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Education Opinion

Response: Factors Behind The Success Of Ontario’s Schools -- Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 21, 2012 10 min read
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(This is the first of a two-part series on Ontario’s schools)

Much has been written about the high-performing schools in Finland and Singapore, but I’ve recently begun to hear more about our neighbors to the north in Ontario.

So, last week I asked:

What’s going on in Ontario’s schools?

I’ll be posting Part Two of this series tomorrow night, which will include reader’s comments. In addition, another resource worth reviewing is a report edited Linda Darling-Hammond and Robert Rothman titled Teacher And Leader Effectiveness In High-Performing Education Systems.

Today’s post will include a guest response from a teacher, an administrator, and a parent deeply involved in Ontario’s school system: Paul Taillefer, President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation; Vice-Principal (& parent) Shannon Smith; and parent leaders Annie Kidder and Sheila Stewart.

Response From Paul Taillefer

Paul Taillefer, a native of Sudbury, Ontario, holds a bachelor’s degree from Laurentian University and a bachelor of education degree from the University of Western Ontario. Before becoming CTF President in 2011, Paul was involved in the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) for over 25 years, serving two consecutive terms as President:

In March, I attended the second International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York which gathered government and teacher leaders from 24 countries and regions with high performing and rapidly improving educational systems.

Throughout the Summit, Canada emerged as having one of the most successful education systems in the world, being referenced several times by many of the participants. We believe that our success is derived from many factors: our highly educated teaching force, the importance of professional development, ongoing relations between ministries/departments of education and education stakeholders, and the importance of public education in building Canadian society and strengthening our democracy.

In recent years and especially during the summit, many eyes were turned to Ontario for its outstanding education system and excellent teachers. Ontario’s success story didn’t happen overnight. It is the product of forward thinking strategies and favorable educational policies which, since 2003, have been introduced by a new progressive government that chose to build instead of destroy relationships with its teachers, casting aside the regressive path taken by the previous provincial conservative government.

That is, until a few months ago.

In February 2012, the recently re-elected Ontario provincial government (known for being a champion for education since 2003), announced that a wage freeze, pay grid freeze and benefit reductions would be the order of the day - an announcement that has certainly cooled the government’s relationship with the province’s teachers. The announcement was perceived as a flashback to the time when former Ontario Premier Mike Harris’ Conservative government eroded teacher rights and when education was decimated by policies of the short-sighted “Common sense revolution” political platform. The new road for Ontario with its new austerity blueprint does not augur well for public education. How it plays out in the end, we have yet to see. However, one thing is certain - labour peace can only come with the respect for teachers and for the collective bargaining process which are integral parts of a high performing education system that cannot be ignored. There are, however, other elements which support a strong, vibrant and successful public education system.

Here’s a brief overview of the Canadian context:

Canada’s social safety net

The Canadian education framework extends well beyond the classroom. Children and families are supported within society, in conditions outside of school by way of medical assistance, social programs and immigrant support. The social fabric of Canadian communities assists in reducing the extremes of situations for children and families. Perhaps most important is the societal value placed on diversity and equity support that ensures the vast majority of Canadian public schools are high quality, high performing schools. Societal value for the collective good creates a strong public education system from K - 12 and beyond.

Education funding

A core strength came from the dominant role of provincial/territorial governments in structuring and funding a system with high levels of local involvement striving toward goals within a provincial/territorial framework. The almost non-existent federal role and the minimal local political influence are seen to contribute to consistency, clarity of purpose and stability. Perhaps most important is the integrated focus placed on education and education improvement. Teachers work with local and provincial officials at all levels in setting directions, choosing strategies, and engaging the players. The system is built on unity, cooperation, collaboration and shared values. Public education and public schools are a source of community pride and satisfaction.

Support for teachers

Good teaching depends on attracting and retaining talented people in the profession, not just through pay but by providing them with excellent working conditions, professional development opportunities and above all, by including their voices in education reform.

PISA’s top-performing countries show us that the way forward is by elevating the teaching profession. Among the hallmarks of high-performers such as Canada and Finland are strong teachers unions and evaluation systems that identify, support and advance effective teaching .... The work of teachers should be assessed, but there is no simple, easy way to evaluate a profession that combines many different tasks, from explaining content to inspiring students to maintaining order in class. Rating schools and teachers is counterproductive and anathema to the profession. The lesson from PISA is clear: Respect teachers and treat them like professionals.

The OECD’s 2011 background report for the Summit, Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons From Around the World” stresses the importance of meaningful teacher engagement in the development and implementation of educational reform - “school reform will not work unless it is supported from the bottom up.” The report goes on to say that “open and ongoing systematic dialogue and consultation are fundamental to the process. Such dialogue should recognize that teachers are experts in teaching and learning and thus can make an essential contribution to the design of reforms.”

One of the most important ways we can respect teachers and treat them like professionals is by listening closely to what they have to say about their area of expertise: teaching and learning. We need to utilize this knowledge to effect better decision making regarding education policy and practice.

Response From Shannon Smith

Shannon Smith is the Vice Principal of a large elementary school in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, and a parent. She is @shannoninottawa on Twitter and writes a blog:

In Ontario the focus has been on developing collective professional capacity. We have standards-based assessments written by all students at several grade levels - grades 3 and 6 at elementary, for example. The assessments are directly linked to our provincial Mathematics and English curricula. School results are made public. When schools are determined to be struggling, they receive additional funding and instructional coaching support to develop the capacity of the staff to meet the needs of all students in math and literacy.

The focus of professional development within my district is to network teachers so that colleagues share their expertise and learn together. The approach is job-embedded inquiry and student work is the focus for discussion and decision-making. In this way, there is collegial pressure and support to improve instructional practices. Assessment is key and there has been a large push towards developing shared understandings around the standards we want students to meet. Ontario has witnessed much change over the past several years, and I feel that the evolving and responsive approach is something to note. Our teachers’ federations have taken a lead role in providing professional development aimed at harnessing the creative and innovative expertise of their members in order to develop the profession as a whole.

The danger I see being in the international spotlight is that other districts may latch on to a decontextualized notion of what we are doing to support all students, ignoring the evolution that is ongoing. While there are many take-aways, there is always the danger of taking an approach out of context and assuming that it is the proverbial golden ticket to student success. The collective hard work of thousands of educators working together is at the core and there is much more hard work to be done. It is a work in progress.

The focus here is on standards, not standings. Equity of outcomes for all students forms the foundation for our system.

Response From Annie Kidder and Sheila Stewart

Annie Kidder is the Executive Director of People for Education, an Ontario-based independent organization that conducts research and advocacy, and promotes citizen in engagement in public education. Sheila Steward blogs at Sheila Speaking and is @SheilaSpeaking on Twitter:

Ontario’s name crops up a lot these days in the international “talk” about high-performing education systems. Our schools are inundated with visitors asking, “How did you do it?” “Why have your test scores gone up so much?” “How have you managed to narrow the gap between the high- and low-performing students?”

Maybe the real question should be, “Has Ontario become an educational Nirvana?”

Short answer: Not quite.

Long answer: There are many great things going on in Ontario’s schools.

In Canada, provincial governments have absolute jurisdiction over education from Kindergarten to Grade 12. In Ontario, we have a leader who refers to himself as the Education Premier. His wife’s a teacher and he has made education one of his primary causes. For the last ten years the province has lived by the “pressure and support” mantra of Michael Fullan; test scores and graduation rates are up, teachers’ strikes have stopped, and the education system is stable.

But is it perfect? No.

As in many other jurisdictions (but interestingly not in Finland, another name that consistently crops up in conversations about top education systems), Ontario has focused primarily on getting test scores up in three subjects: reading, writing and math. In a world of two-tiered curricula, other subjects are relegated to the bottom tier.

The test scores have improved, but at the same time the percentage of students in grades 3 and 6 who say they “like to read” has plummeted, and fewer schools have music teachers or teacher-librarians. Many schools now rely on parent fundraising to support arts enrichment, extracurricular activities, technology enhancements, library books and even new sports facilities. This has created another kind of inequity - some schools can raise as much as $500,000, others raise $0 - it depends on the average incomes of the parents. The result: a double advantage for privileged students, and a double disadvantage for students from low-income families, who have fewer enriching resources at home and fewer still at school.

Ontario may have better test scores and labour peace, but it is suffering from a narrowing of the very definition of education. In contrast, places like Finland and Singapore are expanding the time kids spend on the arts, and they’re working on building students’ 21st century citizen competencies.

Ontario has some catching up to do if we want to educate young people who will truly thrive as adults.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including comments from readers in my “Part Two” post tomorrow night.

Thanks to Paul, Shannon, Annie and Sheila for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.