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% 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, Ontario’s Director of Research, Evaluation & Capacity Building, 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. Part one focused on aspects of the reform that have been key to its success thus far. Part two explores Ontario’s approach to moving forward with an expanded reform agenda.
Planning the Future:
In 2013, Ontario’s Ministry of Education (MOE) set a renewed vision for the education system. This process allowed them to identify critical information about what they have achieved, and share this information with parents, business leaders, community members, teachers and students. As Gallagher explained, as a result of Ontario’s success over the past decade, “we have a newfound respect for our ability to set goals and measure progress and achieve them, so we are more careful about goals we set.” By engaging in a broadly based, 7-month collaborative consultation process, they engaged both qualitative and quantitative research methods to determine their next steps.
This process culminated in the production of their “Achieving Excellence” report. This report identifies four new, interconnecting goals for the education system. As they are described in the report:
- Achieving Excellence: Children and students of all ages will achieve high levels of academic performance, acquire valuable skills and demonstrate good citizenship. Educators will be supported in learning continuously and will be recognized as among the best in the world.
- Ensuring Equity: All children and students will be inspired to reach their full potential, with access to rich learning experiences that begin at birth and continue into adulthood.
- Promoting Well-Being: All children and students will develop enhanced mental and physical health, a positive sense of self and belonging, and the skills to make positive choices.
- Enhancing Public Confidence: Ontarians will continue to have confidence in a publicly funded education system that helps develop new generations of confident, capable and caring citizens.
As Gallagher and Franz explained, the process of determining these goals helped them to understand that in the future they need to “heighten the relevance of what people are learning, increase experiential learning, and use the community more broadly.” By engaging community members in the process they were able to learn that those members felt they had valuable information and experiences to offer the educational system, and were being underutilized. As a result, the MOE is now thinking of better ways to reach out.
Another key aspect that emerged is the importance of student voice. Since the consultation process included school-age students, the MOE was able to learn more about what the students felt needed to be changed about their own education. The MOE, for example, developed a program called “Students as Researchers,” which invites students to formulate questions about how to make their schools better places and trains them in research skills and ethics so that they can design and implement their own research projects, which are then shared with the MOE.
Challenges of new goals:
Looking ahead, Gallagher and Franz explained that there is some tension around the notion that good teaching and learning must be measured. New challenges include thinking about ways in which the system might be able to broaden the measures of success, and what counts as success, so that the emphasis is not only on test scores. This is particularly relevant since one of their new goals is to improve student well-being. In setting the goal, the MOE also must consider how to measure something that has no history of measurement or policy focus.
Another concern is the additional demands of the bureaucracy that might be added once new goals, and new measurement systems for those goals, are implemented. As Gallagher and Franz noted, one of the reasons for the success of the education reforms so far has been attributed to the narrow focus on a small number of goals. With a focus on the renewed four goals, how can they be incorporated into a successful system without overburdening it? As Franz explained, the new tension is about how to do it all is such a way that gets you the insight and information needed to guide the practices of all involved in the system in addressing the new goals, while continuing to build coherence such that actions in the name of one goal also support achievement of the other goals.
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