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Remarks By Dalton McGuinty, Premier Of Ontario At The Character Communities Spring Conference 2004

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Remarks By Dalton McGuinty, Premier Of Ontario At The Character Communities Spring Conference 2004

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Office of the Premier

Whenever I talk about my passion for education, I can't help but think of my father, Dalton Sr.

Many people know that my Dad was a politician; not many here know that he was also an educator.

Dad taught Romantic poetry. And he would recite the stuff at the dinner table. Back when everyone else was watching The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonanza, we were put on a steady diet of Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Byron, and Pope. I'm one of ten kids.

One of the quotations that has stayed with me was one poet's definition of hope.

He described hope as "the paramount duty which heaven lays, for its own honour, on man's suffering heart."

I love this definition of hope -- hope for a better tomorrow -- as a duty.

It is a duty that you have embraced -- as parents, as teachers, as leaders in education and in the workplace.

Character education is a manifestation of this hope, and I want to commend the organizers of this conference, and thank you for the work you are doing to shape better citizens and through them, a still better society.

What I want to do today is to talk more broadly about the duty that we all share, the hopes, dreams and plans that we have for publicly funded education in Ontario.

Growing up in a family of twelve people, two things were never in short supply.

The first was love.

And the second was opportunity.

We were taught that education was the ladder of opportunity, and if we were willing to work hard, to climb that ladder, there was absolutely no limit to what we could achieve, and what we could contribute.

It didn't matter where you were from; it was all about where you could go, and education was the way to get there.

And our family was hardly alone in that belief.

Our parents' generation wasn't perfect, but it was perfectly right about one thing: it placed a premium on public education.

They didn't take it for granted, maybe because, for many of them, it had been hard to get.

Many of our parents were people of modest means.

Many had fled desperate circumstances.

But they all clung to public education as the embodiment of hope and opportunity.

Too many of our generation have taken public education for granted.

We've lost our edge, our ferocity as jealous guardians of our children's right to the best public education.

I think it's time to admit it.

We've let it slide.

We've let a good system slide.

We've let it slide to the point where many families are choosing private schools over public education.

The number of children attending private schools has increased by 40 per cent in the last eight years.

Two hundred new private schools have opened.

Four hundred public schools have closed.

We've let it slide to the point where a stunning number of our young people either drop out of school or decide to stop learning.

Fifty per cent of the kids in Grade 9 either do not graduate from Grade 12 or stop their education immediately after Grade 12 -- fifty per cent!

Some return to school later, but the fact remains that half of them get out of school as soon as they can, or as soon as high school is over.

We've let public education slide to the point where the number of stories about our schools' successes have been overwhelmed by others -- about crumbling morale and schools, lost programs and endless bickering.

By election time, we had reached a critical point, a turning point.

And Ontarians had a choice.

And I'm proud to say they chose to stop the slide.

But let's not kid ourselves.

Ontarians didn't make a final decision.

What they said to all of us, all of us who believe passionately in public education was this: you've got one more chance to convince me.

Convince me that public education is still the ladder of opportunity that our parents said it was. Prove to me that it's not only worth saving, that it's capable of excelling.

You have one more chance to make public education the very best education.

My friends, I'm here today to ask you to join me in rising to the challenge that is before us.

I truly believe that what is at stake, over the next four years, is the very future of our public education system.

I truly believe that what we must demonstrate together over the next four years is that public education is the best education for our children.

Here's what success for students means to me:

Every student can learn -- and should come to school ready to learn.

Every student should learn in a school that is properly funded and in good repair.

Every student should have significant exposure to music and the arts.

Every student should enjoy regular physical activity, appreciate a healthy lifestyle, and have access to a full range of extracurricular activities.

Every student should learn about character -- that values such as respect, honesty, fairness, responsibility, empathy and civic engagement should be part of their everyday program.

Every student should be safe and feel safe at school and in the schoolyard.

Every student should receive a positive outcome from publicly funded education, whether that be an apprenticeship, a job placement that teaches real skills or admission to college or university.

And every student should reach the highest level of achievement that his or her ability and willingness to work hard will permit.

Getting there -- realizing this vision -- will take leadership, unrelenting commitment, time and sacrifice.

It's hardly news that resources are scarce.

To do what must be done in public education will require sacrifices, from all of us, and in other things that people want from government.

But those sacrifices must be made because if we fail to do so, we don't just delay progress in public education, we risk losing public education itself.

And that is not a risk that I'm prepared to take, not on my watch.

We will not shirk our duty.

So where do we start?

We begin at a critical juncture, a tipping point, in a child's life.

We believe that our students should be able to read, write, do math and comprehend at a high level by the age of 12.

That's the necessary foundation for the holistic approach we bring to public education, because you can't embrace music or the arts, if you can't read song lyrics or a script for a play.

That's the necessary foundation for that child to unlock his or her potential, because it's tough to aspire to greatness when your report card seems to be telling you and the world that you can only struggle.

And that's the necessary foundation for a child to make the educational -- and social choices -- they are about to face as they mature.

Consider for a moment life at age 12.

It's a wondrous time.

It's also wondrously challenging.

This is the age when many students are caught between childhood and adolescence ...

When many kids bring stuffed toys to camp and dates to movies ...

When they start to question their parents and question themselves.

If, by age 12, students become convinced they cannot read, write, do math and comprehend at a high level, they're starting to decide that school is not for them, and dropping out might be cool.

A new Stats Canada study released this month concluded that young teens who begin high school with weaker literacy skills are less likely to complete high school.

Dropouts had reading skills that averaged a full level below those who stayed in school or graduated.

Other recent research, by Professor Alan King of Queen's University, estimates that, of those students who began Grade 9 in Ontario in 1999 up to 25 per cent will leave school without graduating.

That's 40,000 kids. That's a lot of potential -- wasted.

At the same time, the new jobs in the new economy are going to the people with the most education.

In fact, it's estimated that 60 per cent of all new jobs created will require some form of post-secondary education.

We are going to do everything we can to help teenagers succeed, with aggressive intervention and a curriculum that recognizes that kids aren't standard.

But the best way to help all of our students is to ensure a high level of literacy and numeracy by age 12.

And this means more than the basic ability to read, write and do arithmetic.

It includes the growing capacity, throughout the elementary and secondary years, to understand information from a variety of sources, to interpret this information across a variety of disciplines, and to think and communicate with a high degree of critical analysis.

The numbers tell us we've got our work cut out for us. Ontario's province-wide test results for 2002-2003 reveal that 50 per cent of Ontario Grade 3 students met the standard for reading, 56 per cent met the standard for writing and 57 per cent met it for math.

For Grade 6, the results indicate that 56 per cent met the standard for reading, 53 per cent for writing and again 53 per cent for math.

The bottom line? Almost half of our students are not meeting the standard.

And while much was done in the past to measure performance, that's the easy part, very little was done at the provincial level to help struggling students do better.

Our government will fulfil its duty to help all our students do better.

We are committing today to making improvements in public education a centrepiece of our mandate.

To make public education an exciting, vital life force in this province.

And to establish Ontario as a leader on the national and global scene.

And we are going to measure our progress by ensuring that, by 2008, 75 per cent of students will reach the provincial standard on province-wide reading, writing and math tests.

That's 75 per cent -- up from the slightly over half who are reaching this marker today.

I'm pleased to announce today that Michael Fullan, one of the world's leading experts on positive change in education, is working with us.

Michael has agreed to work as a special advisor to me, and our Minister of Education, Gerard Kennedy.

Here are some of the main elements of our plan:

We will reduce class sizes in the early years, from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 3.

We are committed to a cap on class size of 20 students by the end of our mandate.

We are going to begin that work in the fall.

Strong development in these early years is crucial, if we are to build the foundation we want in place by age 12.

We will start by targeting schools that are struggling with enormous class sizes. Later we will bring class sizes down throughout the system during our first term.

We will amend the curriculum to put a clear focus on reading, writing and math at a high level.

It will include a dedicated literacy hour and math time each day to provide the necessary learning intensity.

For the first time, every elementary school will have a specially trained lead teacher in literacy and numeracy, skilled in the best practices and most effective techniques.

We have already launched a pilot project, in Toronto, that will see 10,000 struggling students, in Grades 1 to Grade 5, get extra help from tutors, before school, during lunch and after school.

Those same students will have the opportunity to attend literacy and numeracy camps this summer, so they can retain what they have gained.

When we find something that works, we will make it available to everyone.

There is going to be a new relationship between boards and schools and government.

Educators will be free to share ideas, instead of shuffling paper.

We will use test scores and real knowledge of the individual challenges schools face, to target money at results, so schools with a high percentage of low-income or English-as-a-second language families are helped, instead of scapegoated.

We are going to send turnaround teams of experts into struggling schools, and give principals the tools they need to work together.

We are creating a new literacy and numeracy secretariat that will ensure that schools, teachers, and most importantly, students are, in fact, getting the supports they need when they need them.

We are going to provide parents with additional resources to encourage and support early reading at home.

And we are going to create an atmosphere of peace and stability within our schools.

I want to speak for a moment directly to Ontario teachers.

I mentioned my father a moment ago.

He spent 26 years in a classroom before getting into politics.

It was a university classroom and he was a professor, but if asked what he did for a living, he would say he was a teacher.

For him, the trappings of academe were unimpressive, the responsibility to publish unfulfilling.

But he loved teaching.

My father believed teaching was not just a profession, but one of the highest callings, and a matter of public service.

And so do I.

I understand that the work we give you to do -- and how you've been treated by some -- is enough to dampen the flame that brought you to the job in the first place.

I know it's still there, and that it still brings you to the classroom even though some days, it feels as if it's barely alive.

I understand that your first impulse in viewing yet another government with yet another agenda for education may be to quietly, even politely, ignore it in the hopes it will first leave you alone and then go away.

I can't guarantee how long I will be Premier.

My contract for renewal comes up on a regular basis. I am accountable to 12 million employers.

But I can guarantee you this.

  • My respect for you as teachers and the work you do, my empathy for the challenges you face,
  • My commitment to helping students succeed,
  • My passion for public education -- that belief in the power of education and the purpose of teaching will never go away.

I am asking for your help.

Simply put, we can only achieve what we want to achieve -- what we must achieve -- together.

I can do everything a premier can do ... but I can't teach.

Kids learn about premiers.

They learn from teachers.

And that makes you more important to your students than I am.

I can lead.

Only you can deliver.

We are going to set a new tone in Ontario.

As of today, there are three new R's in education: responsibility, respect, and results.

Government will assume its responsibility to lead.

We will respect principals, teachers and trustees and the work they do on behalf of our children.

And we can and we will, working together, produce results.

Success for students, as Dr. Rozanski pointed out, will cost money.

There will be increased funding in our first budget, and the budgets that follow, because this is a top priority for our government, for our economy, and for our society.

Understand what is at stake here. Don't whistle past the graveyard.

You and I have been given one more chance to make public education the best education.

Parents are not going to send their kids to public schools because somehow they think it is the right thing to do.

If you believe that, wake up.

Public education is at stake. Parents are the same worldwide. You know what they want for their kids?

Terri and I have four between 18 and 22. What do we want? It is the same as all our other parents. We want the best.

We are not prepared to compromise their futures.

Our job is to make the case for public education day in and day out.

We have to be relentless when it comes to pursuing change and improvement.

How could the status quo ever be right and acceptable?

You've got to get that passion in you.

You have got to understand that day in and day out, I understand where you have been on this stuff.

You feel sometimes you've been rebuffed.

It has got to be different this time.

I am staking my reputation on this.

I am going to put money into education at the expense of other programs.

Four years from now, people are going to cast another ballot.

They are going to make a decision as to whether that was the right thing to do.

I have been running around the province now for years saying public education is where it is at.

We can't get there without you.

Your government, as I hope you can conclude, is committed.

Now we're asking for the commitment of all Ontarians.

To students -- I see some here today: we know how challenging it can be and how much some of you have been through in recent years.

We ask you, we urge you, we encourage you, to keep trying, keep striving.

Parents: We know how busy you are and how hard you work.

We need you to read to your children at home, help with the math homework and take a real interest in the choices your kids are making about their future.

Teachers and principals: we respect what you do and what you've been through.

We're asking you to reject cynicism.

Embrace the idealism that informed you when you first decided to go into that wonderful profession.

Together we are going to do this.

To all Ontarians:

Public education needs, demands, and commands our support.

It is our generation's turn to pick up where the last one left off.

It is not a matter of choice.

This is our duty.

Let's seize this critical juncture in history -- when public education is on the line.

Let's seize the critical juncture in a child's life -- as they traverse that bridge from childhood to adolescence and decisions that will define their lives.

Let's seize this chance, perhaps the last chance, to shape the society we want ... and the good citizens and skilled workers we want our children to be ... let's choose to make public education the best education ... let's dedicate ourselves, every one of us, to success for our students.

My friends, that public education, the one we can see with our mind's eye, the one that deep down in our heart of hearts, we long for on behalf of our children and grandchildren ... that public education is ours to deliver.

Thank you.

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