Ontario seeks to set priorities for school boards on student achievement

Ontario’s school boards need to “refocus” on reading, writing and math, the province’s education minister said Monday as he introduced legislation that would give him greater control over boards, including by setting student achievement priorities.

Stephen Lecce cited stagnant, low and falling standardized test scores as a reason for the move, but critics said it is unclear what the new government-mandated priorities will accomplish.

The omnibus bill would also standardize training for trustees and board officials, standardize performance appraisals for directors of education, “modernize” teacher education, make disciplinary processes more efficient, foster greater parent involvement and use surplus school board properties for housing.

“The goal here today is to send a signal to school boards to refocus their energies on what matters most, which is improving reading, writing and math skills and STEM education,” Stephen Lecce said. 

“My aim is … creating a culture in the ministry where they collaborate with us to lift their standards. Of course, if they don’t, we will act and ensure that they implement and fulfill the clear requirements and requests of parents, which is (that) we up our game when it comes to reading, writing and math.”

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation said it’s unclear what schools are supposed to shift away from when the minister repeats the need to get “back to basics.”

“What are we supposed to be leaving out here?” asked Karen Littlewood, president of the OSSTF. 

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said Lecce is trying to create a crisis in public education “where none exists.”

“In the government’s own materials, they state that ‘Ontario is among the top-performing education systems nationally and internationally,’” the union said in a statement.

“So why is an overhaul necessary? What is their agenda? A refocusing of the education system should not include government overreach.”

What schools need most right now is more adults in the building to look after students’ needs and currently they are very short staffed, Littlewood said.

“You talk to parents, that’s what they want,” she said. “Sure, they maybe want to see a chart on a board website about the priorities. But they want to know that their students get the attention and support that they need when they go to school every day.”

The government also released its funding for school boards for the next academic year and Lecce said it includes a 2.7 per cent increase and money to hire 1,000 teachers to support ending separate applied and academic streams. That is in addition to an announcement Lecce made Sunday that Ontario is hiring nearly 1,000 teachers for specialized math and literacy programs.

NDP education critic Chandra Pasma said 2.7 per cent is significantly below the rate of inflation and won’t meet students’ needs.

“We know why our kids are struggling – it’s because they are in overcrowded classrooms where they can’t get the supports they need after three years of disrupted learning,” she said. 

“We are taking with one hand, and with the other, we’re giving less than one educator per school. So you can do the math on how the supports are just not there to help our kids survive and thrive.”

Cathy Abraham, the president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said the funding on a per-pupil basis is up just half of one per cent, which won’t cover inflationary costs or rising student needs. 

Reading, writing and math are the basics of education, but it is also about more than that, she said.

“There’s always room for improvement, but we also know that helping kids become contributing members of society, successful graduates, all of those things, is about sometimes more than reading, writing, and math,” she said in an interview. 

“So we will continue to advocate for funding for those pieces, for equity, for continued funding for mental health.”

Abraham also said her association already provides professional development to trustees, so it is unclear to her what the province will do differently.

“To imply that we’re not doing a good job, and that they have to swoop in and teach us how to be school board trustees doesn’t sit well,” she said.

Lecce said school boards and officials need governance improvements, citing “notable” examples such as the Peel District School Board, where the province appointed a supervisor to take over for 2 1/2 years due to systemic racism and personnel issues. 

“There are 700 trustees that are front-line involved in often operational decisions, billions of dollars of investments, and they are responsible for literally millions of children,” Lecce said. 

“So if we can improve the governance training of those individuals, we can ensure that the local school boards are much more effective, because there are too many examples in Ontario … where they’re not, I think, at the standards when it comes to governance.”

Lecce said the legislation would also accelerate the building of new schools and would allow the province to make better use of underused sites.

Schools that are in operation are not set to be closed under this plan – officials said a school closure moratorium remains in place – but it would allow the minister to direct a board to dispose of a site, such as an empty school. 

If a different board needs the property it would be sold to them, but if it is not needed in the education sector, the property would be considered for other provincial needs such as affordable housing or long-term care, officials said in a technical briefing.