Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Education in Ontario - Striving for Mediocrity

The first few weeks of September have always been a special time for me. As a student, these were the beginning days of a new school year. As a teacher, same thing but from a totally different perspective and with totally different challenges.
In Canada, education is the responsibility of the provincial governments, and because I taught in just one province for 35 years I'll try to restrict my remarks to it, Ontario.
The people here have an unwarranted smugness in their belief that we have a pretty good system of education, after all todays adults by-and-large are products of that system, so it must be good. Of course it really is difficult to distinguish Ontario from any other jurisdiction because education has become the responsibility of the local government. Across Canada and the United States the vast majority of students were taught within the "public elementary or secondary" system and the similarities, unfortunately, are greater than the differences.

Ever wonder why government controls education yet allows people to fend for themselves when it comes to really big things like clothing, food and shelter? Aren't those a little more important (I don't want to give the statists any ideas) than readin' ritin' an' rithmetic?  Do you think the reason has anything to do with control?  Thats right control and indoctrination. I hope I'm not starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I'm very far from that believe me, and I don't really believe governments are that effective in our democratic system. No, public education in Canada began with the one group that is that effective and diabolical enough to want control and indoctrination: the church.
The earliest Canadian schools were instituted by the local priesthood like the Jesuits in New France, which later became Lower Canada and then Quebec. That model was used in Upper Canada (now Ontario) where Egerton Ryerson realized that the Jesuit's success could be translated to a more secular state-controlled school system. Ryerson saw this as one way to assimilate the immigrant hordes, the alien elements that had just arrived, into the ways of their new country. That model is the foundation of the Canadian system of education: control the curriculum and mould (if you can) the population throughout their formative years.
If you don't believe that, consider the Residential schools that "moulded" First Nations children to be fine upstanding Canadian citizens. The unacknowledged purpose of those facilities was to effectively "kill the Indian in the child". We are still dealing with the mess that experiment has left behind.
That's not the only vestige of our earlier history that still affects us in Ontario today. Ontario supports a Roman Catholic school system with public tax money to the exclusion of all other religions. Some will argue that is a constitutional responsibility, but that does not make it fair or reasonable. A recent election (2007) during which taxpayers support for all religious schools was an issue was soundly defeated. So Ontarians don't like the blending of church and school, yet they tolerate the Catholic incongruity.
Education is the number two largest component of the Ontario budget (next to Health Care) and each year Education costs seem to rise without any marked improvement in outcomes. The Fraser Institute produces report cards for Ontario schools based on standardized tests given to students in particular grades. The results are mediocre at best for both Elementary and Secondary schools with little or no improvement given the budget increases. These Fraser Report Cards have become a bone of contention for the teacher's unions, because it exposes their inadequacy. One union actually wants to stop giving the standardized tests because they emphasize literacy and numeracy to the exclusion of other parts of the curriculum, imagine that.
Premier Dalton McGuinty seems to be proud of his record of increasing education spending with such things as all day kindergarten. McGuinty thinks that earlier education somehow improves later outcomes. While that seems to be intuitively correct, there is little evidence to support it from other jurisdictions that have tried.
Ultimately the problem in education as is true in so many so-called government responsibilities, boils down to choice. If "choice" works in food, clothing, housing and so many other areas of our lives, why would it not work in education? Why must there be one official curriculum in Ontario? Why must all parents (and taxpayers) support the one school system with their tax money? Why must parents who send children to private schools pay twice?
Here is another view, a more libertarian view. Try and have a good school year.

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