I was an educator in the Ontario public school system for over 33 years. I have experience of having my learning affected by educators’ strike action and of being on strike. When I was completing my teacher training, the teachers in the Toronto area chose to take strike action even though, at the time, it was not legal. They had been without a contract for a very long time without any movement on the side of the school boards to reach an amicable resolution to the issues which were on the collective bargaining table. The teachers for the school board for which I worked chose, finally, to take strike action when we had been without a contract for over 2 years. I was a teacher when all the federations which make up the Ontario Teachers’ Federation chose to strike for two weeks against the Harris government’s plan to amalgamate school boards and impose other limitations on the entire local collective bargaining process.
Now, again, educators in Ontario are taking strike action against the plans for education being put forth by the provincial government. Students and families and educators are being affected by strike action again. I know that educators do not easily choose to take any form of strike action. They are very aware of the impact of that on their students and on each student’s family. For educators, to take any form of strike action has always been decision made only when all other avenues of resolution of their concerns have been exhausted.
So, what are the issues?
No matter how it is couched, in the final analysis, it all comes down to money.
The government has stated that it has made the largest investment in public education ever expended in Ontario history. Yet, funding has dropped $54 per student with this government. The government wants to trim educational spending as a way to help balance the provincial budget. The intention is to slow the increase in educational funding over the next 5 years to 1% per year. However, inflation and increasing enrolment will accelerate costs by at least 2.7% per year. Thus the nominal increases in yearly funding will not match the increased costs arising from inflation and population growth.
The government wants to limit wage increases to 1% per year for all public servants over the next 3 years as a further way of decreasing educational spending. Educators are being expected to take this 1% pay increase even when this will not match the expected rate of inflation. In response to the government’s position regarding wages, teachers in Ontario are asking for wage increases to match the Cost of Living Allowance [COLA]. That is not an unreasonable request.
The government has mandated significant increases to minimum class sizes from grades 4 to 12. As well, the provincial government has made a significant change to how students can achieve the credits required for an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. All students who enter secondary school now will be required to complete 2 online e-learning courses as a part of the 30 credit diploma requirement. The government states that this will help students to be tech savvy as they complete their diploma requirements. The teachers’ federations have argued that, before these changes are implemented, there needs to be significant public consultation. They also note that there is no other educational jurisdiction in Canada which imposes an e-learning requirement on its students.
In the midst of this work action, it’s important that the impact on students of both the government’s positions and the teachers’ withdrawal of services be considered.
So What are the consequences?
In grades 4 to 8, class sizes will increase from an average of 23.84 students per classroom to an average of 24.5 students. In grades 9 to 12, boards will be expected to increase class size to an average of 28 students from 22 students over the next four years. The government position is that larger class sizes will reduce educational spending by about $900 M per year and eliminate over 10,000 teaching positions most of which, it is stated, will be lost through attrition. As educators leave the profession or retire, they will not be replaced. The government position is that no educator in any board will lose their job.
It’s important to remember that these class sizes are averages which are computed over all the classes and courses offered in a school. Therefore, if the school chooses to continue offering some smaller enrollment specialty classes, mainstream classes such as English, math, science, history and geography could balloon to up to 40 or more students per class.
Some schools may choose to meet the provincial class size expectation by significantly changing how some courses are delivered. Some subjects may be kept by combining different levels of instruction in the same class so that, for instance, students taking a University level math course may be in the same class as students taking the math course at the College level. Or, some courses may be kept by combining different grades of the same subject. For instance, students taking Grade 11 French might find themselves in a class with students taking Grade 12 French. This makes it more difficult for the teacher to cover the required course material for each separate course and still meet the learning needs of his or her students.
Some boards may decide to cut courses entirely especially in smaller secondary schools. For example, the Renfrew Board has cut 30 courses across the system. Some schools may decide to cut courses altogether. For example, some schools may cut arts courses such as drama and music à la Mr Holland’s Opus. Or schools may decide to no longer offer courses in regular classes and only offer these to students as e-learning courses.
If class sizes increase, it will be more difficult for teachers to provide individual students with any supports each might need in order to deal successfully with the required course material. There are only so many minutes in each class, so many days in a week, and so many weeks over the length of a course.
As well, and in spite of the government’s position that no educator will lose his or her job, educators have been let go by their school boards – not only teachers but Educational Assistants and Child and Youth Workers.
And, if there are fewer educators in schools, there will be fewer people available to students both in class and in a wide range of extra-curricular activities in the school.
I know from my own teaching experience, that being involved in extra-curricular activities is, for some students, essential to help them deal with the expectations of being in class during the school day.
E-learning has issues:
Any approach – any change to diploma requirements that would require the completion of 2 e-learning courses should be made thoughtfully and cautiously.
It is important to see that, despite enthusiasm for ideas that promote technology, computer-aided instruction, when not implemented in an informed and responsible manner, can widen any gaps between the financially and educationally privileged and everyone else.
While students these days have a lot of experience using technology, not every student is tech savvy. I tutored a student whose classroom teachers used technology to provide their students with assignments. For this student, he had to negotiate 3 different programs which were used by 3 of his teachers to outline and explain course assignments. I did a review of these different programs on the internet and found that they were not all student friendly. Some required students to have some pretty sophisticated computer skills in order for them to access the work without becoming frustrated by the process. AND the student whom I was tutoring was very frustrated – to the point of avoiding the work required.
While it has become accepted for students to complete written assignments using a computer and then to electronically submit the work to their teachers for assessment, these students have benefited from in-class discussion and from the availability of their teacher who can provide explanation and answers to student’s questions immediately. E-learning is remote with a student completing work and submitting it electronically for assessment. While this is the same way that many students who are taught in regular classrooms submit work, there is no possibility for immediate instruction from a teacher. And, as I know from my own experience, some students need that.
The simple fact is that some students learn better in a classroom.
E-learning is a mainly visual form of course delivery which often does not support the learning needs of special needs learners [students who have Individual Education Plans]. For these students, teachers are able to individualize how course material is taught and are able to adjust how students demonstrate their understanding of the course material. Many students who have been formally identified as having any form of learning exceptionality are strong auditory learners. They need discussion and the opportunity to talk about the concepts they are learning before they generate their assignments for assessment. That’s just not possible with any e-learning course.
Beyond these issues are the very real considerations of the limitations of technology.
Not every student has access to a computer in their home. This may seem impossible in this day and age; however, not every family can afford a computer. Further, even if students have access to a computer, not every student has access to good, reliable internet service. In some areas of this province, people still only have access to dial-up service which, as I can attest, is slow and often unreliable. As well, some families cannot afford the cost of accessing the internet. For these students, the argument is put forward that they can go to their local library to access computers and the internet. However, that is not always possible for some students as there might not be a library close to where they live. As well, funding for libraries has decreased across Ontario and many small libraries have either closed or have had to curtail their hours of service.
There have been newspaper reports that the Ford government has indicated that e-learning courses might be developed and student work assessed by private companies rather than through the Independent Centre which is a part of the TVO. The Independent Learning Center ensures that courses follow the province’s course guidelines and that student work is assessed by trained and licensed educators. There is a possibility that e-learning will become open to private companies to provide the material and assess student work. So, control of the content and the rigor of the courses could be in question.
Other Issues for Consider:
Larger classes and fewer teachers and EA’s will mean that the needs of special needs learners might not be met to the degree each student needs. This is especially true for ‘high needs’ learners.
Imposing a cap to educational funding for boards will limit any board’s ability to develop an effective budget which meets the local needs of everyone involved and which is reflective of the educational concerns particular to the board.
Provincially imposed caps to wage increases flies in the face of the collective bargaining process which is a local and not a provincial concern.
The government has stated that it will hold public consultation on the changes to educational funding and on the other changes being mandated. However, any public consultation will be held after the changes have been put in place and not before. Once any changes are in place, it could become difficult to remove them as they would already have been made. As well, the scope of any consultation might be limited by the government in order to control how the discussion would evolve. As history has shown, once any change is in place, public input is often mere window dressing intended to mollify and numb people into acquiescence.
If the stated goal of these changes is to help deal with the provincial deficit, the Ontario government should revoke the pay increases recently given to many government MPs. As it stands, the expectation of the government is that public employees take what is essentially a pay cut while some MPs have just given themselves a 14% pay increase! If this government wants to reduce the deficit, then it should put its money where its mouth is and rescind the MP pay increase.
And the question remains – will the government maintain the current level of special funding for ‘high needs’ learners or will it withhold these funds? Will the government, in order to ‘get its own way’, hold these students for ransom?
And in the end:
In reaction to the provincial educational initiatives and legislation, all teachers’ federations have been looking for a way to be part of the process of change and to have their concerns heard. And that has not happened. The input of those who know education best has not been solicited and, when it has been offered, it has been ignored.
So, educators have chosen a form of strike action. This is really the only avenue left to them to make their concerns known. There have been rotating, local one day strikes. Elementary school teachers have withdrawn some administrative services. Secondary school teachers have not administered the grade 9 EQAO Math test. While report cards are being completed, there have been no comments appended to the reports. Teachers are not attending some after-school meetings. Some teachers are choosing to limit their extra-curricular involvement.
These are not easy choices for educators to make and they are the only options open to them. Teachers do not choose to blindly accept the edicts of this provincial government when they know that these will severely affect students. The unions have made it clear that ‘Cuts Hurt Kids’. And while the current Minister of Education has chosen to use social media to promote the government’s position and has used the Twitter hash tag “#strikes hurt kids”, the government has failed to own the fact that the changes which have been mandated will have a major impact on student learning and success. These changes made without consideration and consultation have the potential to hurt kids.
No matter if you are a student, a parent, an educator, or a legislator it is important to remember that the ‘product’ of education is people – people who are willing to explore, question, and create.
By imposing limitations on education, the end ‘product’ is a numbed population of good little worker bees who will blithely accept rather than question.
And, in the end, everyone, especially our world, loses.