Photo credit: Twitter/Stephen Lecce
Cabinet ministers are frequently shuffled into different portfolios according to the changing political priorities of the day. It is a rare gift to be given a long enough tenure in one portfolio to actually develop and execute on a reform agenda.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce has been given such a gift. And despite his original reluctance to stay in the job before the last election – sitting Education Ministers are often successfully targeted by teacher unions during campaigns – he is seizing the opportunity with gusto.
Just before the Ontario Legislature’s summer break, the government passed Bill 98, The Better Schools and Student Outcomes Act. Months in the planning, it contains a long list of needed reforms, scheduled for implementation this fall.
It sets out clear, common-sense objectives for school boards, requiring them to focus on the basic skills students need to succeed – literacy and numeracy. It will also ensure more accountability and transparency for parents.
Some may ask, well isn’t that what school boards are supposed to do? But parents will welcome the new clarity given the shenanigans some school boards seem to be up to these days, lacklustre student performance results, and the lingering impact of COVID-caused school shutdowns.
The new law enables the Minister to actually set clear priorities for student achievement, require school boards to report on how they are doing and develop plans if they are not achieving an acceptable level of performance. It also requires that boards update parents on progress, making it easier for them to determine how their child is doing.
The new reporting requirements will include data on the percentage of students participating in job skills’ programs, attendance rates and the rates of students meeting provincial standards.
Another new and welcome initiative is the requirement that boards publicly report both the substance and the providers of the professional development curriculum for teachers.
A lot of public cynicism has grown up over the number and contents of such days. This new requirement should help ensure that the time is being used for what it was intended – to give teachers more and better tools to constantly improve their own performance in the classroom.
Teacher unions and principals frequently complain about the lack of good professional development to help their members cope with the increasing challenges in today’s classrooms. Hopefully, this transparency should help both teachers and parents assess the adequacy of such opportunities.
To help school boards meet the new law’s expectations, the government is hiring nearly 2,000 additional front-line educators, working with the Ontario College of Teachers to streamline the accreditation of new teachers and also allowing student teachers to work in classrooms as part of their training and to support existing teachers.
The Minister is also doing more to support students’ mental health needs, a growing priority after the impact of COVID. And there will be changes to the disciplinary process at the College to ensure more consistency, efficiency, and effectiveness.
There will also be more funding, the most that has ever been invested in the education system.
There are many more requirements in the new law, all designed to keep the education system focused on its main task – preparing students for success in the workplace.
The Minister must now meet his next major challenge – finalizing negotiations with the teacher unions who have been without a contract for a year. If he can accomplish that without more disruption in the classroom, he will be well-situated to deliver on the promise of the new law.
Expectations will be high. Parents, taxpayers, employers, teachers, and students themselves, hold the provincial Minister of Education accountable for the success of our education system.
He now has more new tools to ensure the job is being done and he has the time in the portfolio to see it through.
Janet Ecker is a former Ontario Finance Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Community and Social Services and Government House Leader in the governments of Premier Mike Harris and Premier Ernie Eves. After her political career, she served as the founding CEO of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, a public-private partnership dedicated to building Toronto region into an international financial centre. She currently sits on a number of corporate and non-profit boards, agencies and advisory committees.
Ms. Ecker received the Order of Canada for her public service contributions and was recognized as one of the “Most Influential People in the World’s Financial Centres” by Financial Centres International. She also received a “Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award” from the Women’s Executive Network and the Richard Ivey School of Business, among other awards. She is also one of the founders of Equal Voice, a national, multi-partisan organization working to elect more women.