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Education Action: Toronto: 1. Curriculum: Content, Evaluation and Streaming

Education Action: Toronto

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1. Curriculum: Content, Evaluation and Streaming

What follows here in this first section is an overarching statement of principles about what public education can provide and how it should provide it (the curriculum). Section 2 will be a discussion of how much money it needs and where it will come from (the funding), and who should decides how much money to raise and how to allocate it (the governance).

Following this statement of main principles — the result of three years of discussion with a wide range of community and social justice groups — specific policy papers will consider aspects of these in greater detail. We want this to be a dynamic policy that comes from a continual process of discussion, debate and refinement.


We want to balance three principles often viewed as being in tension within large school systems. These are:

  • equity and excellence in learning;
  • central direction and local responsibility for what is taught;
  • professional autonomy and public accountability.

Equity and excellence in learning

The so-called “common sense” approach to education (given prominence by the Mike Harris government in Ontario and, less overtly, by its successor) is based on emulation and competition models derived from market fundamentalism. It supports the fallacious intuition that either:
(1) the school system should aspire to Excellence for as many as possible but should, at the same time, expect that many others will fall by the wayside, i.e. fail to achieve good outcomes for themselves, or
(2) the aspiration to Excellence should be abandoned in the pursuit of equity since Equity goals inevitably lead to a system for all based on the lowest common denominator.
You can’t have both, the argument goes, and so (1) is the preferred option.

There is an increasing body of research to show that this choice is based on a false premise. The pursuit of an excellent education does not need to be compromised by the pursuit of equitable education.

Specialists in cognitive psychology – and our daily knowledge of the vast majority of our students in school – demonstrate conclusively that failure in school does not necessarily mean an inability to learn. It is more likely to mean that the school system has not removed systemic barriers to their learning. According to such a view, the onus is no longer on the learner to adapt to a particular dominant system. The onus is on the school system to remove barriers to learning, to find the ways to ensure that everyone in all their diversity is able to learn. When we understand, as we do, that “failure to learn” has a social dimension – the overwhelming exclusion of children from poor racialized communities – then the adaptation of our curriculum and teaching methods to make it possible for such children to learn becomes a human rights issue.

Research has also shown that the education of children, who do well in school, is not compromised by their being in the same classes as children who have been less successful. The less successful children gain from the experience without dragging down the so-called “bright” ones. Given that streaming or grouping children according to “brightness” maps on to differences of social class and, in some cases, on to racial difference, the evidence now suggests that streaming is a human rights issue.

But aspiring to inclusion in the name of equity has no meaning if the quality of the education is compromised. Any policies that smack of watering down, dumbing down, diminished expectations are all sterile and deeply unfair, whether they affect all or even some of our fellow humans.

Central Direction and Local Responsibility

One of the central concepts of educational psychology is called the “zone of proximal development.” It refers to the insight that people learn by starting from what they know already and proceeding in manageable steps into the unknown. If all children entering the school system came with the same knowledge, then perhaps it would be reasonable to teach all of them in the same way and pass on the same body of knowledge arranged in the same order. Such a situation might permit one institution to decide what that knowledge (its sequencing and the techniques used to teach it) would be and pass it on. Of course, even if such a state of affairs were to exist, such an approach would be based on a mechanical view of human nature. Still, that seems to be what more and more governments in the industrial world are trying to do around the world.

But we all know that we live in a diverse society. It is a world in which many peoples with many different experiences of the world are coming together in new places and sending their children to school with different knowledge bases (and this is particularly relevant to Toronto). We also know that we live in a deeply stratified society (layered by wealth and the degree of power we each have over our lives and those of others). It is a society in which the wealth and power gaps that differentiate people are deep and growing. In such a society, knowledge is also distributed unequally, being derived from very different experiences of the world of work and varying enormously according to the resources, time and energy available for family and community members to help children learn before going to school and during the time that they are not in school.

This diversity and this stratification varies enormously from place to place throughout Ontario. It is difficult enough to come up with models of integration and pedagogical flexibility within a single school (or even a single classroom) and even more so in a single urban community. But it beggars belief to think that this can work for a whole province. The key to proximal development strategies lies in an understanding of local knowledge and that must occur locally, in local communities, in local schools and in local classrooms. It is something that must be the responsibility of local teachers. But they cannot work alone. They need contact with local communities in order to understand and work with local knowledge in all its diversity and they need a lot of support near at hand. Distant controls and directives won’t do instead.

Given the importance of proximal development, why should we have a central government at all overseeing our schools? Our answer must come from a deep understanding of and commitment to citizenship within a larger entity than the space contained within the visible horizon. That sense of citizenship tells us what we need to know in order to function as a broader inclusive society with a sustainable economic future, and tells us what values, laws and institutions are required to support its development for the benefit of all. In this context, the provincial government has a responsibility to ensure that values based on physical well being, human rights, inclusion, equity and prosperity for all should be embedded in a framework of learning and a structure for its accessibility throughout the province.

Professional Autonomy and Public Accountability

We consider teaching to be a profession and anyone wishing to enter it has to pass through an extensive education and training process. Teachers are also expected to continue in various forms of mentoring, training and professional development after entering the profession. Much of the training (pre-service and in-service) is justified by the expectation that teachers will develop the capacity to take on responsibilities for other people’s welfare and development in the same way that those in other professions do (in such fields as health care, law, engineering, etc.). Assuming these responsibilities implies a fair degree of autonomy – bound, on the one hand, by the expertise and knowledge needed to accomplish their tasks and, on the other hand, by the ethical standards that ensure that professionals behave in ways that subscribe to the common good.

At the same time, public education does not belong to teachers. Their role within it comes in the form of a trust in the service of the public, which is entitled to know how they are being affected by this service. Learners are entitled to know how well they are doing. Parents and guardians have a right to know how well their children are doing. Communities have a right to know how well their future members are doing. The same might be said of learners’ future employers and co-workers.

A significant part of this accountability is centred in teachers’ evaluations of their students and their communication of the results of those evaluations. An education policy that builds on learners and teachers at the local community level, proceeding in ways sensitive to the diversity of experiences and knowledge each bring with them to the classroom, must build this accountability through evaluation from the local level up. A humanist education based on equity and inclusion means that judgments on the outcomes of teaching and learning must be rendered and communicated directly to the student in the first instance. The knowledge required to make such judgments valuable comes from regular daily observation and collaboration in the process of teaching and learning. And what students and parents need to know in the first instance is what has been learned and what remains to be learned next. That may be framed as progress through a sequence, as an identification of gaps, or as a pattern of strengths and weaknesses. What is less helpful is to frame this simply and solely as a number or a series of numbers.

Numbers are proxies for the qualitative judgments that need to be shared. They end up concealing more than they reveal. But they do have one enormous advantage for those who control our school system. They can be aggregated, manipulated, compared very quickly, mechanized and industrialized. In today’s world, that means they can also be digitalized and automated.

Once a system based on numbers begins to take over, the qualitative judgments that must guide teachers and learners assume less and less importance. Rather than seeing each other in terms of what we bring from our pasts, what we can contribute in the present, and where we need to go next, we are now obliged to rank one another, rank our teachers, rank our schools, rank our school boards, rank our provinces and rank our countries. We become focused on standardized test scores and school-by-school tables. These rankings are meant to determine future choices, if we have the money to act on them (where we live, where we send children to school, and so on). In this context, market-driven consumerism begins to erase the value of the personal touch and the expertise and ethical standards of teachers we have educated to become professionals. In their place we are setting up nothing but a service industry subject to statistical process control, distant management and the teacher-proof transmission of official “information” as opposed to knowledge.

Balancing professional autonomy and public accountability means first and foremost returning significant responsibilities to teachers and providing them with the support and guidance that they need to discharge those responsibilities. This is balanced by an understanding that teachers must be accountable first and foremost to the learners, colleagues and community with whom their work brings them into daily contact. We do not anticipate removing numbers altogether from the ways in which teacher judgments are framed. But we do want to put an end to the fallacious use of numbers to rank individuals and institutions as though they were toasters or restaurants. Furthermore, the support and guidance that teachers must receive should come through the people with whom they have regular personal contact (principals working as lead teachers or mentor teachers, for example). Where standards are required to smooth the experience of learners who transfer to other schools or systems or to ensure that common requirements of citizenship are being met for large populations, these should be set in broad terms by central authorities. The details can and should become more specific the closer we get to the local school or classroom.

school room

1.1 Curriculum Content

A. Who does what?

We are for

  • a provincial curriculum in which broad areas of study are prescribed division by division;
  • thorough consultations of all educational partners in the continuing process of developing and updating provincial curriculum;
  • a key role for educators themselves from across the province in the development and review of this framework;
  • the recourse to teachers’ federations, school boards and universities as suitable sources for the recruitment of educators into this process;
  • the use of regional offices of the Ministry in order to decentralize parts of this process;
  • constant openness to the ideas and experiences of learners, parents, school communities, and society at large;
  • a description in all Ministry curriculum documents of the public consultation process and the impact that it had; and
  • a monitoring of the linear design of the curriculum to facilitate the portability of educational achievement in Ontario’s schools when learners move from school to school, board to board, or province to province.

We are against

  • a provincially imposed list of detailed outcomes and expectations grade by grade;
  • the provincially directed atomization of knowledge and skills into hundreds of teachable, testable items; and
  • the disconnection of learning from the everyday experience of learners by the remote standardization of content.

B. What do we want learners to learn?

We are for

  • high expectations of achievement for all by means of a strongly focused curriculum that aims to prepare fully engaged citizens for the challenges of today’s world;
  • inquiry-based learning that draws upon the meaningful experiences of classroom learners;
  • a curriculum that connects the school to its surrounding communities in all their social and cultural diversity;
  • a curriculum that motivates learners to create texts, artifacts and activities that are valued by the learners themselves, their peers, their families, and the broader community as well as their educators;
  • a curriculum that respects the multiple identities of learners of whatever age, social class, sexual identity, racial and ethno-cultural origin, linguistic competencies, ability/disability, religion, or appearance, and instills mutual respect along these lines among all school community members;
  • a curriculum that promotes respect for physical health and activity and a sense of both the social and individual responsibilities for this;
  • a curriculum that promotes respect for environmental sustainability and a sense of both the social and individual responsibilities for this;
  • a curriculum that promotes a strong engagement in civil society, and an understanding of human rights and social justice, past struggles to achieve them and the institutions that foster them;
  • a curriculum that begins with learners’ knowledge of their own family and community circles and expands to connect these with the regional, national and international dimensions of human endeavour.

We are against

  • any curriculum that implicitly or explicitly excludes learners of whatever identity or background;
  • any curriculum based on a philosophy of “human capital” production, particularly low level “human capital” production – the one-dimensional preparation of under-skilled workers destined to perform mindless jobs unquestioningly;
  • any curriculum that privileges rote learning to the exclusion or detriment of reasoned reflection and connection to the everyday experience of learners.

C. What role for the classroom teacher?

We are for

  • the devolution to classroom teachers of the responsibility for the detailed organization of the learning in their classes;
  • the provision of time for teachers to work together on joint projects or simply learn from each other, whether within subject departments or on across-the-curriculum and school-wide initiatives;
  • the return of the principal’s role as teaching adviser with a corresponding reduction of administrative responsibilities;
  • extensive preparation and assistance for classroom teachers through readily available professional development run by teachers and their federations in partnership with universities or registered arms-length pedagogical NGOs, in accordance with priorities established in part by local school councils, school boards or the Ministry of Education;
  • the development of non-prescriptive curriculum support materials of the highest quality by the Ministry of Education, school boards, universities, teacher federations, and pedagogical NGOs;
  • the acceptance of learners as contributors to the development of curriculum content based on their own experiences and interests; and
  • the use of as many channels of communication as possible to connect classroom teachers to learners’ families and school communities in order to ensure the incorporation of their experiences and insights into this continual process.

We are against

  • prescribed “teacher-proof” curriculum materials from remote sources, whether Ministry of Education or school board;
  • teacher training and professional development that reduce the role of the teacher to the transmission of skills and information without regard for the full range of prior knowledge and understanding that every learner brings to the classroom; and
  • teacher training and professional development insensitive to the social context of the teacher’s school community and the strengths it can bring to the process.

1.2. Evaluation

A. Who does what?

We are for

  • placing the responsibility for individual learner evaluation with the homeroom teacher, working together with all of each learners’ subject teachers; and
  • a transformed role for the provincial assessment board (EQAO), at arm’s length from the Ministry of Education and controlled by the teaching profession and universities, to make it responsible for the comparison of broad standards across the province and the development of evaluation guidelines communicated in everyday language to teachers and the public at large.

We are against

  • provincially devised and centrally marked tests and examinations, whether assisted by computers or not;
  • the use of public or private agencies to develop and disseminate results-based ranking schemes and their results.

B. What kind of evaluation?

We are for

  • clear descriptions of what learners need to be able to do as they make progress in their learning towards personal and socially valued goals;
  • clear descriptions of the standards by which learners’ work is judged;
  • as many opportunities to demonstrate progress in learning as possible;
  • a broad diversity of meaningful activities and assignments by which learning is evaluated; and
  • a broad diversity of kinds of evaluation, including self-evaluation and peer evaluation.

We are against

  • standardized testing, which places the definition and interpretation of learning outcomes in the hands of distant experts;
  • standardized testing, which imposes cultural and psychological norms devised by distant experts on large, diverse populations.

C. How to communicate results?

We are for

  • the use of results first and foremost to help learners progress and make choices, and for replacing percentage grades by a small range of grade points, each clearly defined in everyday language;
  • the use of as many means of communication of progress to learners and to parent/guardians as needed to secure informed knowledge of strengths and weaknesses (e.g. report cards, parent-teacher meetings, school correspondence booklets, e-mail and other internet resources);
  • the sharing of all school-based learner records with the learner and parent/guardians, including records that are forwarded to other teachers, schools and places of higher learning.

We are against

  • the communication of confidential evaluative information to any third party without the express and informed consent of the learner and family members responsible for that learner;
  • the use of results to rank individual learners in detailed numerical order; and
  • the use of results to rank teachers, schools, and/or school systems.

1.3. Streaming

A. Elementary Schools

We are for

  • the maintenance of a single stream for learners in elementary schools, undifferentiated by ability or results;
  • the recognition that all learners have a right to learn in regular classrooms as long as they can do so without risks to their own health or the health of others;
  • the integration of learners of all abilities into regular classrooms, within as short a period of time as can be managed, with due care to the provision of the appropriate supports for learners and teachers alike;
  • the provision of pedagogical training and curriculum materials designed by active educators to make mixed-ability classrooms welcoming and successful;
  • the provision of limited-term booster programs and tutoring for learners needing additional assistance in order to join the regular classroom;
  • and the provision of high-quality special educational programs for learners whose physical condition makes work in a regular classroom impossible.

We are against

  • the involuntary exclusion of learners from the regular classroom, except in those cases where it can be shown that such a setting is injurious to the health of the individual learner or that of others;
  • the involuntary labeling of young people by means of psychometric testing in schools;
  • the involvement of the school system in the recommendation or administration of medication claiming to facilitate or improve learning; and
  • the continuation of classroom groupings that can be shown to stream learners by race or social class.

B. Secondary Schools

We are for

  • the establishment and maintenance of two equally strong streams (academic and technical) in secondary schools, undifferentiated by ability or results, each of which provides pathways to post-secondary education or a valued workplace;
  • a well-planned transition, with the full participation of active educators, from the current streams to the new one that we are advocating;
  • training programs prepared by active educators to make mixed ability classrooms welcoming and successful;
  • a well-planned process to help learners and their families make an informed choice between the two streams in the course of the Grade 8 year in elementary school, a choice that is finally theirs to make; and
  • easily navigated pathways that will make it possible for learners to change streams in the course of their secondary education.

We are against

  • the use of school streams that differentiate expectations of life after school by separating those expected to enter post-secondary education and continue learning from those expected to enter the workplace and implicitly abandon organized learning;
  • the separation of academic skills training from practical applications of those skills and from the development of physical abilities; and
  • the separation of technical skills training from their broader social and academic context and from the continued development of a critical understanding of those contexts.

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