out an extensive overhaul of the Ontario curriculum to independent subject specialists

(Will cost money)

TEXTBOOKS

The Ontario Ministry of Education controls the textbooks that school boards can buy by means of a very restrictive list called The Trillium List. The Trillium List used to be called Circular 14, but when a former government promised in its throne speech to abolish Circular 14, the Ministry of Education just changed its name to The Trillium List and carried on. The Circular 14/Trillium List textbooks reflect and support Ontario's flabby curriculum.

Recommendation #4: Abolish the Trillium List

(Will save money!)

Getty Images/Caiaimage

SCHOOL BOARDS

For the most part, Ontario's school boards are an expensive anachronism in the digital age. Their vestigial functions, such as hiring teachers and buying supplies, can easily be downloaded to individual schools. The school board trustees, who theoretically represent the voters, are basically powerless: I have yet to hear of a parent who successfully sought help from his elected trustee. The trustees' representational responsibilities would be better relocated to democratically-elected and influential school councils in each school.

Recommendation #5: Abolish the school boards

(Will save money!)

ONTARIO COLLEGE OF TEACHERS

Unfortunately, the College seldom chooses to investigate allegations of teacher unsuitability or incompetence – possibly because a majority of the College's members have strong affiliations with Ontario teacher federations. The fox has been put in charge of the hen house! In addition, the College – like all the other education secretariats and boards and commissions – is bloated on bureaucracy and skinny on results.

Recommendation #6: Reduce the number of teacher federation-affiliated council members to two and streamline the College's mandate

(Will save money!)

PROVINCIAL TESTING

It is critically important that good objective external assessments of the education system take place every year. Unfortunately, the current provincial tests are very expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive. Their meagre results aren't reported until the following school year, meaning they are basically useless to parents and teachers.

Recommendation #7: Replace the provincial tests with off-the-shelf standardized tests like the Canadian Achievement Tests or the Canadian Tests of Basic Skills

(Will save money!)

It won't be easy to implement any of these recommendations. The educational establishment will fight every step of the way.

But the parents and voters will be very grateful!

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