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If Doug Ford’s PCs want Ontario kids to be ’resilient,’ let’s go all out

Tabatha Southey: Education Minister Lisa Thompson think there’s a magical solution to overcrowded classes. Why not double-down?
Lisa Thompson
Ontario PC Education Minister Lisa Thompson makes a statement at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto on Friday, March 15, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

“To better balance student success and system sustainability,” the “our plan at a glance” section of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Government’s new education plan begins, and at least this is something of an honest opening. It doesn’t pretend that the government hasn’t decided the changes they are currently making to Ontario’s education system, the biggest changes in 10 years, will inevitably result in less “student success” and that this result isn’t perfectly fine with them.

As Conservatives present it, less student success is the predictable and acceptable outcome of their plan, and the rest of us should be OK with that, too, because the alternative is not having a public education system at all.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson was not nearly this frank about how all this will play out during an interview with Matt Galloway on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Wednesday. Under the plan, Ontario class sizes for Grades 9 to 12 will rise from the current average of 22 up to 28. That being an average, some classes may well have 36 or more students in them, and if you see only chaos, neglect and children slipping through the cracks coming of this, know that Ms. Thompson sees, or at least chose to portray it as, the best thing that has ever happened to Ontario’s students.

“We’re hearing from professors and employers alike that they are lacking coping skills and they are lacking resiliency,” she said of Ontario’s students, “By increasing class sizes in high school, we are preparing them for the reality of post-secondary, as well as the world of work.”

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More students, as Ms. Thompson portrays it, is just more of the “team environment” that schools need to be fostering. She claims to be convinced that more students in a room is just the ticket for building confidence and “resiliency.”

She kept using that word. The minister said “resiliency” as if it were a magic spell that answered Mr. Galloway’s questions.

“How are students going to benefit from larger class sizes?” “Resiliency.” What are employers looking for? “Resiliency.” “How is what you are doing better than cheap?” “Resiliency.”

Did the minister fear that a smaller number of teachers serving a greater number of students might deny some of those students the individual attention they need to succeed? No, because “resiliency,” and because one teacher “enabled her students to mentor and coach” their classmates. More students in a class just means more opportunities for young people to pull double shifts as students and teachers, which they are prepared to do because some of them have parents who get them tutors, Ms. Thompson explained.

Fear not, though, relying on a students to “mentor and coach” their classmates doesn’t mean they’ll be putting the burden of making up for larger class sizes on students, because “every student deserves the best education,” just trust us, Ms .Thompson said, “whether they’re working with a peer helper or the very best teacher at the front of the classroom.”

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To make sure things go smoothly, the government will be “investing in teachers,” in that very special sense of the word “invest” that means “having fewer of.” It’ll all work out in the end, just put your faith in 14-year-old teaching assistants and, of course, abracadabra! “Resiliency.”

Ontario, there are going to be some changes around here. Here being a unique place where students just need more adversity, fewer teachers and more “challenges” to succeed. Starting in fall of 2019, Ontario will be introducing live tigers to classrooms. Six big cats prowling the hallway of each primary school will encourage children to learn numeracy, as in “What now? How many tigers!” Communication skills as in, “Help me, I’m being eaten by a tiger!” and of course tourniquet management.

Get ready for “Alright, class, this semester we’re going to study Lord of the Flies. Goodbye!” Shuts the door. Click. And from now on when the school bell goes off, only the first 200 students will be allowed back in the school and, excitingly, that number will drop by one per day. In the interest of equity, publicly funded baseball bats with nails through them will be available to students whose families cannot afford to arm them.

We need to move beyond this elitist idea that children need to learn the entire alphabet. Ontario’s new work-skills-first curriculum will save time and money by replacing the outdated ABCs with the lighter, more practical “Always Be Closings. Storytime is for closers, now get outta here, you little rats.”

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Yes, it’s true that there will likely be 10,000 fewer teachers to kick around in the revamped education system but, job-wise, bear in mind the jobs created by our new No Child Left Without a Character Building Pushpin on their Chair Threatening Their Behind plan.

There will be sharks because, “How do you expect to become a marine biologist if you’re not prepared to get your hands dirty, or bitten clean off, Jason?”

Speaking to reporters later, Ms. Thompson to justified her her “resiliency” talk with the story of an anonymous young job candidate. The minister had heard that this young woman, we’ll call her Annie Anecdote, had cried during a job interview. “The employer was emphatic that this young person was a bright light and a good hire,” Ms. Thompson bemoaned, “but again, they haven’t had that exposure, the coping skills to deal with stressful situations.”

Had the former Liberal Ontario government provided this young Annie with a governess for her schooling—had in fact the whole system under their care just been a series of gloomy manors on lonely moors in whose attics students were locked up without any human contact beyond that of their overly attentive teachers, the minister might have a point here. But education under the Liberals was not nearly as gothic as Ms. Thompson seems to believe it was.

That Annie Anecdote emerged from her school a “a bright light and a good hire” should be noted, and whatever else might have been going on with her, I’d warrant that if the stress of the other 21 or so students in her classes didn’t give her whatever she needed to nail that interview, an extra 15 wouldn’t have done the trick.

Ms. Thompson seems to have consulted with the entire Anecdote family in forming this policy. She may indeed have heard “loud and clear” from them that larger class sizes build character or some such, but she didn’t research it. There is no evidence that putting young people in crowded classrooms, or otherwise actively inflicting stress on them, helps build the skills—the ability to regulate their behaviour, foresee issues and respond to adversity—that will help them cope with stressful situations down the road. Indeed, mentoring, guidance and listening to them often seems to do the trick. All of which takes attention, best not overly divided.

The former Liberal government “failed our students,” the current government likes to say. This is an odd way to characterize a high school graduation rate that, under the Liberals’ watch, went from an abysmal 56 per cent in 2004 to an all-time high of 80 per cent by 2017.

Unless, perhaps, high rates of post-secondary education attendance from public school aren’t what the Conservatives are after. Ms. Thompson gushed about “the trades” being where the real jobs are, and while there are many good trade jobs, post-secondary enrolment has been increasing, especially among youth from families with lower-income backgrounds, and despite what the minister heavily implied, that is a good thing.

A friend of mine once told me that, some years ago, the schools being dirty and the teachers being miserable and overworked, he reluctantly took his daughter to interview at a private school where the vice-principal listened to their concerns and said, “We consider Mike Harris to be our chief admissions officer.”

I predict that after a year or so of strife, and possibly strikes, Doug Ford will quietly bring back the tax deduction for private schools and then: welcome to Two-Tier Ontario, now with Economy and Deluxe Discovery Plans.