In 2003, the Ontario government began to focus on issues of educational improvement. The government instituted a series of reforms that have proven incredibly successful, with elementary achievement results rising from 54% in 2003 to 72% of elementary students performing at or above the provincial standard in in reading, writing and mathematics in 2014, and high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 84% in the same amount of time. This past summer I spoke with Mary Jean Gallagher, Ontario’s Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division, and Richard Franz, Director of Research, Evaluation & Capacity Building, for the Student Achievement Division, to learn more about their experiences with this reform effort thus far, and their plans for the future. As this conversation was so informative, we have decided to post it in two parts. Here, in part one, Gallagher and Franz share some of their thinking on aspects of the Ontario reform effort that have been essential to its success.
Bringing educators into policymaking realm
In 2008, Gallagher was the leader (Director of Education) of Canada’s southernmost school district when she was selected for her new position at the Ontario Ministry of Education (MOE). This position – Chief Student Achievement Officer and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division– was envisioned as an innovation. While MOE officials were typically promoted from public service positions, Gallagher’s experience was in schools, as a teacher, a principal, superintendent, and Director of one of Ontario’s 72 school districts. With the creation of this Division and position, and the hiring of Gallagher, the MOE demonstrated that it valued the expertise of educators. This went along with the MOE’s renewed emphasis on valuing the work of educators, particularly in positions that focused on student achievement. At that time, the MOE wanted to ensure that all of their work was based on valuing educators—seeing improved learning as a result of improved teaching.
With this new effort to bring educators into the policymaking realm, the MOE also made sure that approximately two-thirds of staff within the Student Achievement Division was comprised of practicing educators who had already proved themselves to be strong instructional leaders. In order to do this they created new positions in which practitioners, such as teachers and school leaders, could work for up to three years with the MOE. The theory behind this model was that working closely with “front-line” educators would build the capacity of both those who worked in the field, as well as those who worked in the central offices. Franz pointed out that working with educators on the creation of new policy helps the MOE officials by providing perspective on how such policy might “land” in schools. Additionally, once those educators complete their temporary positions in the MOE offices and return to their schools, they arrive with more knowledge and understanding of how such policies were developed and created. This new “blended” model builds appreciation in both spheres. As Gallagher and Franz explained, this effort helps create alignment between goals, priorities, methodologies and implementation, and over the past 13 years it has proven a “formula for wonderful results.”
Maintaining a limited number of goals
Gallagher and Franz also attributed Ontario’s success to the MOE’s narrow focus on a limited number of educational goals, specifically increasing student achievement, closing educational gaps, and increasing confidence in public education. As Gallagher and Franz explained, these are the goals that everyone working in the Ontario education system can recite, as well as the targets associated with them. By focusing closely on a limited number of goals they have seen a huge difference in their ability to keep focused on what is important.
In addition to knowing these goals, educators have become increasingly aware of the ways in which they can measure improvement and identify success as they work to achieve them. This allows teachers to develop an understanding of their own efficacy and agency, which, as Gallagher and Franz noted, excites and motivates educators. Ontario’s focus on province-wide testing standards in literacy and numeracy, and a set curriculum, has promoted clarity about what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do.
Using data and assessments to test the system, not individuals
Starting in the mid-1990s, Ontario’s government began implementing a set of tests based on Ontario’s Curriculum Expectations and Standard of Achievement for grades 3 and 6 in reading, writing, and math, as well as in grades 9 (math) & 10 (literacy). As Gallagher explained, Ontario holds very high standards for their students. Student work is identified as level 1, 2, 3, 4, and the provincial standard of success is level 3 (the equivalent of a letter grade of B), which is higher than what is expected on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Ontario’s assessment organization is an arms-length organization of the government, funded by the MOE but separate from it with its own board of directors. This organization has become, over time—an opportunity for professional learning as well, as teams of educators are assembled to devise test items and mark assessments over the summer months. As a result, teachers become well versed in the standards and measurement of performance and thereby build their own assessment literacy.
Gallagher and Franz note that these assessments are not standardized, and are not proprietary. Instead, they are criterion referenced assessments of the curriculum. The tests are used to gather information about the degree to which the students are able to demonstrate what they have learned from the curriculum. As a result, Ontario’s teachers feel less pressure to “teach to the test”; instead, the teachers are teaching to a curriculum they approve of and which teachers have had a hand in developing. The overall sense is that the tests are used to assess the entire educational system, rather than individual teachers and students. This collective focus also encourages teachers to work collaboratively and use assessment for learning for student achievement efforts.
Ontario has also moved to a common data system across the province as well. Starting in the late 1990s, the government created a tracking system in which all students were assigned an ID number. This allows the MOE to track individual school’s assessments of student performance, and compare those results to province-wide results. The ID number is also now being used to track students from early childhood education through to college (or apprenticeships). As Gallagher and Franz noted, this ID number is not linked to student names, but is used to analyze trends and patterns to understand what is happening system-wide.
Teachers in Ontario regularly work together to analyze student work and plan new instructional strategies. These practices are articulated in an assessment policy called “Growing Success” and have been put into practice through a collaborative inquiry model of professional learning. Professional learning through collaborative inquiry has been so successful that it has replaced the old model of professional learning in which teachers were corralled in “banquet hall style” training sessions, where experts presented and teachers broke out into workshops. As Franz explained, “We assume that teachers come now with a certain level of skill, and we work with teachers on how to use a collaborative inquiry approach to examine student work, thinking about how to move students, and making that the object of their inquiry.”
How have classrooms changed?
As Gallagher explained, one of the things that everyone has learned is that the ideal classroom is less about teaching strategies and more about teacher thinking and behavior. This process starts in the assessment domain, with deep teacher knowledge of the students, the curriculum, and the learning goals. Then, the teachers can utilize any of the strategies they might have in their “backpack,” to help the students progress. Generally, in an ideal classroom one might see high levels of engagement, individual and group work, and differentiation; however, there is no particular reliance on any specific strategies or programs throughout the period. The aim is to allow teachers the space to try out their own strategies, and to develop their ideas through collaborative discussion with other teachers. This way, teachers feel accountable to one another and the classroom becomes a “de-privatized” place.
What Gallagher and Franz have noticed is that there is a trend of more inquiry-based learning in classroom. While there are some concerns about how much curricular content there is to learn, there is an increase in student-led learning, focusing on problem solving and creative work. In the following audio excerpt, Gallagher describes a recent visit to a kindergarten classroom where the teachers allowed students to lead an extended study of trees:
Be on the look-out for part two of this post, in which we focus on how Ontario plans to move ahead with an expanded reform agenda.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.