Ontario’s ‘back to basics’ push in education: Here’s what you need to know

Premier Doug Ford’s government is pushing Ontario schools to focus on what it calls “getting back to the basics of education.”

The 2023-24 school year brings fresh momentum to that push from Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce.   

The government is now armed with new powers to set provincial priorities for student achievement, and school boards face new requirements to report publicly on their progress. 

Here are some highlights:

Student achievement plans 

Each school board is required to post what’s called its Student Achievement Plan, a document that lays out how the board intends to work on the education priorities laid out by the government.

Those stated priorities are:

  • Core academic skills, focusing on reading, writing and math. 
  • Preparing students for future success, focusing on providing students with what the government calls “the skills needed to succeed in life.” 
  • Student engagement and well-being, focusing on ensuring a safe and supportive learning environment. 
Two children ride their bikes past the sign for D.A. Morrison Middle School
The Ford government’s latest changes to the Ontario education system take effect for the 2023-24 school year. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Boards are also required to report metrics related to the government’s priorities. Among the statistics that boards must post publicly are: 

  • The percentage of students meeting the standards in the province’s standardized tests, administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).
  • Graduation rates and credit accumulation.
  • The percentage of students participating in job skills programs.
  • Absence, suspension and expulsion rates.

“We have no issue with being transparent about what happens in our schools because we know that we have one of the best public education systems in this world,” said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards Association, in an interview.

Since 2020, the Ford government has rolled out a new math curriculum and a new science curriculum for Grades 1 through 8. Revisions to the elementary language curriculum are in place for September, including compulsory instruction in cursive writing for the first time in a generation.   

The government is also moving to allow students to go into full-time apprenticeship programs in the skilled trades in Grade 11. 

A female teacher walks past empty desks in a classroom.
The Ford government has made changes to allow education students to work as supply teachers before finishing their training. It’s a shift from Ontario’s previous rules where teachers-in-training could only be in the classroom under the direct supervision of a qualified teacher. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

New rules on professional development days 

What many parents think of as professional development days — when there’s no school for students, but teachers and administrators are at work — are officially called professional activity days in Ontario.

There are seven PA days over the course of Ontario’s school year. The Ministry of Education mandates that three of these PA days must be focused on the province’s education priorities, including literacy, math, curriculum implementation and student well-being. School boards have flexibility to decide on the focus for the other days. 

Under the Ford government’s new rules for the 2023-24 school year, boards must report publicly the “topics, content, activities, guest speakers, sponsoring organizations, and published resources” for each PA day at least 14 days before it takes place. 

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, supports the PA days initiative. 

“Professional development days should be meaningful and should help to allow people working in the classroom to meet the needs of the students,” Littlewood said in an interview. “If parents want to see what’s happening, I think they should have access to that information.” 

Lecce: Schools need to emphasize, strengthen ‘skills that matter to parents’

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce tabled a bill Monday designed to strengthen “back to basics” learning. The actual priorities for school boards will be set out by the government in regulations after the legislation passes, but officials say they will focus on student achievement in key areas such as reading, writing and math.

Teachers in training as supply teachers

The Ford government has also made changes to allow education students to work as supply teachers before finishing their training. 

It’s a shift from Ontario’s previous rules where teachers in training could only be in the classroom under the direct supervision of a qualified teacher. 

Littlewood is skeptical of the plan. “In front of the classroom on your own should not happen while you are still in teachers’ college,” she said in an interview. “You should be with another teacher who’s going to be your mentor or your guide.” 

Lecce was not available for an interview on Monday.

“We are following through on our commitment to parents through new measures that will better refocus school boards on academic achievement and the development of life and job skills,” he said in a statement about the new rules.