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Lessons From Toronto: Increasing Achievement in a Large Urban School System

January 14, 2015 7 min read
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Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network (GCEN) is a network of urban school systems in North America and the Asia-Pacific region which aims to develop practical wisdom from research and experience on issues of transforming learning and achieving equity at scale. Recently, the GCEN met in Toronto, Canada where members visited schools, talked to students, teachers, principals, regional superintendents, district officials, school board members, and researchers who studied the Toronto system. We also met with a number of employers who work with the schools. Vivien Stewart, Senior Advisor, Asia Society shares some of the lessons learned.


By guest blogger Vivien Stewart

The Toronto School System
With 260,000 students in 589 schools, the Toronto District School Board is the largest school district in Canada and the fourth largest school district in North America. Toronto is also one of the most diverse cities on the planet. One quarter of its students were born outside of Canada and English is a second language for more than half of them. In fact, more than 80 languages are spoken in the district. Toronto schools are similar to the US in their organizational structure, the diversity of the population, and the decentralized governance structure. (There is no federal role in education in Canada, only provincial and local). It also has all of the complexities, instability, and turmoil of big city school board and union politics, but has shown strong academic performance relative to other cities, and Canada as a whole is one of the top ten countries on PISA. So the successes of school reform in Toronto are very relevant to US educators.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1990s, the Conservative provincial government of Ontario introduced teacher testing and other forms of regulation of the teaching profession, emphasized province-wide testing, and slashed education budgets. The acrimonious atmosphere led to labor disruptions, public dissatisfaction, low morale and high turnover of teachers, and the exiting of students to private schools. Grave doubts were expressed about the future of public education in Toronto. Then in 2004, a new provincial Labor government brought the warring parties together to set a new policy direction and an ambitious agenda for educational improvement. Borrowing some lessons from the literacy and numeracy initiatives of Tony Blair’s government in England, Ontario set focused targets for significantly improving literacy and numeracy in the early years and for raising the high school graduation rate. Between 2003 and 2010, grade 3 reading, math, and writing pass rates went from approximately 55% to 70%. The graduation rate also rose from 68% in 2003 to 82% in 2013. And the number of low-performing schools was reduced from 150 to just ten. Public confidence in the system also increased.

Building Capacity for Literacy and Math
How was Toronto able to achieve this? First, the strategies that were put in place to improve literacy and math were based on the premise that top-down reforms don’t generally achieve lasting change because they don’t focus on the instructional core. So the emphasis was on building capacity at every level—within the provincial ministry, at the district level, and in schools and classrooms. Coaches were employed and extra positions created to give time to teachers to work in teams in a process of collaborative inquiry focused on student work. Every school had to produce a school improvement plan that laid out how it would reach the literacy and numeracy goals and a new data system was used extensively by teachers, principals, regional superintendents, and at the city level to assess whether progress was being made and achievement gaps were closing. Lateral sharing across the district from “schools on the move” helped to spread effective practices. A new framework for teaching and leadership development was introduced that included universal two (now up to four) years of mentoring and induction for new teachers, a teacher appraisal system combined with annual professional learning plans, and a talent identification and leadership development system for principals focused on instructional leadership. Toronto now retains 99% of its new teachers. Principals’ roles are defined as lead learners, responsible for creating a climate of respect and trust that enables improved performance. Across all the schools we visited, the teachers’ sense of collaboration, teamwork, and confidence that they would be supported was palpable. Over time, the formal structures for professional learning that were put in place to start the reforms seem to have created a new self-sustaining set of norms and an organic culture of collective responsibility.

Expanding Options for High School Success
Second, at the high school level, the Student Success Initiative was based on the recognition that potential dropouts can be recognized by the 9th grade. Teams were created in each of the 110 high schools to track data on these students. A variety of strategies were developed to keep potential dropouts engaged in school and to re-engage those who had dropped out, including credit recovery programs, adult mentors, and, for those who were not engaged by the traditional high school curriculum, alternative learning environments. These environments include school-within-a-college, cooperative education placements, and specialist high skills majors, in which students receive both a high school diploma and an industry certification.

Members of the Global Cities Education Network were impressed with the personalized placement learning programs that undergird these programs and the range of several hundred industry/organizational partnerships that have been created by the district to support them. Specialist skills majors have now grown to encompass about 12% of the cohort and about one quarter of the cohort participate in some form of cooperative education placement. In Toronto, career and technical education is being modernized to move away from its association with auto mechanics to a focus on high skills occupations, including STEM fields, and to catalyze the idea of experiential learning as a way for all students to create a broader set of 21st century competencies.

Embracing Diversity
Finally, Toronto is turning its diversity into an advantage. Since its schools look like the United Nations, its curriculum is designed not just to prepare students for the local community but to engage and educate students for the world stage. In middle schools, we saw students developing inquiry questions and leading lessons on global cities and sustainability as well as on global challenges and responses to them. Mainstreaming entrepreneurial thinking processes and problem-solving tools developed by a local business school are also being introduced to help prepare students for a world of “messy problems with messy solutions.”

An Aligned System
To be sure, Toronto still has major challenges—the graduation rate is not high enough and achievement gaps still exist between some groups, but it is a dynamic system that is constantly learning and evolving to meet social and economic demands. One critical factor has been the alignment between the province, the district, and the schools; everyone is on the same page about what they are trying to achieve. And the control of education financing at the province level has enabled resources to be targeted where they are most needed. In terms of the balance between system direction and local decision making, the focused educational goals, the resources to meet them, the data to reveal progress and challenges, and the development of partnerships with other parts of the city, are all held centrally at the district level but everything else is left to the professional skills and judgment of teachers and principals at the school level. The district “insists and supports but does not impose,” says Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto and one of the chief architects of the reform measures.

Lessons from other education systems always have to be adapted to particular cultural and political contexts. But the Toronto school district does offer important insights into a systemic approach to developing and refining a teacher and leader quality system that attracts, develops, and supports effective educators in increasingly effective schools, using data to propel progress not punishment, and creating learning partnerships with organizations outside the schools to promote excellence and equity.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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.

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