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The topic McGuinty is unlikely to touch: elite students

Even on Dalton McGuinty's favourite subject, voter fatigue is starting to catch up to him.

The Ontario Premier still polls ahead of his rivals on education - but not, according to the latest survey by Nik Nanos, by as much as his Liberals might expect. "He's starting to wear, personally," Mr. Nanos says of Mr. McGuinty. "What we're seeing on education is a spillover effect."

That's bad news, obviously, for Mr. McGuinty's re-election prospects on Oct. 6. And it helps explain why, as much as he'll continue to talk a great deal about education, he probably won't be talking about the sorts of policies that his own education advisers believe should be the next step in improving the province's schools.

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Mr. McGuinty's problem, or one of them, is the perception that he's out of touch with the general public - an impression he'll want desperately to avoid reinforcing. But at a time when "elite" is often a dirty word in politics, it's the elite (or potentially elite) students that the experts want him to spend more time on.

To date, Mr. McGuinty's focus has been on ensuring that fewer kids slip through the cracks - and the results are fairly impressive. Since he took office, more elementary-school students are coming in at the acceptable level on standardized tests. The high-school graduation rate has gone to 81 per cent, 13 points higher than in 2003. Postsecondary attendance and graduation rates have similarly (if not quite as sharply) climbed.

The new full-day kindergarten program is supposed to help continue that trend. But to compete with emerging economies such as China and India, or with trendsetters in education policy such as Finland and Singapore, Ontario doesn't just need to have more students at an acceptable level; it also needs to get more of them to a really high one. And on that front, it hasn't yet made much progress.

The changes in Grade 6 standardized test results between 2003-04 and 2009-10 are instructive. The share of students achieving at least "Level 3" (basically a traditional "B" grade) has gone from 54 per cent to 68 per cent. But the proportion reaching "Level 4" (more of a traditional "A") has been stagnant, hovering just above 10 per cent.

Getting more students into that latter group might prove trickier than getting them into the first one. Providing extra help to struggling students is one thing; challenging gifted ones to think more critically and creatively is another. But through continued changes to teaching methods and culture, it should be doable.

To develop any real political momentum toward that goal, however, is a different matter. Mr. McGuinty's renewed promise of 75 per cent of students meeting the provincial standard has a nice ring to it. Vowing to get, say, 15 per cent to the highest level doesn't have quite the same populist appeal.

At the postsecondary level, Mr. McGuinty has a similar dilemma. There are many policy people who will tell him that the quality of high-end university programs, their ability to prepare Ontarians to compete at the international level, deserves the government's attention. Toward that end, and toward attracting talent that might stick around after graduation, Mr. McGuinty last year announced a new scholarship aimed at wooing more foreign students to the province - only to be accused by both opposition parties of being unconcerned by the plight of everyday Ontarians.

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Behind the opposition's reaction was research that shows voters' biggest postsecondary concerns are about affordability and accessibility, with lots of (in some cases misplaced) anxiety about whether their kids will get to further their education at all. And while Mr. McGuinty stood by his scholarship, the polling is very likely to influence what he promises during the campaign.

Elections are not the be-all and end-all, and Mr. McGuinty - or whoever has his job after Oct. 6 - could well adopt more ambitious goals for all levels of education. But campaigns are useful for creating expectations of meeting certain targets.

The danger is that in the coming one, even the self-styled "Education Premier" will wind up promising what the province is already doing, rather than what it could be doing better. And really, he probably lacks the political capital to do much else.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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