Minister of Education missed the boat in response to student walkouts

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Yesterday, thousands of students across the province—several hundred of them in Huntsville—walked out of their classrooms to protest planned cuts to Ontario’s education system.

Both praise and condemnation of their actions have been swift. While the online comments dismissing their message are disappointing, it was the reaction of Ontario’s Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, that was most disturbing.

Thompson’s ministry is tasked with ensuring future generations of adults have the skills they need to be productive members of society. But those skills go beyond being able to calculate a math equation or form a coherent sentence (the latter something sorely lacking in many of the online comments made by adults). Those skills also include the ability to think critically and assess information. And the ability and confidence to speak up and speak out when they see a wrong that needs to be righted.

In comments to reporters the day before the planned walkout, when asked if she encouraged students to have a voice and to protest, Thompson said, “you know what I was really excited about was last fall when we created a forum for students to have their voices heard, and when they speak up in a constructive environment like the largest education consultation in the history of this ministry, they had an opportunity to impact change and that they did… Done in a constructive way, in a forum facilitated properly through the ministry, people really can have an impact.”

And when asked if she felt that students were being used as political pawns by teachers, she replied, “Students deserve to have a chance to learn and they deserve the chance to succeed and have a clear career pathway that is based on skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow… What I want to say is I appreciate everybody’s voice if it’s presented in a constructive manner much like we facilitated this past fall.”

In other words: ‘we’ll tell you when and where it’s okay to speak up. Otherwise, sit down and shut up.’

And in a media release sent late last night, Thompson focused on just two things: teachers’ unions and math skills. She did not address any of the seven issues raised by students (math was not one of them), nor did she acknowledge their right, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to freedom of peaceful assembly. Instead, she called the walkouts a political stunt and criticized teachers for condoning the students’ behaviour.

But, Ms. Thompson, you too should be condoning it, and indeed applauding it. Most of these students can’t yet vote, and in your government, as you yourself said, they are apparently only allowed to speak up when and where they are told. So how else are they to get their message across in a way that will make not just your government, but the larger population, sit up and take notice?

The assertion that these students are acting as pawns of teachers’ unions is demeaning—it insults their intelligence and suggests that they are incapable of free thinking. And if you believe that to be true, that students can’t think for themselves, then your education system is failing on a far greater level than students’ math scores, in a way that would have far-reaching social impacts. A society that follows authority without question is on a slippery slope.

Whether you agree or disagree with the students’ message, they are entitled to their opinion, as you are yours. They are entitled to fight for what they believe in, as are you. This is democracy at its best, and our political ‘leaders’ would do well to pay attention. Trying to shut down your current and future constituents because they disagree with you is bad form.

Will this protest make a difference? Maybe not today—the Ford government is intent on pushing through its mandate, public opinion be damned. But protests are about awareness, about highlighting issues and keeping those issues at the forefront of public consciousness.

Rather than condemn these students for their protest, we should be encouraging more of it. From everyone. We don’t see this type of political passion and motivation often enough. Did some students blow it off as an excuse to get out of class? Probably. But in every election, more than 30 per cent of adults—and in some years more than 40 per cent—abandon their right to vote. Political apathy is not an issue confined to youth.

Traditionally, the youngest voters have had the lowest turnout but in the 2015 federal election, the number of voters aged 18 to 24 was up 18 per cent over 2011, the largest increase of any age group.

Student actions this week are heartening and, one hopes, an indication of their future political involvement. They may be ‘kids’ now, but by the time the next provincial election rolls around, the bulk of these students will be adults who are eligible to vote. And they are watching how we respond to them today.

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12 Comments

  1. Henk Rietveld on

    Extremely well put, Dawn. I applaud the students that organized this protest, and the thousands of caring, concerned young people of our province. Trump-lite and his band of merry men (and women) leading this chaotic change for change’s sake need to wake up and smell the roses…don’t alienate those that will take to the polls three years from now.

    • John Rivière-Anderson on

      Excellent commentary, Dawn, and I agree with Henk and Karen. The Ford government erosion of environmental and social programmes, denigration of critical democracy, and now its proposed serious reduction of course choice and one-on-one class time for students – to find money – reflect shallow, shortsighted, and uneducated politics. Money is to be found very easily elsewhere: in the reduction of government ministerial bureaucratic waste.

  2. Karen Wehrstein on

    Agree on all points.
    .
    How very Trumpian of the minister to denigrate the students and teachers both just because they have the temerity to notice that her bad policies are bad and speak out against them. Does she want to be Betsy DeVos North? I don’t think that authoritarian kind of politics will work so well in Ontario.

  3. Does every political statement from “progressives” in Canada have to include the name, Trump? Canadian conservative thought is NOT controlled by Americans! It is annoying to have to read that constant refrain from Canadian leftists.

    I too applaud the students for standing up to the to the chief bureaucrat in the Ministry of Education. When will the Minister of Education chop highly-paid jobs in the bloated education establishment instead of exacting cuts at the local levels? Teachers and students should not have to shoulder the cuts (fewer teachers, bigger classes, etc.) while fat cat bureaucrats and “educational consultants” rake in government largesse on the school boards and at Queens Park.

    All you leftists should understand that socialism-communism (don’t forget that Vladimir Lenin baldly said, “The goal of socialism is communism”) spawns enormous bureaucracies that do little but harass the people. And that part of socialism is relatively benign compared to what communist dictators do to those who dare to protest government policies. Oh, I forgot–“In socialism, everyone is equal.” What the socialists forgot to tell you is that the bureaucrats who run the system are and will be much more “equal” than you. Why do you think that every experiment in Marxism has always ended badly? The people of Venezuela know well the pain inflicted on the average citizen by the socialist Maduro government. What’s that you say? “Oh, but this time, and here in Canada, it will be different. Canada is extremely wealthy from all our natural resources.” Tell that to the Venezuelans who sit atop some of the largest proven reserves of oil in the world.

    • Oh dear, I think this person is using this forum” for a rant on “socialism”. Let’s focus on the young people who have been so betrayed by governments that have more concern for corporate culture than youth.

  4. The number of students in the system has been decreasing since 2002; simple demographics. Consequently, the number of students in the classroom has also been decreasing. Enrollment at Universities & Colleges is also down year over year and getting worse.

    So my math question is: Why do we need the same number of teachers? Why shouldn’t the government make cuts to education? The province is technically bankrupt so where is a better place to make the cuts? Healthcare, roads, welfare payments, pensions, police, fire fighters? Or should we raise taxes? Ontario does not have any money.

    • Brit,

      While I agree that declining enrollments should make for fewer teachers and classrooms, increasing class sizes will not achieve anything good except reducing the budget at the expense of our students and teachers. I think it far better to reduce the bloated education bureaucracy–it needs a drastic trim. Will it get one? You see lawyers pulling down hefty salaries (at least $500K + very generous benefits) as the “non-political” head of nearly every bureaucracy. Frequently, they know NOTHING about the services that their underlings (also receiving very handsome compensation) are supposed to be providing.

      Let’s take, for example (and there are MANY examples), Rob MacIsaac, President and CEO of Hamilton Health Sciences. He is a LAWYER who has jumped over to healthcare from a previous stint as President of Mohawk College and before that, several years at the helm of Metrolinx. He had no previous experience in the fields of transportation, higher education or healthcare before being appointed by the Liberal provincial government. Just had a few low-level elected positions. Last year, he received $633,000 plus generous benefits.

      MacIsaac is just an example–not picking on him particularly–there are undoubtedly LOTS of examples.

      • Are we simply not talking about putting the class room size back to where it should be; to where it has been? There is no expense to the students but there is to all of us who pay for their wages.

        I agree; reduce the bloated education bureaucracy, government bureaucracy and anything else we can find.

        I have nothing against teachers but why would you substitute one inefficiency for another? Why not eliminate them both?

  5. Charles Wilson on

    Fulfilling teacher expectations rather than or in addition to pedagogic expectations is the favourite game of the B student. One of your commentators says that the minister by failing to condone, condemned the students. This simply illustrates the importance of education and the critical faculties to read English however convoluted and ministerial.

    Should students be co-opted or co-opt themselves into the efforts by their teachers to obtain economic advantage from their employers?

    The question presumes that the students have obtained sufficient maturity to reach an independent view of the action by teachers’ unions and the extent to which it contributes or detracts from the quality education in this province.

    There is certainly the possibility that students may find as they grow older and wiser their views become divergent from those of the school teachers. On the other hand the effort entailed in walking around waving generally rather trite placards is, I suppose, of some exercise value.

    • Listen to young people. Listen closely and carefully. I am confident you will discover they can be clear independent thinkers who are feeling pretty badly betrayed by political systems and environmental policies. Young people are truth-seekers. the people in power and those with wealth to protect are far less tuned in to the needs of the young and the under-privileged.

  6. brian tapley on

    For Ontario, the bottom line cost is the issue. As noted by someone earlier, Ontario is effectively bankrupt due to it’s huge debit that has been accumulated under the various leaderships of the past.
    The concept of a somewhat balanced budget seems to have eluded our leaders and somehow they feel compelled to continue the deficit game as though there is no possible bad ending to come in the future.

    They are wrong.

    So, looking at teachers and school budgets one could take the simple numerical approach. If there is a preferred class size range, then we should create classes with that many students and staff them appropriately. When you have run out of students and still have “spare” teachers looking at you and waiting to be assigned to a class to teach you have the downsizing problem.
    If you are rich, you can keep the teachers and have more but smaller class sizes. This would be wonderful and if carried to the ultimate conclusion you would have a teacher student ration of 1 to 1.

    This we can’t afford.

    So an alternate solution is that those extra teachers get laid off, in other words we have no work for them.
    There is nothing wrong with this. Industry does it all the time as demand for their products varies.

    The administration costs are quite another thing. The salaries seem out of proportion to the talents and benefits that a some of these people bring to the job. (I’m looking for a kind way to spell “Overpaid” here).
    As one of the prior comments pointed out, a significant number of administrators and government ministers seem to have little or no history of even having worked in the sector that they are now charged with administering. This has seemed wrong to me even from grade school many years ago.

    Of course most ministerial heads don’t actually do much work, fulfilling the task of being a figurehead and their staff do the day to day work to keep things moving smoothly. A classic example would be that you pay your taxes to the “receiver general” but you will never see that person out supervising a pot hole patching session in the rain. I suppose we need this in some governmental way but it has always rubbed me badly when I see the salaries and benefits posted for a figure head position. I always felt that the workers and staff that actually did the work should be getting the benefit here.

    Over the years I spent in school my limited experience has been that good teachers are good because they want to be and love to teach. Pay helps and everyone needs to make a living but I have never seen increased pay create a better teacher. Experience, education and the love to teach does this.

    I think that if the well paid and highly intelligent (assumed) administration had done it’s job of controlling costs, reducing budgets as the number of students decreased then the Ford government, trying to follow it’s election mandate to reduce costs everywhere, might not be so draconian in some places where it is attempting to make cuts. If administrators, not just in education but all Ministries, had looked more seriously at innovations, both technical and social, that might reduce costs over the years, then things might not need to be so drastic now.

    One of the things this government said during the election campaign was that it would try to reduce the debit, come closer to a balanced budget and words to that effect. Well they can only do this by reducing costs or taxing in more money. They are working on both and maybe lotto and weed taxes will save their day but I doubt it and some cuts are going to be needed.

    Cuts are always painful to the people being cut. It is the job of those highly paid bureaucrats and ministers in charge to make these painful decisions on a timely basis and ultimately these cuts will include some of these very upper level administrators themselves. They have not done enough of this over the years and the Ford government, for all it’s flaws and miss steps, is trying to do it for them. Not always in the best way perhaps but that is for the future to decide when we look back and call it history.

    For sure, we can’t go on running deficits and building our debit in Ontario as we have been. The interest costs to service this debit will become more debilitating of our society each year that we let this debit grow.
    This will suck up the money we need to run programs we all want and that actually provide a tangible benefit to our lives. Things like good roads and health care for just a simple example.

    There is no good future outcome if we continue a course of action that constantly increases debit and creates a top heavy administrative environment in our public service departments. If we don’t have the ability to run for office ourselves and try to personally make improvements then it is important that we all thinks about these type of issues and let our leaders know when we have any constructive ideas that might help.

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