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Ford government announces hikes to high school class sizes, but no changes to kindergarten

Ford government announces hikes to high school class sizes, but no changes to kindergarten
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The Ford government is boosting class sizes starting in Grade 4 through to Grade 12 while promising no layoffs — though teacher unions expect about 4,500 positions will be eliminated each year over the next four years.

The change prompted Harvey Bischof, head of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, to predict “massive resistance” by his members over changes he calls “devastating” — and one he estimates will see 20 per cent of high school teaching positions eventually phased out.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson said despite moving from an average of 22 to 28 students per classroom, the plan “will not see one teacher lose their job.”

Thompson unveiled a number of education reforms Friday morning at the Ontario Science Centre, including a back-to-basics math curriculum, tweaking of the sex-ed curriculum, and a plan to have each high school student take one online credit each year.

Class sizes will remain the same from kindergarten to Grade 3, and from Grades 4-8 will increase by one student.

Thompson also announced changes to the health/sex-ed curriculum, which keeps lessons on learning the proper names of body parts in Grade 1 but moves discussion of gender identity and gender expression to Grade 8 from Grade 6.

While parents have always had the option of removing their children from sex-ed classes, the government said in a written release that “there will be clear provisions for parents who wish to exempt their child or children from sexual health education and online modules will be available for parents who want to discuss sexual health topics at home, whenever they feel their child is ready.”

Because of human rights obligations, school boards typically don’t allow students to opt out of lessons on issues of inclusion, and it is unclear how the government will accommodate families who don’t want their children to learn about gender identity.

The ministry is currently working to devise an opt-out plan on that issue.

The new health lessons will also talk about mental health and wellness in the primary years, consent and body image starting in Grade 2.

Some details about the education reforms had already been revealed, including a ban on cellphones in classrooms unless teachers require them for instructional purposes, as well as a “ back to basics ” math plan with training for teachers.

“We will continue to look for better ways to improve student learning. We will continue to adapt curriculum to address the needs of the modern world,” Thompson also said. “And we will continue to take responsibility for every dollar spent.”

For high school teachers, local collective agreements contain class size caps — based on government funding an average class size — and the gap between the current situation and what the government is proposing is “unbridgeable,” said Bischof, president of the OSSTF.

The province currently funds for an average of 22 students, but many academic-level classes in particular already hit 30 and above, to offset smaller, specialized classes. By raising the average to 28, the classes with more students could get even larger.

“What they’re trying to do is undermine the value of our collective agreements in terms of protecting class-size caps,” Bischof said. “

“I’m telling you we’re absolutely not going to be in a position where we’re going to give away the class-size caps that we have achieved over years of negotiations.”

Thompson said the class-size changes will mean less than 1 per cent of savings in the $28 billion spent overall in education in the first year. No figures were available for subsequent years.

It’s unclear what the impact of class-size changes could be on course offerings, or to rural schools with lower enrolment.

University of Toronto Professor Charles Pascal said good teaching is the most important factor in student success — even more than class size — but “how these things are discussed and developed is the key.”

The Ford government “has an abysmal track record when it comes to collaboration with those who are charged with implementing grassroots change,” added Pascal of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“Unless there is a timely, effective and respectful collaboration with high school teachers and those who represent them about these ideas, there will be serious and unhelpful chaos.”

Last September, the government launched public consultations, seeking input on science/technology/engineering and math (STEM) instruction; the skilled trades and the health/sex-ed curriculum, including mental health, via online surveys and telephone town halls.

At the time, Thompson said “our goal is to prepare Ontario students for success, improve their academic achievement and equip them with the tools needed to enter the working world.”

In total, the government heard from 72,000 people.

Thompson has since said an overwhelming number of participants were concerned that the issue of in the sex-ed curriculum, and promised that would be a part of the revamped lessons.

During last year’s election campaign, Premier Doug Ford promised to scrap the current sex-ed curriculum, introduced in 2015, to appease social conservatives who felt some material was objectionable and not age-appropriate, especially the information on gender identity.

After taking office, schools were instructed to use a curriculum largely based on the old, 1998 curriculum, which critics derided as out of date. The move to the old curriculum was the subject of court and human rights challenges given LGBT issues are not explicitly included in it.

Earlier this year, the government also reached out to teacher and support staff unions, as well as trustee associations, to ask about class sizes and class-size caps, hiring practices and full-day kindergarten, noting it needed to trim the provincial deficit.

Full-day kindergarten was not a part of Friday’s announcement.

The government, however, said it will continue to consult on that and elementary class sizes, as well as hiring processes.

In Ontario, full-day kindergarten classes are capped at 29 children, and boards must have an overall average of 26 students. From Grades 1 to 3, 90 per cent of classes must have 20 or fewer students, with the remainder no bigger than 23.

From Grade 4 to 8, boards may have an average of 24.5 students per class.

On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford would not commit to keeping class sizes at current levels, but said “the people of this province will be quite thrilled” at the government’s education reforms.

“We’re focusing on the students; we’re making sure the students get the best education they can, “ Ford said. “I can tell you, we are going back to the basics. We’re going to make sure our students understand math, reading, arithmetic.”

Provincial math tests show scores have been dropping in recent years, which is a trend affecting many countries.

Thompson’s plan, which comes into effect fully in the fall of 2021, will provide boards with funding for a “math learning lead,” and numeracy supports for 1,000 struggling schools. These amount to roughly one-quarter of all elementary and secondary schools.

All new teachers will have to pass a mandatory math exam before they can be certified, and the province’s 16,000 middle-school teachers will have to earn additional qualifications in math.

The government will also direct teachers to “focus on fundamental concepts and skills,” and move away from “discovery math,” as well as boost online resources.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association estimates a loss of 5,000 teaching positions with the class-size changes from Grades 4 through 12, and fewer course choices and bigger classes in core areas like math.

“There is no doubt that increasing class sizes will make Ontario’s intermediate and high school classrooms more crowded, more chaotic, and less productive,” said Liz Stuart, OECTA president.

“Teachers will not be able to provide the same level of attention to individual students, and students with special needs will not get the support they require to reach their full potential.”
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