In the last decade, the Canadian province dramatically improved its education system to become one of the best in the world. Its innovative strategy can provide a blueprint for U.S. reform.
Ontario is Canada's largest province, home to over 13 million people and a public education system with roughly 2 million students, 120,000 educators, and 5,000 schools. As recently as 2002, this system was stagnant by virtually any measure of performance. In October 2003, a new provincial government (Canada has no federal agency or jurisdiction in education) was elected with a mandate and commitment to transform it.
Improvements began within a year, and now some eight years later its 900 high schools have shown an increase in graduation rates from 68 percent (2003-04) to 82 percent (2010-11), while reading, writing, and math results have gone up 15 percentage points across its 4,000 elementary schools since 2003. Morale of teachers and principals is stronger (fewer teachers leave the profession in the first few years), and achievement gaps have been substantially reduced for low-income students, the children of recent immigrants, and special education students (although not for "First Nation" students). In short, the entire system has dramatically improved.
These accomplishments have not gone unnoticed outside Canada. The McKinsey group, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C., and Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance have all done recent case studies on Ontario's education system, concluding that it is one of the most improved and highest performing in the world. They especially admire the impressive, innovative strategy that got the results. So, what's the secret?