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Op Ed

McGuinty dumbs down education

National Post

Tue 06 Sep 2005 - Editorials - A16

Frank Klees

During the 2003 Ontario election campaign, then-opposition leader Dalton McGuinty promised that under a Liberal government 75% of Ontario students would achieve the targeted success rate in standardized testing. Voters and taxpayers at the time assumed that meant a better education for students. Now we know that he really meant that standards would systematically be lowered until 75% of students could reach them.

That process has now begun in earnest with the announcement from Mr. McGuinty's Education Minister, Gerard Kennedy, that 165 courses will be made easier -- all because one of them, Grade 9 applied math, has been deemed too hard. On Aug. 18, Mr. Kennedy told the National Post that the Grade 9 math program acted as an "academic trap or flypaper that a lot of people got stuck to," and said the program is at least partly to blame for the recent increase in Ontario's dropout rate.

Since the introduction of Ontario 's new curriculum by Mike Harris's Conservative government in 1997, students have shown that they can and will rise to the challenge of a more rigorous program.

Over the past eight years, I have watched with pride as student achievement levels have climbed steadily. We should remember that the reason for a revised curriculum in the '90s was to ensure that our students would be competitive locally and internationally for tomorrow's jobs.

Grades 3 and 6 test results show steady, significant increases in the number of students achieving the targeted proficiency score between 1998 and 2004: from 46% to 54% in Grade 3 reading; from 43% to 64% in Grade 3 math; from 48% to 58% in Grade 6 reading; and from 46% to 57% in Grade 6 math.

Ontario 's math and science scores on international tests continue to rise as elementary students are exposed to the new curriculum in the eight years before high school. The 2003 Third International Math and Science Survey (TIMSS) results, released last December, showed Ontario students scored significantly higher than in the 1995 tests and moved into the top 10 with Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong in Grade 4 Math and Science -- a spectacular achievement for the province, which has traditionally trailed Quebec and Alberta even within our own borders. ( Ontario passed Quebec on three of the four TIMSS measures for the first time in 2004.) Ontario university participation rates are at their highest levels ever, with enrollments in 2004 up 5.1% over even the enormous double cohort year in 2003.

In a May 5, 2005, press release, Mr. McGuinty proudly pointed to improved literacy scores for Ontario high school students, with the percentage of students passing the test having increased to 82% in 2004 from 77% the previous year. "We're clearly moving in the right direction, together," Mr. McGuinty said. What he did not say was that for eight years the Liberals fought tooth-and-nail every one of the curriculum and testing proposals that have made these kinds of measured improvements possible.

On Aug. 18, Mr. Kennedy promised to begin dismantling the very curriculum that has enabled those gains, telling the National Post that Ontario 's high school curriculum was too complex and would be made easier. English and science would be redesigned, and he promised teachers' federations that "curriculum expectations will become fewer."

In other words, at the very moment that Ontario students, teachers and taxpayers are finally seeing positive, measurable results, Mr. Kennedy is planning a wholesale dumbing-down of the system.

As a parent, I would not want to see any child held back or defeated by a single class, in this case Grade 9 math. If the Grade 9 applied math curriculum needs review and additional resources, Ontario should take the steps necessary -- that's why the new curriculum was designed with an ongoing review process.

However, to dumb-down the entire curriculum is irresponsible and extreme.

By all means, Ontario must provide help to students who need it, and perform a regular review of its curriculum, but not at the expense of the majority of students who are rising to the challenge and learning from the current curriculum. Ontario 's self-proclaimed "Education Premier" is lowering the bar so that his promise of a 75% pass rate can be achieved. This is politics at its worst, and a new low for education in Ontario .