Education Reform in Ontario
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 12 Feb 2002, p. 370-380
Harris, Mike, Speaker
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A brief review of the speaker's performance in office. Changes made to education and the speaker's pride in those changes. A detailed description of what schools are like now and what they will be like in the future makes up the majority of the remainder of the address. Quality, goals, problems, solutions are all addressed.
Date of Original
12 Feb 2002
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Full Text
Mike Harris Premier of Ontario
Chairman: Bill Laidlaw
President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

Margaret M. Samuel, CFA, Portfolio Manager, Hirsch Asset Management Corp. and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Katy Garner, Grade 10 Student, Barrie North Collegiate Institute; The Reverend Dr. John Niles, Victoria Park United Church and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Jack Garner, Director, Ontario Go Transit Authority and Former School Trustee; Greg Reid, Chair, Ontario Parent Council; Gary Polonsky, President, Durham College and President, University of Ontario Institute of Technology; Dr. Frederic L.R. Jackman, CStJ, CD, President, Invicta Investments Inc. and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Ann Curran, Director, Corporate Development International and 1st VicePresident, The Empire Club of Canada; Lila Mae (Lou) Watson, Former Superintendent and Chair, Education Policy Advisory Committee; William B.P. Robson, Vice-President and Director of Research, C.D. Howe Institute, Director, Organization for Quality Education, Director, Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education and Member, Post-secondary Education Quality Assessment Board; Dr. Peter Ross, Doctor of Education, Chair, Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) and Chair, Training Colleges, Universities and Policy Advisory Council (TCU PAC); and Paul Fisher, Vice-President and Corporate Secretary, CIBC.

I am going to introduce a gentleman who truly needs no introduction. Mike Harris and his government are in the news every day of the week. I do not believe a day goes by when I do not hear his name mentioned.

He and his team have really shaken things up in Ontario and brought back the days when Ontario was the envy of the rest of Canada and much of the world. He has been the leader of a team that has made some tough decisions in managing the ship of state bringing Ontario into the 21st century and returning the province to prosperity.

Loved or hated he is an individual with a clear eye on the future and a desire to make things better for all. As a lobbyist I have had the good fortune of observing him since his entry into the legislature.

I was a frequent visitor to the visitors' gallery in his first term as leader of the then 20 MPPs in the far-right-hand corner of the legislature.

I was there on that lovely Saturday afternoon at the CNE with my two young daughters when Mike Harris became the leader.

I watched him grow and mature as a leader and as a political figure. Those years in opposition were challenging. There was even a time when Mike would rush up to me for a few moments of my time and he did it to everybody because he wanted everybody to know his story of how his party could better govern Ontario.

In June 1995, Mike Harris and his party became the government of Ontario and the Common Sense Revolution was rolled out for all to see. It was clear that our premier and his team were devoted to making these policies a reality in Ontario.

In his first term in office, he proved that he was not, and still is not, afraid to make the tough choices needed to put the province back on track. His government's "blueprint" plan is aimed at ensuring Ontario continues to grow and compete globally.

During his first term in office, Premier Harris worked hard at making Ontario a stronger province. His government cut taxes, reduced red tape and eliminated barriers to growth. Subsequently Ontarians witnessed a growth in their economy and a reduction in unemployment.

Throughout his term in office he has proved continually that he is on the side of the people of Ontario by supporting initiatives to champion small businesses and support tax cuts, by revamping and modernising our health-care system and by making government more accountable and efficient.

Premier Harris is a firm believer in the principles of hard work and respect. He believes that these principles he learned growing up in North Bay have made him the man he is today.

A native of North Bay, Premier Harris enjoys golf and skiing. He is the father of two sons.

As his time as premier of the province of Ontario passes into history and he moves on to quiet retirement in the wilds of Ontario, or to the challenges of a business career or federal politics, I want to say thank you from so many Ontarians who appreciate what he has done for this province and Canada.

We wish you good health and luck in your retirement and know this will not be the last of Mike Harris.

I now have the pleasure of introducing as our guest speaker Mike Harris, Premier of Ontario.

Mike Harris

Thank you.

Over the past few years I've received support from many of you and I want to thank you for your advice and encouragement.

As you know, many of the decisions we've made haven't been easy and some have been controversial. But we took those steps because they were necessary and because they were right.

When we first took office six-and-a-half years ago, we made some tough decisions to move the province forward.

In 1995, government was practising tax-and-spend economics. We changed that.

In 1995, too many people were caught in the welfare trap. We changed that.

And in 1995, employment and confidence were down. And together we changed that.

We reformed the municipal level of government to make it more accountable. We worked hard to modernise our health-care system. We invested record amounts of capital in roads and transit and billions in hospitals and equipment.

But of all the historic changes we made, the most farreaching and necessary were the ones we made to education. I'm proud of those changes for two reasons.

First, in no other area was there more organised resistance and more money spent by those who strive to preserve the status quo. This may explain why previous governments failed miserably in their attempts to reform the system.

It's hard to make real change happen, especially with endless consultation and a go-slow attitude. Tactics with an objective of really no change at all.

Second, I'm proud of our changes to education because Ontario's schools were crying out for improvement. I believe that no modern society can succeed unless its education system is relevant and delivers excellence. There is no greater leveller in society than a universal education system that ensures equality of opportunity.

So today, I want to talk to you about our schoolsabout the way they were, what they're like now and what they'll be like in the future.

There's an old saying about education: everyone is for it, but not everyone knows what it's for.

Previous governments claimed to be for education, but you'd never have known it! Instead of learning language skills, schools promoted self-esteem. Instead of giving kids an education, schools pushed students through the system so they could graduate with their friends.

Teachers who wanted to evaluate and measure students' actual learning were fighting a system that put feel-good mediocrity ahead of excellence.

As important as it is to encourage self-esteem, I don't think it should come at the expense of teaching required skills, because when we don't give students the skills they need to succeed, we set them up for failure once they get into the "real" world.

That was the case a few years ago. Back then, businesses told us that some high-school graduates couldn't write a proper job application and that illiteracy was costing companies about $1.5 billion a year. Previous governments measured the success of schools by the size of education budgets, not by how much learning was actually taking place.

Without standardised tests, we had no way of knowing if our kids were learning the skills necessary to succeed or how they were doing versus students in other jurisdictions. The few international tests we did participate in showed declining results for our students.

Parents were disillusioned. They told us that schools were unsafe, that the system was graduating more and more students and educating fewer and fewer of them.

Students knew there was a problem, too. They knew that their futures depended on a great education--one that our schools weren't providing.

Like most parents, I have always disagreed with low standards and so-called social promotion in schools. I believe success is earned, not given, that real self-esteem comes from achievement, not gold stars and that graduation isn't the end of learning, it's the beginning.

When it came to quality, Ontario's education system was slowly crumbling, but we didn't just slap on a few coats of paint or patch some holes. We didn't wallpaper over cracks in the walls like previous governments did. We did what a responsible government should do. We went right down to the system's foundation and rebuilt it.

As soon as we were elected, we took action. We made substantial changes and stuck with them.

We made sure that tax dollars went towards education, not bureaucrats. We scrapped a system that favoured some boards over others, the rich areas of the province over the poor and bureaucracy over classrooms.

We told teachers that we demanded excellence from them, and we created the teacher testing programme. We told students that we demanded excellence from them, and we measured their progress.

We made sure the world of the classroom was connected to the real world outside the school walls. We modernised the entire curriculum from kindergarten all the way to grade 12. We asked our kids to raise their expectations, and then we gave them the tools to succeed.

To deliver our goals, we had to wrest control of key decisions away from the unions away from the bargaining table and give that decision-making power back to administrators and parents.

Today, many groups now support the reforms that they fought so bitterly against. Six-and-a-half years later, our hard work is paying off.

The final proof is just around the corner. Soon, the students who began school when we rebuilt the system will be graduating. Mark my words: this group will be among the best and the brightest to ever graduate from Ontario's schools.

The students who follow will keep getting better and better. They'll have skills to match the future needs of the market, improving our province's economy and quality of life. And I'm thankful for that, because more than anything, I want to help create a great future for Ontario's kids.

Today I met one of those kids. Her name is Elizabeth Gleason. She lives in Barrie and goes to Monsignor Clair school. Since 1995, our government and Elizabeth have been through a lot together. She's grown up in a system that has been shaped by our vision for education.

In 1995, when we were taking our bold first steps into education reform, she was taking her first steps onto the schoolyard and into junior kindergarten. When our government was rewriting the entire curriculum, Elizabeth was learning to write the alphabet. When she was in grade 1 learning to add one plus one, we were subtracting taxes. Our historic changes to education will help Elizabeth get more out of life. They'll better prepare her for the world of work.

This year, Elizabeth is in grade 5. Her dad tells me that her favourite subject is math. In September she could recognise fractions but by June she'll be multiplying and dividing decimals.

We know this because we've set tough but realistic standards for all Ontario students. Today, kids from Kapuskasing to Kincardine are getting the same great education. Our reforms ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to excel.

Together with this more rigorous, standardised curriculum, we've introduced parent-friendly report cards. Now, Elizabeth's parents will know exactly how well she's progressing.

What can Elizabeth expect to learn in the next few years? First of all, we're going to make sure she has a solid grasp of the basic tools of learning before she goes on to more advanced material. We're going to measure and evaluate Elizabeth's achievement before letting her move on. We're going to give her any help she needs. We owe it to her.

It's not fair to let children fall between the cracks and then brand them as failures. They aren't failures. The system has failed them.

We must catch problems early so students get help when they need it, not when it's too late. The only way to do that is to measure results. The only way to measure results is to test.

That's why we have introduced province-wide standardised tests for students. It's also why we have introduced comprehensive teacher testing ensuring Elizabeth's teachers have up-to-date skills, training and knowledge.

Some people have said that our standardised tests are unfair to kids and that our standards are too high. I disagree.

I think that when you turn a blind eye to struggling kids, you're being unfair to them. I think that when you lower expectations and expect less of our kids, you're being unfair to them.

When you give them a great education, one that sets consistently high standards, that's being fair to them. When you identify and help students who are struggling, that's being fair to them.

That's what they need because the world has changed. When I was in school, being a good student meant that you did well at spelling bees and flashcards. It meant competing with the students from your class.

Today, success in school might mean co-operating on a web-based project with students from Malaysia. It certainly means competing with students from around the world for spots in the world's best universities.

Our schools, whether we like it or not, are on the front lines of a fast-paced, globally competitive economy. The world isn't going to slow down. It will only get faster.

The only real way students can compete and win in a rapidly changing and competitive world is if we give them the tools to tackle change; the tools not only to change with the times but also to change the very times themselves.

Literacy is the most important of these tools. It's the basis of all learning. In fact, I believe our schools should aim even higher than basic literacy. We should create lifelong learners.

Elizabeth already loves reading and is an excellent writer. She's well on her way.

Because she can communicate well and solve problems, Elizabeth will be able to handle any new challenges. She'll master new skills quickly with minimal training. In fact, she'll not only adapt to change, but she'll have the tools necessary to lead change.

Her excellence will mean that our businesses will excel and our province will excel.

By the time Elizabeth is in grade 8, she will have been extensively tested in reading, writing and math--once in grade 3 and once in grade 6. Her teachers will be able to tell her exactly where her strengths and weaknesses are.

They'll let her parents know, too, because we want parents to be involved in schools. It's important to get parents and teachers talking and working together.

To help out, Elizabeth's folks might join a school council. They'll definitely attend parent-teacher interviews. Another way we're getting parents more involved is through the first-ever province-wide education survey. I'm proud to say that so far we've received responses from over 90,000 parents. That's an encouraging sign. It tells us that parents want input and are just as concerned about the future of Ontario's schools as we are. We're going to take their feedback very seriously and keep working with them to rebuild and improve the system.

In September 2005, Elizabeth will start grade 9 at St. Joseph's. I want her to be able to join clubs or play soccer for the St. Joseph's Jaguars.

When she steps up to the podium as valedictorian for the class of 2009, she'll be ready to go to post-secondary school or face the challenges of getting a job.

And whether she wants to attend Georgian College or the University of Toronto, I want her to have a place there.

She could be one of the thousands of students who qualify for one of our new Aiming for the Top tuition scholarships. Next year alone, 12,000 students will qualify for those scholarships based on financial need and academic excellence which award up to $3,500 per year to students.

By 2013, Elizabeth will have found a great job and I predict that she'll get that job right away, because her skills will be sharp and in demand.

Elizabeth, who started school when our government was first elected, will be one of the first graduates of a new education system; a system shaped by the hard work of excellent teachers and the input of parents.

Our kids don't need schools run by special interests or unions. They deserve schools led by parents and teachers working together.

Our kids don't need schools torn apart by political infighting. They deserve schools that are focused on the future.

We have to keep working hard, though, to achieve that vision. For the sake of our kids, we can't let the system crumble again. We have come too far and achieved too much to let that happen.

As a parent, I want a great future for my two sons. I want them to grow up happy and safe. I want them to lead fulfilling lives and to continue growing, learning and taking on new challenges.

But as premier, I want that for Elizabeth, too and for every child in Ontario. In fact, that's why I got into politics in the first place.

Today, I want to leave you with some important questions and some challenges for the future of education.

Do we want the best possible quality of life for our children? Do we want them to realise their dreams of a satisfying job, of a home, of feeling good about themselves and of financial security? If so, we need to set standards to help them measure their progress.

Do we want our schools to continue along the path of reform or do we want them to slide back into safe, comfortable mediocrity? If we want excellence, then we must be prepared to continue making tough decisions about who controls the system and continue involving our parents in the process.

Do we want our children to inherit a province with a strong economy? A place where there is opportunity? If so, then we need to continue to make tough choices. We need to keep our taxes, regulations and schools competitive.

Because by keeping Ontario attractive for investment, we're making sure our kids have more options tomorrow. By encouraging growth today, we're making sure businesses will continue to grow and create new jobs.

By building an excellent universal education system today, we're helping kids like Elizabeth. We're helping students from every town and neighbourhood build a future filled with opportunity and filled with promise--the kind of future they deserve.

Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Ann Curran, Director, Corporate Development International and 1st VicePresident, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Education Reform in Ontario

A brief review of the speaker's performance in office. Changes made to education and the speaker's pride in those changes. A detailed description of what schools are like now and what they will be like in the future makes up the majority of the remainder of the address. Quality, goals, problems, solutions are all addressed.