Transforming Schools an Entire System at a Time

Improving education is at the top of many governments’ agendas. Recent large-scale efforts yield useful lessons for relatively quick whole-system reform.

The Ontario Case

Ontario is Canada’s largest province, home to over 13 million people and a public education system with roughly 2 million students, 120,000 educators, and 5,000 schools. As recently as 2002, this system was stagnant by virtually any measure of performance. In October 2003, a new provincial government (Canada has no federal agency or jurisdiction in education) was elected with a mandate and commitment to transform it.

Improvements began within a year, and some eight years later, the province’s 900 high schools have shown an increase in graduation rates from 68 percent (2003–04) to 82 percent (2010–11), while reading, writing, and math results have gone up 15 percentage points across its 4,000 elementary schools since 2003. Fewer teachers and principals leave the profession in the first few years, and achievement gaps have been substantially narrowed for low-income students, the children of recent immigrants, and special-education students. In short, the entire system has dramatically improved.

In brief, the strategy consisted of assertive goals and high expectations from the government, combined with a commitment to partner with the education sector in order to develop capacity and ownership in the service of student achievement. The key factors were:

1.       Relentless and focused leadership at the center (in this case, the Ontario government)

2.       A small number of ambitious goals, specifically higher levels of literacy and numeracy and improved high-school graduation rates

3.       A positive stance toward the schools, districts, and teachers

4.       A core strategy of capacity building to improve the quality of instruction

5.       Transparency of results and use of data for improvement purposes

6.       A nonpunitive approach to accountability

7.       Learning from implementation, by disseminating best practices both vertically and across schools and districts

8.      Fostering leadership at all levels to drive and support items 1-7

The conclusion to be drawn is that systems will be successful if they focus on a small number of key strategic elements, deploy them in concert, build capacity on the part of the implementers, persist with the process over time, and monitor and learn as they go in relation to actual results and effective practices.