Category: Written

Opting out: when students get a better education by not going to school

Joel Westheimer, University of Ottawa professor and research chair, said schools should be less focused on standardized testing.
Joel Westheimer, University of Ottawa professor and research chair, said schools should be less focused on standardized testing.

While some parents in Ontario threaten to opt-out of sex education, others are more interested in opting out of what’s seen as a more an integral part of education: testing.

“Teachers have been tied to having to teach a very rigid curriculum,” said Joel Westheimer, a University of Ottawa professor and research chair.

On Sept. 16, at Octopus Books at 251 Bank St., he launched a new book, What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good, that critiques the current education system for being too focused on standardized testing.

In Ontario, standardized tests are created and administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). These tests assess the math and literacy skills of students in Grades 3, 6 and 9.

“Kids call it evil questions attacking Ontario,” said Westheimer.

In his book, Westheimer writes that over the past two decades, he’s seen the focus on test preparation cause teachers to teach more math and language arts at the expense of visual art, social science, computers, health and physical education.

“Instead of measuring the things that we care about,” he said, “we start to care about the things that we can measure.”

Erika Shaker, director of the Education Project for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), said the research done by the Ottawa-based policy research group has found that wealthier children tend to do better on standardized tests—their schools, in turn, receive better funding, increasing the disparity in quality of education along class lines.

Shaker has a daughter in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. After discussing her concerns about standardized testing, she said her daughter chose not to participate in the Grade 3 EQAO test.

“I didn’t see it as an effective use of class time,” Shaker said.

On the day of the test, she said her daughter did classwork at home in the morning and went to school once the testing period was over. Shaker said the school was fine with it: “It was a non-issue.”

More parents across the province have been choosing to opt-out of the tests. Jennifer Adams, director of the Ottawa-Carleton School Board said her board “strongly encourages” students to write the tests.

At the book launch, Westheimer said that while he supports the opt-out movement, he isn’t entirely against standardized testing—assessing schools as a barometer for how things are going can be a good thing.
“It’s not like there are big, bad, evil administrators trying to harm children,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to do what they think is the best thing.”

Eat, eat as fast as you can: lunchtime in Centretown

OConnor and Queen 0915Downtown workers rush to food trucks and coffee shops on their lunch breaks, quickly lighting cigarettes and making personal phone calls on street corners. No one wants to spend their time talking to a reporter.

“That smells really good,” I say to the man sitting next to me. He looks up without smiling, his mouth full of fries, then turns back to his food, filling his mouth—within seconds he chews the last bite.

He’s wearing a neon yellow vest, a hardhat sits next to him on the bench, and he balances a small cardboard box filled with a hot dog, a can of Coca-Cola and French fries. The smell of ketchup and grease comes as much from his meal as from the nearby food truck, The Best Fries in Town.

The corner of Queen Street and O’Connor Avenue is a stopover point at noon on a Thursday. The line-up at the food truck has a short, stocky man in military uniform, a businessman in a dark pressed suit, and construction workers with bright vests. Small groups of government workers from nearby buildings stream past, wearing summer skirts, sandals, short-sleeved dress shirts, polos, and pressed trousers. Their ID tags are tucked into pockets, hung around their necks, or clipped onto belt loops.

The construction worker sitting next to me leaves as soon as he finishes his hot dog, carrying a paper bag of fries and his hardhat up O’Connor toward Parliament Hill. Cranes and scaffolding loom ahead and new copper roofs shine in the sun.

Steady lines of cars and pedestrians create a white noise of voices and engines improbably blending together into a single sound. Aside from an occasional car horn and a pedestrian yelling, “It’s my right of way, asshole,” to a passing truck, the sound is constant.

Another man sits down and sets down a tall Starbucks coffee beside him. He’s bald and tall, wearing a dark grey, well-tailored suit, with a lit cigarette in-hand. I try to talk with him, and he smiles, but angles his knees and torso away from me as he finishes his smoke.

More workers stop, consume and hurry off, unwilling to talk for more than a moment.

At The Best Fries in Town, the staff have even less time to talk than the people on break. Between taking orders, the woman at the window gives me a smile and a nod before turning to lift a fry basket.

As 1 p.m. approaches, the streets start to empty.

“Alright ladies, I’m out of here,” says one woman in a groupitting nearby. They’re each wearing brightly-coloured knee-length skirts—green, orange, yellow—and they’ve been talking about a wedding in Quebec.

“It was more like a commitment ceremony,” the woman in the orange skirt says.

They each get up, not quite letting the conversation go, as they continue talking and walk toward the World Exchange Plaza.