When Education 'Reform' Flunks Big Time ONTARIO'S ILLITERATE KIDS

Article excerpt

Here's how Maureen Somers became the prototype "angry parent" a few years ago.

She heard many students in her son's third-grade class could not read. She battled officials in the rural Ontario school to conduct a literacy test, and, sure enough, 12 of 21 of the children could not read - including her son.

"These children were being passed from grade to grade, years behind in their reading ability. They couldn't spell, they couldn't print. You begin to wonder ... if it was the school," she says. Ms. Somers and many others in Canada's richest and most populous province are angry at what may be one of the biggest flops in educational reform in North America. The target for their ire: the use of "child-centered learning," especially the lack of tests to make sure this "progressive" reform actually gets kids to learn the three R's. While many schools in the United States and Britain have dropped the idea of letting a child rather than the teacher set the course for learning, Ontario has stuck with it, perhaps setting back a generation and damaging Ontario's economy. Slowly, however, limited testing is returning. "Ontario's education bureaucracy still marches to the tune of the child-centered drummer, even though this tune is no longer popular with the public and is abandoned almost everywhere else in the world," says Dennis Raphael, a former Ontario Ministry of Education official, and now a critic. Despite sniping from parents groups, rebel educators, and a provincial government eager to slash its $10-billion education budget, Ontario's 2-million-student juggernaut keeps rolling along with few changes to make it accountable for what kids learn, critics charge. And because Ontario is Canada's economic engine, the cost to the economy of functional illiteracy and poor numeracy is a danger, observers say. Under the child-centered approach, each child is primarily responsible for the learning process. Children learn from what truly interests them - not what is pumped into them. This approach promotes real learning and a positive self-image, advocates say, compared with the "dark days" of 1950s education when children were drilled endlessly with rote memorization of math and grammar. "Child-centered education is absolutely essential if we are going to look at every child as an individual and meet their needs," says Annabelle Goodman, principal of the Brown Public School, a Toronto elementary school with 500 pupils. "It's the teacher's responsibility to adapt and modify the program because every child is in a different place." But many others disagree. "What the philosophy had done to a whole generation of students in this province is to make them look smart and be dumb - to feel good and do badly," says Somers, who lives in Bailieboro. Standardized testing dumped Ontario is hardly unique in having adopted this "progressive" philosophy. The system was popularized by California in the 1960s and widely copied by Ontario and other states and provinces across North America. But the province is highly unusual in being possibly the most zealous disciple of child-centered learning in the world. Since the approach eschews standardized testing, all provincially mandated standardized testing of students was dropped in 1974 - and specific curriculum requirements soon after. The result - even though Ontario spends more per student on education than many other countries ($4,500 in 1990) - has been a long, nearly unbroken slide in literacy, math, and science scores. In 1982, Ontario and British Columbia participated in the Second International Mathematics Study, an international comparison of math skills among Grade 8, 12, and 13 students. Then, Ontario Grade 8 students knew less math than those in B.C. By 1991, another international standardized test - the IAEP - found that 13-year-olds from Ontario knew less math than all other provinces. Ontario was 10 percent lower than the Canadian average. …