Ford Nation again? Never!

Even though Nova Scotia has been home for over 40 years, and I’m presently living in the UK, hearing the news that Doug Ford has become the leading contender to be the next premier of Ontario has shaken me to the core. You see, I grew up in Ottawa, and received most of my formal education there. And my children, although mostly born and brought up in NS, have all left for greener pastures, and I now have 3 daughters and 4 grandchildren living in Ontario. One daughter lived through the nightmare of Rob Ford’s tenure as mayor of Toronto, (and I vicariously through her). I shudder with horror at the idea that his brother/sidekick can do to our largest province what the duo did to Toronto. In particular, having Doug oversee the education system that my 4 young grandchildren will be participating in fills me with fear for the future.

I have written elsewhere about the damage that Mike Harris, the last conservative premier of Ontario, did to education His neoliberal agenda trampled on the collective bargaining rights of teachers, upset the collegial, collaborative way educators interacted, and radically changed the way children are taught.

One of the most harmful things Harris did was bring in universal, high stakes standardized testing throughout the school years. I have written extensively about how high stakes testing creates a “teaching to the test” system where true learning becomes secondary to test scores. But Doug Ford makes Mike Harris look good – at least Harris had a very short stint as a teacher. Doug Ford’s biggest achievement in education was finishing high school, where he seems to have spent most of his time gaining practical business experience running a profitable hash dealing operation.  His main education platform consists of ditching the progressive and respectful sex education curriculum introduced by the Wynne government.

I have to admit I was in despair, feeling like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion from afar, as the conservatives capitalized on the public’s desire for change. That changed when I read the latest polls and found that the NDP has moved into second place ahead of the Liberals and only 10 points behind the Conservatives. Suddenly there is hope, and when I read the NDP platform on education, I was immensely cheered. One of Andrea Horwath’s promises is to end standardized testing. “Working collaboratively with educators, we’ll determine how random sampling could support spotting early trends and deciding where we should focus on improvement, without driving teachers to “teach to the test.” That way we can leave individual assessment to the teachers’ professional judgement — they know their students best. We estimate this will save $40 million, which we will reinvest in the classroom.” Other items in the education section are “continuing the curriculum review currently underway”, capping kindergarten classes at 26, a “moratorium on school closures until the provincial funding formula is fixed”, and increasing affordable childcare spaces.

Tuesday’s Globe and Mail reports that Ford has fleshed out his platform a little, adding proposals to scrap “discovery” math and to regulate free speech on campuses – both guaranteed dog-whistle  appeals to his base. “Free speech on campus” is code for the idea that groups looking for platforms to perpetuate misogyny, racism, and other dark elements in society should be able to find them on campus.  The discovery math debate dates from recent controversies about math scores in grade 6. The Wynne government has injected money, training and experts to help teachers improve their math teaching; Ford’s solution would be to drop all the gains in math pedagogy of the last few decades designed to improve children’s understanding and problem-solving abilities, and send math teaching back to the “good old days” – i.e. rote learning. (See Chapter 3, Best School in the World)

He has also promised to “improve” standardized testing – how? By making it more like South Korea’s, where kids have to study all hours of the day, and where the youth suicide rate is the highest in the world? Or perhaps he wants to emulate the dismal results of the USA where the “opt-out of tests” movement is gaining steam, and where teachers are so frustrated that they are staging illegal strikes and walkouts over their poor pay and working conditions (including testing)?

I have a lot of respect for Kathleen Wynne. She inherited a huge mess from the previous Liberal government, and she has spearheaded some excellent educational initiatives, including restoring teachers’ bargaining rights and implementing the aforementioned sex ed curriculum. However, the writing is on the wall: life has become much less affordable under the Liberals’ tenure and Ontarians are ready for a change. Andrea Horwath’s detailed, costed platform includes making childcare and hydro more affordable and converting student loans into grants, as well as addressing the poverty issues that affect children’s ability to do well in school. I see the NDP as the only way to prevent  Doug Ford’s victory and a descent backwards into the kind of nastiness we see emanating from south of the border.

Doug Ford, like Donald Trump, claims while he is campaigning that he will “stand up for the little guy” – and we already know how little that matters for Trump now he is in office. For sure, Doug Ford is not “standing up “ for kids – and the damage he can do to their education will last a lifetime.  Andrea Horwath and the Ontario NDP have a positive message that everyone should listen to.

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Molly Hurd’s perspectives on education have been developed out of her wide variety of teaching experiences in northern Quebec, rural Nova Scotia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Britain. She was also a teacher and head teacher at Halifax Independent School for twenty years. She believes passionately that keeping children’s natural love of learning alive throughout their school years is one of the very best things a school can do for its students. She is the author of “Best School in the World: How students, teachers and parents have created a model that can transform Canada’s public schools” published by Formac Publishing in 2017.

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