For the Love of Learning: 10 years later
Commissioners reflect on their report released in 1995 and where we stand now
by Beatrice Schriever
Plus: Transition to Teaching - reports for year three
Integration of Special Needs
2004 Survey respondents differ on value of including students with special-education needs in regular classrooms
Manisha Bharti - then 19 years old - gets the credit.
In 1994, when she was a student at St. Lawrence High School in Cornwall and one of the commissioners for the Royal Commission on Learning, she came up with the title, For the Love of Learning.
It reflected not only the personalities of the commissioners - inquisitive, well read, argumentative and tough-minded - but also the starting point for their work.
"Nothing would satisfy us more," they wrote, "and contribute more to the education of our children and the well-being of our country, than if schools could play a greater role in instilling this love of learning into every student who goes through the system."
In 1993 five people who were virtual strangers to one another were appointed to undertake a vast review of the Ontario school system. Monique Bégin and Gerald Caplan were co-chairs; Avis Glaze, Dennis Murphy and Bharti were commissioners.
The Commission issued its report to wide acclaim 10 years ago next month.
From the start, the commissioners faced a formidable trial. As they travelled the province they were surprised to find concern, passion and grandstanding but no consensus on just about any aspect of education.
"The reason we were created was because the government didn't know what to do with education," Caplan recalls, "so why should the five of us know? Well, we had to find out, and in the end we produced a unanimous report."
The education scene was fraught. "We faced extraordinary external constraints," says Bégin. "Two weeks in [Premier] Bob Rae announced the Social Contract. It couldn't have been worse. Plus, we must have been the shortest and cheapest royal commission ever.
"Our report was an orphan."
The commissioners put together their ideas as one bold package. They loathed the idea that it might be picked apart piecemeal. They expected the minister of the day to, first of all, announce his support for the recommendations, and second, set up an implementation commission reporting directly to the Ontario Legislature. Meanwhile, the ministry was to articulate goals and directions for the following decade and immediately set the groundwork for institutional change. Et voilà.
Perhaps this was not realistic.
Bharti confesses to "20/20 hindsight" at the end of their tenure. "I question whether we should have taken a more active role in selling the recommendations. Once we submitted the report, then we no longer had any function."
Dennis Murphy is more sanguine. "I never had any illusions that any government was going to implement everything we suggested. I think we even talked in terms of the fact that they would cherry-pick."
Less than two weeks after the release, the NDP Minister of Education, Dave Cooke, responded. He announced new directions for the curriculum, mandatory school councils, teacher education reforms, testing of students, early literacy initiatives, school board reduction and more IT for schools.
All five commissioners are frustrated with the events that unfolded after the publication of their report. Monique Bégin, for one, suggests that Cooke had his own agenda, divorced from the proposals of the Royal Commission.
But Cooke is unapologetic. "To be honest, we were meeting with the co-chairs regularly to get a sense of their thinking. I knew that if this was to have legs, we had to get it moving."
"There was a new government in June," says Murphy, "and I'll tell you right now, this was not the child of the Harris government."
"I spent the first three years after we finished in a despairing crusade against the Mike Harris education changes," Caplan adds. "It was my view then and it is my view now that the second he won the election, our report was not just ignored but actively dissed by him."
Guy Giorno, then Premier Harris's education policy advisor, holds a different view. "My take is that there was wide consensus about the content of the report. No political party disagreed with it really," he recalls.
The Progressive Conservative party's election platform had been released as part of the Common Sense Revolution in May 1994. It focused on structural reform, such as reducing the number of school boards, reducing compensation for trustees and eliminating Grade 13. It paid less attention to the steps the party would take in schools to improve the quality of education.
"So that was the context," Giorno says. "Then, in 1995, the report comes out. The ministry was already working on the recommendations. What we began to do was pursue both reform tracks in parallel. [The report] addresses [areas] where the government platform was silent.
"Implementation became the subject of partisan disagreement."
Driving the momentum to reform
The Royal Commission on Learning identified four key initiatives to turn the vast educational enterprise around - early childhood education, new school-community alliances, information technology and the professionalization of teaching. They called them engines of change.
Altogether they made 167 recommendations. Glaze, the only commissioner still employed in the school system, notes that about 40 have been addressed, in whole or in part. They include
"Being in the system, I've seen some of the benefits of the report. I think things will be even better if we complete those key initiatives," says Glaze.
Early childhood education
Nowhere is the commissioners' disillusion more palpable than in the area of early childhood education, one of the four engines of change.
Convinced by the research on preschoolers, they recommended that all school boards provide early childhood education programs for children between three and five years of age whose parents chose to enrol them.
"I will never forget the then premier [Harris] saying it was the stupidest idea he'd ever heard," remembers Glaze. "He used the word 'stupidest.'"
Programs for toddlers were particularly dear to Monique Bégin, a former Minister of Health and Welfare familiar with the maternelles system of day care in France. "Not only was [Harris] against scientific evidence but he damaged what already existed [by cutting kindergarten and JK programs]. That's the future generation we are talking about. I find that a crime."
The report recommended that the extension of schooling to three-year-olds be tied to the elimination of the final year of high school, for financial as well as educational reasons. "It was one of my biggest disappointments that those didn't go together," says Bharti. "Education could start earlier and be a lot more rigorous from the beginning."
This engine - the subject of Recommendation No. 1 - never even turned over.
Dave Cooke argues that "elimination of Grade 13 saved 200 to 250 million dollars. Establishment of a proper, universally available program for three-year-olds and full-day JK would have been about two billion [dollars]."
He pauses. "Mind you, the fact that Arkansas has compulsory schooling at age five and a program for three- and four-year olds sort of puts this in context." It's not that Arkansas is a particularly wealthy state. Somehow they have made this a priority.
Another engine of change, a new alliance between schools and their communities, is sputtering.
If schools are foremost about learning, then teachers cannot also be social workers, psychologists, parent advisors, cultural animators, hygienists and you name it. They should focus on being excellent teachers, the commissioners thought, and others, from outside schools, must give a hand.
The Commission proposed that people other than certified teachers be instructors in schools. They wanted school-community councils to take on important, non-academic roles.
"So what happened?" asks Murphy rhetorically. "Parent groups started calling it a parent council. The government came along and called it a school council. The concept [we wanted] is just not there - not at the level of the ministry or educators generally.
"I can remember talking to groups of principals. And I could see I was going to get five years for talking to myself when I got into community education. I mean I could just see them close like that" - he gestures with his hand - "'we don't need anybody in our schools'. So I was hugely disappointed."
Glaze differs. As a former superintendent and director of education, she sees schools becoming more permeable to community influence. "We have had to push the boundaries but I have seen the change over the last five years as principals become more open. So if it's coming from the top, it can happen." She is optimistic.
Working in the mid-1990s, the commissioners were surprised by the "remarkable potential" of information technology for revolutionizing teaching and learning. They met countless kids who were not merely adept, but seemed to learn more outside school than they did inside.
So incorporating IT into curricula and schools became a further engine of change.
"It was the sexiest of the four," says Bégin. "We felt that IT could help schools in poor areas and francophone schools improve by jumps, instead of by small steps."
Ten years later, students cope with a patchwork of technology and limited distance learning. The Commission's plea for provincial co-ordination was not successful.
The single most important key to improvement in the quality of Ontario schools was the professionalization and continuing development of its teachers. So the fourth engine of change pushed teachers' professionalism.
"Teachers are our heroes," the commissioners wrote in For the Love of Learning.
They still are. "I am a teacher, so I am biased!" laughs Bégin. "But the five of us shared that view. It's a moral view. But it's also plain good judgement if you want to effect social change to work with the key partners and not against them."
The commissioners wanted teachers to have more autonomy but be more accountable, to have more responsibility but get better support. To this end they recommended two-year pre-service programs and longer internships; mandatory PD; re-certification every five years; and the creation of the Ontario College of Teachers as the regulatory body. Only the last of these is in effect.
They support the College, although Bégin feels it was created in a "disciplinarian and punitive spirit" she and her colleagues did not intend. "Deep bitterness has developed. I wonder how that is being passed on to the new teachers starting in the profession."
They take a dim view of the ongoing subversion of the College by some groups. Murphy is straightforward. "We wanted the educators in this province to govern this institution. We did not want the teacher associations to govern the College."
"The teachers' federations chose not to accept [our report]. They were not receptive to many of our recommendations. Anything that spoke of accountability, they were very uneasy with," Murphy remembers.
Caplan goes further. "Let me say that one of my mistakes was underestimating the knee-jerk negativism of the [federations]. I didn't expect them to be quite as preposterous as they were. Nothing that impinged on their world at all was acceptable to them. Their public stance was just deplorable, and I hadn't anticipated that."
Many of the commissioners' ideas revolved around the concept of accountability, which was a loaded word ten years ago. At hearings across Ontario they were told repeatedly that the school system no longer seemed to be responsible to the community. They concluded that this was a major cause of public disaffection and were scandalized that some would debate what they thought to be a fairly fundamental proposition - that a publicly funded system needs to be accountable.
Dave Cooke says those days are over and credits the Commission. "For many years people talked about accountability, but there were camps. Some groups were opposed to it, and the Royal Commission helped us get over that hurdle. By and large the debate was over.
"The Commission had a positive impact because there was much more focus on outcomes - though I don't like that term - and on the system's successes and weaknesses. Their report was practical, not ideological."
Giorno, the former Conservative policy advisor, says that even now the report is valuable. "It's still relevant in two ways. There are specific recommendations that haven't been implemented. But more important is the thrust of accountability, parental involvement and the empowerment of teachers and principals. Schools are really community institutions, and education is a social good."
Looking back to go forward
In January 1995 when the commissioners held the news conference to hand over their magnum opus, Gerard Kennedy was running a food bank in a nearby neighbourhood. Today, he sits in the corner office on the 22nd floor of the Mowat Block at Queen's Park.
"There's no question that it influenced [Liberal education policy] in the 1995 election," he says. "Subsequently our policies were more a reaction against the then government's implementation. There wasn't a big constituency staying on top of the recommendations."
Today, he cites For the Love of Learning as a guiding influence. "I have a healthy regard for the report," he says. In particular, he is looking at the sections on the early years and on IT.
But he warns, "Education is very insular. The Commission missed the disconnect with the public. We have to reconnect the public with the system because we need popular support for public investment.
"There's lots of work to be done by boards and government and principals and schools. Despite the smoke, the talk, the furor, the most difficult changes are still ahead of us. We [in the government] want to take the long view, not be the latest experimenters."
Ten years on and disenchantment notwithstanding, the commissioners are proud of their report. It is quoted by educators, parents and the news media. Observers who normally agree on nothing agree that it is still relevant.
"We don't say go back, as a rule, to look into the future," says Glaze. "But it is still valid. I think it's an excellent report."
These commissioners hope that in 2005 For the Love of Learning will be an orphan no longer.
Imagine a group of kids who were born around the time that this report came out. How would things be different for them than it was for students 10 years ago?
Monique Bégin: Well, it depends on their individual teacher. Two or three years ago I had to collect all the little soaps at conferences and hotels for a friend of mine who is a teacher. The budget for paper towels and soap was cut. Can you believe it? That teacher is fantastic. She drafts all her family and friends to help her. The system doesn't support her as much now as then.
Dave Cooke: There's no doubt the curriculum is clearer and more focused. Test results have given schools and boards data they can use to attack problems. In many boards in Ontario - it's hard for Toronto to realize this - the resources became significantly better.
Guy Giorno: The most important change of all is that if you're in a French-language or a Catholic school you have equal funding for the first time since Confederation. At the same time, it's been 10 years in an environment where there's been a lot of change and conflict. Students are not unaware. It probably had an impact on their classrooms. That's unfortunate.
Avis Glaze: They're learning more much earlier because of the compression of the curriculum. People were complaining, "It's too hard." But now people are seeing the rigour of what's happening in each grade.
Gerard Kennedy: People have more concerns now. There have been gaps in extra-curricular activities, and many people feel education has become less well rounded because of the loss of resources. There was more optimism in 1995.
Dennis Murphy: Smaller classrooms to begin with, and a lot more technology - though that would have changed with or without us.
Manisha Bharti is a graduate student doing a joint Master's Degree in Public Health and Business Administration at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.
Gerald Caplan is an international consultant based in Richmond Hill and working in Africa.
Avis Glaze is Chief Student Achievement Officer of Ontario and is responsible for setting up a new literacy secretariat in the Ministry of Education in Toronto.
Dennis Murphy is a retired Roman Catholic priest in Callander and the chaplain of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Sault Ste. Marie.
Monique Bégin is Emeritus Professor in the School of Management at the University of Ottawa.