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Navigating the Complex Implications of the Right to Read Inquiry Report

Jinah Kim and Tara Zwolinski

On November 9, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada released a unanimous decision [Moore v British Columbia (Education)] recognizing that learning to read is not a privilege, but a basic and essential human right. The Supreme Court found that Jeffrey Moore, a student with dyslexia, had the right to receive the intensive supports and interventions that he needed to learn to read from the school board.

Following this decision, on October 3, 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) announced a public inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. The inquiry involved obtaining information from eight sample English-language school boards and the 13 English-language public faculties of education, and hearing from students, parents, organizations, educators and other professionals.

On February 28, 2022, the OHRC released the Right to Read Inquiry Report with 157 broad-sweeping recommendations. The full report is 558 pages. Although the commission was intended to investigate human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities, the scope of the recommendations include changes that would impact all students in Ontario schools.

What Are the Highlights of The Recommendations?

The report characterizes Ontario’s public school system as “failing its students” and it is that position that influences the OHRC’s recommendations. The recommendations cover a wide range of topics, including curriculum and instruction, pre-service teacher education programs, early screeners, reading interventions, accommodations and comprehensive educator professional learning. Although the report states that critical early word reading skills are but one of the necessary components of a comprehensive literacy program, this is the driver of many of the recommendations. Something that must be noted is that throughout the Right to Read Inquiry Report, the OHRC emphasizes the need for sufficient, stable, enveloped yearly funding, and implementation support that includes job embedded, comprehensive, ongoing, professional development for educators, and access to professionals. ETFO wholeheartedly agrees.

What is ETFO's Position on The Right to Read Inquiry Report?

As a staunch defender of our publicly funded education system ETFO recognizes every student’s right to read and is calling for a fully-funded response to the OHRC’s Right to Read Inquiry Report. ETFO also recognizes that students from groups protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code are disproportionately impacted, leading to difficulties accessing their right to read.

ETFO’s concern, however, is that the Ford government is arbitrarily selecting recommendations from the report. They are focusing on the recommendations that require the least amount of investment and are creating a false sense of accountability in responding to the report. They are introducing more standardized assessment without addressing what happens after the assessment.

ETFO members are deeply committed to assessment and highly trained in delivering it. Educators work diligently to ensure that every student learns to read accurately, fluently and with enjoyment.

ETFO unequivocally agrees that Ontario’s public education system must address the issues and gaps experienced by students experiencing difficulty in reading and guarantee that they receive the support and timely interventions that they need to succeed. However, literacy skills cannot improve without sufficient funding, resources and supports, timely interventions for students, and smaller class sizes.

ETFO would have welcomed the opportunity to provide more fulsome feedback to the Ministry of Education on the Right to Read Inquiry Report and its recommendations.

How Has the Ministry of Education Responded to the Report?

Shortly after the Report was released, Minister Lecce tweeted the government’s support and commitment to strengthening and reforming literacy skills and thanked the OHRC for its work. His tweet included a series of actions that the Ontario government would be taking, including revising the Language curriculum with increased attention to direct, explicit, systematic instruction in word-reading skills, removing all references to the cuing systems and releasing an Effective Early Reading Instruction Guide. This guide was 21 pages and skeletal at best. Since then, the information that we have received has been minimal and vague. There have been statements made about “overhauling the curriculum” but no specific information has been shared despite calls from ETFO and the education affiliates. The Ministry of Education sometimes shares information in social media posts, other times in proposed legislation or press conferences. The result is that the message is confusing, disjointed and unclear. There has been no genuine and meaningful collaboration and communication from the Ministry on this issue.

How Has ETFO Responded to the Report?

ETFO has responded to the Report in a variety of ways. For example:

  • In April 2022, ETFO and OTF provided feedback to the Ministry of Education on the current Language curriculum. The eight questions provided by the Ministry were generic and included questions such as, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Language, Grade 1-8 curriculum?"
  • In June 2022, ETFO provided feedback to the Ministry of Education on mandating early reading screening for Kindergarten to Grade 2. In that submission, ETFO reminded the Ministry of Education that “Teachers’ professional judgement is the cornerstone of assessment and evaluation.” This principle is reflected in Policy/ Program Memorandum (PPM) 155 and recognized in the Central Terms of the 2019-2022 Teacher/Occasional Teacher Collective Agreement.
  • In September 2022, the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF) and the education affiliates shared the OTF Position on the Right to Read Inquiry Report of the OHRC. The paper contained eight recommendations including the importance of providing educators with both pre- and in-service training that is rich in a variety of methodological/pedagogical approaches; providing improved funding and supports so that educators can access job-embedded professional learning on the teaching of reading; agreeing that there is an urgent need for better funding from the Ministry to support students with reading disabilities such as dyslexia; decreasing the current wait time for students to be assessed and to access appropriate intervention; and respecting educator professional judgement by refraining from imposing a revised curriculum in the absence of educator input, as well as standardizing assessments, screeners, data collection and reporting; and advocating for smaller class sizes and teacher-student ratio.
  • In anticipation of the Language curriculum revisions, and in response to some of the Report’s recommendations, beginning Summer 2022, ETFO started to support members through programming in a variety of ways such as Summer Academy courses, and ETFO Additional Qualification (AQ) courses.
  • In Spring 2023, ETFO provided information to local leaders and its members about the government’s ill-conceived literacy plan and their response to the Right to Read Inquiry Report.

What Are the Potential Implications of the Report on Members?

Early Screening:

One of the key findings of the Report is that a screening measure is needed to identify students who are currently having or are at risk for future word-reading difficulties so they can receive more instruction or immediate intervention. The OHRC does not provide a definition of either a screener or a diagnostic assessment in the glossary of their report. Instead, the OHRC states: “a screening measure is a quick and informal evidence-based test that provides information about possible reading difficulties.”

The government has stated that there will be early reading screening requirements (up to twice a year) for all students in year two of Kindergarten to Grade 2 using a standardized screening tool. However, there has been no commitment to provide comprehensive in-service professional learning or to remove barriers to professional services, which are also recommendations within the report. The government also doesn’t address the fact that there is a lengthy process to assess and identify students who may have learning disabilities or dyslexia. In the Report, school boards stated that the wait time for students to access board professional services, particularly psychoeducational assessments, could be several years.

For ETFO members, there is a concern about yet another new major curriculum (following the Mathematics and the Science and Technology curricula) being introduced by the government for educators to implement with little or no notice and limited professional learning. There is a lack of clarity about who will be implementing the screeners, and most importantly, what resources and supports will be made available to students based on the screener results.

Lack of Professional Learning and More Supports:

The government has signaled the removal of all references to the cuing-systems and the addition of expectations that will address systematic, explicit instruction in foundational word-reading skills. This is a seismic shift in practice and one that will require comprehensive, job-embedded, relevant professional learning that includes: research, modelling, guided practice, workshops, mentor-coaches, release time, resources and the necessary classroom materials to actualize these significant shifts in practice. An after-school webinar or a halfday session on a PA Day is not sufficient. This is outlined in Recommendations 56 and 57 from the Report and has not been addressed by the government.

Implications for Collective Bargainings:

Using some of the recommendations from this report, the government is attempting to alter the scope of teacher professional judgement in the central agreement in relation to the use of diagnostic assessment in ETFO’s current round of bargaining. The government wants to limit teachers from using their professional judgement to determine what kind of assessment best suits an individual student’s needs, and when assessment should/could be administered. They want to impose yet another standardized assessment, that is dictated by the Ministry, and not let teachers who know their students best, exercise their professional judgement. This could have significant implications for other areas in which teachers are currently able to use their professional judgement, removing teacher autonomy and diminishing the respect for teachers as professionals.

What is the Government Really Doing?

This government is trying to create a crisis in public education where none exists. The reality is that we do not have underperforming schools in Ontario. What we have are chronically underfunded schools and a government that refuses to take responsibility and ensure that every student has the resources and supports they need. In the recent Grants for Student Needs (GSN) announcement, the increase in per-student GSN funding from 2022-23 to 2023-24 was 0.72 percent. When adjusted to account for a rate of inflation of 6.8 per cent in 2022, actual per student funding has decreased by $1,200 since 2018. This has happened at a time when students need more supports than ever before.

In terms of the Right to Read Inquiry Report, the Ford government is arbitrarily selecting those recommendations that will cost the least, while purposefully ignoring the recommendations that require significant investment in public education, including but not limited to smaller class sizes and supports for students with special needs, as advocated by ETFO for many years. Instead, they are choosing to spend money on procuring a standardized screening tool.

This government is not interested in collaborating with the very people who are responsible for teaching and assessing students – those who will be implementing the new curriculum and its policies. Instead, the Ford government is using parts of the Right to Read Inquiry Report recommendations to justify and push forward a different agenda: the de-professionalization of the teaching profession and the monetization of Ontario education.

So What Should ETFO Members Do?

ETFO encourages our members and the public to review the Right to Read Inquiry Report and to look carefully at the 157 recommendations in order to understand the full scope of the report.

Currently, ETFO advises members to continue:

  • Using professional judgement to teach and assess their students’ progress;
  • Applying a wide variety of pedagogy and resources that include phonics and phonemic awareness to teach literacy;
  • Asking about opportunities for professional learning provided within the school day;
  • Inquiring about which supports and resources your district school board is introducing;
  • Talking to your friends and colleagues about the implications the report has for educators and public education; and
  • Showing support and solidarity for your bargaining team.

ETFO also encourages members and the public to pay attention to the changes that are being made to public education, including the ways privatization is creeping in. Communities are urged to stand up to the Ford government’s chronic, systemic underfunding of our public schools. Together we can ensure that all students in Ontario receive the high-quality public education they deserve.

Jinah Kim and Tara Zwolinski are members ETFO Executive Staff.