When discussing public education, it seems like there is generally a 'hair-trigger' response, at least in the popular press, to complain about funding and the disconnect between leadership, policy, and what really goes on in the classroom. Though every state or province's public education has room to improve, it's not all bad out there. Ontario, Canada's most populous province (and my home province!) is globally well-regarded for its high student performance on international tests and for its success in managing education in a 'target-driven' climate with high numbers of urban and immigrant students (Hargreaves, 2012, pg. 109).
Ontario’s success is supported by sound leadership strategies to manage capacity building at all levels of leadership, from the Ontario Ministry of Education, tasked with setting targets and providing funding and external expertise, to district leadership, in charge of aligning hiring policies with strategy and supporting schools in learning, to school leaders who create local collaborative learning communities (OECD, 2011, pg. 75).
Ontario’s success begins with teacher and principal preparation. Teachers are selected from the top 30% of graduates and implement a standard provincial curriculum developed by teachers and subject experts (OECD, 2011, pg. 69). In 2008, the ministry initiated the Ontario Leadership Strategy, outlining the skills and traits of effective school leaders and a province-wide appraisal program (OECD, 2011, pg. 76). The province also has a mandated, problem-based principal qualification program including face-to-face mentorship and problems of practice as a basis for learning (Arlestig, Day, & Johansson, 2015, pg. 222; Ontario College of Teachers, 2017, pg. 18; Hallinger, 2003, pg. 62). In Hallinger (2003), Chin states that such an approach promotes understanding and skill-retention (pg. 62) and supports the field-based approach to leadership training (pg. 65) mentioned as a hallmark of effective programs by Littky and Shen (pg. 93).
The Ontario College of Teachers’ (OCT) Principal Qualification Program Guideline (2017) outlines instruction for the principalship that includes six facets: setting directions, relationships and capacity building, developing the organization, improving instruction, securing accountability, and developing personal leadership resources (pp. 5-7), all of which are cited by Chin, Littky, and Shen as being best practices in principal preparation (Hallinger, 2003, pp. 62-64, pp. 91-92). Robinson further supports shared vision and trust-building via collaborative cultures and exhibited personal integrity as positive leadership practices (Grogan, 2013, pp. 306-308). In Grogan (2013), Fink and Markbolt state the need for instructional leadership in schools (pg. 317) and Sergiovanni highlights the need for teacher capacity-building (pg. 376).
The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (LNS) and Student Success Division (SSD), created by the Ministry of Education in 2003 and 2004 respectively, work to promote initiatives supporting increased student achievement in Ontario (OECD, 2011, pg. 72). The LNS is tasked with increasing Elementary literacy and numeracy achievement and the SSD with increasing rates of high school completion, both considered prime factors in preparing students for life in the 21st century (Hallinger, 2003, pg. 25). Following the creation of the LNS, and including members as representatives, the “Essential for Some, Good for All” (ESGA) project was initiated by the district-level generated Council of Ontario Directors of Education (CODE) to answer the call of the Education for All (EfA) special education initiative in 2005 (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 130). The implementation of the CODE’s ESGA project was centered around professional learning communities (PLCs) engaged in studying how to leverage Universal Design for Learning and assistive technology to improve academic achievement for special education students, enhance teachers’ capacity and practice, and connect schools across districts (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 112).
The LNS, SSD, and ESGA initiatives are examples of the benefits of strategic leadership promoting integrated policy development and leadership strategies that leverage middle-leadership development and two-way communication and feedback, both laterally and vertically, to foster trust and professional respect between stakeholders at the government, district, and school level (Hallinger, 2003, pg. 26). The LNS, SSD, and ESGA were all created separate from ministry bureaucracy and composed of field-based, relationship-building teams of respected district and school leaders tasked with promoting an integrated, shared vision of improving instruction and data-driven, practice-based collaborative learning with the support of Ontario’s teachers (OECD, 2011, pg. 74; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 129-130). Their expertise and directive to serve as ongoing mentors and confidants rather than evaluators supported their ability to facilitate successful PLCs and support capacity-building in teachers and school administrators through constant feedback and trusting relationships (Grogan, 2013, pp. 299 & 322; Sheppard, Brown, & Dibbon., 2009, pp. 87-88). EQAO testing is implemented as a measure of accountability, but results are not made public and struggling schools receive extra support, not punitive measures (Arlestig, et al., 2015, pg. 228; OECD, 2011, pg. 74) encouraging measured risk-taking (Sheppard et al., 2009, pg. 97).
At the policy level, ministers worked closely with the government and OECD to develop shared goals among ministers and advisors (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 110; OECD, 2011, pg. 73) and align with other provincial policy strategies when forming the LNS (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 125-126). This strategic leadership relates problems to the wider mission, supports effective PLCs, fosters sustainability and success, and is representative of Caldwell’s ‘boundary spanning” domain of best educational practices (Grogan, 2013, pg. 306; Sheppard et al., 2009, pp. 101-104; Hallinger, 2003, pp. 26-32). The province provided districts with funding and freedom to hire their own Student Achievement Officers (SAOs) and plan autonomously (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 124; OECD, 2011, pg. 74). Districts distributed leadership further by encouraging schools to find solutions to meet local needs, with school leaders encouraging teachers to engage in problem-based learning in PLCs (OECD, 2011, pg. 73-75). The ESGA project was initiated by middle-leadership and sought to further “break down silos” between specialists and teachers at the district and school level while providing mentoring support to each district, a practice that Sheppard et al. (2009, pg. 88) state is conducive to successful professional development learning (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 112). Schools were further encouraged to communicate across districts with other schools facing similar problems (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pp. 129-130).
All three initiatives were resounding successes: the LNS increased provincial pass rates by 15%, the SSD increased secondary school graduation rates by 10% (OECD, 2011, pg. 72), and the ESGA was very successful in decreasing gaps in reading and writing by almost 10% and 20% respectively (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012, pg. 113). While Canadian education spending is comparable to other OECD nations, the country ranks in the top 10 in many key categories on the PISA test, especially impressive given the high immigrant population and resource based economy (OECD, 2011, pg. 77; OECD, 2015, pg. 5-7; Arlestig, et al., 2015, pg. 215). Ontario’s approach of strategic policy development, shared vision, distributed leadership, and respect for educators as professionals is an exemplar of leadership development successfully increasing achievement and building capacity in the province’s public education system.
Arlestig, H., Day, C., & Johansson, O. (Eds.). (2015). A decade of research on school principals: cases from 24 countries. Heidelberg: Springer.
Bernard, J., Wade-Woolley, L., Barnes, M. A., Beitel, M. G., Bergeron, B., Bouffard, J., . . . Woloshyn, V. (2005). Education for all: The report of the expert panel on literacy and numeracy instruction for students with special education needs, kindergarten to grade 6. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario.
Grogan, M. (Ed.). (2013). The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership. San Francisco: Wiley.
Hallinger, Philip. (2003). Reshaping the Landscape of School Leadership Development. Taylor & Francis.
Hargreaves, A., Shirley, D. L. (2012). The global fourth way: The quest for educational excellence. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
OECD (2011). Ontario, Canada: Reform to support high achievement in a diverse context. Lessons from PISA for the United States. OECD Publishing.
OEDC (2015). Pisa 2015: Results in focus. OECD Publishing.
Ontario College of Teachers (2017). Principal’s Qualification Program Guideline.
Sheppard, B., Brown, J., & Dibbon, D. (2009). School district leadership matters. Toronto: Springer.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 18 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.