Setting education priorities

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Fri Nov 04 2011.    Paul Axelrod

What’s next for educational reform in the schools of Ontario? In the wake of the recent election, and the appointment of a new minister of education, how might Dalton McGuinty sustain his reputation as the “Education Premier”?

His government’s track record to date is striking. It introduced all-day kindergarten, environmental education programming, a safe schools strategy which has refined a blunt “zero tolerance” policy, and partnership “tables” through which educators and community groups have had input into the shaping of policy agendas. The government’s highest priority has been the improvement of test scores and high-school graduation rates that respond to an apparent craving for easily grasped indicators of educational improvement.

The educational system, of course, is never good enough and the premier and minister will, as always, receive lots of advice from educational “stakeholders.” To get the conversation going, here are some modest proposals, informed by research, that would enhance the quality of the classroom experience and increase the likelihood of student success.

The most intractable educational challenge is not really an educational issue at all: it is the enduring problem in Ontario (and Canada) of poverty. Schools and teachers cannot resolve this deep social problem (they have no control over unemployment, low wages and inadequate housing), but they can, and do, offer breakfast programs, subsidized field trips and enhanced counselling for students burdened by the academic consequences of family impoverishment. Some schools located in urban settings where almost all of the children are poor have built bridges with parents in order to facilitate communication about their children’s educational experiences. These efforts should be extended (and funded) wherever they are needed.

So too should initiatives that have demonstrably improved the educational prospects of vulnerable students. Mentoring, employed so effectively by such initiatives as Pathways to Education (begun a decade ago in Regent Park) and the Advanced Credit Experience program at York University (where Grade 11 students from area high schools take a university course), is key. The impact of a caring, perceptive mentor on the life of a struggling student (whether poor or middle class) can be immense and the government should support this practice across the province.

The ministry and the school boards should also encourage every creative attempt to deepen student “engagement” in elementary and secondary classrooms. A 2009 national survey published by the Canadian Education Association found that students learn most effectively when they are absorbed by the subject and stimulated by the teacher. They derive far less from their education when they are shovelled huge amounts of curriculum content, and taught in pedestrian ways by instructors who are required to test them constantly.

It is time to take a step back from the formulaic testing and school ranking regimes and focus on the educational dynamics that really make a difference. As the CEA study noted, the individual teachers that students encounter “from year to year” matter far more than the schools they attend, however the schools place in various provincial and national ranking schemes.

Whatever their socio-economic or family backgrounds, students thrive in educational environments that tap their curiosity, speak to the worlds they inhabit, and recognize their accomplishments. Students with “special needs” require more individual attention than they conventionally receive, but as individuals whose abilities, personalities, and potential vary tremendously, all students have special needs, and the teaching strategies we employ should reflect this. As Star columnist Rick Salutin reported in a series earlier this year, we should pay close attention to the inventive educational practices of Finland, whose educational “outcomes” are recognized worldwide.

Ontario gets a lot right in its elementary and secondary schools. But we have no reason for complacency. Too many students are still burdened and impeded by poverty, isolation or boredom. The “Education Premier,” and his new minister, Laurel Broten, will earn accolades if they provide the means to confront these challenges in the next round of educational reform.

Paul Axelrod is a professor and former dean of the faculty of education at York University. He is the author of The Promise of Schooling, Education in Canada, 1800-1914.

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