New Ontario Education Minister Must Save the Ship

June 24, 2019 Updated: June 26, 2019

Imagine you are the captain of a cruise ship and the ship is sinking. What should you do?

Hopefully, you would get the passengers into their lifejackets and, if possible, plug the leak and keep the ship afloat. This would not be the time to rearrange the deckchairs, paint the walls, or change the menu items in the dining room.

When faced with a crisis, you need to identify the problem and take concrete steps to address it—this is not the time to tinker with secondary matters.

In a nutshell, this is what newly minted Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce must do. Things have not gone well in Ontario schools over the past year. Teachers are upset, parents feel betrayed, and academic performance continues to suffer. The Ontario education ship is sinking, and Lecce needs to plug the leak and keep the ship afloat. Above all, the students need to be saved.

To be fair, the Ford government inherited a mess from the Wynne administration. Declining math scores, a controversial sex-ed curriculum, and out-of-control spending were but a few of the challenges faced by the new Ford government. Drastic changes were needed, and Ford promised to end discovery math, revise the sex-ed curriculum, and rein in spending. Elected with a strong majority, Ford had a mandate to make changes.

However, up to now, the curriculum reforms can best be described as half-hearted.

Until the government releases a new curriculum that specifically identifies the grade levels at which students must master a number of basic skills, not much is going to change. Simply paying for more teacher professional development sessions and encouraging teachers to take a few math classes isn’t going to do much to improve student academic performance—particularly when those training sessions are run by the same consultants who pushed discovery math and other useless fads in the first place.

If the new education minister plans to strengthen math instruction, he should bring in a new math curriculum that properly emphasizes the basics. Fortunately, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. JUMP Math is a highly successful math program founded by mathematician John Mighton, and it properly balances mastery of the basics with problem-solving. In fact, many schools across the country already use JUMP Math as their basic math curriculum. Announcing a partnership with JUMP Math would be a good way to show that the government is serious about improving math scores.

As for sex-ed, the government should survey parents about the needs of their children in this area, release the results, and create a curriculum accordingly.

Minister Lecce also needs to restore a productive working relationship with teachers. Years of unrestrained spending by the previous government meant that some spending reductions had to happen. However, jacking up high school class sizes from an average of 22 students to 28 students was the wrong approach.

This decision left the government holding the bag when schools cancelled popular electives and made it harder for students to register for compulsory courses they need to graduate. Instead, the government should mandate administrative reductions in all school boards and require school boards to lay off their highly paid consultants before any classroom teachers lose their jobs.

Finally, Minister Lecce should cancel his predecessor’s directive that all Ontario high school students must complete four e-learning credits before graduating. Mandating e-learning for everyone is a classic example of letting technology drive the reform bus. Technology is a useful tool, but it is only a tool. In reality, e-learning is good for some students but not so good for other students.

Requiring all students to take e-learning courses whether they want the courses or not is like forcing all newspaper subscribers to read newspapers online. Expanding the range of e-learning credit options could be positive, but forcing all students to enroll in them is another thing entirely.

Ontario’s education ship is in distress. Hopefully, Minister Lecce makes sure the children have their lifejackets on properly, plugs the leak, and fixes the ship. Ontario students, and their parents, deserve no less.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of the forthcoming book, “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”