Look North

Once again, New York can learn from Ontario. As has been previously described, Ontario has taken a dramatically different approach toward educational reform than New York. The approach to reform has been dramatically different, as have been the results. Ontario is an international success story and is recognized to be the best school system in the English-speaking world (Fullan, 2013). Fullan also reported that public satisfaction with education in the province of Ontario is at an all-time high. New York, on the other hand, is in the midst of a political drama that it hasn’t seen in quite some time (if ever). This doesn’t benefit the children of New York, so anything that we can do to improve the situation is vital. Perhaps we can learn from Ontario and this example.

The educational leadership of Ontario initiated a series of projects in districts across the province, of varying size and circumstance, aimed at more fully educating exceptional/special education students. A significant amount of money was offered to all of the districts who were invited to participate. Districts were not forced to implement a uniform approach. Rather, districts

…harnessed creativity and energy in order to respond flexibly to the diversity of local needs and circumstances essentially, [the initiative] was more about reculturing the beliefs and collaborative working practices of a profession than about restructuring the formal roles and responsibilities within the system. Its approach to sustainability… was also unusual: to make a one-time change in a way that would produce benefits that would last a lifetime. (p. 4).

Common research goals were shared by all of the district-based projects. The goals were evaluated at the Provincial level, with the results of the evaluation and subsequent generalizable conclusions communicated to all districts across the Province. The common goals were aimed at understanding the theory of action behind each project, learn from the experience of the project, and assess its impact on student achievement. Andy Hargreaves and Henry Braun were hired by the Ministry of Education to conduct an evaluation of the common goals and to communicate their findings.

By now, you must be impressed by this dramatic difference between the approaches that Ontario and New York take toward reform. The objective of this post is not to describe the details of the projects, but rather to contrast the fundamental way that the two governments are approaching education. It seems that New York’s Theory of Action, if it has a deliberate one, is to influence the state system by increasing individual accountability, making assessments more difficult (the wrong drivers of change). Ontario does have a deliberate Theory of Action, that improvement and innovation happens through leveraging social capital and collective accountability (the right drivers of change). More specifically, here are principles that drive educational change in Ontario (as you read them, think about which of these, if any, are an intentional part of how we in New York are approaching change):

  • Inspiring Beliefs that motivate widespread participation;
  • Leading from the Middle by a respected group of accomplished leaders from the field who were actively supported by a large majority of their provincial colleagues;
  • Local Authority and Flexibility that allows and insists on responsiveness to the diversity of local needs and circumstances;
  • An Integrated Strategy that dovetails with existing high priority strategies;
  • Collective Responsibility for all students’ learning at the school and [district level]; and
  • Intensive Interaction that connects everyone and creates coherence among all policy elements by constant monitoring, mentoring, and cross-pollination of insights, ideas, and activities. (p. 9)

It is hard to identify many of these principles in the statewide initiatives occurring in New York at this time. Not coincidentally, student achievement is not increasing in New York and the level of drama has reached unprecedented levels. Let’s recognize that we’re not having the success we want and look to our neighbors to the north for some ideas. They are so much like us; yet when it comes to education we’re headed in opposite directions.

Could you imagine full-day pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten for all the students in New York? Could you imagine the number of low-performing, turn-around warranted elementary schools going from 800 to 87, in the midst of raising standards? They are doing this in Ontario. Now, they’re turning their attention toward 21st Century Readiness and a focus on their 6 Cs: Communication, Critical Thinking & Problem Solving, Collaboration, Creativity & Imagination, Character Education, and Citizenship (Fullan, 2013). We haven’t figured these things out, yet. Let’s look to the north.

Craig,-Jeff_WEBJeff Craig
Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Support Services

Hargreaves, A. & Braun, H. (2012). Leading for All: A research report of the development, design, implementation and impact of Ontario’s “Essential for Some, Good for All” initiative. Retrieved May 7, 2015 from http://www.ontariodirectors.ca/downloads/Essential_ExecSummary_Final.pdf

Fullan, M. (2013). Great to excellent: Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda. Retrieved May 7, 2015 from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/FullanReport_EN_07.pdf

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