Ontario Government Keeps Majoring on the Minors

February 14, 2021 Updated: February 14, 2021

Commentary

To cancel March break or not to cancel March break? That is the question.

At least that was the question the Ontario government wrestled with for several weeks until it finally decided to postpone March break by a month.

Unfortunately, this was the wrong decision.

Ontario students and teachers need a break sooner rather than later. Exhausted students don’t learn particularly well, and they certainly won’t benefit from having exhausted teachers in their classrooms. Regular and predictable breaks are an important part of a healthy learning environment.

However, the only thing worse than making the wrong decision is asking the wrong question. By asking the wrong question, the Ontario government wasted weeks of valuable time and energy on a minor issue while ignoring a much bigger and more important issue.

The timing of March break is a minor issue because it has little impact on academic achievement and is unlikely to make a difference to the COVID-19 transmission rate in schools. With the severe travel restrictions imposed by the federal government, there aren’t many families who will be leaving the country this spring. Most people will stick close to home, whether or not schools are open.

As for student learning, an extra week of school is unlikely to make much of a difference in a year when students have already experienced significant disruptions. It’s much like the perennial debates about the length of the school day and the timing of summer vacations. These issues attract a lot of attention, but they really don’t make much of a difference to student achievement.

In the end, it’s far more important to make effective use of the time students have with teachers than to worry about whether more hours should be added to the school day or which months students should attend school. Simply put, quality of instruction matters much more than either quantity or timing.

There are, in fact, plenty of more important issues that are worthy of the province’s attention. For example, considering the strong relationship between content knowledge and reading comprehension, the province needs to do a much better job of ensuring that students acquire this knowledge in the early grades. Students need a knowledge-rich learning environment starting in Grade 1.

Unfortunately, the social studies curriculum for Grade 1 and 2 students in Ontario focuses on nebulous themes such as “Changing Roles and Responsibilities” and “Changing Family and Community Traditions.” It would make far more sense to use these formative years to immerse students in substantive topics and rich historical background rather than having them learn more about themselves and their neighbourhoods.

One could argue that the middle of a pandemic is a poor time to talk about important curricular reforms. But the government was focusing on a number of minor issues well before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Right from the beginning of its mandate, the Ontario government tried to force all high school students to take several online courses, whether they wanted to or not. Despite the total lack of evidence that these courses would benefit students, it pushed ahead on this demand.

To make matters worse, even when it was doing something right, the government bungled the implementation. Last year, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced a new back-to-basics math curriculum. Unfortunately, he managed to turn a good news announcement into a political disaster.

Not only did the government decide to force teachers to implement the new curriculum in the middle of a global pandemic, but this poorly designed curriculum also included non-basic topics such as “social-emotional learning.” The debate about this took attention away from the truly important reforms such as ensuring that students master their math facts at an earlier age.

It doesn’t help that the government has developed a toxic relationship with teachers and their unions. While there is nothing wrong with pushing ahead with much-needed reforms, it is highly unwise to pick a fight with teachers’ unions over minor matters such as the timing of spring break. It is obvious that the Ontario government has difficulty understanding that some issues are more important than others.

The debate over March break is just the latest example of the government’s tendency to focus on the wrong issues. If it wants to improve public education, it must do a much better job of picking its battles.

In short, it’s time for the Ontario government to stop majoring on the minors and focus instead on things that actually matter.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.