Overview of Government’s “Catch-up” Plan
The government’s main talking point for its catch up plan is that it is putting more money in Ontarians’ pockets, which in this case, means taking $225 million over two years out of public education and giving it out as a one-time per-student payment of $200, or $250 if a student has special needs. This is the second such payout as the government had set aside $980 million to give parents $400 per child, or $500 if they had special needs, to “offset costs” that resulted from school closures and virtual learning. The new payment is said to be for parents to buy private tutoring or resources. Parents whose students are in the public, private or homeschool systems are all eligible. Thus, while the government claims it wants to keep students in school, they are now paying parents to access a small amount of private tutoring outside of school as a solution to the serious academic problems being revealed by recent standardized tests, especially in math.
Online Resources and Tutoring
The government announced “new digital resources” provided by Ontario’s publicly funded TVOntario (TVO), Télévision française de l’Ontario (TFO), as well as money being made available to school boards so they can offer “a digital tool aligned with the Ontario curriculum to support students, parents and educators”.
For students in grades 9-12, tvolearn.com has an online tutoring service called Mathify. This service is free and involves students in high school logging on to work with a tutor virtually on their homework or math questions. TVO also has a number of online independent learning courses in various subject areas in French and English posted that students would normally take under the guidance of a teacher. It appears now that anyone can take them, not as a course, but as “resource material,” with no teaching involved. In other words, students and parents must teach themselves.
For students in kindergarten to grade eight, English curricular content and activities based on it are available through TVO’s tvolearn.com whereas French curricular content and activities, through TFO, are located at missionsdelo.idello.org. At this time there are a few activities up on each site in each grade level and for each subject area that students can access including videos and posts outlining activities students would complete independently. Tvolearn.com indicates it is being upgraded for content and accessibility, which really doesn’t tell us anything. Missionsdelo.idello.org requires those who want to access the activities on the site to sign up. While missionsdelo.idello.org includes content for English (Anglais) as of grade 4, tvolearn.com does not include French as a subject area in its content. This means that, although students in Ontario are taught French of grade 4, no content is yet available through these digital resources to support this area. There is also no indication on either site where the content for French as a Second Language (ie: for immersion or extended French programs) would be. TVOntario itself indicates that parents should guide students through the material, meaning it is a set-up for students and their parents to teach themselves.
Math Action Teams
The government is going to deploy, next academic year, what it is calling “Math Action Teams” to “underperforming school boards” so these “expert teams” can identify and recommend various responses as they focus on early interventions. Having more staff hired at each school to assist in identifying and supporting student learning is definitely an immediate need. These teams however beg the question: if Ontario has expert math action teams at the ready, waiting to be “deployed” at the government’s call, where are they and why haven’t they been in schools already? Is this next step similar to the statement that each school would have a school nurse during the pandemic that never materialized?
An immediate problem at the elementary level is that when the number of staff absences at a school exceeds the number of personnel available to replace them, targeted math and literacy programs are collapsed for the day in exchange for ensuring there is a teacher in each classroom. Having expert personnel to identify student needs and assist classroom teachers in developing lessons and activities to address those needs is very helpful for student learning. Such personnel are in positions to evaluate and follow up with students one-on-one while the teacher is teaching the rest of the class. Expert math teachers could also pull students who are having the same blocks to their learning from different classes into a small group outside of their homeroom class to work with more intensely to overcome the block. By providing more personnel, students, teachers and education workers would be able to have such support on a regular basis and not have to have this important learning collapse because of having to reallocate staff to other parts of the building during high absentee days. However, the government constantly tries to eliminate teachers and education workers and it is hard to see how now they are preparing to hire the teachers necessary to create the serious teams that are required.
The government says it is preparing reading interventions including programs and professional assessments with the use of “evidence-based tools” in screening students who will be in senior kindergarten to grade 2 in 2023-2024. This means students who were in kindergarten to grade 1 during the pandemic, where key reading skills were interrupted, will not be part of this new screening program. Studies are regularly presented to teachers in these primary grades that the likelihood that a student who is not reading at grade level by grade 3 will ever read at grade level is low. So what is the aim of a program that starts next year and does not include students who were online during these critical years?
Another aspect of the government’s plan is “modernizing the curriculum.” What the government means by modernization is that curricula are now entirely online so that they can be changed or updated at any time, without any guarantee that teachers who are teaching that curriculum will be made aware that it has been changed or what has been changed or updated. The most recent curricula the Ontario government “modernized” included the de-streamed grade 9 mathematics and mathematics (grades 1-8) (2020) as well as de-streamed grade 9 science and 1-8 science (2022) curricula. Teachers have yet to even be trained in these new curricula, which results in their students not getting the education they require. The 23% drop in the number of students who met the government’s own math standards in grade 9 who took the government’s new de-streamed math course should cause pause for thought on what they mean by modernization and whether it can be taken seriously.
The final step in the next steps of the Ontario government’s catch-up plan for students is “attendance supports.” This step states the government will work with school boards to create provincial expectations for how school boards should deal with students who have attendance difficulties. Teachers report that attendance has become a major issue as a result of continued outbreaks of COVID and the seasonal flu and as a result of the deepening social and economic crisis hitting everyone in which everyone is left to fend for themselves. No indication of what the aim of new provincial expectations will be however, it may well be that the government will move to establish standards to criminalize students who do not attend or their parents as a law-and-order solution to the problem. The Education Act permits this already but regulations to require school boards to enforce these measures may well be the “provincial expectations” the government is preparing. It is clear to teachers however that what is needed to support student attendance is investments in supports in the schools and in the communities that address social problems with social solutions, rather than law-and-order solutions that only make matters worse.