WASHINGTON, April 27, 2010 — In the 1990s, Canadian schools were characterized by stagnant achievement rates, declining enrollment, labor unrest, and public criticism of teachers. And yet, within a few years, a provincial system found a way to reform schools quickly and effectively.
Canada has a highly decentralized federal system with no national Ministry of Education, national standards, nor a prescribed curriculum. Standards and curriculum are set at a provincial level. The structure is similar to the American system, in which States and districts govern schools, but as author and researcher Ben Levin pointed out, "it's like that New Yorker cartoon where a man asks a woman, 'You seem familiar, but somehow strange. Are you, by chance, Canadian?'"
Indeed, surface similarities are plentiful. But deeper examination reveals differences. Nonetheless, what worked for Canadian schools is worth serious consideration in the United States and elsewhere.
Ontario is Canada's largest province, serving two million students, many of whom are bi- or multilingual. The student body includes nearly one-third immigrant population. The turnover rate among teachers was at a staggering 32%.
In 2003, the Ontario government set straightforward educational goals: better achievement, greater equity, and improved public confidence. They meant what they said: the goals and strategies remained constant, despite changing leadership.
The results? Within four years, the number of students who met sixth-grade benchmarks in reading, writing, and math jumped from 55% to 67% among English-speaking students, and 80% among French-speaking students. The number of low-performing schools shrank from 20% to under 5%. High school graduation rates crept from 68% to 79%. Teacher attrition rates dropped to 9%, signaling an improvement in teacher morale. While the initiative did not achieve all of its goals, these results were a laudable improvement in a four-year period.
The Ontario government employed many strategies. Their starting point was realizing that their students were weakest in higher-order skills, and strongest in basic skills. They realized test preparation nor drilling would improve real higher-order skills, even though those methods may show improvement on paper.
The provincial government implemented high academic standards, made authentic assessments very clear, instituted collective capacity building, and made accountability transparent.
For teachers, the reformers met labor's needs so educators and principals can return their focus to student needs. Levin said of merit pay and charter schools—frequent topics of American education reform debates—"these are not system strategies; these do not deal with all schools."
Students saw more classes in the arts, music, physical education, and other courses that are too often cut. "Students need a broad and rich education," said Levin.
The government also spent a lot of time on what they termed "sector respect." All stakeholders gather to acknowledge what works, discuss changes, and simply listen to other opinions. "Prescription only takes you so far, then peoples' hearts and minds must over," Levin concluded.
Dubbing their initiative, "results without rancor or ranking," the designers of the Ontario reform argued against the fallacy, "heavy-handed accountability can create success."
Ben Levin is the author of How to Change 5000 Schools: A Practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change and Every Level. He is currently with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.