On Ontario Election Campaign Trail, Education Promises Miss the Mark

CommentaryNext to health care, education is the second most expensive line item in every provincial budget. It’s not surprising that education is a major topic during the current Ontario election campaign. Politicians from all parties are making plenty of education campaign pledges. Too bad most of these promises would have little impact on student academic achievement, and in some cases, would do more harm than good. For example, both the Ontario Liberals and the NDP say they will reduce class sizes. The Liberals went furthest with a pledge to cap class sizes at only 20 students for all grade levels and in all subjects. To meet this pledge, the Liberals say they will hire an extra 10,000 teachers for Ontario public schools. It’s easy to get caught up with the hype for smaller class sizes. There is a certain amount of logic that smaller classes will mean more individual attention for students and a more manageable workload for teachers. No doubt this is a popular proposal with parents and teachers. However, while smaller class sizes are moderately beneficial for early years students, there is no evidence that they make much difference with older students. That is certainly what Derek Allison, noted education scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, found in 2019 when he conducted an extensive review of education research on the impact of smaller classes on academic achievement. Considering how heavily indebted the province of Ontario is, capping class sizes would be prohibitively expensive. Blowing the budget on a policy that has only a moderate impact on student achievement seems unwise. The Ontario Liberals and NDP also say they will scrap standardized testing for students. They argue that the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) needs to be replaced by a different assessment system. However, they are both vague on what exactly would take its place. Without the data provided by standardized tests, it will be even harder to figure out how well Ontario students are actually doing. Provinces such as Saskatchewan and Manitoba abolished most of their standardized tests years ago and they are literally operating in the dark when it comes to measuring student achievement. Scrapping the EQAO tests might play well to certain crowds, but it certainly wouldn’t be in the best interest of students. Provinces need accurate data on student academic achievement to make good policy decisions. As for the Ontario PCs, their record on education is mixed at best. While they are wisely promising to continue with the EQAO tests and are avoiding foolish promises to cap class sizes, they are still moving ahead with two mandatory e-learning credits for high school students. There is not a shred of evidence that mandatory e-learning benefits students and it is disappointing that the Ontario PCs are still pushing forward with this initiative. The best part of the PC education platform is its promise to improve math and reading instruction. In fact, some positive changes have already happened. For example, Ontario’s new math curriculum does incorporate many of the basic skills (such as learning standard algorithms and memorizing times tables) that were absent in the old curriculum. As for reading instruction, the PCs appear to be the only party taking the recent Right to Read report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission seriously. Specifically, Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently pledged to realign the elementary curriculum with evidence-based reading instruction practices. This means a stronger focus on phonics and the abandonment of the ineffective “three-cueing” approach to reading instruction. Considering the many challenges facing Ontario’s public education system, the last thing students and parents need are simplistic solutions to complex problems. Real positive change will come from taking the time to improve the curriculum, particularly in math and reading, and help teachers become more effective in the classroom. Thus, while there is much to be desired about how the Ontario PCs have handled the education file over the last four years, their education platform, even with its weaknesses, is still better for students than the Liberal or NDP platforms. Regardless of which party wins the June 2 election, Ontarians deserve real changes that benefit students and that don’t come with an unreasonable price tag for taxpayers. Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. Follow Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

On Ontario Election Campaign Trail, Education Promises Miss the Mark

Commentary

Next to health care, education is the second most expensive line item in every provincial budget. It’s not surprising that education is a major topic during the current Ontario election campaign.

Politicians from all parties are making plenty of education campaign pledges. Too bad most of these promises would have little impact on student academic achievement, and in some cases, would do more harm than good.

For example, both the Ontario Liberals and the NDP say they will reduce class sizes. The Liberals went furthest with a pledge to cap class sizes at only 20 students for all grade levels and in all subjects. To meet this pledge, the Liberals say they will hire an extra 10,000 teachers for Ontario public schools.

It’s easy to get caught up with the hype for smaller class sizes. There is a certain amount of logic that smaller classes will mean more individual attention for students and a more manageable workload for teachers. No doubt this is a popular proposal with parents and teachers.

However, while smaller class sizes are moderately beneficial for early years students, there is no evidence that they make much difference with older students. That is certainly what Derek Allison, noted education scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, found in 2019 when he conducted an extensive review of education research on the impact of smaller classes on academic achievement.

Considering how heavily indebted the province of Ontario is, capping class sizes would be prohibitively expensive. Blowing the budget on a policy that has only a moderate impact on student achievement seems unwise.

The Ontario Liberals and NDP also say they will scrap standardized testing for students. They argue that the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) needs to be replaced by a different assessment system. However, they are both vague on what exactly would take its place.

Without the data provided by standardized tests, it will be even harder to figure out how well Ontario students are actually doing. Provinces such as Saskatchewan and Manitoba abolished most of their standardized tests years ago and they are literally operating in the dark when it comes to measuring student achievement.

Scrapping the EQAO tests might play well to certain crowds, but it certainly wouldn’t be in the best interest of students. Provinces need accurate data on student academic achievement to make good policy decisions.

As for the Ontario PCs, their record on education is mixed at best.

While they are wisely promising to continue with the EQAO tests and are avoiding foolish promises to cap class sizes, they are still moving ahead with two mandatory e-learning credits for high school students. There is not a shred of evidence that mandatory e-learning benefits students and it is disappointing that the Ontario PCs are still pushing forward with this initiative.

The best part of the PC education platform is its promise to improve math and reading instruction. In fact, some positive changes have already happened. For example, Ontario’s new math curriculum does incorporate many of the basic skills (such as learning standard algorithms and memorizing times tables) that were absent in the old curriculum.

As for reading instruction, the PCs appear to be the only party taking the recent Right to Read report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission seriously. Specifically, Education Minister Stephen Lecce recently pledged to realign the elementary curriculum with evidence-based reading instruction practices. This means a stronger focus on phonics and the abandonment of the ineffective “three-cueing” approach to reading instruction.

Considering the many challenges facing Ontario’s public education system, the last thing students and parents need are simplistic solutions to complex problems. Real positive change will come from taking the time to improve the curriculum, particularly in math and reading, and help teachers become more effective in the classroom.

Thus, while there is much to be desired about how the Ontario PCs have handled the education file over the last four years, their education platform, even with its weaknesses, is still better for students than the Liberal or NDP platforms.

Regardless of which party wins the June 2 election, Ontarians deserve real changes that benefit students and that don’t come with an unreasonable price tag for taxpayers.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”