Ontario’s Education Survey: I’m Not Sure

The Ontario education consultation promised by Doug Ford will close in about a month. This “unprecedented” consultation, to use one of Premier Ford’s favourite adjectives, was inspired by opposition to the revised sex education curriculum, implemented in 2015 by Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne. Premier Ford campaigned on a promise to repeal the new sex ed curriculum and “put the rights of parents first” when drafting its replacement. (Ontario Newsroom) He has since expanded the scope of this consultation to address other perceived shortcomings in Ontario’s education system, including “new” math, standardized testing, the absence of lessons in financial literacy, and the presence of cellphones in classrooms.   

The main consultation page lays out the government’s goals: “We’re consulting with parents across the province to address concerns and get feedback in several areas of the education system…Feedback from these consultations will help shape decisions” in a variety of areas like STEM, skilled trades, financial literacy, and, of course, the health and phys ed (i.e. sex ed) curriculum. (You can provide feedback through an open submission, online survey, or telephone town hall.)

The preamble to the online survey gives no indication of how much influence the results will have in government decisions about curriculum. That is worrying in any case, but especially in light of the parents-know-best philosophy that permeates the survey. This mindset is evident early, in the first question of the survey*:

Ontario education survey, question on parents as children's primary educators

“Parents are children’s primary educators.” That is quite an opening statement. How the actual question relates to educational reform–the purported intention of this survey–is not entirely clear to me. But the language used is significant.

I did not do a deep dive into the origins of the idea that parents are their children’s primary educators, but a quick search of the phrase generated a long list of results, all of which were associated with the Catholic church, other religious organizations, or social conservatives. Here are a few examples. Tanya Granic Allen, the social conservative who ran against Ford in the PC leadership then threw her support behind him to give him the leadership, runs an organization called Parents as First Educators (PAFE) that “supports the authority of parents over the education of their children through grassroots activism.” PAFE’s Resources page includes items about stopping Kathleen Wynne’s sex ed curriculum and one subtitled “Flaws in the New Math.” The Catholic Register, which opposed the Wynne sex ed curriculum, wrote that, with Ford in power, Ontario parents “have been given a second chance to assert their rights as primary educators of their children.” In an article about parents’ rights as educators, a site called Aleteia includes references to the Charter of the Rights of Family, a Vatican document that states the following:

The primary right of parents to educate their children must be upheld in all forms of collaboration between parents, teachers and school authorities, and particularly in forms of participation designed to give citizens a voice in the functioning of schools and in the formulation and implementation of educational policies. (Article 5e)

I am not here to criticize anyone’s religious beliefs. But I do have an issue with a phrase borrowed from Catholic doctrine and social conservatism appearing in a survey about the future direction of our public education system.

Even if we give Doug Ford the benefit of the doubt and assume his parents’ rights mantra is not based in religion nor a sop to Tanya Granic Allen, I still have an issue with it. And I’d wager that many other people do too.

Parents teach children basic life skills, social norms, and morals. In that sense, they may be considered children’s first educators. But in the context of the public education system, parents are not educators. Nor can they be trusted to make decisions about what is taught and when, which is exactly what this survey is asking them to do.

Consider this question on math**:Ontario education survey, question on improving math scoresOr this one, about STEM:

Ontario education survey, question on STEM

Or any of the other questions that ask parents to weigh in on subjects like: how often standardized tests should be conducted; the proportion of students to be included in standardized tests; whether apprenticeships for skilled trades should be started “earlier” (whatever that might mean);  and, of course, what children should learn about sex ed and at what age:

Ontario education survey, question on sex education

With the exception of the sex ed questions, where I have done research and trust the last curriculum’s take on the matter, I answered “I’m not sure” to most of these questions. Why? Because I really have no idea. I don’t know the age at which it’s developmentally appropriate to teach children basic economic theory. I don’t know if memorizing multiplication tables–a favourite talking point of Doug Ford–is going to improve math performance. I don’t know how early students should be streamed into apprenticeship programs. I don’t know if standardized tests should be conducted more or less often than they are now.

Do you know who does have the answers to these questions? Educators. Teachers, administrators, guidance staff, school psychologists, professors of education–they have the experience and expertise to know what should be taught to children and when.

If you agree that educators should be the primary voices heard in curriculum development in this province, there may be a way to make that point clear. Do the survey, but answer “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” wherever it’s applicable. If enough respondents do this, we may create a critical mass and force Doug Ford to concede that parents and other adults who are not educators are not qualified to determine the content of our schools’ curricula.

*This is technically the sixth question, but the ones preceding it cover demographic data. Question 6 is where the actual survey really begins.

**It opens with another bold declaration. There is no context, just a the “fact” that Ontario needs to improve student achievement in math. According to whom, I wonder? The standardized EQAO tests that Doug Ford wants to replace? A reference to some supporting documentation would be nice, because the latest Pan-Canadian Assessment Program survey shows that Ontario is actually statistically equal to the Canadian mean on math achievement, outpaced only by Quebec. The mean score of every other province is below Ontario’s. (PCAP, p. 36) Yes, Ontario’s scores remained stable rather than increasing between 2010 and 2016, but they are still in line with the Canadian mean. So our kids may not be struggling as much our government believes.



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