Ontario education: Monopoly money, part two | Marvin Zuker

By Marvin Zuker

Law360 Canada (December 2, 2022, 1:12 PM EST) --
Marvin Zuker
While the precise impact of the pandemic on student education may never be known, differences in students’ experiences with schooling during the pandemic, caused a wide variation in student academic progress.

Systemic inequities that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated learning gaps for students and caused a disproportionate impact on the health outcomes, economic well-being and educational opportunities in communities of predominant minorities and communities with low incomes. The added stress for children in these communities heightened the need for ongoing academic support. The pandemic may have been particularly harmful by reducing learning opportunities for English learners and students living with disabilities. The Ontario Ministry of Education’s (MOE) $250 is a terrible joke.

Some suggest a need to backfill content students may have missed while out of the classroom, also known as remediation. Students benefit more from brief “just-in-time” review, rather than extended coverage of previous grades’ content or remediation programs that supplant regular instruction. We should adopt a “growth over remediation” stance when reviewing assessment results with a focus on additional support to advance students toward grade-level expectations, rather than emphasizing missed skills (through grade retention or over-remediation). We should also be assessing student needs holistically, including social and emotional well-being, something, severely lacking for our children.

We have done little if anything to highlight certain student groups, the challenges they faced before the pandemic and the additional challenges they faced due to the pandemic. What are the MOE’s priorities that speak both to transforming learning and to closing opportunity and achievement gaps?

Priorities include assessing student needs and expanding learning time.

Children are in the midst of a mental health crisis, struggling with anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels, according to the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book. Mental health is just as important as physical health in a child’s ability to thrive. Our children and youth have suffered trauma and tremendous loss over the past two and ahalf years.

Death from the novel coronavirus, including children, and hundreds of children who have lost a parent or primary caregiver. And even as they experience COVID-era mental health challenges, many children have contended with conditions that made their life harder well before 2020.

Racial and ethnic disparities contribute to disproportionately troubling mental health and wellness conditions among children of colour. Economic uncertainty has had an outsized effect on children and families experiencing financial challenges, leading to increased anxiety and stress for many. Children in povery, whose parents lack secure employment and children in households with high housing cost burdens feel the weight of their family’s economic stress.

Educational equity for student subgroups that were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic has never received the priority it deserves. Students with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) faced significant impacts since many had limited or no access to services that were legally mandated under their IEPs.

Strategies do exist to help students with disabilities. We should be able to provide an additional school year to students who receive special education and related services who reach majority during the 2021-22 year. Instead, we constantly play “the blame game,” blaming teachers and teacher unions as THE cause of the problems in education, whatever they might be.

Another issue the MOE might/should address, be it literally or otherwise, is try — yes, try — to even the playing field. We could start with passing legislation that begins with mandatory education at the age 4 in Ontario, not age 6. How difficult is that? Think about it. And you would not have to use the notwithstanding clause in the Charter.

Third-graders who are not reading at grade level are among the most vulnerable to drop out of school later in their education.

A long-term study in 2019 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who were not proficient in reading by the end of third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers. In fact, 88 per cent of students who failed to earn a high school diploma were struggling readers in third grade.

Third grade is the final year children are learning to read, after which they are “reading to learn.” If they are not proficient readers when they begin fourth grade, as much as half of the curriculum they will be taught may be incomprehensible.

Instructional programming and services for teaching reading should be focused on areas such as phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency including oral skills and reading comprehension, screening students for certain reading difficulties, including dyslexia.

What reports exist in Ontario on data specific to the language and literacy development of children who are deaf or hard of hearing from birth to age 5 and on any language developmental milestones?

Math for example is simply more sensitive to schooling. You really need teachers to teach math. Parents and the community are more comfortable helping students with reading.

What the MOE should immediately do, as in NOW, is recruit hundreds of college students or more to tutor in all schools and assist in creating community after-school programs. But there are not enough tutors to meet the demand.

They really have a face

Behind every test result is a face, and if we don’t see who that face is, we are missing the boat. Because there is not a one-size-fits-all for all our children. There’s not a one-size-fits-all for students with disabilities. You have got to drill down to that individual child. Teachers and leaders need to be gathering around tables now, identifying children that are in need of service.

What are the MOE’s timelines and timelines to accomplish what they tell us?

Unless we determine ways to close the gaps, and unless we use our resources to effectively catch up over the next couple of years, there will be dramatic consequences for our children down the road.

Monopoly money will not pass GO. It may well take several years to catch up elementary students from the disruption, and potentially much more time for secondary students.

Independent, large-scale testing groups in the U.S. such as NWEA and Amplify have sounded the alarm about learning loss. The fourth- and eighth-graders participating in National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022 would have been in second and sixth grades, respectively, when the pandemic began, and schools faced extended and widespread closures. Did test results prior to the pandemic not reflect an education system that was on the right track? No. The pandemic simply made it worse. It took poor performance and dropped it down even further.

More than 50 per cent of the U.S. schools have reported in a separate National Center for Education Statistics study about using intensive — not the $200 variety — high-dosage tutoring to help students recover lost academic ground. Only 25 per cent of eighth-graders and 34 per cent of fourth-graders in 2022 reported they received tutoring in English/language arts at least once a week.

What percentage of children in Ontario will get tutors for $200?

The sooner we do more systemic interventions, the better off our children will be.

 This is the second instalment in of a four-part series. Part one: Ontario education: Monopoly money.

Marvin Zuker was a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, where he presided over the small claims, family and criminal courts from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. He is associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, where he teaches education law. Zuker is the author and co-author of many books and publications, including The Law is Not for Women and The Law is (Not) for Kids.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, 
The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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