TORONTO — 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. (Canada ranked ninth out of 14 countries.) If it had been an independent country, Ontario would have ranked above only the US, Spain, and Slovenia.
The results of the Third International Mathematics Study will be released Nov. 20 in Canada and education reformers predict it will provide them with fresh ammunition to demand greater accountability.
But Ms. Goodman and other child-centered advocates steadfastly deny the validity of international testing that show declines in basic skills. In Japan, for instance, only the best students - 70 percent of the total - take such tests. In Ontario, students from all walks of life participate - including those newly arrived and lacking English-language skills.
But a few international tests - such as the IAEP test that showed marked declines, did compare all Ontario 13-year-olds only with all other 13-year-olds in other areas.
No matter. The apples and oranges argument brings little comfort to those educators and parents who feel they need provincial benchmarks and standardized testing to measure student skills.
"Ontario is an extreme," says Mark Holmes, a former teacher, principal, and professor of education. "You can go from Grade 1 to Grade 12 and never have an external test, no standard test, no college entrance boards, no graduate exams or tests. Nothing."
In other countries where standardized testing has continued in tandem with child-centered methods, including the US, there has been at least the ability to track student performance and tell if things are going wrong, says William Robson, vice president of the Organization for Quality Education, a provincial parent group.
Plunging test scores in the US have put the basic child-centered method under fire. The child-centered theory is also being furiously debated in Britain. But that didn't happen in Ontario, Mr. Robson says. And there is no great debate in the education community despite growing pressure on government by unhappy parents.
"In Ontario there is extreme insularity in the education system," Mr. Holmes explains. "It is legally impossible for anyone from outside of Ontario to become a director of education for any school board in Ontario. This prevents any different ideas or outside thought from penetrating."
Efforts at accountability
Joan Green doesn't buy all the sniping. She heads the province's new Education Quality and Accountability Office. As former director of the Toronto Board of Education, Ms. Green is an advocate of the child-centered principles. Yet this spring she will oversee a province-wide test of third-graders' basic abilities to determine the efficacy of the system.
She points out that her test will not be multiple choice and will involve mostly written essays and problem solving. It also will be carefully calibrated to compare Ontario students with each other - not other provinces or the world.
"People confuse simplicity with clarity" she says of standardized multiple-choice tests. "I would not say standardized tests are useless. I would say they're not good enough."
School reformers hope this second try by the province at resuming a modicum of province-wide testing of a few selected grades will prove more convincing than a 1994 effort at judging reading and writing. That effort was seen as flawed because teachers were allowed to select some students not to take the test if they thought they might not pass it.
Green says next spring's assessment will be more rigorous. It will also not have the biases she says are built into international standardized tests. And it will also not permit use of computer spell-checking software or have take-home elements as it did two years ago.
Literacy in trouble
A 1987 survey by the Southam newspaper chain calculated the number of illiterates in Ontario at 24 percent. A 1990 Statistics Canada survey ranked Ontario fifth of nine provinces in literacy and numeracy. The 1993 Ontario Writing Test Results found that more than 26,000 Ontario students with inadequate skills graduated from Grade 12 advanced English in 1992.
This hodgepodge of figures suggests a serious problem to many in Ontario.
Something to improve student literacy better happen - soon, says Thomas Schweitzer, an economist who co-authored a 1992 Economic Council of Canada report on Canadian education, which says Ontario and Canada are in trouble on literacy. If current trends do not change, he says, Canadian schools - including those in Ontario - will "produce more than 1 million new functional illiterates over the next 10 years."
Cracks beginning to form
Some cracks in the child-centered system are beginning to form, however.
Certain school districts such as Etobicoke and North York - both municipalities within Greater Toronto - are responding to parent concerns with reading groups, phonics programs, and increased testing of students as well as much more well-defined curriculum.
But the Toronto School Board is not budging. Neither are the teachers unions or the Ontario Institute of Education - all of which strongly support child-centered approach.
"I know what this [child-centered learning] is doing to this province," says Ruth Weir, a trustee on the Etobicoke school board who fought to return phonics programs to the school system. "I not only observed it, I raised three children through it and taught for 20 years."
Recently her granddaughter brought a friend home, an 18-year-old girl, and with other children in the house began playing Clue, the mystery board game. But when the girl's turn came she could not read her clue cards.
"We felt bad for her, but it was not exceptional," Ms. Weir says. "Kids are coming out of our schools illiterate. She had come through the system and couldn't read. That's the way it is."