Royal Commission on Learning Report: Short Version

Royal Commission on Learning


Making the system equitable

Supporters of a publicly funded education system have a duty to ensure that the system genuinely and equitably serves all members of the public. Every child in Ontario deserves to be educated well. While in theory every Ontario child has the right to go to school and do as well as she or he can, in practice life is more complicated. The research is clear here: Kids from better-off families arrive with a bundle of advantages that are denied to the less well-off. Poverty undermines student achievement. So does racism. Girls and young women still face obstacles unknown to males. Some kids have physical or intellectual disabilities. Many live in school districts that have fewer financial resources than others. Some belong to communities that seem to be having a collective problem making the best use of the system.

All of these inequities exist now in Ontario, and in principle they seem to us inconsistent with the obligations of public schools in a democratic society. But this is not simply some abstract theoretical issue. Schools matter. The higher your level of education, the greater your chance to have a job at all, and the more money and status the job is likely to carry. Every student in the province has a right to try to attain that goal, and the public school system must make that right a realistic one by ensuring that the many barriers to equal learning opportunities that still exist are eliminated or at least minimized to the greatest extent possible.

We've tried to ensure equity throughout the school system in many of the recommendations we've already discussed for changing teaching and learning. But other changes are needed beyond the individual classroom in order for equity to be realized.

Equity in funding

It wasn't really part of our direct mandate to deal with the amazingly complex field of education funding. But it soon became apparent to us that you can't talk about equity in schooling without talking about equity of funding. Ontario spends vast sums on elementary and secondary education - a total of $14.5 billion in 1992, for example - but unfortunately the system of allocation isn't fair enough. Within Ontario you can find considerable variations in the amounts different boards are able to spend per student. Boards that are fortunate enough to have as taxpayers large commercial or industrial concerns or corporate head offices or major tourist attractions obviously have access to much higher assessment wealth for taxation purposes than others. Certain large boards, particularly some in Metro Toronto and Ottawa, are able to raise all their revenues quite independently of the provincial government, while others are substantially dependent on the Ministry for their operations. Those assessment-wealthier boards are able to offer their students extra supports and services and more optional programs than most small, rural, and northern boards. The evidence is equally clear that Catholic and French-language boards are consistently under-funded compared with boards in the English public part of the system. None of this seems fair to us, and should be changed.

Catholic and French-language boards asked that those who don't designate their taxes to one of the two Catholic components of the system would not be assumed to support public schools, as is now the case under what's called the default provision. They suggest instead that those taxes go into a central pool and be distributed equitably on a per capita basis. We agree with this eminently sensible notion.

But on top of this, whatever changes to the tax system are needed, the government must ensure financial equity across the province. We consider it the clear responsibility of government to ensure an equitable amount of funding to each student in the province so that each is able to receive comparable services and programs - not identical, but comparable. To achieve this, we're recommending that equal per-pupil funding be determined at the provincial level and that its proper allocation be ensured by the province. But we also think boards should be able to spend up to 10 percent beyond that amount for special local initiatives, to be raised from residential assessment only.

But just as comparable services don't mean identical ones, neither does equity mean identical funding for every board. Boards in the north and more isolated areas have certain greater costs than city boards. Boards with large numbers of new students requiring ESL or ALF, or boards with large numbers of students requiring transportation, obviously face demands others don't. The Ministry already recognizes these varying circumstances with a formula that uses different weighting factors to adjust the amount paid to each board. We expect this to continue under the new system we've proposed.

There's only one catch here: the entire process presupposes a knowledge of what constitutes a good program of education for every Ontario child. Some 30 years ago the Ministry probably had a definition of such a program and a calculation of what it would cost. But present funding arrangements seem to have little to do with any clear sense of an appropriate program and its costs. We think it's a matter of great importance that the Ministry, using the vision of quality education that is at the heart of our report, determine the cost of educating each Ontario student, and on that basis, plus weighting factors, determine what each board needs to provide that kind of education.

The Roman Catholic component of the system

Ontario's publicly funded school system has four components: public English-language and French-language, and separate (Roman Catholic) English-language and French-language. Although the Catholic component has been a part of this system since the mid-19th century, before 1984 it was funded only to Grade 10; in that year funding was extended to the end of high school. (The background to this development is spelled out in Chapter 14 of this report.) For some, this remains a highly controversial move, yet the legislation implementing the extension, in the eyes of its supporters, simply implemented the full constitutional rights of Roman Catholics, and in fact it was ruled constitutional soon after by the Supreme Court. Since our mandate was to respect whatever rights have been protected by the Court, it's been a given that fully funded Catholic schools are to remain an integral part of the public school system.

Of the 40 assessment-poorest boards in Ontario, 39 are Catholic. Given their historically and constitutionally protected rights, we found it unacceptable that Catholic school boards in general receive less funding per student than public boards. The funding recommendations we just discussed are intended in part to eliminate such inequities.

Some 30 percent of all students, including over 80 percent of francophone students, are enrolled in Catholic schools. They and their parents expressed to us many of the same concerns as others in the system, but they also raised, besides funding, several issues of specific concern to their community. Catholic boards want the right to be able to favour Catholics when they hire teachers. While we're aware that some of them have always hired a few excellent non-Catholic teachers and we hope they still will, it seems obvious to us that the explicitly Catholic character of these schools requires Catholic teachers to sustain it. So we agree that Catholic schools are logically entitled to favour Catholic teachers in their hiring practices.

It was also demonstrated to us that educators with a background in Catholic schools aren't sufficiently represented in the Ministry of Education and Training, especially at the senior levels. We've been convinced that this has led to insufficient knowledge of and sensitivity to legitimate Catholic concerns by the Ministry on a number of occasions that we describe in Chapter 15. We recommend several measures to ensure Catholic schools adequate influence in all appropriate activities of the Ministry. Finally, we learned that faculties of education provide little specific professional preparation for teachers intending to work in the Catholic system. This does not seem sensible to us. If Catholic schools are to be equal members of the public education system, they must have equal rights with other schools. We call on the Ministry and faculties to establish a pre-service credit course on the foundations of Catholic education to be available at all faculties of education, and to assure that the religious education courses currently being offered receive full credit status.

Learning in French in Ontario

Although francophones make up only 5 percent of Ontario's school population, they are the largest French-speaking minority in Canada outside Quebec. They made their message clear to this Commission in no uncertain terms. They believe that quality education in French is the key to the survival of their language, culture, and community, and they attributed their students' high drop-out rate and lesser academic success to what they saw as the built-in inequities of the education system. As it was for Catholics, our mandate was to work within a framework of rights for francophones, as established by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the courts. Given Canadian history and these charter rights, which we discuss fully in Chapter 15, many policy recommendations seem to us to flow logically.

Francophones argued that there were profound disparities between their confirmed constitutional rights and today's educational realities. The courts of Canada have agreed and have pointed out the obvious: an education in French whose quality is equivalent to that offered in English; equivalent educational facilities and funding; and, perhaps most crucially, control and governance by francophones of all educational programs, facilities, and services for their children. We agree. We want the Ministry to proceed as quickly as possible to adopt and implement a school governance model by and for francophones.

We also found ourselves sympathetic to the concern of francophones that their children risk being assimilated into the larger anglophone world around them, with the obvious larger risk to the very future of that community. Unless francophone schools function to transmit and nourish not just the French language but the very foundations of francophone culture in Ontario, this is indeed a threatened community. That's why we recommend sufficient funding for francophone schools to provide both whatever courses are necessary for francophone students to recover or update their language skills and for "l'animation culturelle" in schools, to ensure that young francophones are able to live fully in their own language and culture from their first year of schooling to their last.

Given the ever-changing landscape of Ontario, there is now a growing French-language ethno-cultural reality that doesn't necessarily share all the priorities of Franco-Ontarians. The concerns of those groups seemed to us legitimate as well: adjusting to a new world, parents' participation, different cultural values, and the equity of services offered. We think that many of the recommendations we make for all students address these issues in a constructive way, but certain minorities face special problems that need special attention. But before we turn to them, we need to look at the distinctive situation of aboriginal people, who have both special constitutional status, like Catholics and francophones, and educational problems not unlike those in some of the communities we address immediately after that.

The world of aboriginal education

We made a special effort to hear about aboriginal issues from aboriginals themselves. We heard from Native organizations and individuals in about one third of our hearings, we visited a number of their schools, and we established a working group with representatives of First Nations and Native service organizations. Almost a quarter of a million aboriginal people 25 percent of all aboriginals in Canada - live in Ontario, and we learned of the great diversity among them. The issues that are central to those living on reserves, for example, may not have the same priority to the 47 percent of the total who live off-reserve, and we found an inevitable lack of consensus on certain matters.

On the other hand, on a number of key issues we found widespread consensus. Like Franco-Ontarians, First Nations are very concerned about the survival of their cultures and languages. They fear their children are failing to develop a better sense of their identity, and that curricula rarely reflect their history and culture. In school, they find that aboriginal students either drop out or are being suspended and expelled out of all proportion to their numbers. They worry about racist attitudes towards their children and about the lack of adequate counselling and support services that might make a difference. They acknowledge that even with the several special teacher education programs, which are now under way at three faculties of education, there exists an acute need for more Native teachers.

The candour of the aboriginal people we met was as stark as the problems they described. The issues are not simplified by overlapping provincial and federal jurisdictional questions, or by the diversity and small numbers of the aboriginal community. The destructive consequences for Native family life of the segregated schools, into which Native children were forced for so many decades, also continues to be felt. Yet there is reason for hope. Even given the formidable obstacles in their paths, the level of education achieved by aboriginal students is considerably higher today than it was just two decades ago. But it must be much better yet.

One key is power, and we join with the aboriginal people we met in urging the federal and provincial governments to continue negotiations leading to full self-government of education by First Nations. We also call on those two governments to co-fund the development of curriculum resources that more accurately reflect the history of Canada's aboriginal people. But it shouldn't just be Native people who learn about their own backgrounds; we believe Ontario teachers should have at least an appreciation of aboriginal history and culture that they're able to convey to both aboriginal and non-aboriginal students. It's important to being a thoughtful citizen that the latter have some sense of the world of aboriginal Canadians.

Throughout our report we speak of the necessity of adequate supports being available to all students who are facing learning difficulties of whatever kind. This need is great among Native students, and we ask the federal government to ensure that funding is available to provide the support and resources that Native schools, Native children and teachers of Natives all need so badly. Finally, much good education happens among Native communities through distance education. But this technique could be dramatically improved through some of the information technology that we've made one of our four key engines of education change. CD-ROMs could be an effective weapon in the struggle to preserve Native languages. That's why we urge Ottawa to give top priority to ensuring the availability of good telecommunication networks throughout Ontario to support Native education by means of interactive video and computer networking.

Aboriginal communities made clear to us the great store they place in education. First, they believe that unless they themselves govern the education of their children, they won't have control over the preservation of their languages and cultures, and so will lose control over their own destinies. At the same time, they see education as giving them the skills and knowledge to be able to govern themselves. We hope our recommendations go far towards bringing them nearer their goals.

Gender and equity

Girls and women continue to face barriers in the education system that are unknown to boys and men. It's true, happily, that some progress has been made in recent years. More females are enrolling in math and science courses, and more women are being promoted as principals, vice-principals, and administrative officers. But as we point out in various places throughout the report, we still have a long way to go.

Women still aren't represented adequately in curriculum materials. Promotions, especially to the top positions, are still happening at a snail's pace. Sex-role stereotyping still keeps many young women out of such areas as physics, engineering, technology, and the like. Others drop out of these subjects too early in their education, denying themselves access to a variety of challenging, high-status, high-paying occupations that have these subjects as prerequisites. Many remain unaware of the diversity of career opportunities that exist for all students, girls and boys. We've been disappointed to learn that all these problems still bedevil girls and women. That's why we believe that, among other responses, gender equity issues must be an important part of all teacher development programs.

Finally, we've been dismayed by the evidence of how far we have yet to come in giving girls and young women the same respect as we give boys and young men. Bullying starts at elementary school. Sexual harassment, both blatant and less overt, continues to be a problem in many of this province's junior and high schools. Here, at last, is an issue we believe has a simple solution: zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any kind.

Minorities and equity

The astonishing diversity that characterizes the people of Ontario, including its student body, is a phenomenon we celebrate with pleasure. The variety of peoples of different religions, languages, and ethno-cultural and racial backgrounds who call Ontario home make this one of the most exciting places on the globe for young people to grow up. Of course it also creates certain notable challenges, not least in the world of education, but we firmly believe that the challenges in providing an education system that's sensitive to this diversity, that provides genuine equity for students from every conceivable background, are far outweighed by the benefits of learning from and about each other.

This is an appropriate moment to restate the unwavering commitment of this Commission to the proposition that the public school system's mandate is to serve all its students. This means that schools must welcome students of every background, faith, language, culture, or colour. On this there can be no compromise or qualification. We've made a series of recommendations, including teacher preparation, language supports, fair testing and the nature of the curriculum, to ensure that schools place the concerns and needs of all students and communities at the very centre of the teachers' work. Every young person has the right to feel at home in the public schools of Ontario.

But the question we faced was whether every student has the right to attend a publicly funded school catering to his or her particular faith. While we were deliberating this enormously difficult issue, the courts again concluded that, for strictly constitutional and historic reasons, only Catholics as a religious minority have a right to such schools. Aside from the question of rights, however, a major matter of public policy remains to be decided, and it will be decided, as the court stated, by political not judicial decision. One day, following a long and difficult public debate, the issue will probably have to be faced by the Ontario government. But we believe a serious public airing is exactly what's needed before a decision is finally taken. To tell the truth, we ourselves were divided on the question, and we now leave it to others to resolve at a later stage.

That apart, in order to take our own rhetoric about equity seriously, and consistent with our view that every part of the system requires reliable assessment, we had to figure out how society would determine if equity for all students was truly being achieved. Obviously not all students are equal and not all students will achieve identical results. But sub-populations ought to have comparable results. If the system is working as we envision, there should be an equitable distribution of achievement across demographic or community lines. Unfortunately, that's now not the case. Representatives of the black community, of the Portuguese and Hispanic/Latin American communities, and (as we've just seen) of francophone and aboriginal communities came to tell us that their students are, on average, performing somewhat worse than students from other communities. If you compare such telling indices as the drop-out rates or the number of those going on to university, you quickly see that their results are lower.

We believe that the true test of equity is whether these differences are reduced or, preferably, eliminated in the next few years, and we strongly believe that this must be one of the goals that the entire system aims at, beginning immediately.

In Chapter 16, we describe our concern for the obvious discrepancy in educational results too often found among visible minorities and other minority groups, and we make suggestions that ought to address a number of the causes. As readers will by now expect, we hope that many of our recommendations to improve learning for all students would impact positively on minority groups as well. But some issues have a particular resonance for minority students, such as having an inclusive and anti-racist curriculum; reducing streaming in high schools; ensuring that all learning materials are free of racist bias (though we think it's appalling that this should still be a problem in our schools); educating all teachers in anti-racist teaching techniques; and attracting more teachers from minority groups into the system.

But because we heard particularly poignant pleas from black parents, educators, and young people, we devoted special attention to the plight of black students in our schools. A large number of representatives of the black community chose to come and speak to us, and we visited several schools with significant black populations, including Saturday schools run by volunteers. The sad consensus was that, although some black students do very well indeed, the achievement levels of many black students left much to be desired. It seems that little improvement had taken place over the years, and a disproportionate number of black students were not going to get a high school diploma and were going to face, like other dropouts, poor job prospects, and possible social marginalization. The representatives argued forcefully and convincingly that the education system was failing their community and that something must be done to respond to the crisis in black education.

We agree. This entire report is about ways to make our schools better, and we make many recommendations that we're sure would substantially improve the academic performance of black students. We can hardly over-emphasize our sense of the urgency of this task. But we also go further. In areas with large numbers of black students, we call for the establishment of special programs based on success stories elsewhere and other innovative strategies that can be developed if only we have the will to try.

We already mentioned that groups and individuals from the Portuguese community expressed to us frustration that so many of their students were streamed into non-university courses and were dropping out, and that their teachers held such low expectations of them. They, as well as some Hispanic/Latin American parents, were anxious for more meaningful involvement in their children's schooling. We are hopeful that, as with other groups with particular problems, many of our general recommendations will directly benefit these concerned parents. The language framework we developed includes more support for students whose first language is other than French or English. Early childhood education would be a distinct boon to their kids. Teachers taught to be more sensitive to the difficulties of all young people and to have high expectations of all their students clearly would be helpful. An inclusive curriculum matters, as does a school that actively encourages parents to support their children's learning. It's not acceptable to us that schools are failing the legitimate expectations of certain communities, and there's no excuse for it to continue.

Equity: Summing up

Let's summarize our position in this section. One of the tasks this Commission set itself was to not only meet those Ontarians who wanted to meet us, but to seek out those from backgrounds that, we feared, might make them reluctant to appear before a formal public hearing. We think we came to have a good understanding of many of your concerns, hopes, and anxieties. We're satisfied that just about all families in this province share a common bond in wanting the best for their kids, and in seeing education as the key to their getting and becoming the best. If there's a catch here, it's that not enough of the parents of today's students grasp the central role they themselves could play in helping their kids do better at school.

All of this presents a huge challenge to the school system, one which as this section shows, it's not now meeting adequately. Schools need to be more responsive, more sensitive, more welcoming, more engaging to every school kid in this province. Our goal is academic success for all students and all communities. Anything less is unacceptable.

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