Analysis

Final piece of McGuinty's education legacy will be a very tough sell

The Globe and Mail

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sits with eight year old (L)Alicia Maameri and Oliver Graham while visiting a grade three class at Pierre Elliott Trudeau elementary school in Toronto, September 04, 2012 on the first day of school. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

It runs the risk of playing like satire.

As Ontario’s high-school teachers cancel extracurricular activities and elementary teachers threaten to walk off the job, Dalton McGuinty is trying to launch a discussion about how to better teach emotional intelligence in the province’s classrooms.

Provincial officials concede that the imminent release of “From Great to Excellent,” a discussion paper by Mr. McGuinty’s longtime education adviser Michael Fullan, is less than ideal. But the document, and the circumstances around it, will say a great deal about the self-styled “Education Premier” – about what mostly worked very well for him over the past decade, and why he’s not able to finish building a legacy the way he wanted.

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Mr. McGuinty is genuinely an education policy wonk, and a heady speech last week setting up Mr. Fullan’s report signalled that he hasn’t lost any enthusiasm for tackling what he considers the big questions.

“Let’s be honest about the challenges our kids are going to face,” he told the Learning Partnership Education Summit, before rhyming off a list that included growing the provincial economy, shrinking the gap between rich and poor, solving climate change, reducing global conflict and accelerating “scientific and technological breakthroughs” to improve “the human condition.”

To give students the tools they need, Mr. McGuinty said, the province will need to “go beyond high standards in reading, writing and arithmetic,” and “reach higher by fully embracing higher order skills,” such as creativity, critical thinking, empathy, adaptability and leadership.

The speech didn’t offer many answers about how that’s supposed to happen, and Mr. Fullan’s report will be similarly light on specifics, making broad recommendations such as better incorporating technology into classrooms, finding new ways to teach collaboration, and further shifting toward “inquiry-based” early learning.

If that all seems a little overly abstract, officials insist it’s the sort of thing needed to catch the attention of the education-policy apparatus and nudge it toward designing policies that can be implemented. A few of Ontario’s school boards are already experimenting with ways of encouraging the “focused innovation” that Mr. Fullan will call for, they say; the trick is to turn it into a more systemic effort.

Mr. McGuinty hoped to see that through himself. Now, the cruel reality is that even an interested successor could have rather a tough time taking it on. Because after his first two mandates created a climate that might allow this sort of agenda to take root, the turmoil of his abortive third one could prevent it from ever moving beyond lofty rhetoric.

It is too simplistic to suggest, as many have, that Mr. McGuinty’s perceived education success can be chalked up only to throwing buckets of money into the system. His outreach to Mr. Fullan and other international education gurus (many of whom had worked with Tony Blair’s government in the United Kingdom) played a big role in the improved literacy and numeracy test scores the Premier is fond of citing.

If the splashy spending didn’t fully account for the improvements, it certainly facilitated them. By giving teachers generous salary increases and smaller class sizes, the government was able to get co-operation with various changes it wanted them to take on, many of them around intervention with students at risk of slipping through the cracks.

Now, in a matter of months, that goodwill has evaporated. Blame teachers for resisting wage restraint at a time when the government is $14-billion in deficit; blame Mr. McGuinty’s Liberals for the gratuitously confrontational way they tried to cram new contracts down teachers’ throats, which the Premier himself has said he regrets. Either way, the atmosphere is now nearly as toxic as it was during the Mike Harris era.

At this point, Mr. McGuinty has to be worried about backsliding on what he’s achieved to date. Trying to get teachers to take a leadership role in adopting newly sophisticated teaching methods would be an almost laughable proposition until the relationship has been rebuilt.

That shift toward teaching kids to better engage with the world around them, in other words, will have to wait until the adults learn to play nice again.

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