Getting to Better Schools

The promise—and pitfalls—of educational reform

Although many Canadians do not believe it, the international evidence shows that Canada has one of the most effective public education systems in the world. In various international studies, Canadian students rank well compared to most other countries. Just as importantly, the gap between our best and weakest students is smaller than in most other countries. This excellent performance, especially given Canada’s diverse population, is a main reason that so many delegations from other countries come to look at our education system with a view to learning what they could do differently. As someone who meets with many visitors, I know that outsiders are impressed with the consistent quality of our schools. In short, there are no grounds for thinking that there is some kind of education crisis in public education in this country.

That we have much to be proud of in public education does not mean improvement is impossible. Although good, our system is far from perfect. Too many children still do not get the benefits we wish from public education, and those who do not are disproportionately from some groups—particularly the poor, certain minorities, aboriginal people and those with disabilities. Moreover, because the world is changing, what brought success in the past will not necessarily do so in the future. Continuous adaptation is necessary to meet new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.

The success of our education system is not just a matter of what schools do. Student outcomes in education are deeply affected by factors outside the school, such as good health care for children and supports for parents that allow them to help their children grow and develop. Access to good jobs with decent pay and benefits for parents, and to adequate housing, are important for children. Environments that respect diversity and support different kinds of students (and families) are also helpful in ensuring that all young people have the possibility of a good outcome from their schooling. So the growing income inequality in Canada, especially when it is linked to such things as immigrant status, is clearly a threat to the quality of our schools.

Other features of the Canadian school system are also important to our success. These include well-educated and committed teachers, equitable financing levels for schools, and a good combination of local and provincial governance with balanced lay and professional input. In order to attract and retain talented and committed teachers, schools have to pay decently, but even more importantly must provide working conditions that are attractive to educators, notably good leadership and opportunities to grow and develop on the job. It will be important to maintain financing systems that provide additional resources—not just money, but also talented and committed people—to the highest-need schools and communities, and to retain governance systems that balance local input with system-wide direction.

The public discussion of schooling is full of calls for the “transformation” of schools, whether through greater use of technology, new forms of learning or other means. Yet it is hard to see a convincing rationale for throwing out what has worked quite well on the basis of guesses about the future. So far, Canada has avoided some of the simplistic and counterproductive approaches to education policy that have dominated in other English-speaking countries. We have not, for example, adopted the logic of the marketplace in education. Charter schools in the United States, supposedly freed from the restraints of bureaucracy and collective agreements, do not perform better on average than do public schools. Sweden, which adopted massive decentralization and privatization of its schools, has seen its school outcomes decline and inequalities worsen. We have not gone for a heavy-handed accountability that assumes that if people are punished for lack of success, they will work harder and more effectively. Systems that have adopted such punitive approaches, notably in the United States but also in England, have not shown greater success.

Instead of punishing people for failure, Canada has embraced an approach similar to other high-performing countries, taking the view that individuals are most likely to improve their performance when encouraged and helped to do so. We have focused on a positive approach to building a high-quality system for all students—for example, by helping non-English speaking students learn English (or French) as well as their native languages, by trying to include as wide a range of students as possible in neighbourhood schools, or by providing extra supports to train hundreds of aboriginal professionals (as my home province of Manitoba has done for many years now).

However, just maintaining the status quo will also, obviously, not yield improvement. In the remainder of this essay I want to urge two further developments that are essential to strong public education but that are less discussed and developed in Canada right now: stronger relationships with communities and a more robust approach to research, development and innovation. In each of these areas there is also a particularly important role for what is sometimes called civil society to help make our education system stronger and more effective. Civil society includes ethnic organizations, religious communities, arts groups, sports teams and clubs, unions, employers, other education providers (whether early childhood, adult or post-secondary), foundations and so on.

Schools and Their Communities

A few years ago I worked with a school in a Canadian city on improving graduation rates. Part of the work involved surveying students on their backgrounds and experience in the school. The school staff was surprised, and not happily, to discover that they did not know how many minority students they had in the school, nor that those students felt that they were often seen as deficient by the school. They realized that they did not really know their students or the community around the school, and as a result were not providing the right programs and supports to help students succeed.

Consider, on the other hand, another school in the same city, whose students were mostly aboriginal and poor. This school was deeply engaged with the community, organizing a food co-op so that families could eat better, providing adult literacy to mothers and looking for ways to generate more employment for parents in that community.

The first example is common, the second one unusual in Canadian schools. At one level, everyone in education recognizes that links to parents, families and communities are essential to school success. Children who grow up without family supports, such as children in care, have some of the worst outcomes in our system. A consistent research finding in education is that teachers often think parents are uninterested in their children’s education, while parents (and students) have the opposite view—that schools are not very interested in them. Many minority families feel that the schools see them as problems while not focusing on unfair school practices. Each side tends to blame the other, and the result is a missed opportunity to build the strong partnerships that will truly benefit students.

While widely seen as important, the work of creating and maintaining these connections is typically a low priority for school boards. To say this is not to cast blame on anybody. Teachers and principals are busy. They are responsible for many children, often with very diverse backgrounds and views. Finding the time to do the work of building these relationships is a real challenge, especially when that work is seen as something one does on top of everything else that is part of an educator’s job. But the same is true for parents. Rather than not being interested, many are struggling just to make ends meet, or have their own unhappy memories of school that make them reluctant to engage. In fact, virtually all parents care about their children’s education, even if their ability to turn that caring into effective action may vary a lot.

Many groups and organizations have an interest in working with schools to support students. For example, ethnic associations can be powerful allies in helping schools recognize the particular needs of students with diverse backgrounds, whether recent immigrants or Canada’s first peoples, and in helping educators learn about cultures, histories and languages. Schools with a focus on aboriginal or Afro-Canadian or other cultural heritages (of which there are quite a few across Canada) often have these connections, but other schools could as well. These groups can also help schools build connections with more parents, as happens where schools engage aboriginal elders.

To take another example, the arts are increasingly recognized as an important vehicle for student expression, with potentially powerful links to students’ sense of worth and engagement. Many community groups work with schools to offer such programs as hip hop music or street theatre that offer students opportunities to shine in new ways. For some aboriginal students, art has been an important vehicle for self-expression and positive development.

Then there is getting students involved in community issues. For example, students work with an environmental organization to extend their knowledge and engage in public action on local issues. Or a partnership with a food co-op and an adult education program creates engagement for poor families around both literacy and improved nutrition. Or a community centre uses local college students to provide tutoring as part of an after-school program.

In none of these areas is it reasonable to expect schools to have full knowledge or provide all the services students might want, but working with community groups can make all parties stronger and benefit students.

Many such partnerships already exist in Canadian schools, but they are not yet an organic part of the way we conduct schooling. Typically they depend on the extra energy and commitment of people in and out of the school, and anything that depends on special commitment is unlikely to be sustained over long periods of time or to be extended to all the people and places who could benefit. And they can be made more difficult by various rules with good intentions but sometimes bad consequences, such as the requirement that all adults working with students must undergo criminal record checks.

Still, with some modest effort, more can be done. Since 2005, tens of thousands of Ontario students are now taking college courses or exploring workplaces through co-op education or the Specialist High Skills Majors program now, that the province is supporting these initiatives. A huge amount of human effort and goodwill, leading to many more successful students, can be generated by a small amount of investment, a few million dollars in a system that spends billions each year, if the money is carefully allotted to support lasting partnerships. Ontario generates each year a significant amount of activity for parent engagement by giving parent councils grants of $1,000 or less.

Because these ideas are broadly accepted by educators and the public, making progress depends primarily on putting in place the systems and habits required to make this kind of work a standard part of what schools do. Provincial governments, local districts and community groups can work together to this end, and the leadership could come from any one of those sectors.

Innovation, Research and Development

The second area I propose for further development has to do with a stronger and more disciplined approach to educational research and development. In Canadian education, innovation has consisted of the adoption, typically in one or a few schools, of some new program or approach that is trumpeted as answering some critical need. Often these programs garner significant public attention when first launched. However, most of the time they lack supporting evidence, are not effective, or do not last or spread. Indeed, it is quite possible to see schooling as having been subject to far too much innovation, to too many ideas that arrive, occupy the stage briefly and then vanish leaving no lasting value but having consumed time, energy and money.

Let’s take an example out of many that could be chosen—the development of middle schools. About 25 years ago a movement began to advocate that students from ages 11 to 15 needed a different form of schooling and should be housed in separate schools. Children in that age bracket had distinct developmental needs, it was claimed. Associations were set up to promote the idea; books were written, conferences organized. And many school districts adopted the approach. They changed their school configurations, reorganized schools, built new schools, created new programs. Yet it gradually became clear that none of this made much discernible difference to student outcomes. Indeed, it is clear from research that changing school organizational practices such as timetables or grade configurations does not produce much in the way of results, especially considering the cost in time and money.

Or take a second example—schools’ ongoing fascination with technology. For 30 years we have been hearing that computers would transform education (the same was said even earlier about radio and television). But after all the effort and expenditure, the research shows no real effect of computer use on student learning. And yet we continue to hear calls for more technology in schools, and many school systems continue to invest in laptops or tablets.

Many more examples could be cited. Schools are urged to take up these projects only to find that they either do not have any value or cannot be sustained. Parents rightly worry that their children are being subjected to someone’s pet idea. Indeed, schools are not resistant to innovation; they are inundated with it.

The problem with innovation in any field is that most innovations are failures. Most new businesses fail, most new products do not generate much return, most inventions are never put into production. One common estimate is that it may take 3,000 ideas to generate one really valuable outcome. But with children’s futures involved, some caution is surely advisable.

The answer is not to have less innovation, but to be more thoughtful and careful about how we approach innovation in education. If new ideas were less a matter of someone’s enthusiasm and more strongly related to the evidence on what really makes a difference to students, there would be a stronger basis for assessing potential innovations. If we evaluated new approaches carefully and then ensured that those with strong support were spread across the entire system, we would get more benefit from our efforts.

Look at the business model. In successful companies new products typically come from intensive research and development and then are subject to careful testing of effects and value. The many that do not measure up are quickly dropped; the few that truly add value are spread rapidly throughout the entire organization—and usually taken up as well by competitors. These systems are not, of course, perfect. But the basic approach is much more thoughtful than is the case in education, where there seems to be a willingness to consider seriously whatever ideas are put forward regardless of history or evidence.

The obverse point is that schools are not strongly linked to the increasing body of solid research evidence about good practice, so that we lose the opportunity to take advantage of the kind of reliable knowledge that guides other professions. Education systems would benefit from stronger connections with research, and from research that was strongly focused on important problems of practice. In their absence, existing research is not necessarily broadly known or well used. For example, practices with strong empirical support, such as finding ways to engage students in their own learning, or helping students develop higher expectations for their own skills, or focusing on formative assessment that helps students improve rather than giving grades, are still far from ubiquitous in Canadian schools. Yet small increases in the application of knowledge can yield very large dividends in terms of better outcomes for students, just as knowledge of prevention or diagnosis in health can yield huge benefits.

In other areas, the challenge is the lack of evidence. For example, special education is a huge concern in our schools and absorbs increasing shares of education budgets. Yet there is virtually no research on which to base policies and programs in special education; billions of dollars are spent every year without any significant effort to determine if they are making a difference, or if there are ways of doing better.

This is partly a matter of money; spending on education research and development in Canada is a tiny fraction of spending on education—a far smaller share than is the case in health or in various industries. But money is not the only, or even the most important, issue. In reality, Canada has neither enough skilled researchers nor the necessary systems to connect research knowledge to the daily work of schools.

Making more effective use of research is another area where organizations outside the school can play a vital role. In fact, most of us, including professionals, learn about research primarily from the efforts of such third parties, including lobby groups, professional development providers and the mass media, to name just a few. These “knowledge brokers” play a critical role in linking people to relevant knowledge.

Consider the powerful work done in Canada in the last decade or so on early childhood development. Important research on this issue was mobilized by a group of impressive advocates, including Fraser Mustard and Margaret McCain in Ontario, and Clyde Hertzman and his team in British Columbia, and also many others. Through persistent effort in working with governments, community groups and the media, and enlisting influential individuals, such as David Dodge when he was governor of the Bank of Canada, research evidence was brought into the mainstream to the point that several provincial governments have made significant investments in strengthening early childhood development in Canada (although we still lag behind many other countries in this area).

This example illustrates the potential power of research, but also the need for strong and persistent advocacy so that evidence gradually influences public policy. Inevitably, some organizations will be more interested in research that supports their positions than they will in more balanced portrayals, but even then the contest of competing ideas can be valuable to educators and the public in sharpening points of agreement and disagreement. Even in areas of strong conflict, consensus will gradually emerge even over hotly contested topics, such as the role of phonics in teaching reading (important but not sufficient in itself), or the effect of failing on later performance (mostly negative).

Making progress on this goal is somewhat more complicated than the community involvement issue. It requires concerted effort on the part of quite a few organizations. There is a potential role here for the federal government as a major supporter of R&D in Canada, but only in partnership with provinces, universities and the many other actors who share this interest. And producing research is not enough; most school systems in Canada have virtually no capacity to find, evaluate and make use of research even where strong evidence exists.

Resource requirements to do better would be modest; it is more a matter of creating the models and systems that would lead to a stronger, more focused research effort with a much stronger connection to school practice. Canada is an international leader in this area in health, and we could do the same in education.

These two ideas are not new. So why rehash them again here? First, because they represent areas where modest efforts could yield relatively large benefits. They are not highly disruptive, would not engender strong resistance, can be done with current knowledge and are not expensive. That seems to me a good list of favourable points. A small step in the right direction seems better than a big and expensive step that is unlikely to produce positive outcomes, whatever the rhetoric.

What would it actually take to generate these improvements? Education is a large and complex enterprise. Lasting change rarely happens through the issuing of orders or adoption of policies because practice is so much controlled by individual schools and even individual teachers. So even though the ideas being put forward here are not particularly remarkable, achieving them consistently across the whole country presents a large challenge. Space does not permit a full discussion of these issues. However, it can be said that effective adoption of new practices requires political leadership at multiple levels, public support or at least tolerance, consistency of policy over time and ongoing efforts, over years, to help people learn to do things in new ways and then make those practices habitual. Making progress is by no means beyond our intellectual and financial capacities, even at a time of intense pressures on the public purse.

I hope that readers take away from this essay a sense of optimism about what schools in Canada currently are and about what they could be. Our education system does not require revolution, which often leaves a trail of disappointment and destruction. It does need the thoughtful application of ideas for improvement grounded in evidence. Many people and organizations outside the school stand ready to help in this work.

This essay was written with the generous support of Max Bell Foundation, as part of The 40th Anniversary Max Bell Essays and Lectures.