An Online Private School’s Relationship with the Ontario Ministry of Education
Steve Baker, Principal – Virtual High School
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s legislative authority over private schools in Ontario is governed by Section 16 of the Education Act of Ontario (Act). In Ontario, a private school is considered by the Ministry to be an alternative to a public school as long as the private school provides instruction according to the Ministry defined curriculum standards and occurring between 0900 h and 1600 h on the school days to at least five appropriately aged students. Private schools in Ontario do not receive any government funding.
In order to begin and continue to operate in Ontario, private schools are required by Subsections 16 (1), (2), (3), and (4) of the Act to submit a Notice of Intention to Operate a Private School (NOI) form by September 1 of each school year. The NOI sets out the Ministry’s requirements regarding the characteristics of private schools and collects information including the name of the private school’s principal, address of school, hours of instruction, and projected enrolment. The NOI also indicates whether the school is seeking authority to award credits that result in the granting of the Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD). Subsection 16 (5) of the Act also requires that private schools submit information concerning enrolment and staff three times per year as required by the Ministry. The curiosity here is that while private schools are required to submit data, the Auditor General of Ontario’s 2015 Report indicates that the Ministry does not analyze private school data to ensure compliance for standards of instruction. Inspection Officers, however, are granted access to the Ontario School Information System (OnSIS) to view mark distributions and pass rates as well as attempted and earned credits.
As recently as 2014, the Ministry has reported that 1092 private schools serve over 110 000 students in Ontario. This represents about 6% of the approximately 2 000 000 students in Ontario’s publicly funded schools. If the private school is not offering OSSD credits, the school is not required to follow the Ministry policies with respect to Ministry approved curriculum or a standard of instruction. In 2014, 547 of the private schools were either secondary or combined elementary/secondary schools but only 446 of these offered OSSD credits. Any school offering OSSD credits must comply with Subsection 16 (6) and (7) of the Act, which requires the inspection of these schools’ compliance. Such oversight is carried out by qualified Ministry staff usually once every two years, although such inspections may be more frequent if the school is seen to be non-compliant with respect to Ministry policies. The inspected private schools are charged an inspection fee which has risen from $1,100 in 2010 to $4050 in 2015.
The Ontario Auditor General states that the Ministry has control over the
- private school ‘s content for each course of study,
- the quality of instruction and evaluation of student achievement,
- the principal in charge of the school,
- the common, school-wide evaluation policy,
- the school’s commonly used procedure for reporting to parents
- the school’s commonly used school-wide attendance policy, and
- the school’s student records.
Yet, despite these controls regarding the many aspects of the operation of a school, the Ministry claims that it does not regulate, licence, accredit or otherwise oversee the operation of private schools. As such, private schools are warned not to claim that the Ministry has approved the academic program of the school. Instead, the private school may indicate “that it has received a BSID number from the Ministry,” or the school may indicate that it “has received credit-granting authority from the Ministry.” The Ministry claims that it has the right to remove a non-compliant school’s BSID number, thus rendering it illegal to operate although there is controversy within the private school community regarding this Ministry statement of claim. While a private school issuing OSSD credits may not state, represent, imply, or otherwise indicate that the Ministry has approved or accredited the school’s academic program, or that the school is licensed by or registered with the Ministry, this is precisely what occurs.
Fire and Water
In 2002, the process of establishing an online private school in Ontario was still mired in the physical world. As a private school, Virtual High School had to supply a fire inspection report with its NOI application, and the Ministry could not allow an exception despite the fact that our school existed inside a laptop. The Kitchener Fire Chief had to come into our temporarily occupied space in Kitchener and inspect our laptop to ensure that it met all of the fire department’s requirements for a school building. He dutifully filled out the required form to accompany any new private school’s application to the Ministry and signed it. I have always wondered what he thought about that process and its inherent absurdity, but he never communicated to me that day any disdain for the process – a true professional in every regard.
The Ministry performed a number of in-depth inspections in 2002 and 2003 on the six courses of study in our online school, resulting in VHS becoming a fully accredited, inspected private school in Ontario in April 2003 with the BSID #665681. Jan McGraw, the Education Officer at the Ministry from the London Regional Office, applied all of her professionalism and experience to the process and showed foresight in allowing the concept of a virtual school to be inspected as online learning was still quite novel in Ontario – even as late as 2002.
In 2007, our online private school had to adhere to the new provincial standards for the flushing of school water systems as laid out in Ontario Regulation 243/07 – Safe Drinking Water Act, 2002 – Schools, Private Schools and Day Nurseries. Despite the fact that we did not have drinking fountains nor even washrooms for our 972 students in 2007, we were going to be required to flush our non-existent plumbing every week of the year and keep accurate and detailed records of these events. In addition, we had to have a licensed laboratory test on an annual basis for lead in the drinking water. I, of course, made a conscientious point of keeping water away from the keyboard of our laptop school. VHS wrote the Coordinator EOB of the Ministry seeking an exemption from the requirements of Reg. 243/07 in July 2007. A Provincial Officer of the Safe Drinking Water Branch of the Ministry of the Environment finally wrote VHS in March 2008 exempting VHS from Reg 243/07.
The fire and water NOI and inspection requirements may cause readers to believe that VHS views the Ministry as overly bureaucratic and out of step with the rapidly emerging world of online education. However, the goals of both the fire and water inspections are to protect children in schools, and nothing can be more important. The fact is that the Ministry simply was not philosophically equipped to deal with new methods of education, and they failed to see the need for accommodations for online schools in the formerly physical world.
Application of the Rules
In June 2004, the Ministry introduced an adjudication process for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) via “Policy/Program Memorandum 127 (PPM 127).” Adjudication panels may be established at the end of the school year to provide certain students with an additional opportunity to meet the literacy graduation requirement. The process is designed for students who, through no fault of their own, have not been able to take advantage of the normal opportunities to write the OSSLT and/or have not been able to enrol in or complete the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (OSSLC), owing to unforeseen circumstances. Every spring, the Ministry sends out procedures, application forms, and timelines for the adjudication process for that school year. Students who are otherwise eligible to graduate in June of a given school year are eligible for adjudication through which they may obtain their graduation literacy requirement if they meet certain criteria.
In the PPM 127 document, there is no mention of private schools. The Ministry interprets this to mean that the PPM 127 does not apply to private schools. Also, the Growing Success, 2010 document does not mention that these assessment, evaluation, and reporting policies apply to private schools. However, the Ministry insists that the policies do apply to the practices of private schools. VHS cannot be faulted for perceiving that a certain arbitrary application of the regulations exists within the collective mindset of the Ministry.
Upgrade or Make-Up Credits
In discussions with the Ministry in 2006, it was noted that schools within the publicly funded schools were offering courses during the summer. Such courses allowed the student to retake the subject in order to improve a mark previously earned in a similar course. The school boards were quite clear in their communications to the public about these courses, stating clearly that the students could earn the full credit by spending only half the time (i.e., 55 hours) it would normally take to complete the course during the regular school year. Subsequently, in 2006 and 2007, VHS worked very closely with the Ministry to develop the similar policies and procedures to be used by VHS for its students retaking a course to improve their mark.
In the 2011-2012 Inspection Report, the Ministry informed VHS that we could no longer offer “make-up” credits under the terms approved. Research at the time indicated that publicly funded schools advertised these courses as “Upgrade” credits which were not to be confused with “Recovery” Credits as outlined in Growing Success. VHS was careful to state publicly that the student would be required to cover all of the content of the course. It was also publicly stated that because the student had already completed the course, he or she should naturally be able to move through the course content at a faster pace when taking it a second time. VHS was quite surprised to read in the 2012-2013 Ministry Inspection that we were to remove all information on our website referring to “Upgrade” courses.
A repeated course in Ontario goes by many names, depending upon the school or school board: summer school course, repeat credit course, credit rescue, upgrade credit course, improvement credit course, credit reinforcement course, credit revival course, and make-up credit course, to name a few. VHS responded to the Ministry by providing clear communication to the students that all curriculum objectives would be covered. At no point do we indicate to the student that the upgrade credit courses at VHS require only 55 hours despite the fact that the publicly funded schools openly state this. It was extremely gratifying in February of 2016 to receive a memorandum from the Ministry’s Assistant Deputy Ministers addressing this glaring issue. The fact that the letter was sent to all publicly funded schools and private schools and Supervisory Officers of School Authorities meant that finally, the Ministry had finally seriously taken into account the matter of dealing with the “upgrading” course situation, a situation that had been unfolding for some time. The letter states that
If a student has passed a credit course and wishes to retake it during the regular academic year to upgrade his or her mark, the student is required to take a 110 hour course. The same policy applies if the student is retaking the course through summer school.
Finally, the Ministry takes the principled stand of treating all schools in the same manner under the rules laid out in Ontario Schools. VHS is encouraged that the Ministry is moving in the direction of treating both private schools and the publicly funded schools equally.
The Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools was released in 2010. The primary purpose of assessment and evaluation is to improve student learning. Information gathered through assessment helps teachers determine students’ strengths and weaknesses in their achievement of the curriculum expectations in each course. This information also guides teachers in adapting curriculum and instructional approaches to satisfy students’ needs and to assess the overall effectiveness of programs and classroom practices. Assessment is the process of gathering information from a variety of sources (including assignments, demonstrations, projects, performances, and tests). Such measures accurately reflect how well a student is achieving the curriculum expectations in a course. As part of assessment, teachers provide students with descriptive feedback that guides their efforts towards improvement. Evaluation refers to the process of judging the quality of student work on the basis of established criteria and assigning a value to represent that quality. In Ontario secondary schools, the value assigned will be in the form of a percentage grade.
Growing Success outlines a triangulation approach in terms of a variety of strategies that allow teachers to gather information about student learning. The three components – observation, conversation and student product – may include various strategies employed by teachers and should be used in conjunction with one another to provide a well-rounded picture of the students’ learning. The terms “formative” and “summative” are no longer used whereas Assessment For, Assessment Of and Assessment As delineate the various methods and purposes behind assessment and evaluation.
VHS’s inspection in 2013 revealed that our assessment and evaluation policies did not adhere to the spirit of Growing Success. The Ministry Inspector stated that, “There is no evidence of student achievement being collected over time from observations, conversations, and student products per Growing Success, 2010.” However, VHS courses contained more than the typical number of summative assignments than are found in conventional schools. Subsequently, VHS worked closely with the Supervisory Officers from the Ministry to design the processes to ensure that all of our courses would be in full compliance of all aspects of Growing Success. The Ministry insisted that VHS implement all aspects of Growing Success into all of its courses within a six-month time period, and VHS was eager to address the imbalance pertaining to evaluation as outlined by Ministry officials.
VHS firmly believes that Ontario’s education system is equal to if not superior to those in other provinces. The Ministry’s focus on ensuring that Ontario’s education system continues to be held in high regard around the world has our full support. VHS makes every effort to follow all policies with respect to the Ministry’s courses of study and standards of instructions as well as in its school operations.
VHS adheres to the Ministry’s Growing Success document carefully, and we believe that doing so is in the best interests of our students. By working collaboratively with the Ministry and by complying with their recommendations, we have improved the quality of our school. VHS appreciates the Ministry’s insistence on a quality standard of instruction because this insistence has made VHS a better school as attested to by the many positive experiences our students have had when studying with us and in post-secondary institutions around the world. That being said, the Ministry through its multiple inspection reports, has suggested policies, which in our opinion disadvantage private school students while they work toward earning their OSSDs. VHS will continue to work closely, as always, with the Ministry to ensure that the OSSD credits we issue are of the highest possible standard we can achieve.