10 000 teachers lost to Ontario classrooms. What’s the damage?

Dudley Paul  – 2019-10-22

It wasn’t really much of a surprise last month when the Ontario government’s Financial Accountability Office (FAO) announced that schools across the province would lose enough teachers to populate a small town. This is the result of the Tory plan to increase class sizes to 28 in secondary and 24.5 in elementary schools by 2023-24.  It was a long way from Doug Ford’s estimate that there would be just 3 475 teaching jobs lost overall in elementary and secondary school, but unions for education workers predicted it would be much higher. The FAO, probably better at math and accounting than the Tories, said that by the 2023-24 school year there will be 10 054 fewer teachers working in Ontario (994 elementary and 9 060 secondary teachers).

Why is there such a discrepancy between the Ford government’s figures and FAO? The Ministry of Education isn’t offering any answers. I contacted Minister Stephen Lecce’s office to check on this and received the following boilerplate reply:

“The (FAO) report affirms our plan to ensure students are set up for success for the jobs of the future. We are taking action to ensure every student in Ontario receives a world class education, with a modernized skills-focused curriculum, with an emphasis on transferable skills. The Officer confirmed what we have been saying all along: no teacher will lose their job as a result of our class size policy. Our government’s plan is working. We are investing more than ever in student success to ensure students benefit from an inclusive, safe, and rewarding academic experience.”

This bit of classic newspeak comes as schools across the province grapple with the effects of cuts, clearly unsafe environments and even less access to a “modernized skills-focused curriculum.”

On the contrary, this is a government looking to cut anywhere it can to pay for income tax breaks along with the loss of $3 billion in revenue due to cutting the cap and trade system introduced by the Wynne government. Over the next 5 years it will save $2.8 billion in education alone and $900 million per year after that. The FAO even predicts the province won’t have to fork over all of the $1.6 billion it set aside for its Teacher Job Protection Fund to avoid laying off teachers as class sizes go up and fewer of them are needed. The office forecasted that more teachers will leave the profession on their own; this lets the province save another $300 million.

It’s going to save even more according to the FAO report, as it ratchets down spending across Ontario schools. Growth in spending over the next 5 years will increase about 1 percent each year. On the other hand, what drives school costs – inflation and growth in the number of school-age kids- will go up by 2.7 per cent each year.

Condemnation of the Ford government was swift and pointed. Liberal leadership hopeful, Michael Coteau said the loss of 10 000 teachers will “lead to class sizes increasing up to 27 percent on average. In some schools, the damage will be much worse.” NDP education critic Marit Stiles declared that “parents and educators are sounding alarm bells about the negative impact these cuts will have on our education system – damage that will get worse as our population grows over time.”

Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation president Harvey Bischoff  told the Toronto Star “I don’t see this government has a shred of credibility left on the education file” adding that the Financial Accountability Office calculations, “confirm our projections and puts the lie to the government’s efforts to minimize the damage they are causing to students’ education in this province.”

What is that damage?

For every secondary teacher lost to a school, there are 6  fewer classes  it can offer students. In order for their students to graduate, secondary schools need to offer 18 compulsory courses, mostly in the areas of English, Mathematics, Science.

Students must pass one course each for Canadian History and Geography, along with Arts, French and Health and Physical Education.

Losing one or more teachers from a secondary school, especially a smaller one can make it impossible to offer the basic courses students require – forget about anything innovative like special arts programs, robotics and so on. Just earlier this month, people from the Jane and Finch community listened to a Westview Centennial CI student tell them she had to take one of her compulsory courses at night school in another area. She doesn’t like travelling on buses in the evening, but that’s what she needs to do if she wants to graduate.

Students, parents and teachers from across the province are reporting similar issues. West End Parents for Public Education’s (WEPPE) website Trackthecuts logs reports of small boards down by 11 teachers, a waiting list for a calculus course needed for university, biology classes crowded with 46 students, holes in timetables and kids looking at returning next year to pick up required courses they can’t get into this year.

This sort of thing is happening as secondary schools increase class sizes to only 22.5 this year. Imagine what it’s going to look like when the ratio is 28 students per teacher in 2023-24.

Then there’s the problem of average class size. Schools can’t just offer the required courses and keep their classes at 28 kids per teacher in secondary or 24.5 in grades 4-8. For example, they are required by the same Ministry that’s cutting funding, to provide teachers for critical special education and English as a Second Language support. There are French teachers, gym teachers, librarians and guidance teachers. In secondary schools, technical subjects like auto or electrical shops can’t operate safely with 28 students in them – there has to be a lower student to teacher ratio. The Toronto District School Board currently says 22 is enough. All of these additional teachers or lower class sizes mean that other classes have to be larger – because the Ministry is telling school boards in effect: “You can’t have extra teachers to run these programs we tell everyone are so important. You have to work with what we give you. And we’re giving you less.”

This is why educators and other concerned community members are predicting regular class sizes of up to 30 in grades 4 to 8 and closer to 40 in secondary school.

 

What about the school environment?

For each teacher lost to a school, there’s one less adult in the building to supervise students, walk the halls, mind the

schoolyards and show a presence. Presence is important; it reminds kids that there is someone responsible to whom they can turn and to remind them to be responsible themselves. Teachers and other adults – especially principals and vice-principals – need to be seen. Just being visible sets a tone, establishes expectations and all-important  relationships as adults in the school talk to kids, joke, warn, admonish and otherwise get a feel for whatever might be going on in the halls or yards.

What happens to the clubs, sports, programs, after-school activities and all the rest that makes school a good place to be, the centre of its community? What teacher, having faced 30 or 40 kids all day is going to have the energy or focus to offer extracurricular activities? Anyone who does is a hero, but it shouldn’t have to take heroes to operate a decent school.

What happens to new people wanting to enter the teaching profession? Any sort of work needs new people with different experiences and training. It’s already hard to get a teaching job in Ontario and many new teachers serve their time for years on school boards’ occasional teachers lists filling in when the regular classroom teacher is absent. There will be 10 000 less jobs for which they can apply and 10 000 less teachers for them to cover when they’re away. There will be thousands of fewer chances to refresh the school system with new teachers.

Add to this mess, cuts to support staff and you have the makings of a disaster. For example, to balance its budget as the Ministry of Education requires, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has cut psychologists, social workers, child and youth workers, speech and language pathologists, teacher advisors and coaches  this year alone. This will further isolate beleaguered teachers who have to cope with more special needs kids for whom there is little or no support; who must get their classes ready for provincial testing, the Ministry of Education considers so important.

The TDSB has cut 52 caretakers as part of the same effort – again fewer adults in school. Classrooms that aren’t specifically needed won’t be cleaned; so they’re closed. No one can use them for a quiet area, a club, a community room or whatever else used to be done with extra space.

Next year it plans to cut 296 lunchroom supervisors. Imagine a lunchroom under normal circumstances with kids pent-up from a morning in class, letting off steam in a gym-turned-lunchroom. Now take away some supervision. It’s astounding.

 

What about school safety and discipline?

The horrible death of Devan Bracci-Selvi, victim of bullying at Sir Winston Churchill SS in Hamilton brings to the front, the raw tragedy of bullying for so many kids in schools. For generations adults have tried to cope with it both in and outside of school. It can be maddeningly subtle or brutal as was the case of Devan, stabbed right in front of his mother.

There’s been a lake of ink spent on bullying and what to do about it. Psychologists Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig have

written many articles as well as an online guide: Bullying Prevention and Intervention in the School Environment: Factsheets and Tools. They go into detail about the “Whole School Approach” to prevent bullying, how all members of the school community – parents kids and staff need to plan and act together to stop it: “Teachers are responsible for establishing a collaborative an respectful climate, effective strategies to set agreed upon norms of behavior, open communication and appropriate responses for children and youth involved in bullying.”  This and the many other activities in the guide sound great, BUT how do you accomplish this with fewer teachers in the school? How do you establish that open communication or set up those effective strategies?

Bullying will continue to be a major problem without adults in the building ready to watch interact and intervene.

The Ministry of Education takes a blunter approach to bullying in a memo from October 2018. It reminds Ontario principals that under the Education Act, “principals must suspend a student for bullying and consider referring that student for expulsion if (1) the student has previously been suspended for bullying and (2) the student’s presence in the school creates, in the principal’s opinion, an unacceptable risk to the safety of another person.”

I suspect that suspension will more often be the approach taken by principals who don’t have the resources in their schools anymore to cope – not only with bullying but all kinds of discipline issues. They’ll do it reluctantly, for sure, but they won’t have the options they used to with more adults in the building – more people able to help steer kids away from problems and negotiate a way out when conflicts inevitably come up.

I also fear that suspensions will be used more often in schools serving low income neighbourhoods where families don’t save the spare cash to send their children to lessons, camps and other activities, where they face enough stress just paying the rent. This is already the case according to the last Caring and Safe Schools Report from the TDSB (2017-18). Among the chief interventions used by schools when a kid is suspended is calling in guidance and social work support. Guidance teachers will undoubtedly go by the wayside with the increased class sizes. The TDSB already had to cut some of its social workers in last June’s budget.

The Ford government doesn’t much care about people on the margins, cutting money from public health and social services. School boards are going to be hard-pressed to find the money for staff to run creative programs to make sure that students who are behind their peers can at least cope-  whether it’s in academics or social skills, whether they need much more support for their mental health, whether their education needs to involve their culture.

The Ford government simply didn’t have a clue about education when they appointed a former dairy farmer as its chief elected official in the province. It didn’t have a clue about what happens when you chop pieces from a complex system of Ontario schools. Minister Stephen Lecce can babble to reporters asking him about the case of Devan Bracci-Selvi   “I will ask for a rigorous investigation and where the gaps exist so there are lessons learned to ensure no child is left behind as a consequence of a system that is not improving the lives of young people…”

Yet his government sets out to take 10 000 teachers away from schools. That’s beyond cluelessness; that’s organized negligence designed to reduce schools to become shadows of their former selves.