Royal Commission on Learning Report: Short Version

Royal Commission on Learning

What can we expect from our schools?

During our months of public consultations, we listened to presentations from 1,396 groups and individuals in 27 cities across the province, and received written, voice-mail or e-mail messages, and submissions from some 3,350 others. It was not easy to find common themes or concerns among all these interested citizens, and certainly there was consensus about precious little.

One complaint that we heard, repeatedly, was that the public education system no longer seems to be responsible to the public. This is one major cause of the lack of confidence that so many seem to feel for the system. Although board of education trustees and provincial governments are elected, there exists widespread unease that schools have become a kingdom unto themselves, with little need to report to parents or to the world at large what they are doing with our kids, and whether they're doing it successfully.

This issue mattered a lot to us too. The question of how schools account for themselves seems to us a very serious one, and we recommend setting up an independent agency to make sure the public's right to know is upheld. While we are confident that, in general, no one knows better than teachers and educators in general how learning best happens, many Ontarians resent the sense that principals and teachers believe they, not the public, own the schools. We know educators have trouble understanding this perception, but they must accept that it's out there and work to reverse it. The proposition that the public must be knowledgeable about and have confidence in a major public institution funded entirely by the public seems to us so self-evident that it borders on scandalous that it even needs debate.

There is a second cause for the abundant lack of confidence in our education system: a significant and possibly growing number of people are disturbed by the "crisis" of our schools, and their feeling is reinforced by an abundance of stories in the media. Frankly, we find this fear exaggerated. While the status quo is unquestionably flawed, there is no serious evidence that our schools are failing our kids any more or less than they ever have. If we recommend profound changes to our learning system, it's largely because society has changed so dramatically in recent times that schools can't possibly be expected to keep up without substantial changes.

Criticisms of education are as old as the system itself. As the folksy American humorist Will Rogers put it many generations ago, "Schools ain't as good as they usta be and they never was." In fact both major studies of Ontario education in the past half-century reported the disenchantment with schools in their days in words that might easily have been written today.

Everyone from employers to parents to university professors, explained the Hope commission in 1950, "complain bitterly that young people make errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar, and cannot express themselves logically and clearly in speaking..." And these were the good old days that some people look back to with such misplaced nostalgia, when Ontario high school students all wrote standardized department exams and when only 13 of every 100 students graduated from high school. Today we debate whether the drop-out rate from schools is a third or less than a fifth - by any standard a remarkably positive change in 40 years.

Many parents came to us with shocking evidence of kids who finished high school yet wrote with all the sophistication of a nine-year old, of report cards that seemed deliberately contrived to sound like gibberish, of schools that made them feel unwelcome, intimidated, indifferent to them and not much more engaged with their children. We know these stories are only too true, and that there are too many of them. Too many kids fall through the cracks today. But if there are far too many intolerable horror stories from our schools, it would be unbalanced not to point to the large numbers of success stories. All across this province we saw exciting examples of great principals and great teachers bringing out the best in their students; in the full report we give examples of the kinds of schools that impressed us so much. We can't say how many of these schools exist, but we're quite certain there are more of them than harsh critics acknowledge, and far fewer than we need.

And while we must be cautious in interpreting the national and international comparative tests that we hear so much about - it's simply irresponsible to report the results of these tests as if they were horse races with clear winners and losers - it's fairly clear that generally our Ontario students are doing all right, but not superlatively. On the other hand, there is no reliable evidence that we've ever done better in the past.

But this is no time for complacency. The times they are a-changing - technologically, socially, economically, demographically - at a pace so bewildering that widespread anxiety is the inevitable result. We felt that disquiet in our public hearings from parents, business people, teachers, and young people themselves. And of course this anxiety has increased substantially in the past couple of years as a result of the fear of escalating violence in our schools in communities across the province.

So we can actually say, in the end, that there is a shared concern out there. It's that Ontario's schools aren't equipped to deal with the future - a problem significantly exacerbated by our utter ignorance of what that future might bring.

We share that concern. In fact we're prepared to go further and say that it's just about time to ring some alarm bells in Ontario. The burdens on schools are growing impossibly heavy. Every time our society develops a new problem - from AIDS to violence - we just naturally expect teachers to be able to introduce courses to deal with it. If families are breaking up, or if both parents work, schools must fill the void. If we no longer know what values we share, schools should develop the moral character of our kids. If jobs seem scarce at the end of the line, teachers should prepare kids for the workplace. If most of the kids who want to go to university can't do so, and if high schools still focus their best efforts on those who do, teachers must nevertheless motivate all kids to hang in and not drop out. The expectations that we are placing on our schools seem to be without limit, and they simply can't be met.

At the same time, attempts to reform the system seem to go on non-stop. Contrary to those critics who claim schools aren't changing with the times, the truth is that for decades they've done nothing but change. In many parts of the report, but especially in the history section (Chapter 2) and in Volume II describing our vision for schools, you'll see the reforms that have been attempted in Ontario schools in the 25 years since the Hall-Dennis report, the last comprehensive review of the entire education system. Some were politically motivated, some were based on good research, while others were half-baked fads. Some worked to a certain degree, and others soon disappeared into never-never land. Together they demonstrate how complicated it is to effect change in a massive institution like Ontario's education system - after all, it probably directly involves half of this province's 10 million citizens. How difficult it is to know what will work and what won't, and what an imposition it all is on the teachers who must begin introducing the latest board or Ministry brainchild, too often with inadequate preparation or resources, when the previous ones hadn't even been fully absorbed, let alone evaluated.

To achieve any meaningful reforms to our learning system, we must help students to be able to learn more and better. To do so involves ensuring that the rest of society helps prepare students for school learning, and that teachers are fully equipped to do the rest. In a real sense, you'll see that almost all our recommendations are crafted to achieve these intertwined ends.

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