Fifteen years ago Ontario public education began to embrace what had been an alien concept – school accountability for student learning and performance results. Returning to Toronto for the Society for Quality Education’s Measuring Up Seminar, April 26, 2011, prompted me to address a perplexing question – “Are Ontario schools any more accountable today?”
Everyone talks accountability but it’s difficult to find examples of it in practice, even in Ontario. Yet when it comes to school accountability, Ontario is light years ahead of Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and a few other Canadian provinces. And the Ontario system is a whole lot closer to that goal than it was in June of 1997 when I left Ontario for my eventful eight-year Quebec sojourn.
Twenty years ago the Ontario educational world was far different that it is today. Writing in 1993, Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood published Overdue Assignment and virtually lifted the veil on the K-12 public system. Education, they wrote, was a virtual “Fortress” – an incredibly closed system –and it was “under stress” – from parents, local taxpayers and even students – who expected more from their schools.
On the educational continuum from “closed and secretive” to “transparent and accountable,” the Ontario public school system was stuck in first gear. Complacency and “happy talk” were the currency of educational discussion. We were literally “flying blind” – and expected to take everything on faith, to blindly support public education, or to be viewed as “trouble-makers.”
Since then, Ontario’s core educational interests have been thrust into a new, uneasy ‘dance’ with school accountability. With the coming of Mike Harris and the “Common Sense Revolution,” romantic progressivism was in full retreat. We witnessed the introduction of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), the revival of a sound core academic curriculum, and the return of provincial testing. Little by little, public education became far more transparent, if not more accountable.
Since 2003, Ontario education has experienced an “orgy” of educational spending. Education cuts have been replaced with lavish new programs aimed at “closing the gap” and promoting social equity through universal program initiatives. In Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario, education costs have skyrocketed by 57% to some $22 billion in 2010.
It’s high time to ask – What are Ontarians getting for all that investment? And—if we are completely honest – what has all that testing achieved? And finally where do we go from here?
The centrepiece of reform – the EQAO – would benefit from some critical analysis. So would the Grade 10 Secondary School Literacy Test and plans to embrace the “21st Century Skills” agenda. And if we are looking for a comparator, I would suggest considering Nova Scotia – a provincial system much like Ontario’s fifteen years ago.
Ontario’s provincial testing regime should be fair game when it comes to public scrutiny. When spending ballooned to $50 million a year, taxpayers had a right to be concerned. Today, the EQAO costs $34 million or $17 per student and its performing just as well. All that proves is that educational watchdog agencies need to be carefully watched themselves.
The Grade 10 Literacy Test has been a fiasco. The EQAO Office’s own May 2010 report concedes that hundreds of students who failed the 2006 test simply got “lost” and escaped without passing that standard. Consistently, a quarter of all students fall short of acceptable literacy, yet graduation rates have risen from 68% to 79% province-wide.
Ontario’s EQAO is also flirting with “21st Century Skills” and attempting to incorporate them into the testing regime. Many of those skills are “soft” and difficult to assess. American education critic Jay P. Greene describes them as “21st Century nonsense” and warns that they could be used to subvert standardized testing.
The Ontario system of school accountability may have weaknesses, but Nova Scotia’s is virtually non-existent. Since 2006, Nova Scotia has been experimenting with PLANS (Program of Learning Assessment for Nova Scotia). One look at the NS Education website and you can see what it really means. The test results of every assessment are dutifully posted, with little or no comment. It’s clearly “transparency only” and makes a mockery of true accountability. Nothing is aggregated, not is anything ranked, except the eight school boards.
All is not doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope and potential. Three “lighthouse projects” provide cause for optimism in the years ahead:
The Alberta Education model provides a viable option for school choice and system-wide reform. SQE’s Sunshine on Schools is a fine step toward fuller disclosure for Ontario school boards and is a potentially powerful tool promoting more accountability. The Students First movement has now popped up in Nova Scotia on March 28, 2011 with a five-point blueprint for 21st century reform: 1) put students first; 2) elevate teaching; 3) empower parents; 4) raise standards; and 5) spend wisely.
It’s time to rethink and revitalize Canadian education reform for the 21st century. Where can find the building blocks? Let’s embrace school choice – pushing for more choice for parents within the “one-size-fits all” public system. Build upon initiatives like SQE’s Sunshine on Schools – pushing harder for accountability for shortfalls in school board performance and demanding consequences for chronic underperformance. And, above all, “put students first” in all of our reform initiatives and projects.
“Transparency,” Doretta Wilson said recently, “is just the first step on the road to accountability.” Putting students first will allow us to refocus our priorities. Do not lead with accountability, end with accountability. We may have had it wrong in presenting a hard line on accountability. Let’s soften our public image and seek to establish the winning conditions for reform. The 21st century reform agenda should focus on significantly improving student learning, tackling teacher quality, and supporting the most vulnerable in our system.
Finding fault with the system is easier than trying to map out an agenda for 21st century Canadian school reform. What’s next on the reform agenda? Does it bear any resemblance to my modest proposals to revitaize the system?