Education Opinion

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

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 23, 2012 11 min read
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(This is the second of a two-part series on Ontario’s schools. You can find Part One here)

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?

Part One in this series included guest responses from administrators, parents and teachers, including the President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

Today’s post will include a contribution from Professor Michael Fullan, along with several comments from readers.

Response From Michael Fullan

Michael Fullan is professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, and is currently special advisor to the premier and minister of education in Ontario. This piece originally appeared as part of TheAtlantic.com’s America the Fixable series, produced in collaboration with Common Good. I have also included a short introduction Professor Fullan has written specifically for today’s column:


Countries around the world are focusing on improving the performance of their educational systems. This phenomenon is getting increased attention partly because the PISA results from OECD shows clearly that the literacy, math and science results of 15 year olds by country varies considerably. As we look at the policies and strategies behind these numbers leaders realize that they have a choice, that is, it is possible to influence the quality of the outcomes. Couple this with the fact that education performance is clearly essential for the economic and social development of a country in a global world, there is an increased spotlight on the problem.

Unfortunately some countries in a hurry to address the issues get the solutions wrong. I call these mistake ‘wrong drivers for whole system reform’. Drivers are policy and strategy instruments designed to ‘cause’ improvement in the system. A wrong driver is one that does not work; a right driver is one that does produce improvement. In our work on system reform we have been sorting out what drivers work and which ones do not. This is our conclusion: excessive accountability, individualistic strategies designed to increase human capital, technology and ad hoc policy solutions waste valuable time and resources and often make matters worse. By contract emphasizing capacity building , collaboration and teamwork, instruction or pedagogy, and systemic coherent policies do work. The key is which policies end up ‘motivating’ teachers and others to put in the effort to get better results, while at the same time serving the public accountability requirement that practices and results are getting better, and that interventions are occurring that actually address the problems in a productive way.

In Ontario since 2003 we have been deliberately trying to get the right mix of right drivers in place. And it is working! In the rest of this article i give a somewhat simplified rendition of waht we have done and accomplished. No country can imitate the strategies of another and get success. But our approach and results as well as progress in other countries using similar policies raises the direct question of how can the US re-configure its approach at the state and Federal levels in order to increase performance on a wide scale. The good news is that this can be done, and that in can be done in a relatively short time --5 or 6 years to make substantial progress. Time is of the essence in getting started down this more productive path.

What America Can Learn From Ontario’s Education Success

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 now some eight years later its 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. Morale of teachers and principals is stronger (fewer teachers leave the profession in the first few years), and achievement gaps have been substantially reduced for low-income students, the children of recent immigrants, and special education students (although not for “First Nation” students). In short, the entire system has dramatically improved.

These accomplishments have not gone unnoticed outside Canada. 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.

The net result of these five forces is an education system that has the characteristics of a high-performing organization: relentless focus, interactive pressure and support, a preoccupation with results and how to improve them, a culture of mutual commitment, and what we call collaborative competition, where there is no limit to what is being attempted. The fact that this strategy develops leaders at all levels -- leaders who focus on results, as they help develop other leaders -- means that sustainability is built into the whole enterprise. Ontario isn’t perfect. But it proves that large-scale reform can be accomplished in school systems in fairly short periods of time.

Responses From Readers

Seonaid Davis

I am a teacher/administrator in Ontario. What is going on with the Ontario education system is that we have a Provincial government who has made education a priority over its three terms in office. The curriculum is sound and the assessment policy is research based and focused on improving student learning. Students are assessed in different thinking categories and according to four levels of achievement. Assessment is criterion reference and the levels are established provincially. The government has three main goals that they have been consistently working towards:

* high levels of student achievement
* reduced gaps in student achievement
* increased public confidence in publicly funded education

This focus has come with additional resources for publicly funded schools. The government has put into place a lot of programs to support students, including full day kindergarten for 4 and 5 year olds (Junior and Senior Kindergarten). Students are required to be in school until 18 (Learning to 18) and there is a focus on student success in high schools with funds earmarked for keeping at risk students in schools. There are many different policies but they all related to the 3 goals of the government so there is a consistency within them.

Our curriculum is reviewed and revised on a 7 year cycle and involves consultation with teachers as well as Ministry staff. The new curriculum is designed with a backward design model, similar to Understanding by Design with a focus on overall expectations in each area, supported by specific expectations. Teacher must assess the overall expectations but can choose specific expectations that support the underlying big ideas of the overall expectations in their instructional planning. That helps with the overload of expectations that are common in all curricula. Our teachers are well educated, well paid and generally respected.


I notice that Ontario schools are working quite hard to involve parents in the school system via Parent Councils. Volunteers in the classroom seems more welcome in elementary schools than would have been the case a decade ago.

Heidi Siwak is a teacher and blogger in Dundas, Ontario, Canada:

In 2003 Ontario began an overhaul of its education system that centered on research-based effective practices and and providing funding and training at all levels so that students across the province, no matter the income level or location could experience success. Many school boards were amalgamated and the province took over funding of schools from local communities so that access to excellent education became more equitable. It has not been an easy process, there have been bumps along the way, but I would definitely say that at the elementary level we are much better than we were.

Key to the change has been developing a common understanding of leadership

I’ll share a two additional links. The first contains a wealth of resources including many videos on effective practices.

Our teaching practices are expected to be based on high yield strategies.

Rather than there being continuous ever-changing initiatives, the province decided to focus on two specific targeted areas: literacy and math as these are seen as the foundations of all other subjects. We experience standardized tests in those two subjects in grades 3 and 6 at the elementary level.

One of the notable statistics from Ontario shows that while we do not experience the grinding levels of poverty found in the US, there is very little difference between the success levels of those from poorer backgrounds and those from more economically advantaged backgrounds in our province.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Michael and to many readers 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” tomorrow.

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.