Critics of the Ontario PCs’ education plan have seen right through the government’s claim that it’s “modernizing” our schools. It’s about money, they say. Brilliant! Go to the head of the class.
When a government is facing an 11-figure deficit, everything it does is about money, to some considerable degree. This should come neither as a shock nor a revelation. Nor should it be surprising that a government aiming to eliminate the deficit it inherited would reduce costs in its second-largest-spending ministry. This is what happens when a province has a multi-billion dollar gap between what people consider an essential level of services and what they are actually paying for.
The fairer way to assess the government’s new education plan is to ask whether it is reasonable under the financial circumstances the province faces. If something has to be changed, is the province changing the right things?
The plan to increase class sizes has drawn most of the criticism, with the secondary school teaching union saying it had “declared war.” War is the normal state of affairs for teaching unions in Ontario. They have fought governments of all three parties, going back to the last century. The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario has hilariously referred to the Liberal years between 2009 and 2018 as “a struggle against austerity.”
The government will maintain class-size caps until the end of Grade 3. In a move it says will bring Ontario in line with most other provinces, it would add one elementary student to the average class from grades 4 to 8. Secondary school classes would increase from an average of 22 students to an average of 28.
This what the government hopes, at least. Class sizes in Ontario are part of the collective agreements with unions. The increases the PCs are calling for will not be easily achieved, but if the government is to accomplish anything more than a symbolic spending tweak, it has to increase the student-teacher ratio. It is the only practical way to reduce labour costs. Thousands of teaching jobs will be eliminated, through attrition.
The larger class sizes make up more than half of the total PC spending reduction plan, which is estimated to save about $1 billion and will be phased in over four years. Prepare to hear that this change will devastate the province’s schools, but it looks pretty modest compared to the $29-billion education budget.
The last thing that was predicted to devastate our schools was changing the sex-ed curriculum. The new PC plan features mostly minor changes in the timing of the content delivered in the previous Liberal plan. Another cataclysm avoided.
More substantively, the PCs are promising a more basic approach to math, an increased focus on science and technology skills and more emphasis on trades education. All these changes are overdue. In general, schools need to focus on the skills the job market requires. Ontario student achievement on standardized math tests has been slowly declining in grades 3 and 6, and in Grade 9 fewer than half of the students in the applied stream meet the provincial standard. The Liberal solution was to keep spending more money on the same approach. Maybe the PC plan won’t work either, but it makes more sense than repeating the same failed methods.
Ontario students will also be expected to take four courses online over their high school careers. If some other party proposed it, this change would be considered a forward-looking embrace of technology.
Overall, the PC plan is only moderately ambitious, but it will still be seen as revolutionary in the context of an education system that measures success primarily by class size and dollars spent. The PC changes will make the jobs of secondary school teachers more onerous, without a doubt. They will not be the first professional group to face such a challenge.
Nevertheless, the teaching unions will fight change because that’s what they do. Expect the unions to tell us how devastating the spending reductions will be for disadvantaged children, a more appealing argument than pure self-interest.
In that context, new research from the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia reaches some interesting conclusions. In a study of disadvantaged schools, researchers found that the key factors of success were experienced principals, a systematic and methodical approach to teaching, and strong, consistent classroom discipline. Principals of the most successful schools stayed away from the inquiry-based learning Ontario has loved so much, on the grounds that it requires background knowledge that lower-income and immigrant students typically do not have. The education researcher who did the report said the critical factor was not how much schools spent, but how they spent it.
Randall Denley is an Ottawa political commentator and former Ontario PC candidate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org