Thinking Forward: The 40th Anniversary Max Bell Essays and Lectures

Smarter School Reform

The (rare) innovations that can help Canada’s K-12 students do better.

Canadian education debates regularly include passionate calls to “transform” our K-12 system, with proposals ranging from a laptop for every student to the promotion of charter schools. But all this talk of bold reform, argues Benjamin Levin, often ignores a key fact: international research shows Canada already has one of the world’s most effective public education systems.

While there’s certainly room for improvement, this means we’ve got a lot to lose – and big bets can mean big costs. It was only 25 years ago that well-intentioned reformers pushed to create separate middle schools for early adolescents, a huge investment that’s brought little educational return. So ultimately, Levin concludes, the problem isn’t that schools resist innovation, it’s that they’re inundated with it. And the vast majority of changes simply don’t work well.

For Levin, the solution lies in running schools more like successful commercial enterprises, at least when it comes to “educational R&D.” This would allow Canadian schools to quickly adopt those innovations we know help – such as increasing school ties to local communities, through programs like food co-ops – and address their most urgent challenges, like dealing more effectively with special education.


Ben Levin is a professor and Canada Research Chair at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. He previously served as deputy minister of education in Manitoba and in Ontario.


Co-presented with

  • Max Bell Foundation