With Improved Learning in Mind
Ontario schools, students doing better, says Charles Pascal
Aug. 31, 2006. 01:00 AM
Tuesday morning, over two million elementary and secondary students in Ontario will return to school. Many equipped with new backpacks and iPods, most with new pencils, sharpeners, erasers, and notepads, they will arrive with a full range of feelings from anticipation and excitement to various shades of anxiety. This emotional continuum probably holds true for our many outstanding teachers who are key to ensuring a quality learning experience for our students.
As a parent, an educator and a lifelong learner, the day after Labour Day feels more like New Year’s to me. My sixth grade daughter and my grandson, already an active and curious learner who enters JK on Tuesday, continuously remind me of the sense of awe and wonder that children bring to the act of learning. Long before they’ve heard of Albert Einstein, our children seem to be guided by his words: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own purpose... Never lose a holy curiosity."
Our school years, particularly the early ones—including the crucially important childcare opportunities and parenting that precedes the formal system—are when we create the building blocks for a lifetime of learning and successful and affectionate pursuit of answers to the questions of a curious mind.
There was a time when a commitment to lifelong learning was regarded as just a noble sentiment. Today it is essential for both personal fulfillment and social progress. And just as the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, the journey of lifelong learning begins with the acquisition of the fundamental learning skills: reading, writing and mathematics.
The good news is that we are achieving considerable progress in Ontario in helping our children to develop these essential skills. Yesterday (or Today pending publication date), the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) released the results of the most recent round of province-wide testing in the milestone years of Grades 3, 6 and 9. Compared with last year’s results, the number of students performing at or better than the provincial standard improved—from a range of one to eight percentage points—in all of the subjects and in each of the grades for both English and French-language students.
Far from being a one-year-wonder, we are now seeing a significant trend toward better learning skills across the board. The number of students succeeding in Grade 3 reading, for example, has improved by twelve percentage points over the past five years, with most of this gain achieved in the past three years.
EQAO, now with a decade of experience in the business of feedback, approaches everything it does with learning in mind. The positive use of EQAO results to track progress and success, to pinpoint areas requiring improvements either locally or provincially, such as the need for better support for English as a Second Language and learning disabled students, is key to creating a culture of learning in Ontario.
For me, it’s all about catching schools and educators, parents, and government "doing things right" and providing good information that might assist the never-ending quest for learning about how to do something worthwhile, even better.
The momentum we are seeing to this virtuous cycle of learning: feedback–innovation–learning, has many authors. Obviously, progress in student learning is about students, their commitment, and the support and guidance they receive from parents and guardians, or a "significant other" who provides that special inspiration where necessary.
And no matter how one defines "quality education", it is the teacher who is charged with its delivery. The progress we are witnessing in Ontario schools is, by definition, a result of the dedication of our teachers and those who support and guide them. And teachers are innovating with improvement in mind, using teamwork within and across schools.
And context matters. What governments and school boards do, matters. The choices they make impact on schools and their teachers, and in turn, student learning. These choices matter.
In my view, the Province has truly made education a priority by focusing on literacy and numeracy, as well as addressing the conditions that contribute to successful learning, such as class size, teacher training, and investment in new resources. As well, their Best Start program—that aims to provide early learning and childcare programs in schools---is critical and needs to be seen and funded as an extension to publicly-funded education.
With the new school year at hand and with learning in mind, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that a good education yields both personal success stories of lives well-lived and a collective contribution to a future for all of us that will be healthier, safer, more just, and prosperous. Whether we have children in school or not, all taxpayers contribute to this investment. While there are many challenges facing our publicly-funded schools, with too many students still falling through cracks of a system still under reconstruction, it is important to note that the trends of change are pointing upward which augers well for a happier new year of formal learning for more and more of Ontario’s elementary and secondary students.
Charles Pascal is Chair of the EQAO Board of Directors and a former Deputy Minister of Education in Ontario