Cuts to education hurt all of us

by Maureen Dagg

Once again, we are looking at the possibility of teachers going on strike in Ontario, and it’s about time folks started to take notice of the terrible things that have been happening in education.

It’s laughable that Ontario’s Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, casts himself as “For the Students”.  It appears to me that education as it is today in Ontario, is anything but “for the students”.  From the side of the teachers, we see slogans like “Education Cuts Hurt Kids”.  I can attest to the fact that education cuts do indeed hurt kids.  As do the weird experiments that the Ministry tosses down our kids’ throats, which (with the most recent experiment) have resulted in kids who don’t know basic number facts.

Of course, in rural Ontario, we are quite accustomed to doing more and more with less and less.  But there is a limit, people!  Nowadays, it has gotten so bad that bigger urban schools are also feeling the pinch.  In the past few years, I’ve started seeing articles in the paper about Ottawa schools having too few staff to offer certain courses that are part of the usual rich curriculum that we see offered at large schools (of over 1500 students).  This is an issue that rural Ontario has been dealing with for years.  And sadly, online courses are truly not up to any decent standard (as rural Ontarians have known for a while too).

Yes, people’s wages make up 78% of expenses in education.  But… what is education if it’s not the teachers?   If we aren’t willing to pay the folks that spend the bulk of the time with our kids, and if we think they should do more and more with less and less…. Well, we get what we’ve (not) paid for!

You see, parents ought to be able to expect a lot from teachers.  We ought to have highly qualified, excellent teachers helping our kids out!  But we can hardly squawk if the teachers we are getting are less than ideal:  They are given less support for special needs kids, less time per student because of larger class sizes, and less money for things like textbooks. And there are less teachers in each school.  What can we expect when non-specialist teachers are teaching highly specialized subjects such as mathematics, because our schools simply haven’t got enough specialists for certain subject areas?  How do we expect our kids to be able to take the courses they need for their futures when – again – there are not enough teachers in the school to offer them?

I have noticed such a drastic decline in the quality of education that I see local kids getting that I have started telling friends who want to move to Almonte not to bother if they have school-aged kids!

Seriously.  Let me explain.

I tend to see education through the lens of Mathematics, since that is my specialty subject.  As a regular tutor of this subject (I have nine students this semester, mostly from our local high school), I see trends happening; and I am pretty sure that a lot of what I see applies across the curriculum.

The Ontario curriculum for high school mathematics is excellent, and there are at least two publisher’s textbooks that cover it beautifully.   Ideally, a math teacher should love the subject; follow the textbook; and be rigorous – there is a lot to cover, and kids need practice to master skills.

I taught at Almonte and District High School 24 years ago.  At that time, there were more high school students in the school:  we wouldn’t have had space for the grade 7 and 8 students as we do today.  At that time, we had a math department of at least three fully qualified math specialists, and a few others for whom math was a second teachable subject.  In fact, I know that there were at least five math specialists in the school.  Students were challenged.  Math was rigorous.  Homework was assigned.  Kids coming from elementary school had decent basic skills, such as understanding fractions and knowing their multiplication tables.

I taught Computer Studies, since there were so few qualified Computer teachers in the province that I taught exclusively that subject. In my first year there, my grade 12 class had just six students!   The maximum number of students I could have in a class was 24 – a limit imposed by the number of available computers for students to use.

Fast forward to today. 

Today, the mathematics department has, to the best of my knowledge, just one teacher whose specialty subject is Mathematics.  Today, we have experienced not only split-level math classes, but even split-grade academic math classes!  We have teachers teaching academic level senior math for whom math is not their specialty, and they are far less rigorous than the specialist teacher.  Often, we have teachers not following the text, who hand out quantities of photocopied sheets, and who hop all over the place covering topics in seemingly random order without attention to detail.  We have little (if any) homework being assigned by some teachers, so kids are not getting adequate practice to master highly complex skills thinking.

We don’t even have a Computer Studies department at ADHS today.  So, students who want to try their hand at programming don’t get to experience this skill.  We do have a communications technology department, but there is little (if any) computer programming taught.  This makes rigorous mathematics even more important, as it involves similar thinking skills.  NOTE: At the University of Waterloo, there is no Computer Science Faculty – it’s the Mathematics Faculty. That is why I am equally qualified as a teaching specialist in both Computing and Mathematics.

I am now tutoring kids who are in their third straight year of having math teachers who are inadequate to the the task of covering this subject. This makes me very sad indeed.  Many of these are smart kids and they have been ripped off.

Math is pretty darn hard, folks.  Numbers are weird but we can do a lot of cool stuff with mathematics when we take the time to understand it.  It is the foundation for every useful manmade thing that you see around you. Mathematics doesn’t require simple memorization and regurgitation (though you do need to memorize basic arithmetic facts).  It requires a certain ability to think through complex things.  The learning of mathematics prepares the mind for the solving of complex problems, and our world is getting no fewer of these…!   It’s a way of thinking and a way of breaking down complexity to understandable steps.

In short, investing in mathematics education is a solid investment in our future.

And no, academic math is not for everyone.  It is not the most important subject for all students, but it is the most important subject for tomorrow’s STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) careers.

As a School Council member, I have sat through meetings where parents of grade 12 students were upset because certain senior level courses that were required for their teen to enter post-secondary education were not even offered at ADHS!  It seems that the cuts have become so bad that the core curriculum is barely being covered.

But wait!  The core curriculum is only good for those who are going to university!  What about the huge number of other students?   Sadly, our local school can barely offer these kids anything. Where are the shop programs?  How well are we preparing students for trades, for example?

I say all of this not to put down our local teachers, our local board or our local school.  I say all of this because we need to wake up to what is happening here.  In fact, it is a stunning achievement that our local teachers can do much at all, in spite of the grinding down that education is receiving.  Our board has seen cuts in the millions of dollars – each year for several years!

My Toronto teaching cousins are complaining about the cuts, folks!  These are huge schools, and since schools are funded primarily on a per pupil basis, they have way more money to play around with, and enjoy certain economies of scale.

Here is the basic plan of (especially conservative) governments:  cut cut cut.  They get elected often by promising lower taxes.  What is that?  It makes no sense.  We get what we pay for, and the wealthiest among us are truly not paying their fair share.  If the government cuts education enough, here is what will happen:

The wealthiest folks will send their kids to private schools, and the less wealthy folks will become less and less educated.  Ignorance will prevail.  And if you think education is expensive, think long and hard about how much ignorance costs.  This is already happening in the United States.

Ever wonder why your child didn’t get much out of school?  Well, if education actually worked for all the kids, he or she would’ve got a lot.  This involves money.  And engagement.  And demanding that education be for everyone.

It’s not government or unions that should be sticking up for kids. It’s us.  Especially parents of kids who are in the system.  Notice what happened when they tried to cut funding for kids on the autism spectrum?  Those parents organized themselves!  They’re accustomed to getting cuts, and they’ve seen enough.   ALL parents (no, ALL PEOPLE) need to care about education.  We are doing it for the future of everyone.

Be nice to those educators who find themselves once again taking job action to protect basic education.

I can squawk (and I will) but I have no skin directly in this game, folks.  I’ll just keep writing letters.  Why don’t YOU write one too?

Ministry of Education:  5th Floor, 438 University Ave, Toronto, ON M7A 1N3

minister.edu@ontario.ca

Trustee Donald Cram is our UCDSB Trustee.  He lives in Almonte and you may look him up on the Board site.  www.ucdsb.on.ca

The Board of Education address is 225 Central Avenue West, Brockville ON K6V 5X1.