In many parts of the world, education change might have the right goals--better outcomes for students, including students from groups that had previously lagged behind average achievement levels. But many of these efforts have used wrongheaded approaches or failed to pay enough attention to what we are learning about effective large-scale change. In particular, many strategies place too much emphasis on test results as the main way to drive improvement.
In contrast, Ontario's education change strategy embodies vital principles, grounded in research, that are associated with meaningful and sustainable change. Changes are respectful of professional knowledge and practice, and their main elements are coherent and aligned at the provincial, district, and school levels. Key partners--the provincial Ministry of Education, school boards, schools, and provincial and local organizations of teachers, principals, and others--work together. Change strategies are comprehensive and emphasize building capacity for improvement through professional learning, strong leadership, necessary resources, and effective engagement of parents and the broader community. Great emphasis is placed on public communication so that people know what is happening and support the schools. Most of all, there has been a relentless focus over several years on the same basic strategy. We believe this is an example of large-scale change that is effective and sustainable.
Ontario has about 2 million children in its public education system. The provincial government provides essentially 100% of the funds for all four sets of locally elected school boards, reflecting Canada's constitutional requirement for public support of minority-language and Catholic schools. School boards (the equivalent of a school district in the U.S.) range in size from a few hundred students to about 250,000 in the Toronto District School Board. The province has nearly 5,000 schools extending across 400,000 square miles--the size of the eight southeastern states put together. The average elementary school has about 350 students; the average secondary school, fewer than 1,000. Ontario also has a very diverse enrollment, with 27% of the population born outside of Canada and 20% visible minorities. Ontario's 120,000 or so teachers and most of its support staff are unionized. There is a mandatory provincial curriculum.
Thus, education in Ontario has all the challenges one might anticipate--large urban areas and very remote rural areas, significant urban and rural poverty levels, high levels of population diversity, areas with sharply dropping enrollment and others with rapid growth.
During the 1990s, Ontario education was troubled. The province had significant labor disruption, lots of public dissatisfaction, increasing private school enrollment, and poor morale leading to high teacher turnover. However, in 2003, a new government was elected with the renewal of public education as one of its highest priorities. A premier with a deep commitment to education and talented ministers brought strong political leadership to bear. The Ontario education strategy that began in 2003 has two main components:
* A commitment to improve elementary school literacy and numeracy outcomes, and
* A commitment to increase high school graduation rates.
These priorities were chosen because public confidence in and support for education depend on demonstrated achievement of good outcomes for students. These core goals are supported by a large-scale strategy based substantially on Michael Fullan's work. (1)
The core strategies are also complemented by a range of other initiatives. Some of these initiatives, such as strengthening school leadership or renewing curricula, are necessary to support the key goals. Of particular importance was a commitment to reduce class sizes in the primary grades. Other initiatives, including provincial support for negotiating four-year collective agreements with all Ontario teachers in 2005, were necessary so that all parties could focus on improving student outcomes instead of being distracted by labor issues. …