Hot! Larger classrooms among sweeping changes suggested to education

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published Wednesday, Feb.15, 2012.   Louise Brown, Education Reporter

From a slower move to full-day kindergarten to squeezing middle-income students from the new tuition rebate and considering user fees for some school bus routes and extra high school credits, few corners of Ontario’s schoolhouse have escaped Don Drummond’s fiscal knife.

The economist advising Queen’s Park on how to wipe out the deficit suggests sweeping changes to the sector on which Premier Dalton McGuinty has staked his reputation, arguing the province has hiked per-pupil spending by 56 per cent in the past 10 years, while enrolment has plunged.

In one of his most extreme recommendations, he calls for the province to flat-out cancel its signature full-day kindergarten program because its eventual $1.5 billion yearly price-tag is “inappropriate in this current fiscal climate.” But in the likely event the “Education Premier” balks at such a recall, Drummond suggests he at least slow down the rollout of the program by three years to finish in 2017-2018, rather than 2014-2015.

He also suggests scrapping the current full-day kindergarten model of one teacher and one early childhood educator for an average of 26 kindergarten children, to a smaller class of 20 with just one teacher.

Drummond also tackles one of the first planks of McGuinty’s signature education reforms; smaller classes. Arguing that there is no solid proof smaller classes actually lead to better test scores — even though both have happened since the Liberals took office in 2003 — Drummond suggests Ontario could save money without seeing achievement backslide by letting primary classes grow to 23 children between grades 1 and 3, up from the current 20 children, which is now the maximum in 90 per cent of Ontario grade schools.

In grades 4 to 8, he suggests hiking the recommended average to 26 from its current target of 24.5, and in high school he says the average class size could grow to 24 from 22 without jeopardizing the gains Ontario has made in lowering the dropout rate and boosting achievement.

The class cap has proven difficult for schools to work around, forcing many split-grade classes and even some triple-grades or awkward splits of kindergarten and Grade 1. One additional student in September can force a principal to have to create an entirely new class after children have started school.

Drummond also suggests school boards lose a staggering 70 per cent of the 13,800 extra non-teaching staff it has provided funding for since 2003 — a move bound to be unpopular since these include such heavily used support staff as psychologists, education assistants, guidance counsellors and library assistants.

He also closes the door on the so-called “victory lap” that some 14 per cent of high school students now take in a fifth year of high school to polish their marks and hike their chances at higher learning. Drummond suggests letting students earn 32 credits for free at high school — two more than needed for a diploma. High schools could charge fees for any extra credits.

Ontario ended the fifth year of high school a decade ago, but students are still allowed to take more time to finish their diploma. In Ontario some 19,650 students who started Grade 9 in 2005-6 came back for a fifth year — a little more than 13 per cent of the 150,000 students in that cohort.

In a move sure to cause outrage among the families of students with special needs, Drummond says he does not believe there is a problem with the special education funding formula — something many families would dispute. Instead, he calls for a sweeping review of special education to make sure “every dollar goes to where is will have the most impact.”

Drummond notes the growing cost of busing students to school, and suggests scrapping a recent moratorium on putting bus contracts out to tender. Even so, he recommends school boards consider charging user fees for school buses if needed, although special help would be offered to students of lower income, special needs and rural areas.

He also recommends closing the traditional provincially run schools for some 800 children who are blind, deaf and have particular learning disabilities He argues that having school staff be employees of the provincial government is “not the best governance arrangement” and recommends letting school boards take in these students in new expanded programs, and leaving one provincially run school for the deaf.

As well, Drummond suggests tightening up the rules about teachers receiving grants for getting extra qualifications, so that an independent body would review whether the teacher deserves it. He also suggests school boards no longer be allowed to offer teachers “retirement gratuities,” which cost taxpayers some $1.7 billion.

It suggests the province have the power to order school boards to sell unused buildings – closed schools – and also suggests merging grades 7 and 8 with high school to use buildings more efficiently.

With regard to post-secondary education, Drummond states flatly that quality of higher education in Ontario has been “undermined” by rapid expansion with the lowest funding level in Canada. He cites larger classes, more part-time instructors and less contact with professors.

“You really shouldn’t be doing multiple-choice exams in third- and fourth-year of university,” said Drummond Wednesday, referring to the growing move away from essay questions that take longer to mark.

He recommends a more deliberately two-tiered system of universities; some that focus on research but others that specialize on undergraduate teaching, a suggestion that many smaller institutions have charged unfairly clips their research dreams. But Drummond says universities should not be chasing research dollars at the expense of teaching the booming ranks of undergraduates.

He suggests the government establish clearer “mandate agreements” with colleges and universities that sharpen the focus of each school and reduce duplication – and these should be put into play in 2013-2014. He suggests the province name a blue-ribbon panel to figure out which programs are worth expanding. He also recommends considering how well professors score on student satisfaction surveys as part of the measure of quality.

Drummond recommends keeping the longstanding 5 per cent cap on tuition, although he suggests universities and colleges be allowed to tweak particular program increases within that average. But he recommends reducing the number of students who would qualify for the new 30 per cent tuition rebate – just launched in January – by lowering the income ceiling from its current $160,000 a year annual income.

“Student assistance should be targeted to those who need it most,” he stated.

While Drummond called the surge in tuition fees in Ontario “troubling” – the average undergraduate tuition is now $6,400 per year, the highest in Canada – he says a tuition freeze are not in students’ best interests because the squeeze it would put on campus coffers would end up leading to a “further deterioration of the student experience…there must be a better balance – excellent research should not trump excellent teaching.”

Drummond suggests universities should be encouraged to be flexible enough in their contracts with professors to reward strong teachers as well as strong researchers.

He also suggests post-secondary spending grow by no more than 1.5 per cent until 2017.

Drummond also suggests making it easier for students to move back and forth between colleges and universities. Some college students should be able to move to university after two years of study in certain situations.

In a move sure to upset community colleges, Drummond suggests they not be allowed to add any new degree programs – something colleges say are a growth sector for them. Indeed, the province says no new programs at all should be added unless institutions can make a solid business case.

It was not clear exactly what Drummond meant by suggesting that funding for institutions be tied to the number of students who graduate – “degrees awarded” – rather than students who are enrolled.

He suggests compelling universities to consider whether they can shrink four-year degrees to three years by letting student study over the summer.

He suggests scrapping post-secondary tuition tax credits and investing them in upfront grants to students.

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