Next steps for Education in Ontario

This post is drawn from a conversation with Lindy Amato, Director of Professional Affairs at the Ontario Teachers’ Federation.  She spoke with us about some of the next steps in education and educational policy in Ontario and shared links to a number of related resources and news reports:

Recently, Ontario has been cited by OECD and others as an educational “success” story and a “system on the move.”  That success has been marked by a concerted focus on a small set of key goals, collaboration, and the development of a high level of trust among all involved in the educational system.  Over the past ten years, those key goals included:

  • increasing achievement scores
  • raising the number of graduates from high school
  • narrowing achievement gaps
  • building public confidence in the public education system.

As Amato put it “everybody climbed on board, there was labor peace for the most part, and that was the focus for every teacher, every director, every school, and every minister.” This climate of cooperation facilitated collaborations between the Government and the teachers’ organizations on diverse initiatives including teacher performance appraisal, a New Teacher Induction Program, and the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program.  In a widely circulated paper, Michael Fullan, has also described how far the system has come from what he called good but stagnant results and a “downtrodden state” in 2003 and laid out what the next steps might be.

From Amato’s perspective, the challenge is to maintain the gains, address performance areas that need improvement, and then go further. In particular, the government wants to address declines in math scores as well as a continuing performance gap between aboriginal students and other students.  The Premier Kathleen Wynne also recently emphasized the need to broaden the focus of the educational system to include higher order skills, creativity, citizenship, and other capacities needed for work and life in the 21st Century.  “That’s the tension in the system,” Amato explained, “to address those challenges and make further improvements.” The tension is reflected in the desire by some to move away from the traditional, content-heavy curriculum and allow much more flexibility in learning experiences while the system continues to rely on assessments of relatively narrow academic outcomes.

Adding to the challenges, concerns about the economy and the implications for the education budget are coming to the forefront with new negotiations between the teachers’ unions and the government slated to take place in the spring.  Although negotiations over the past ten years generally went smoothly, the most recent round was much more contentious. Ontario’s oversupply of teachers is another cause for concern.  The Toronto Globe and Mail cited one report revealing that almost a third of teacher education graduates in and near Ontario in 2011 were unable to find jobs in their fields, a sharp increase from about three percent in 2006.  In response, the government announced an expanded initial teacher education program to be launched in 2015.  The program is designed to halve the number of teachers who graduate every year while doubling the length of time required to get a degree.

Looking ahead, the next round of negotiations between the provincial government and the teachers’ unions will be crucial not only in determining if and how these issues will be addressed, but also setting the tone and determining whether the coming years will be accompanied by the same kind of trust, coherence, and collaboration that characterized the last ten years.  Adding to the uncertainty, the current government is a minority government and the next call for elections may come in the middle of the education negotiations expected to begin next spring.

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