Bill 160: The
Education Improvement Act
To Trevor Connell, President of Central West Ontario Secondary School Students' Association, it's "a step in the wrong direction. With a school as diverse as Turner Fenton, one can only hope that the variety of courses offered will not be eliminated because of lack of funding or teacher resources," he says. To even the most politically ignorant and apathetic, it's a highly controversial topic that is likely to change the lives of students, parents and teachers across Ontario. This bill, primarily focused on the organization of schools, and coupled with a corresponding curriculum reform package, comes at the same time as the looming threats of $600 million in additional cuts. This three-pronged offensive has left many shaken about the way education in Ontario may change.
Few, however, understand the details of the bill and a lot of misinformation has been circulating throughout the province. The only thing agreed upon by members of the public on either side of the issue is that it is deserving of our attention and understanding. Says Connell, "It is important for the students of Ontario to formulate their own opinions. We will only get though this if everyone works together." Some of this problem stems from the fact that even to the most informed insiders, the final extent of the bill and its amendments are unclear. Certainly whether or not the bill passes its final reading unscathed will determine the extent of its effect upon students and the rest.
While Bill 160 does not deal directly with what is taught, a curriculum reform package is expected to be released to accompany and accommodate it. Teachers largely believe that the biggest changes will come in course funding. Recently-hired Turner Fenton Vice Principal Carol Chapman, talks of the potential loss of resources for certain courses, notably those with expensive equipment such as Journalism, Physical Education and the Arts. Extracurricular activities such as school teams, clubs, and arts productions could be curtailed since teachers would be too busy to sponsor them. Senior advanced and special education classes, often with lower enrollment, may also be hit hard with the new average of twenty-two students per class. While large classes may see their student enrollment reduced, thereby creating more classes in areas like English, the small ones could be cancelled so that the system would be balanced.
Unfortunately, extracurricular activities could also be threatened, according to Drama Department Head, Steve Russell. Programmes run outside of school hours are what make school worthwhile for many students. With more classes to teach and less time to plan, however, Russell worries that many teachers may either stop sponsoring extracurricular events, or burn themselves out trying to do it all. He is also very upset about the potential for further cuts. "We've squeezed every ounce we can out of the system," he claims. Russell believes that the Ontario government should be proud of spending more on the future of its children than any other province.
Head of Boys Phys Ed, Cheyenne Ashukian, does not see Bill 160 significantly altering the many extracurricular programmes the department offers. "People will have to make choices," he says. He also notes, however, that the responsibility of coaching teams will ultimately remain up to the individual teachers, who will hopefully continue to participate. Ashukian says that rumours of teachers being forced to supervise extracurricular activities are false. Teachers will evolve with the changes and learn to cope, which will hopefully allow the relationship between staff and students to remain the same.
Doug Stroud, local union representative and Head of Turner Fenton's History Department, sees a radically changed future for education if the bill passes. He says that there would be less exchange of information between teachers and students during school hours, "because the time just isn't there." This is because Bill 160 states that all secondary school teachers must be in the classroom seven out of eight periods a year. The elimination of planning and administration periods could create numerous communication difficulties within the school. For instance, many bus students who cannot come after or before classes may not be able to talk to their teachers outside of the 76-minute class. According to Stroud, the bill "is not about curriculum, not about exams, it's about power and control."
The government has also raised the possibility of employing non-certified professionals to help out teachers in the classroom. For example, a professional musician may be hired to aid a music teacher, or an athlete to help in Phys Ed. Would this type of support be productive in the long run? It is impossible to tell, simply because of the uncertainty involved at this point. Stroud claims that while many professionals may have expertise in their area, it does not necessarily mean that they have teaching skills.
Stroud thinks that the resulting changes in curriculum would revert the teaching style back to that of the early 1960s. Students' options for courses could be limited, and within each course there would be the possibility of greater standardization and less freedom for individual teachers. A greater number of courses may become compulsory, especially in math, science and business areas. According to Stroud, the focus on analytical skills could also be lessened in favour of the older "learn facts and regurgitate" system. Certainly no departments would be hit harder by the proposed changes than options such as Art, Drama and Phys Ed. Susan Hughes, Head of the Visual Arts Department, feels that virtually any "course that is expensive to run may have to be cut." No doubt this would include the technology and equipment-based courses such as photography and digital imaging. She also sees the potential 22-student average as a barrier to the Visual Art OAC, which has two classes this year and an enrollment of forty. If one class were eliminated, she doesn't "know what the other students will do, or who will decide which students get to take the course and which don't."
The future of TFC's Drama programme under Bill 160 is equally uncertain. Russell expresses concern for the future of his students, as well as for the diversity of courses offered. He believes that the effects of removing any more money from the school system would make school much less interesting from a student's point of view. "Everything will be kind of bland," he warns. The Drama Department itself is in danger of losing courses and teachers if the bill passes, beacuse of monetary concerns and low enrollment rates. Unique courses such as The Art of Television, Communications Technology, and Theatre in the Community may become unavailable.
The Head of the Mathematics department is also somewhat pessimistic in her outlook. Miriam Stanford thinks that "students' life at school and education will suffer," if Bill 160 becomes law. She estimates that, as a Department Head, her personal teaching load will increase by 75%, and since everyone's time will be at a premium, the overall teaching quality could suffer. Stanford thinks that the greatest effect will be that fewer staff will be covering more classes. She thinks that the only possible product of such a situation is a deterioration in education quality. "Everyone is going to have working conditions changed," says Stanford, "and students will notice the consequences." English Department Head, Arlene Miller, sees a return to the old "make or break" style of education with fewer writing or creative assignments. She is also worried that students may not receive the individual attention they require from overworked staff. Nevertheless, Miller remains positive about students' future, because she believes that the tenacity of individual teachers will survive. "One thing about teachers," she adds, "is that they are very good at making things work."
In addition, there is the future of school administrations. Chapman says that if Bill 160 passes "the position of Principal and Vice Principal would no longer be one of instructional leader." The bill would offer all holders of such titles a choice: leave the teachers' federation and become "business managers", or give up their present positions and return to the classroom. A good many may choose the latter, meaning that an influx of non-teachers from the private sector could begin to fill these "management" jobs. The effect, says Chapman, is that teachers and their administration may "no longer be a team," and could be in opposition regarding key issues.
Will the quality of education available to students suffer, or can individual teachers shield the students from the changes? In any event, the way in which the people of Ontario learn will never be the same again. "I just don't see how we're going to make this work," says Stanford. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that Bill 160 is not law yet, and all potential changes are still uncertain. In the end, as Ashukian says, "time will tell."