"Excellence For All"
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 29 Jan 2004, p. 196-208
Kennedy, The Hon. Gerard, Speaker
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Item Type
Where Ontario is going in education. A unique opportunity to do education right. A record amount of public interest. The enivronment of the knowledge economy and what that means for us. Cohesion in education. The Crossroads in education in Ontario. The choice ahead of us. The private school tax credit and its cancellation. The program "Excellence For All" and what the government means by it. Desired outcomes. A policy of respect for trustees, principals, teachers and support staff. Convening an education partnership table. Changing from conflict to cooepration. Some details of the "Excellence For All" programme. The record number of high school students at risk. Stress and strain in the kids. What is needed. What we can be doing. Some concluding remarks.
Date of Original
29 Jan 2004
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The Hon. Gerard Kennedy Minister of Education, Province of Ontario
Chairman: John C. Koopman
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Heather Ferguson, Director, Development and Alumni Relations, Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Thuva Thayaparan, Grade 11 Student. Stephen Leacock Collegiate Institute; The Most Reverend Terence E. Finlay, Archbishop of The Diocese of Toronto and Honorary Chaplain, The Empire Club of Canada; Michael Peters, Grade 12 Student, North Toronto Collegiate Institute; Marni Schecter, Director of Development, The Pathways to Education Program; Sue Herbert, Deputy Minister of Education, Government of Ontario; Charles S. Coffey, Executive Vice-President, Government and Community Affairs, RBC Financial Group and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Sharon Rudy, Vice-President, Spencer Stuart and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Harold Braithwaite, Former Director of Education, Peel District School Board; Dr. Avis Glaze, Director of Education, Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board; Gerri Gershon, President, Ontario Public School Boards' Association; and Heather MacTaggart, Executive Director, Classroom Connections.

Introduction by John Koopman

Your Grace, Reverend Sir, Your Honour, past presidents, members and guests of the Empire Club of Canada:

It is great to have an activist of Scottish descent here at the Empire Club of Canada fn our 101st year.

One hundred and one years ago, it was a Torontonian activist of Irish descent who was regularly in the public eye. Mother Jones was raised in Toronto, the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her real name was Mary Harris and she studied at the Toronto Normal School. If not for a certificate attesting to her good moral character from the priests at St. Michael's Cathedral, just a few blocks from here, she might never have moved to the United States and eventually help found the Wobblies (The Industrial Workers of the World).

Mother Jones was deeply interested in universal school access. In 1903 at the ripe age of 73, Mother Jones went to Kensington, Pennsylvania, where she documented 10,000 children under 15 years of age who were working full-time. In a single block in that town, she documented 22 children who were working full-time who were under the age of 12.

In order to call attention to the problem of child labour and the need for universal school access, Mother Jones led the Children's March, a caravan of striking children on a walk from Lexington, Pennsylvania, to Oyster Bay, New York, the home of then-President Teddy Roosevelt. They reached Oyster Bay, but President Roosevelt refused to meet with them and the children of the caravan were driven back to work by hunger. Mother Jones lost that battle but before she died in 1930 at the age of 100 she had won the war, as she paved the path that made politically possible the New Deal legislation of another president named Roosevelt.

Describing herself she said: "I am not a humanitarian; I'm a hell-raiser. Pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the living."

I do not know if Mr. Kennedy prays for the dead, although I suppose a good Irishman should. 1 do know he fights for the living. Ross Perot once said: "The activist is not the man who says the street is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the street." Since the recent Liberal election victory, and his appointment as Minister of Education, Mr. Kennedy's broom has been active. A moratorium has been placed on school closures, the teacher certification as we know it is ended, and sugar-laced carbonated beverages are coming out of the schools' vending machines.

From 1986 to 1996 Mr. Kennedy was Executive Director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, which distributes $30-million worth of food annually to over 150,000 people. For his work with the food bank Mr. Kennedy was awarded an honourable mention as the Financial Post's CEO of the year in 1995. He was first elected to the Ontario legislature in 1996.

Members and guests, please join me in welcoming the Honourable Gerrard Kennedy, the Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario to the podium of the Empire Club of Canada.

Gerard Kennedy

Thanks very much. It is certainly a great pleasure to be here today. I visited the Web site of the Empire Club and found that I'm the fifth education minister who's been invited to speak to you in 100 years. The pacing has been somewhere from 16 to 40 years and while I am very glad to be here 1 feel pretty responsible because you may not see another for about 20 years.

The good news is that if you look at the past programs they have a lot of education experts in their repertoire and there is actually a room-full here today who could qualify, so 1 don't feel as much pressure to provide educa-tion expertise, because I stand before you not as an education expert, but basically as a lay-person. L did have four years as education critic, visiting schools-mainly classrooms, staffrooms and almost as many principals' offices as what I saw in my regular academic career. I was generally forced by my lay person's status to talk to stu-dents about the double cohort, the tag-and-cap program, which some of the students here will recognize and maybe moan and groan about, and a range of things in terms of the education experience. I do have some minor inherited qualifications. My mother was a schoolteacher and my father was a school board trustee. That doesn't actually qualify me but I'll throw those in just in case.

My purpose here today is simply to tell you where we are going in education. I am very glad to have this oppor-tunity and there couldn't be a better time to be talking about education. From our government's standpoint, we believe in bringing forward a plan to make Ontario's edu-cation system again one of the world's leading education systems. 1 want to tell you how we are going to do that. I want to talk to you also about how we have to do that before it is too late and how you-the people in this room and the people who may be watching-have to be part of making that happen.

We've got, I believe very strongly, today in Ontario a unique opportunity to do education right. We have the first Ontario leader probably in a generation who wants to be known as the education premier in Dalton McGuinty. This morning, the premier was at a school in Mississauga promoting the school program for healthy kid activation.

We've also got a record amount of public interest. It's only been in the last year and a half or so that people have really paid attention to education and suddenly it is right up there with health care.

There is a coming together of real factors. There's a recognition of the value of education to the economy. Other jurisdictions have been trying very hard in this area. We have a lot to be proud of in Ontario but the fact is we're in some ways standing still in comparison to some of those other places that have made that recogni-tion part of active public policy.

There is, I think, a disappearing opportunity for people who have lower education attainment. About 100 years ago, when this club was getting underway, my grandfa-ther was ending his academic career at grade six. He went on to become a logging superintendent. That's not really possible for your kids or my kids today.

It is instead an environment, some will call it a knowl-edge economy, where we have only one choice to go forward and that is with a tremendous amount of educa-tion being available much more widely than it has been in the past.

One of the most under-represented things I think about education is what has been done about cohesion. Successive waves of people have come from different countries and have been able to peacefully co-exfst. What have been the agents for that? 1 think we under-rate and give too little credit to the most obvious nominee-the education system-that has brought people together.

Education in Ontario, I think, has unfortunately come to a crossroads. People have seen years of turmoil, and reforms happening not always for apparently clear pur-poses. This has created a problem for many parents and has alienated some. I speak mainly of the number of chil-dren who've been directed to private schools; a 40-per-cent increase in the last eight years. Two hundred new private schools have opened while 400 public schools have been closed. Canadian, Ontarian, society is essentially built on a promise that you will be defined not by where you came from but by where you are going. That you will actually be able to go as far as your abilities and your willingness to work hard will take you. I stand here today as a Minister of the Crown to tell you that I don't think that's necessarily true in this province of Ontario where we want and absolutely need for that to be the case.

The private school tax credit that the last government put forward and public funding for private schools show that there is a choice ahead of us--a choice that all of us have to make. Does this idea of education become one that we just address privately or do we do what we've done for generations, which is pool our challenges and our risks? I have a 5-year-old and a 14-month old and one of them could become a $27,000-a-year child, which is the most the system will provide for someone with special needs. And someone else's child here today could be one those ready-to-learn kids, a $1,200 student. The point is we get to blend that together. That's the point of public education. If people continue to exit the system, it will undermine our ability to be able to raise taxes, because people aren't going to be as willing if it becomes a real legitimate lifestyle option for people to pull their kids out of the public education system.

So yes, one of our early accomplishments was to can-cel the private school tax credit. We did that so that the $500 million that we estimated it would have cost was available to public education but we have no illusions that that action is sufficient. The real job ahead of us is to create confidence in publicly funded schools. And this can only happen if we both deliver and are seen to deliver high quality in each and every one of those schools. And that is what we propose to do over the next four years.

We have a program and it is called Excellence for All. Yes, we mean excellence, but the "for all" part matters quite a bit as well. What we are saying about the future of public education is that there need to be good outcomes now for every student that is enrolled; not just the ones that are traditionally headed for colleges and universities.

And we want to have those good outcomes well-defined, so you can tell how well your public education system is doing. Some of them are universal because we believe fervently that every child can learn. We believe that, for example, by the age of 12, children should be able to read and write and comprehend to a very high level. We also believe that we want children to have expo-sure to the arts and daily physical activation as a mandatory part of their school experience.

But there are other outcomes that have to recognize the diversity of the students we have coming to us and that means the system has to adapt to fit to the students, not the other way around. I'm thinking particularly here (and this is a number that not everybody is familiar with) that 50 per cent of today's grade nines are either not going to graduate or they are going to go directly to work from grade 12. That might have been acceptable in the day of my grandfather, and I know it did work for a num-ber of people in my era but it simply can't today. We know we are going to see those students again in contact with social services, possibly even the justice system, and so on.

So how do we get to that excellence and the good out-comes that I'm talking about? Well we do it by being very focused. Your new government's first and most important priority will always be excellence in public education. We have other things we have to do. This one matters the most. We demonstrated that in December when, even in the midst of a struggle in terms of our fiscal situation, we put forward $112 million of funding intended to help the students who were most likely to be left behind attain bet-ter outcomes in terms of literacy and innumeracy. These are children from single-parent households, low-income families, from recently immigrated families, who are going to do well if they get the extra assistance in a timely fash-ion. We felt that those children could not wait.

A lot of people I find approach public education as if it is about competing interests. I think a lot of that comes from the turmoil that they've seen in recent years. There has to be a unifying purpose. And in fact it exists in the two million kids that are in our schools.

We want as a government to set an agenda, we've said we want to see higher student success, and we've said we would like to raise the school leaving age to 18. And we want to see smaller class sizes. But we're not afraid of what is really the harder job. The harder job is to galva-nize and motivate and mobilize all people in the education system and have those goals taken up in ways that can be agreed upon. I depend on everybody else to make anything that we might want to have happen as a government real for the students of this province.

We are operating on a scrupulous policy of respect for the 700 trustees, the 4,500 principals, the 120,000 teachers and the 60,000 support staff who are actually doing the work of public education in schools day in and day out. We appreciate the hard work that they're doing. There is some great stuff happening in our schools. There is a tremendous amount of dedication out there already being harnessed. I wouldn't stand in front of you today and make the claims that I am on behalf of our government if I didn't know that that was being accomplished.

We appreciate the work that's happening, we see the people in education as our assets. We don't see them as our problems. We don't see the point for a government to simply take over another level of government when they have a dispute. We acted quickly to get some of the powers back to local school boards that had been taken over. We have made that happen in Ottawa and Hamilton and we're working on what we hope will happen soon in Toronto.

I travelled the province early in my mandate and met with 75 per cent of the elected trustees in this province at orientation sessions held for the first time. A new government and a new school board started at the same time. My elected colleagues are people for whom we need to show respect. We need all the directors of education and others to have success at the local level if we are going to do education properly. We cannot run 5,000 schools from Queen's Park. We've pledged, as has been mentioned, to get rid of a divisive and ineffective teacher-testing program. We are doing that not because we care less about teacher excellence; we are doing that because our assumption is that teachers care about teacher excellence as well. We don't need to impose something to get that to happen. In the Throne speech you might have noted as well that there is going to be a premier's award for teacher excellence.

There is good will out there and the dividend from good will goes not to the governments but to the students who are there.

We are soon going to be convening an education partnership table. We have invited the teachers, the support workers, the parents and students. We'd like to have participation from the community and from business about the future direction and the policies of education in this province. We have tremendous faith that with those people in the room we'll be able to achieve our goals. We have tremendous confidence overall on what can be done in public education.

As we try and change from conflict to co-operation, it doesn't mean that we are not going to be making demands on the education system. We will but we intend to make them fairly. For example, we intend to look at schools and ask how they are doing but we are also going to ask what help they need. It is not fair to compare schools that have different challenges. Right now, you see test scores published in the paper and these are probably mostly being used by real estate agents to promote certain neighbourhoods. The idea really is to learn where the needs are.

I had the opportunity to spend over two days in what I would characterize as inner city schools in Thunder Bay, Guelph and Toronto and they had extremely similar challenges. To me, those are the schools that need to be talking to one another, those are the ones we need to have sharing ideas. Those are the ones where it is fair to ask how they are doing compared to the other guys and ask if they have something to share.

We can't talk about accountability in modern-day terms without having people taking responsibility. We will. The entire point of testing is to use those results to assist people. We have spent $200 million testing kids. We have spent very little money actually helping them to do better. We will change that. If we don't make our targets, it will not be somebody else in this room whose job is on the line; it will be mine.

In drawing up our "Excellence for All" program we really tried to use the best ideas.

We are going to set outcomes and we are going to really try hard to unleash the enterprising of the teachers and the principals at the local level.

When we put out the $112 million to encourage literacy and numeracy in kids who were struggling, we didn't stipulate it had to be spent a certain way. We didn't send out forms in quadruplicate or say that a certain number of literacy coaches or that many math tutorials had to happen. We asked the boards to show us that they could get results and demonstrate to us and the public that they could actually improve things and report back the results to us and their community. That's the kind of relationship we need to have--a connection between the community and the results that are being attained with not just dollars but a commitment.

I want to interest people in this room in another issue because it affects us and it's fairly urgent. That's the record number of high school students at risk. You may have heard mention of a report last week that says we're headed for a record number of students not getting their high school diplomas. It is interesting because the curriculum that is potentially contributing to that situation was meant to have the opposite effect. It was meant to graduate more. It was meant to do a better preparation for college, university and work.

Now it may be working for the university stream. There seems to be more students prepared, but when it comes to the college stream or even the work stream there are a lot of kids at risk. The good news is that 32,000 of them came back this year and to the best of my knowledge they are still in school. If they are watching this program, I have one message for them: stay there. We have help not just on the way but underway and there is a student-at-risk program, which should have been there all along.

One thing I can't convey to you adequately here today is the amount of discouragement, stress and strain in the heads of the kids I have been visiting in the schools. Having them battle with literacy tests and some of the problems in the curriculum on their own simply isn't fair. I can't say that we are going to be able to make a lot of difference but we're certainly going to try. There are 72 school boards out there and they're going to need literacy tutors, math tutors, and people to make sure that the futures of these particular students aren't cut off.

We don't accept the dropout rate we have now. When I first say we're going to keep kids in school and change the school leaving age from 16 to 18, secondary teachers usually look like they want to throw something at me. I appreciate that there are students in classes who are frustrating. That's not what we have in mind. What we have in mind is giving a job to public education that hasn't in my estimation been done well anywhere else. And that is a good outcome for these particular students--a place for them to end up that is worthwhile. That could be a broadening of apprenticeships, of co-op programs, of some of the vocational programs but it's about upholding a place of dignity for those students.

We think there is a way forward. Experience tells us that we have a good advantage when it comes to public education. What we have to become better at is transferring some of the ideas and the approaches around that system in a much effective manner. That, we think, is an appropriate role for us--not seeing whether the forms are filled in properly.

There's a range of things that we can be doing and you are probably feeling that the future of education in Ontario is not uniform. The one thing that is uniform is our intent. Our intent is for students to do well. We are going to be very very interested and involved in the outcomes per students and the premier and I will be talking to you about the kinds of things that we think are necessary. But we want to get out of the way of the local school.

Obviously most of the things I'm talking about in terms of doing better are going to cost money and we have some challenges in terms of the overall fiscal situation that we found as we came into office. We are going to have to deal with that challenge. But if I may I want to quote from a previous education minister's speech: "I strongly endorse this view that our shrewdest and most profitable investment rests in the education of our people." This was said by the Honourable Bill Davis in 1966 when he was here as education minister.

I want to speak now to people of my generation--people who had a good education handed to them. They were able to go right to university and when I really want to get the OAC classes worked up I talk about how little I paid to go to university. There is an obligation for people to get interested in what's happening at their local schools. It is time to make an appointment with the principal to sit at the back of the class the way we try to get every MPP to do and find out what the challenges are, how many English-as-a second-language kids are there and how many of them aren't getting the attention they could for the worst of reasons going, that we don't have that little bit of extra resource directed their way. Can you think of a worse reason not to get an education? That you weren't able somehow to acquire the language of instruction.

There are terrific people within the education system. They need to learn how to work with people without and the rest of us have got to learn how to bring back to education the central consciousness that it really requires, because all the challenges that I think that I face and the students face and ultimately we all face are based on a society that has its focus in the right place. I certainly commend to you that whether it is the local school councils (most of them are begging for membership), whether it is participation in some of the non-profit groups that are out there making contributions to the betterment of schools, whether it's the school boards themselves and the committees and support that they need and the attention and respect that they deserve, there are ways for you to plug in. I would like to invite you to connect to me as Minister of Education to the effort we're making. It is not just about government giving you education; it's got to be a society that wnats it and is prepared to sacrifice something to see it happen.

Thanks very much for sacrificing some of your time with me this afternoon.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Charles S. Coffey, Executive Vice-President, Government and Community Affairs, RBC Financial Group and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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"Excellence For All"

Where Ontario is going in education. A unique opportunity to do education right. A record amount of public interest. The enivronment of the knowledge economy and what that means for us. Cohesion in education. The Crossroads in education in Ontario. The choice ahead of us. The private school tax credit and its cancellation. The program "Excellence For All" and what the government means by it. Desired outcomes. A policy of respect for trustees, principals, teachers and support staff. Convening an education partnership table. Changing from conflict to cooepration. Some details of the "Excellence For All" programme. The record number of high school students at risk. Stress and strain in the kids. What is needed. What we can be doing. Some concluding remarks.