Since this past summer, teachers in Ontario have been working without a contract. The various education unions have been attempting to negotiate with the government (a bit of a stretch given the Ford government’s anti-union streak) but to no avail, big shocker!
The thing that has caught most people’s attention recently is the job action, particularly the rolling strikes. There are also some work-to-rule campaigns that are leaving some students without report cards, assemblies, field trips, sports teams and so on. Due to the number of different education unions and the nature of the job action that they are taking, these things are not affecting all school boards, but they are happening throughout the province nonetheless.
A lot of people from the outside are often quick to blame the teachers for being “greedy” or the unions for being “unreasonable,” but this is far from the case.
Last spring, the Ford government introduced their “Education that Works for You” plan, that looked to “modernizing classrooms, modernize learning and modernize health and physical education”. Some of the changes included in this plan were making it mandatory for high school students to take four online courses to graduate, cutting funding for classroom supplies, autism supports and indigenous programs and increasing class sizes from 22 to 28 students. They also made it clear in an internal memo within the Ministry of Education that they would save over $800 million by cutting nearly 3,500 teaching positions in the province over the next five years.
As you can tell, these cuts are anything but small. They will have a profound impact on education in Ontario if the full five year plan is implemented. Increasing classroom size and replacing in person courses with classes taught online (often by underpaid and under-qualified ‘instructors’ instead of actual teachers) will undoubtedly lower the quality and outcomes of education in the province.
According to a study from the Brookings Institute, smaller class sizes were found to increase student learning outcomes equal to the impact of spending an extra three months in the classroom. These are not small differences, because that chance for one on one interaction and learning with students and their teacher really is critical for student success.
The Brookings Institute also has studied the impact of online courses and big surprise, it doesn’t look good. While online courses work for those who are already disciplined and advanced, but students that needed extra help or struggled with course work did worse. Taking a course online increased their chance of failing the class by 12%.
That’s why the way online courses had been handled in Ontario up to this point made sense. They were used to offer unique courses not available within the school for students that were interested in taking that optional course or were looking to get ahead. When you force all students to take a minimum number of online courses, it’s going to guarantee that more students fail at least one course, which is one of the key factors the impacts high school dropout rates in Ontario according to the Ministry of Education’s website.
The negative impacts of online courses and increased class sizes is also going to be compounded in rural communities, where schools are smaller, in a worse state of repair and where drop-out rates already are higher.
So what has Doug Ford been doing during these tough times you may ask? What else, but barking at the media about how greedy the teachers unions are and how they are holding the province and parents hostage for a pay raise (one thing that has never even been discussed at the bargaining table according to one of the union leaders).
He also has promised parents up to $60 a day for child care during the teachers strike, a promise that has been estimated to cost the government $48 million a day (instead of actually negotiating with the unions in good faith). Parents have seen through this bizarre day care scheme though and many have been reportedly donating the money back to their local schools.
Considering his actions, it’s clear that Ford is more interested in ratcheting up tensions between the province and the unions to try and make them look bad to the public than actually listening to their expert opinion on the education changes he has proposed.
As I said previously, there is nothing wrong with trying to save money if there is waste to be found in government, but these changes to education are purely ideological. The evidence has been around for years on the negative impacts of increasing class sizes and requiring online courses, but Ford isn’t interested in the evidence. The professionals who he is publicly feuding with have told him that they don’t agree with these changes and think they will negatively impact students and the province, but he isn’t interested in hearing that either.
Usually, good governance requires you weigh what the research says, the views of experts in the field and public opinion to come to the best possible decision that is both evidence-based and politically practical. Given the evidence that I’ve previously mentioned and the fact that 60% of parents stand with the teachers and think the province is headed in the wrong direction, to me that means that Ford has done none of the above. Of course, that will only be to his downfall come 2022.