Local retired school teachers express concerns with direction education in Ontario is headed

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Authored by Mary Spring, Terri Howell, and Susan Lovell   

We, three retired rural teachers, are afraid of the direction the Ford government is taking education. Despite the fact that our education minister, Lisa Thompson, lives rurally, we do not believe she fully understands the challenges of going to school in small communities. We challenge the minister to think beyond big-city schools.

We met with Parry Sound-Muskoka MPP Norm Miller to express our concerns. This is what we discussed:

1. A better place to find savings would be in the elimination of two publically funded school boards.

Only three provinces in Canada fund Catholic schools — Saskatchewan, Ontario and Alberta. British Columbia funds many denominations, but to a lesser degree than the public system.

There is public support to discontinue the public funding to Catholic schools. A Forum Research poll in July 2015 found that 51 per cent of respondents disagreed with public funding for Catholic schools; 38 per cent favoured it.

A March 2012 report by the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods suggests the savings, if Ontario funded just one public education system, could range between $1.3 billion and $1.6 billion.

Saskatchewan Justice Donald Layh ruled in April 2017 that Saskatchewan’s funding of “non-minority faith students” to attend Catholic schools was a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the “state’s duty of religious neutrality.” The ruling is under appeal. Ontario is an inclusive province. It can’t be deemed inclusive when one religion receives special treatment.

The British North America Act can be changed. Amendments and repeals to the act were made in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Protecting the Catholic system also supports discrimination, as it gives the Catholic boards the right to hire only Catholic teachers. When the country was formed, the Catholic schools had their place in the formation of the country, but they have outlived their relevance in a country now boasting inclusion of all peoples of every faith, culture, colour of their skin, and sexual orientation.

This “cut” would not impact the students nor would one be able to argue that the impact was any different in a smaller more rural community than in larger communities.

Why the hesitation?

Note from meeting: Norm Miller says he supports one publically funded school system.

2. EQAO standardized testing is ineffective and should be eliminated.

EQAO is very expensive, costing millions each year to administer and mark. Despite the use of this data to try to change student outcomes, we question its validity. We believe that it should be cancelled in order to save money or changed in some way.

The Ontario government has hired an individual to “oversee” EQAO and school boards hire people to “prepare” children for the test. The test uses up a great deal of teaching time, especially in April and May. EQAO causes stress for teachers and students.

Teachers must be trusted to assess students throughout the school year using a variety of methods. One alternative to current EQAO testing would be to choose a selection of schools throughout the province at different times to perform such an assessment.

3. Requirement for larger class sizes in high schools will have a greater impact on rural schools.

Note from meeting: Norm Miller stated that Ontario’s current average class size is the lowest in Canada. Many provinces, he quotes, have a higher class-size average.

Our research states otherwise. According to 2017 data, as well as current data (2019 Alberta), this is false. Most other provinces do not talk class averages, but instead, caps.

There is a big difference between a “cap” and an “average”. An average is calculated per school and necessitates that some classes will be much greater than the average to accommodate smaller classes and maintain the average. This means a compulsory course like English could have 40 kids so a religion class could have 12. A cap allows smaller classes to exist while not allowing the number of students in that same English class to exceed the cap.

Ontario: currently board-wide averages are 26 but will increase to 28 in September
BC: capped at 30
Alberta: currently capped at 22. Goal for 2021 is capped at 18.
Saskatchewan: no caps, no averages
Quebec: “hard cap” at 32
Newfoundland and Labrador: 33 capped
New Brunswick: capped at 29
PEI: capped at 30
Nova Scotia: elementary data. Currently targeted size is 27, cannot go above 27 for grade 3-6

Because our three high schools in Muskoka are smaller, some very important trade-based courses that help to keep students engaged and in school may be cut. With a limit to the number of credits in the trades that schools will offer, students seeking these related courses may not be able to accumulate enough credits to graduate. This, we believe, will lead to an increase in drop-out rates.

Smaller schools with a less-diverse population (fewer university-bound students) will have to cut their advanced-level STEM classes such as Grade 12 physics because of low numbers. This puts rural Ontario at a disadvantage.

Remember that students with no access to public transportation can’t access elective, science, and tech courses that aren’t offered at their school. The proposed “average” class size wouldn’t allow schools with small student populations to run electives with small numbers

Education Minister Thompson said that larger class sizes in high schools will make students more “resilient” and will better prepare them for larger university classes as well as the work force.

Our job as educators is not to prepare students for work. It is to teach and to provide opportunities that are developmentally appropriate for their age. Young high school students are not driven to career choices, as perhaps 19-year-olds are. They need to be in smaller classes with an experienced teacher who can meet their learning and social needs. How does a class of 28 students prepare a 14-year-old for a workplace that is likely to be quite small? According to current (2019) statistics, 18 per cent of people living in Muskoka are self-employed and 83 per cent of businesses employ less than five people.

4. Rural students living north of Highway 7 will be at a disadvantage if required to take online courses each year.

We do not believe the decision to move toward online courses is based in evidence, but beyond that argument here are the realities of internet services in rural Ontario, particularly Muskoka.

Many parents already complain that their children are not able to access materials teachers put onto Google Docs and Google Classroom. In many areas, homes rely on towers and towers do not broadcast well in uneven terrain; when the weather is bad there are many interruptions. Upload and download speeds are unreliable. Working on a deadline to submit assignments would be most frustrating. The present costs to upgrade rural access to internet are very pricey and not within reach of many families in Muskoka.

There are other disadvantages to online learning:

  • The format isn’t ideal for all learners. Students who have problems with motivation or procrastination, have bad study habits, or who need lots of individual attention from an instructor may fall behind or become frustrated and give up.
  • It requires adaptability to new technologies. Those who don’t love working with technology will probably get a lot less out of an online course than their more tech-savvy counterparts. For some students these skills also need to be taught and addressed.
  • Without the routine structures of a traditional class, students may get lost or confused about course activities and deadlines
  • Students may feel isolated from the instructor and classmates
  • An instructor may not always be available when students are studying or need help
  • Managing computer files and online learning software can sometimes seem complex for students with beginner-level computer skills
  • Hands-on or lab work is difficult to simulate in a virtual classroom
  • Mental health has become a major challenge for students today. They are increasingly isolated by their use of the technology that has infiltrated their lives. Taking online courses will feed into this isolation and lack of connection to an instructor or other students. This is a huge concern. Developmentally high school students need a variety of social outlets and peer to peer contact for positive mental health. They need less technology not more!

5. Younger teachers who have relocated to the Huntsville area (adding a positive growth to the economy of a small town) will be receiving pink slips.

In a large board like Trillium Lakelands teachers from other municipalities that have more seniority will be transferred to those positions, if they are not lost entirely. This will impact after-school programs since teachers driving over 50 km a day to get to work will likely not be willing to volunteer time to extracurricular activities.

Note from meeting: Norm Miller assures us that no teachers will lose their jobs as a result of these cuts. This, we believe, is not true.

We are also concerned about proposed changes to the two-year kindergarten program. An ECE program is one to two years of study while a kindergarten teacher in Ontario has six years of study plus additional qualifications in kindergarten pedagogy. These years are considered foundation years and require a skilled teacher who can plan and implement an age-appropriate, play-based kindergarten program. This highlights the teaching of math and reading/writing concepts. ECE graduates do not have this background.

Mary Spring, Terri Howell, and Susan Lovell are retired teachers.

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18 Comments

  1. Trudy Killin on

    Well said ladies. We must keep on Norm Miller as I think we, as teachers , all knew what the repercussions of a Conservative government would be on the education system before election time last year. When Norm Miller knocked on my door, I talked to him about what changes a new government would make to the education system and my fears that the changes would cause mayhem to local school boards. Our younger colleagues in the schools today need our support as most of us went through the unsettling times of the Mike Harris regime and know the harm that came from it.

  2. Henk Rietveld on

    Thank you all for “nailing it”. You have put this discussion in a positive and very constructive context. If only the current government would listen, and follow these suggestions. Major cost savings are possible, as are improvements in the system, without the spectre of huge class sizes and teacher staff reductions. Eliminating two boards and the useless testing are long overdue. This is one area where common sense (instead of OISE ivory towerism) would make a real difference.

  3. Thank you for this comprehensive discussion! I would add that when people read about average class sizes, they should be aware that apples are not always being compared to apples. What the Ontario government wants is an average of 28 students per teacher working during a given period, including, for example, guidance counsellors and teacher-librarians. This results in much higher class sizes than places with the same average per actual class.

    • Since this government appears to be beer-centric, why not cap class sizes at 12 or 24??? The education funding seems to equal this number anyway, buck-a-kid?

      What a farce.

    • Dianne Adams on

      As the kids advance through the public school system and enter high school, their study and learning habits are starting to form. Friends of mine whose kids just graduated from university have said that the larger classes in high school made it so much easier to adapt to the lectures in university, often addressing over 80 attendees. They felt that the gradual increase in class sizes over the years helped them to blend into this new format so much easier/faster than if they had gone from a small class size to a lecture size atmosphere. Sometimes it pays to listen to the users???

  4. Erin Horvath on

    A thoughtful and well written assessment. I will be passing it along within my networks. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Thank you ladies!! I agree with everything you have written. I too have written to Norm Miller about my concerns.
      In Parry Sound this is affecting a lof of teachers. 24 teachers were given pink slips only 6 have been rehired. So in Parry Sound come fall there is no Music, Art, qualified Phys Ed, most tech courses( if not all) will be eliminated. This has a profound impact on the community.
      Also these students will all be voting in the next election!

  5. Thank you, Mary, Terri, and Susan for your collective voice of reason and wisdom, and for your willingness to engage in conversation with our MPP, Norman Miller, who happens to hold a significant cabinet position within the Ford government.

    Yes, quality public education in Ontario – especially for non-urban communities like Huntsville – is at a crossroads. It is an education system with its embedded core value of ‘equality of opportunity’ for all kids that our parents’ and grandparents’ generations visualized, and politically struggled for in the first-half of the 20th century after experiencing the horrors and devastation of two world wars, the privations of the ‘unroaring twenties’ and Great Depression of the 1930s.

    Ironically, this comprehensive education system we have in Ontario today at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels was crafted and built, not by Liberal or CCF/New Democrat provincial governments, but by Progressive Conservative governments between the 1950s and the early 1980s, led by the likes of premiers Lesley Frost, John Robarts, and William Davis.

    One final point. I’m still trying to figure out the logic of our Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, and her claim that larger class sizes in public high schools will make our students more ‘resilient,’ and will better prepare them for larger university classes as well as the work force. Interestingly enough, a top-notch elite private girls’ school in an upscale area of Toronto, Havergal College, on its current website lists as one of its ‘School Highlights,’ the feature of ‘personalized programs with small class sizes.’ Are resilience-building strategies for young people different for public schools than for private schools?

  6. Karen Wehrstein on

    Excellent, comprehensive article – thank you, my three friends!
    .
    In short: a government that does not place education among its highest priorities is a government that does not really care about the public for whom it is supposedly working. Weakening of education weakens an entire society.
    .
    The Conservative Party needs to do some soul-searching.
    .
    BTW, I have been in favour of eliminating the separate school system since long before it was cool, i.e. 40-odd years ago, when it was unthinkable, for all the reasons you give above. As a teen I was baffled by the fact it existed until I learned the historical reasons, but I could see how they no longer applied. But there was not one major political party that would even consider it. Glad we’ve advanced to the point where we can talk about it. Nothing against Catholics, but public education should be separate from religion, else we don’t have full separation between church and state (which is best for everybody).

    • Isobel Potts on

      There was a time when many Ontario cities had a Catholic hospital and a civic/general hospital. Most have now merged, for all the same reasons that the school boards should. What is the problem?

  7. Bev Belanger on

    I remember as a child that you usually played after school with same kids one went to school with. Therefore, it was adults who created a division between kids at an early age. Not exactly a quality lesson that one would want to impart on young minds. I always wondered, as a child, why those kids were different, when there was no need to separate us. I can’t believe that, as a society, we still condone that separation.
    Well done ladies!

  8. Linda Ann Jewell on

    Very well researched and put together, Mary, Susan & Terri. Put me on the list of retired teachers who agree with your assessment of the current state of affairs re education in Ontario. I have contacted Norm Miller several times about these and other cutbacks on the Conservative docket – no response to any of them. I’m glad you managed a one on one discussion with him. Let’s hope collectively we will get through to them. Thanks for your hard work on behalf of the students of Muskoka (and the whole province).

  9. Anna-Lise Kear on

    I hope Mr. Miller listens and heeds your messages of sound substance. Thank you for the fact-checking.

    For Mr. Miller, I wish we had a recall system, for you to resign. You and your party have not represented students, teachers, and parents in the many policy missteps in education, public and mental health since forming your government. Your leader’s “pounce and announce” style of governing pales in comparison to a more distant historical progressive conservative leadership in the Province.
    Please consider resignation.

  10. Pat Barltrop on

    This is a very thoughtful and well written article. I appreciate the research that went into backing up your areas of concern. Our government belongs to the school of thought that if you repeat a lie enough times, the population will believe it to be a fact. Many of your points can apply equally to larger cities. On line courses will be difficult in disadvantaged homes that can’t afford internet service, or in homes where parents can’t help negotiate the world of technology. Student mental health is an increasing concern everywhere. I have asked the Minister of Education to produce the data that supports her statements concerning our “broken ” educational system, the development of resilience through larger class sizes, the benefits of e-learning etc.
    Reading your letter, clearly highlights the difference between thoughtful educated statements and the uneducated ones of our current Premier and his minister.

  11. Thank you all, Mary, Terri & Susan, so much for your fantastic assessment of Ontario education. I agree with all that you have said and stand in solidarity with you on your stance for the future. As a retired teacher of both public and Catholic education systems in this province, teaching both English and French, I believe I can state the opinion that you are all correct in what you say and propose. Most kids these days need to connect more with the outdoors, not more with the computer. Technology is amazing, but the wilderness is more amazing and it’s right at our collective back doors.

  12. With your combined IQ’s, common sense, and political/general knowledge; it would be amazing to hear your views on the totality of this abysmal government. As a further meeting with Mr.Miller is highly unlikely, an open letter to the Premier is always a satisfactory vehicle. It’s truly difficult to believe all the chaos that they’ve achieved in one short year.
    .
    I obviously loved this critique, ladies; particularly 1. and 2. At various times, my children attended Catholic schools to receive French-French training (which turned out to be a requirement of their future vocations). It was problematic, however, that they were required to take daily religion classes; even though they are not Roman Catholic. A combined system (with its attendant major savings) would not only allow for optional religious instruction; but would allow for choice between French-French and French immersion classes.
    .
    Regarding EQAO, it may have been a good idea initially; but its due date has long since expired. The uses of the scores now are mostly twofold: to promote principals for favourable average scores; and to compare the Canadian/Asian gap in mathematics results. As neither foster learning to any extent, they can be safely eliminated.
    .
    This government has trumpeted their 1% budget increase in education (and health care); while running roughshod over everything else. Nonetheless, they have angered both these sectors with their substantive changes. Perhaps, all we can do is pity the remainder of government responsibility; and wait for the next budget. Good luck to us all.

  13. Tony Crocker on

    These folk are spot on with their assessment of the damage being done to the education system,and the harm done to current students. If we truly want to cut costs and not harm students, a single public school system is a good place to start!

  14. OPEN (One Public Education Now) agrees we should have one public non-denominational two-language school system. But the three main parties all support the current discriminatory and wasteful system. That is why we have hired lawyers and an expert witness and are going to bring a constitutional challenge under the Charter of Rights. For more information and to donate see our website https://open.cripeweb.org/aboutOpen.html .

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