The controversial Ford government appointee put in charge of overhauling the agency responsible for Ontario’s student standardized testing, says he is worth his $140,000 salary.
In his first in-depth interview since being named to the post, Cameron Montgomery defended his credentials, saying his 25 years working in education, a PhD in educational psychology, and experience as a researcher, make him “a very good fit” to chair the board of directors at the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).
He said the full-time job — it was previously a part-time position for which his predecessor earned less than $4,000 — comes at a time when EQAO is working towards modernizing its tests, and the agency prepares to take on a stronger and broader role.
“My full-time position comes within the framework of a new vision,” said Montgomery, whose past experience includes working as an assistant professor of education at the University of Ottawa, assisting students with special needs at Centre Jules-Léger and researching student and educator stress.
“The government is committed to EQAO and what EQAO does as an independent agency is assess to support learning. So it’s a serious mission, it’s a vital mission for our society, and it requires a full-time chair.”
At a news conference on March 15, Education Minister Lisa Thompson said the Progressive Conservative government will be “reforming” the EQAO, which administers tests in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10 to assess reading, writing and math skills. But specific details about what that will look like have not yet been released.
“We’re going to give it a stronger, broader mandate,” she said in an announcement that included numerous other changes to the education system. “We will work with Dr. Montgomery to modernize this agency. We will update what it evaluates and how it evaluates the success of our education program. We know that EQAO standardized tests are unpopular with parents, students and teachers throughout this province — and there’s good reasons for that. But rest assured, we will be addressing them. I look forward to what EQAO can do for our education system with a fresh focus and energy.”
The daily operations of the EQAO, which is also responsible for making recommendations on improving public education, are led by professional staff headed by a CEO, who reports to the board. Meanwhile, the board of directors is responsible for the governance and strategic direction of the agency, and is accountable, through its chair, to the minister of education.
News of Montgomery’s three-year appointment, which was made public in February, ignited controversy and sparked headlines. His predecessor, former NDP education minister Dave Cooke, earned a per diem of $225, which last year amounted to just $3,600, leaving some questioning Montgomery’s high salary.
Montgomery’s ties to the PC party — he stepped aside as a candidate so former ombudsman André Marin could run in a 2016 byelection in Ottawa-Vanier and in the last provincial election was narrowly defeated in the battleground riding of Ottawa-Orléans — had some calling it a patronage appointment. And, concerns were raised that choosing a former PC candidate for a newly created full-time job could make it challenging for the agency to maintain its arm’s-length relationship with the province.
On Friday, Montgomery downplayed those concerns, but he added, “We’re definitely always open and willing to collaborate with the ministry and our other partners.”
His primary goal will be to run an effective board that provides “strategic direction and guidance” once the agency knows what its new mandate will be. And, he said he will act as a “liaison between our independent arm’s-length agency and the ministry.”
“That liaison role is extremely important,” he said. “This is a full-time position. It’s got a lot of actors, a lot of moving parts and the board needs to ensure that we’re moving in the right direction for modern-day society and students’ needs.”
Although the government has repeatedly expressed concerns with reading, writing and math scores, Montgomery said he has no specific goals to try to boost those scores. Rather, he said, the agency’s “goal is to support student learning through assessment.”
The agency is working towards modernization, which could mean replacing paper tests with computer-based testing, which would be faster to score. Currently, it takes EQAO months to generate reports for parents and educators, but new technology could allow the agency to provide full reports within weeks. And, depending on what technology is used, some information could be available instantaneously, such as scores from a multiple-choice component of a test.
“Information is power and the quicker (parents and educators) get that, the quicker they know about the students’ results, the better.”
Montgomery called the position “a real honour” and “a privilege.” He will be commuting between his home in Ottawa and Toronto, where he has rented an apartment at his own expense.
“I’m totally enthused by this opportunity,” he said. “I am listening … to all stakeholders, parents, children, school boards and other agencies.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74