Case Study - System on the Move: Executive Summary

Context

Ontario is Canada’s largest and most diverse province, serving just under two million students in 5,000 schools within four different publicly funded school systems (English public, English Catholic, French public and French Catholic). In 2003, the government introduced a large-scale reform, the Ontario Education Strategy, in response to limited improvement in elementary and secondary schools.

Theory of action

Ontario has identified three system-wide goals for the education sector: 1) improved levels of student achievement, 2) reduced gaps in student achievement and 3) increased public confidence in publicly funded education. The Ontario Education Strategy follows a theory of action that is anchored in three interrelated key areas of organizational improvement. The strategy builds partnerships and collaborative relationships across the education sector. These partnerships support educators at all levels of the system in sharing successful practices, addressing persistent challenges and building the capacity of their school or district to improve student learning. The emphasis on data and transparency provides pressure for improvement without judging or evaluating performance through pejorative measures or practices. 

Implementation and focus

Although the reform is comprehensive with many supporting initiatives, eight core areas of focus and implementation run across the entire strategy.

  1. A small number of ambitious goals

    The initial focus of the Ontario reform was to improve students’ acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills (deeply defined to include higher-order thinking and comprehension) and increase the secondary school graduation rate (including innovations to make programs more relevant to the life interests of students). These priorities have remained intact since the outset.

  2. A guiding coalition at the top

    From the beginning, central leadership was seen as essential. An “Education Results Team,” including the Premier, Chief Student Achievement Officer and other key stakeholders, monitors progress, brainstorms programs and helps the system stay the course.

  3. High standards and expectations

    High standards and expectations are implicit in the ambitious targets that were set for students, sometimes referred to as “stretch targets” for student achievement and graduation rates.

  4. Investment in leadership and capacity building related to instruction

    If there is one concept that captures the centerpiece of the Ontario strategy, it is capacity building supported by major investments in personnel, resources and finely tuned intervention strategies.

  5. Mobilizing data and effective practices as a strategy for improvement

    A number of new data management and assessment tools have been introduced to enable system-wide collection of student-level data that can be integrated, tracked over time and used to inform policy and practice.

  6. Intervention in a non-punitive manner

    A key feature of the strategy is to encourage risk-taking, learning and sharing of successful practices, while intervening in a non-punitive manner.

  7. Being vigilant about distracters

    From the very beginning, leaders of the Ontario strategy committed to a proactive mindset that “distracters” would be inevitable but that they would work to minimize their interference with the main priorities. A distracter is anything that takes away energy and focus from the core agenda.

  8. Being transparent, relentless and increasingly challenging

    Although the strategy is light on judgment, there are a number of aspects that increase pressure for accountability, including transparency about results and practices, peer interaction and sharing across schools, and negotiation of targets and implementation plans.

Outcomes

The Ontario Education Strategy is making a difference, resulting in overall increases in numbers of students meeting the elementary school provincial standard for reading, writing and mathematics and graduating from secondary school. The strategy’s success as a dynamic partnership between the Ministry of Education, the district schools boards and the schools suggests that large diverse education systems can improve through collaboration and collective work that focuses on students and honours diversity of culture and community.