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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

Delivering Educational Excellence Part 1

Founder, Limitless Learning

In Future Schools, R.G. Des Dixon writes:

"Nothing in society is more inadequate to its chore than the universal model of schooling, except, perhaps, one-ply toilet paper; both concepts prevail though they have failed consistently, leaving us with dirty laundry and soiled hands. In the former case, if not in both, we should wash our dirty laundry in public and then wash our hands of the failed format."

I want to do some public washing today of the warehousing of children, which commonly passes for mass education.

I want to suggest that too many of the problems with our schools stem from our not paying attention to individual learners, from our failure to accommodate the uniqueness of every child in the ways we teach, and from our lack of commitment to the academic and emotional salvation of every child placed in our care.

Much has been said about dropouts. I find it interesting, since I'm one of them.

I don't care whether it's 18 per cent, 11 per cent, 23 per cent, 31 to 33 per cent. I don't care whether we use Employment and Immigration statistics, or Statistics Canada statistics. I do care about getting beyond the physical dropout in our discussion and talking about the students who are sitting our high school classrooms looking out the windows; and if they haven't dropped out physically, they have dropped out emotionally and attitudinally.

We will never successfully deal with the drop-out problem until we are prepared to deal one-on-one with all the students in our schools in a competent and caring way. We have to make getting through to individual children our obsession. That is why we are teachers. It is the minimum every parent expects of us.

At Limitless Learning, we're trying to take the responsibility for some of those kids by providing quantitatively and qualitatively, a little more attention. And we are educating students at the high school level for $7,300 per student per year. These tuitions cover our operating and capital costs. There's no magic to it.

The system's failure to recognize and accommodate uniqueness in the way we teach leads us to understand this whole horror, which is streaming.

I know a teacher who was asked by one of the Ontario Teachers' Federation affiliates to develop a response to the Radwanski Report on destreaming. He read everything that's ever been written on streaming.

Three weeks ago, he showed us four transparencies on an overhead projector. There were four things in the literature in favour of streaming. He said, bottom line, "it's convenient for administrators and teachers." There were three transparencies full of the arguments against streaming.

I've been arguing against streaming for a long time. I'm glad to see there are now other people who see it's patently wrong. The problem that streaming attempted to solve doesn't go away.

But, I want to stress that I don't see ability levels as fixed forever at any given level. In fact, part of the reason we are teachers is to elevate ability levels.

In Metro Toronto, according to the Property Tax Working Group of the Ontario Fair Tax Commission, basic operating cost per student amounted to $7,986. And that's just operating, not capital.

I have a problem as a taxpayer with the cost of public education.

Again, in Metro Toronto, using figures for 1990, it cost $94,902 to educate one student for 15 years. That includes junior and senior kindergarten, grades one through eight, and grades nine through OAC. When you look at the figures in that document for co-terminous boards, sometimes the Separate School Boards are spending as much as $1,900 less per student and getting basically the same results.

We're spending a whole heck of a lot of money on education. We're the world's biggest spenders on education. In 1993, the funding of elementary and secondary education in Ontario is a $14.3 billion public enterprise.

A teacher friend wrote to me in June, saying: "In the 1980s, and in the 1990s so far, it has seemed that more money was spent on the administration than in the classroom. When I started teaching in 1964, there was one Nun in charge of 10,000 students and 400 teachers. The Principals of each school taught half a day. Now we have the same number of students and teachers but we have one Director, six Superintendents, Principals who no longer teach, Vice-Principals, Consultants and Remedial Teachers, none of whom make any impact on my students Monday morning."

Another problem is teacher unions.

I don't like teachers' unions and I make no bones about it.

I heard a president of one of the affiliates say to a group three weeks ago how upset he was about the social contract. I've never heard that kind of whining for a long time. He was upset because he's going to lose about $3,500 next year.

Come into the private sector! People are losing a great deal more that $3,500. People are afraid for their jobs. I haven't seen too many teachers really losing their jobs.

Nowhere is the failure to deal with the uniqueness of every learner more evident than in the realm of special education. This so-called solution helps some, while it hurts so many others. One of the good things to come out of special education is the knowledge and the skills special education teachers acquire to tutor students one-on-one.

But one effect of special education really bothers me. Too many parents are being told, and are buying the diagnosis, that their children have learning problems.

The author of the book, Maintaining Sanity in the Classroom, says that of the thousands of children he has tested for learning problems, the empirical evidence for such learning problems appears in very few children.

When teachers do not recognize and accommodate the uniqueness of the individual learner, learning problems ensue. And this must be emphasized: the problem is often in the teaching, and not in the learner. Too much talk of learning disabilities is often nothing but a cover-up for teaching disabilities.

Arguing that there is no such thing as the average child, Des Dixon estimates that 15 per cent of population get special education; their individual needs are identified and responded to. But of the other 85 per cent, almost half need individualized help with reading, writing, speaking, listening, and ciphering. Since these students are considered "average" and get no extra help, the lack of necessary help with underdeveloped skills will "adversely affect their entire lives."

Premier McKenna said one of the changes they're making in New Brunswick is peer tutoring.

When I was head of English at a Catholic high school a long time ago, I fought the pressure to stream. Luckily, I had a principal who believed enough in me to let me do this. And every time the superintendent came, we said, no, we're not doing it.

What we did was use our students to help other students. We found that when students can help students, you don't need to stream. You can help individual children when you do that. And you can accept the fact and accommodate the fact that children are at different levels of ability.

Another issue is that there's been such a total collapse of consensus. And, given that collapse of consensus, I've got to argue in favour of the voucher system.

A voucher system would give parents more choice. Simply, a parent gets a voucher for the amount that the school board normally spends to educate each child, or some part thereof. The parents can apply that amount against the tuition of the school of their choice.

Those who hold the purse strings don't want to hear it when I say you've got to one-on-one it with kids. They said you can't do it in the public system. I say you can. Prioritize it and you can. If you're not going to, the rest doesn't really matter.

The voucher system is one way.

The basic per pupil amount spent by Metro Toronto in 1991 on each of its secondary students, $7,986, would more than pay the tuition at many cost-efficient private schools.

And no matter how often public educators deny it, this voucher system would make public schools better – and we all care about that. It would make them have to worry about parental concerns. Choice would be good for the students of Ontario.

I believe that as citizens become more aware of just what is going on in public education, there is going to be more demand for genuine individualized education, where every child is important, where fewer and fewer children will be abandoned, where parents will have more input.

Since the schools of the present seem ill prepared to accommodate the uniqueness of every learner, I say that it is time for a new model of education in Ontario.

And whatever future systems we decide upon, it is to be hoped that they include a great deal more choice than the vested interests have been willing to allow the taxpayer so far.

It is also to be hoped that future models of education make it possible for teachers to care about individuals to the point where we show them always that we want them to stay, that we care deeply about each and every one of them.

Maybe, as teachers, we can begin our efforts by reflecting what the Jesuit John Powell meant when he said:

"Our job is not to show them how good we are, but how good they are."