Good public schools in Ontario are a reason my family lives in Toronto (and I have business travel to places where education isn’t as good).
The McKinsey group, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C., and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance have all done recent case studies on Ontario’s education system, concluding that it is one of the most improved and highest performing in the world. They especially admire the impressive, innovative strategy that got the results. So, what’s the secret?
It’s simple. Ontario public schools follow a model embraced by top-performing hospitals, businesses, and organizations worldwide. Specifically, they do five things in concert — focus, build relationships, persist, develop capacity, and spread quality implementation.
In practice, this meant refocusing the way Ontario schools delivered education. Like many school systems, Ontario had too many “top” priorities. The Ministry of Education selected three–literacy, math, and high school graduation–with a commitment to raise the bar for all students and close achievement gaps between all groups. There are other goals, of course, but these three are non-negotiable and take precedence because they leverage so many other learning goals.
Focus and persistence ensure that these priorities are not going to be discarded along the way. The history of education innovations has generated a “this too shall pass” mindset among teachers. One of our colleagues calls this phenomenon “the law of innovation fatigue.” Any attempt to create a high-leverage priority (like the three adopted by Ontario) requires that the education system as a whole commits to them long-term.
But priorities don’t mean anything if you don’t develop the relationships necessary to enact them. The provincial government set out to develop a strong sense of two-way partnerships and collaboration, especially between administrators and teachers, and in concert with teachers’ unions. This required providing significant leeway to individual school districts to experiment with novel approaches to reaching the province’s three main educational goals, and focusing significant reform efforts on investments in staffing and teacher development.
By focusing on teacher development, Ontario was also able to raise teacher accountability. Decades of experience have taught Canadian educators that you can’t get greater accountability through direct measures of rewards and punishments. Instead, what Ontario did was to establish transparency of results and practice (anyone can find out what any school’s results are, and what they are doing to get those results) while combining this with what we call non-judgmentalism. This latter policy means that if a teacher is struggling, administrators and peers will step in to help her get better. (There are, however, steps that can be taken if a situation consistently fails to improve.)
The final element of the strategy involves identifying and spreading quality practices. Most education systems are loosely coupled to say the least — behind the classroom door, teachers are islands unto themselves. In such isolated systems, two problems emerge. The first is that good ideas do not get around; they remain trapped in individual classrooms or schools. The other problem is that poor teaching can remain entrenched, because good practices are not being disseminated. A big part of the Ontario strategy has been to break down the walls of the classroom, the school, and even the district by increasing communication, cataloging and sharing best practices, and fostering a culture of teamwork. To that end, the Ministry of Education guides local school districts in developing more collaborative professional environments, while also acting as a clearinghouse for innovation and best practices.
What America Can Learn From Ontario’s Education Success | Michael Fullan | May 4, 2012 | The Atlantic at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/what-america-can-learn-from-ontarios-education-success/256654/.