Today's online forum featured Ontario Education Minister Gerard Kennedy, who answered your questions on everything from funding for religious schools to mandatory phys ed for elementary students. Thanks for joining us.
Q: Learning about gender/women's issues is an important part of our everyday lives, affecting how we think and act. It is so important to have children understand gender and its implications in our society as it gives us an alternative viewpoint to analyze issues such as development, violence against women, eating disorders, homophobia ... The list is endless ... So why is it that something so fundamental to each individual's development and the development of our society is not taught in our school curriculums?
A: All new curriculum policy documents released as part of the current curriculum review process now contain a section on Antidiscrimination Education. Gender issues may also be highlighted here. For example, the just-revised Grades 9 and 10 mathematics document refers to the fact that some girls may need extra encouragement to see themselves in careers involving mathematics. Gender issues have also been integrated into the curriculum in various areas. For example, the Charter of Rights, as well as the impact of the women's movement in Canada are discussed in the Canadian and World Studies curriculum. Eating disorders are a topic covered in the Health and Physical Education program. In addition, we are working with the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration on a plan to educate and motivate children, aged eight to 14, to put an end to gender stereotyping and perceived inequality between women and men, girls and boys and help them learn social skills for healthy relationships that are free from all forms of violence.
Q: Why are high school students allowed to "earn" so many credits at independent credit mills where the credits and the marks are demonstrably related to the fees paid? These students then go on to occupy spaces in universities and colleges that they are unqualified for, squeeze out other students and create a greater demand than necessary for remediation in these higher institutions where there is greater than necessary cost to taxpayers. Students should be learning to learn and gaining literacy and numeracy skills before they go on to college or university.
A:The ministry is currently investigating the allegations concerning credit mills and will ensure that OSSD credits can only be earned by the same standard across the province.
Q: When is the government going to take the big leap and make physical education compulsory for Grades 9-12? I am amazed at the stats that indicate low levels of activity in kids of this age group. Your government seems to be treating the problem only on the surface. Think of the money spent in the health care system because of poor habits learned early in life.
Q: Your government has banned junk food in elementary schools which is a great idea. When (if ever) do you plan to do the same for high school students? Almost every high school caf sells fries, and that is what most high school students eat (along with a nice rush of sugar pop). I personally would like to see a ban at the high school level on junk food too.
A: The Daily Physical Activity announcement and the junk food announcement for elementary students are two components of an overall Healthy Schools Initiative that will soon be launched in the secondary panel. We will have more information about that shortly. We are formalizing this initiative and will have opportunities in the near future for parents, educators and students to fully participate in the development of the high school program.
Q: The Rozanski report had a number of recommendations, but all hinged on updating the base funding for teacher salaries. Unless the government does that, all funding for ESL, inner city kids, caretaking, etc. is wasted because it goes to prop up the government's failure to pay the full cost of teacher's salaries. When will you update the board's funding for teacher's salaries?
A: The premise of this question is incorrect because we already pay the full cost of teacher salaries. What we've done, in addition, is put extra funding in the ESL grant, Learning Opportunities Grant, Rural School Grant etc. because we knew those were the areas that boards were borrowing from.
We make the argument that, effectively, the amount of investment recommended by Rozanski has been met and, in some areas, delivered in a different fashion. There is still more work to be done. But the substantial component of the recommendations has been accomplished. We are now going to work with boards to make the work transparent and obvious to all communities across the province. We will publicly disclose what the province funds, how the funding formula has changed and what work is still required.
Q: We have various concerns about split grade classes. Our daughter is in Grade 3 and started the year in a single class of 17 students. On September 30, due to less than anticipated enrollment, my daughter's class became a split Grade 3/4 class of 28 students. My wife and I are not happy about this as there are now 11 grade 4 students in the class ... Also, the concept of split grades is very problematic for us. With all the time constraints put on teachers with our new curriculum, and the addition of new physical activity guidelines, teaching time is already at a premium, yet you are asking a teacher to teach two full grade curriculums in one class. A split grade, in our opinion, means split teacher attention and split time to work effectively on each part of the years curriculum. This is ludicrous. A teacher cannot teach two full grades in one year without sacrificing other valuable teaching resources, such as reading time and art. Many of the teachers in this situation have told us that they would prefer to teach large single grade classes instead of smaller split classes.
Our question to you is this: While you have committed to limiting class size to ensure that each child has more access to the teacher, why have you not committed to eliminating split classes, a process which, once again limits teaching time and teaching effectiveness?
A: What matters most is class size and the composition of classes and we would hope that schools would make some allowance for that. Our goal from JK to Grade 3 is 20 students or less. We believe that reduced class sizes, coupled with giving teachers flexibility in the curriculum, should make it possible to be successful in teaching students at their individual level. The class that is referenced above has two challenges: it is large and it is a split grade class. Smaller class sizes of split grades do not present the same challenges. We are looking at ways that we can support split grades if they become necessary in upper grades. The extra time that teachers have in smaller classes should be sufficient to make successes out of most class-size combinations at the lower level.
Q: I am a secondary school music teacher in York Region, and over the life of the new curriculum, I have seen the level of involvement in the arts diminish significantly.
Students, parents, and even our school's administration, feel it is important for students to complete their high school career in four years. However, this does not provide enough time for highly intelligent and talented students to explore their full abilities. We try to accommodate students, but by grade 10 or 11, students are opting out of the arts in order to take as many math and science courses as possible, even though this closes more doors than it opens.
I want to be able to encourage my students to take an additional year and explore the great opportunities that high school offers: arts, sciences, humanities, co-operative education. My administration tells me they are not permitted to advise students on taking extra time because of funding restrictions. At our school of 1,600 students, we are barely able to run senior-level music and drama classes because of this. What kind of future do the arts courses have in Ontario? What kind of solutions can we start working on now so that our students can succeed in all areas of their interest?
A: Since our first year, the government has encouraged schools and school boards to put increased emphasis on the arts in education. We have permitted boards to plan for 2,000 new specialist teachers - which alongside of physed will account for more music, drama and art teachers. We will be launching our arts education initiative in the next few months. It will allow for the broader arts education community to advise on how to best deliver arts education in school.
Q: This government is again making the school system responsible for failed parenting by adding this EXTRA 20 minutes of structured physical activity every day on top of the students' regular physical education period. How can we add this with all the other recommendations handed down for other curriculum-related subjects?
With my Grade 4 class, I have 300 minutes to instruct a day which would include a reading/writing block, science, math, French and then squeeze in this extra 20 minutes of exercise each day. Oh, and yes I do cross-curricular activities where possible.
A: We see the role of schools as supporting parents' intentions and efforts to activate their kids and help them be involved in physical activities. Our daily 20 of physical activity is appropriate. Parents, in their busy lives, will appreciate that the functions they expect to support their children are happening in schools. Daily physical activity will be incorporated with the regular curriculum and we will be providing teachers and schools with options for timetabling and scheduling.
Q: Will the 20 minutes of daily fitness apply to Grade 7/8 schools? Many schools do not have recess time and the timetable is full. Will there be flexibility or will programs have to be cut to implement this program? I see such schools being closer to a high school setting than elementary.
A: Yes. The requirement for 20 minutes of daily physical activity applies to all elementary school grades, including 7 and 8. For older students, we see 20 minutes as the minimum of physical activity and we believe it will contribute to their overall academic success. While it will take some time administratively to work into schedules, this is a requirement that we expect all schools to be successful at. We are also providing funding to hire 2,000 new specialist teachers - some of which will teach phys ed for 40-60 minute classes and will offset the time requirement of classroom teachers. We realize that it will take some time to implement, so it is being phased-in over the course of the school year. We are providing resources to train teachers and help them make physical activity a part of any class, from math to English to social studies. In addition, the province, with the help of experienced educators, is providing teachers and schools with options for scheduling the physical activity requirement.
Q: I have a child in Grade 6 who has been waiting for pyscho-educational testing for several years. She has consistently tested below average by 1-2 grades. She is receiving assistance with an IEP. This year we had supportive documentation recommending testing by two physicians one being a psychologist. We were told that there would be no guarantee that she would be tested even with the documentation. My question is this: Why does there not seem to be enough resources to test children to see if there is an underlying learning disability? I have been told that there are not enough resources to test everyone that needs it but yet who needs it more than a child that is testing 1-2 grades behind. I have subsequently found testing through a local hospital and am awaiting results.
And why is it that we have fewer educational assistants now than we did before we were told that Special Education was receiving more funding? If you are serious about helping the needy students then increasing the one-on-one interaction is required.
A: If a student is receiving an IEP - that's good news. Students should be getting assistance first without waiting or depending on an assessment. Further, the only assessments they should receive are the ones that tell us how to educate the child. Previously, many tests were conducted unnecessarily in order to become eligible for funding. We are working with boards now on an overall reform of special education that will require boards to do assessments at as early an age as possible. There are over 4,000 more education assistants than there were in 2002-03. As a result, there has been a large increase in individual student assistance. We are now ensuring that there are strategies are in place to produce results for those students as a result in the 65 per cent funding increase for high needs special education students over the last two years.
Q: I want to know what are the minister's thoughts on the Safe Schools Act? Given that the Ontario Human Rights Commission is looking into the matter because of its effect on minority students, is this something that is a priority for the minister?
A: The Safe Schools Act is a broad issue. We are looking at it in a couple of ways:
1. Are we doing enough to keep students safe in school?
2. Are the measures that are currently in place fair to all students?
Both of those questions are being subject to a complete review of the Safe Schools Act. The review will include public consultations and is underway this fall. We are committing ourselves in advance to taking action to what is found as a result of the review.
Q: Although the Education Act specifically states that no extra charges should be billed to parents for regular classes, parents are routinely asked to hand over money for everything from school trips to graph paper. In the Avon Maitland school district, schools tell parents it's not an option to refuse to pay, even you point out that this is against their own school board policy. As well, they break the law (Consumer's Act I believe) by forcing parents to purchase a "package deal" of student ID card, planner and yearbook, even if you only want the ID card.
The Avon Maitland school board meets on a regular basis to review and set policy on fees but what's the point? The policies are not enforced, there is no accountability, no policy of enforcing their own policies and there is apparently no mechanism in place for appeals, just a refusal from all parties to not pass the buck.
Q: My son's school is having a fall fair fundraising event. The letter sent home said this event is to raise money for things like "doors for the classrooms." I don't mind helping to raise money for extra-curricular and special projects, but certainly classroom doors are a necessity for safety. I support you as my MPP and applaud your recent education announcements, but I think this Board should have the funds to put doors on the classrooms. I'd appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.
A: We believe that the fundamentals for an excellent education should be paid for by the government. We are giving school boards some time to adjust to the new higher levels of financing that we are providing and our instruction has been to ensure that those dollars flow to the schools.
We are also considering provincial rules around fundraising and school fees but are first giving the boards an opportunity to correct this problem by making sure that no student is being excluded and that no untoward use of fundraising is taking place.
Fundraising should be done for the 'extras' - things that are not essential to acquiring an excellent education in publicly funded schools.
Q: I was under the impression that class size for elementary schools was to be capped at approximately 25. Why then, are there 33 students in my son's grade 6 class?
A: Capping class size is a significant priority for this government. We are capping class sizes at 20 students from JK to Grade 3 by 2007-08. At the same time, the government will ensure smaller class sizes in the early grades do not come at the expense of larger classes in Grades 4 to 8. In fact, there will be an eventual decrease in class sizes in those grades as a by-product of this policy.
Q: While I agree that smaller class sizes certainly cannot hurt, would someone please explain to me when 30 students became such a problem? I went to elementary and high school in the 70s and 80s and 30 students was about the average class size then.
A: We know more now about the benefit of early intervention than we did in the 70s, which is why we are targeting those formative early years. Diversity in the classroom also means that teachers need time to deal with special challenges and give every student the individual attention they need to acquire the essential reading, writing and math skills for future success.
Q: Minister, the top salary for teachers in most jurisdictions is now over $80,000 per year. When generous benefit and pension plans are included, the total salary is likely over $100,000. What is the government doing to control salary levels so that more resources could be diverted to improving the educational system through reduced class sizes, better investment in our crumbling schools, and greater investment in school textbooks?
A: Two out of three dollars invested by the McGuinty government are going to improving education. One-third is being allocated to help give fair increases, in line with inflation, to teacher and education worker compensations. The top salary for a teacher is approx. $78,000. The starting salary is approx. $36,000 and the average salary is approx. $62,000.
Teachers work hard and are fairly compensated for that work. Because teachers have agreed to four-year contracts, we are able to put most of the education investment where it needs to be - new textbooks, $2.8 billion to turn crumbling schools into good places to learn and capping class sizes in the early grades where it really matters.
Q: Can you tell me how the government allows or requires school boards to operate in a consistent or uniform manner? At our daughter's Grade 1 class in Ajax, one of her classmates transferred from the York Region board. The parent of this child was very disheartened to learn that the Durham board does not provide teachers assistants like the York board. This means that one teacher alone must meet the needs of over 25 children. This makes it very difficult to implement programs in literacy where one-to-one interaction is required.
A: We require boards to have similar outcomes. Boards can have different approaches to being successful, so long as they are successful. We have changed the funding formula so that it is tailored to meet the needs of individual students. Boards with the same composition of students (low income, ESL etc) will get the same additional funding to meet those needs. Boards still have the flexibility and the choice on how to deliver good results for students. One board may choose to use educational assistants, another may choose a different technique to get the same result. That is the guarantee we give to parents - no matter what school they send their child to in publicly funded education - they will get a good outcome.
Q: It seems that many retired teachers are taking an early pension and returning to teach again. Is anything being done about encouraging the hire of new graduates?
A: New graduates have been enhanced in their future by the hiring of some 4,000 new teaching positions on the part of the province. As well, I believe boards should be giving opportunities to new teachers if they have short-term positions - which are the only positions that retired teachers are eligible for. Retired teachers are not eligible for full-time permanent teaching positions and they have limited eligibility for substitute teaching. We hope that boards are giving preference to new teachers for those positions to help bring them along to become good full-time teachers.
We have recently launched a new program to retain and help develop new teachers in their first years of teaching. You can learn more about the New Teacher Induction Program by visiting our website.
Q: Why does the province fund the religious education of one group only, Roman Catholics, to the exclusion of all other religious groups?
A: The province does not fund religious education. The province funds publicly funded education of schools that are required to meet high standards. Publicly funded schools must follow the Ministry of Education curriculum, all teachers are certified by the Ontario College of Teachers, and schools accept students, particularly at the high school level, from any faith. This is the type of publicly funded education that has evolved in this province and we have received no other proposal to make it more encompassing.
The private school tax credit was cancelled fairly as a result of the last election. That is the only proposal that has been brought to debate. Our priority remains making publicly funded education, the best education.