I believe that teachers and principals and district leaders are not unlike students in that some are strong, some are weak, but they can all improve. – Former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty
Following a troubled relationship with teachers under the previous administration, it became apparent to McGuinty’s government that they “cannot afford to be at war with our teachers” (D. McGuinty, personal communication, December 11, 2019). They recognized teachers as critical partners in leading reform and took action to rebuild a trusting relationship with them. The government abolished some policies such as paper-and-pencil testing of new teachers and the professional development requirement, which had been perceived by many teachers as punitive, and replaced them with an induction program for new teachers and simpler system of teacher performance evaluation (Levin, 2008). Although the original reform design was top-down, reform leaders began to realize the need to develop capacity in districts and schools so that the drive for change did not only originate from the highest levels of leadership (M. Fullan, personal communication, December 9, 2019).
Demonstrating gains in student outcomes made by reform efforts was instrumental in securing funding to support programming. Over the course of the reform, the sustained focus on outcomes contributed to a rise in the education budget from $10 billion to $21 billion (D. McGuinty, personal communication, December 11, 2019). Equally important was fostering meaningful relationships with teachers and principals to maintain an understanding of what was happening in the classroom. A critical part of McGuinty’s “resolute” leadership was combining his persistence in pursuing reform goals with his demonstration of empathy towards educators (Fullan, 2010). McGuinty held a roundtable with principals once every couple of months to learn about how the reform was being perceived (D. McGuinty, personal communication, December 11, 2019). Furthermore, the Ministry put in place a Partnership Table which brings the Minister of Education together with all major stakeholders on a regular basis. Most policy issues are discussed at these meetings before finalization and announcement (Levin, 2008).
A significant part of creating an environment for progress involved removing “distractors” which were preventing teachers from reaching their potential in the classroom and rebuilding a healthy relationship with teachers (D. McGuinty, personal communication, December 11, 2019). One of the most important developments in freeing teachers from their extracurricular obligations was the signing of a 4-year collective bargaining agreement (OECD, 2011). Previously, teachers were involved in labour negotiations for agreements which lasted only 2 years. Inspired by the cross-sector cooperation in Ireland which fueled rapid economic growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, McGuinty helped to extend the term of agreements to allow teacher to devote their resources toward the classroom. Reducing class size was another strategy to remove distractors from the table. Although the research did not offer unanimous support for smaller class size, teachers had expressed concern at having to teach too many students (D. McGuinty, personal communication, December 11, 2019). As part of the collective agreement signed in 2005, the government supported 200 min of weekly preparation time for all elementary teachers which led to creation of about 2,000 new teaching positions for specialists. By 2007, 90% of the province’s primary classes (K-3) had twenty or fewer students and about 5,000 new teachers were introduced into the elementary school system (Levin, 2008).
The system of support provided to principals and teachers was based on their conception as “lead learners” who, like their students, needed access to expertise from professionals and peers. In fostering a more collaborative teaching culture to raise student achievement, teachers were provided with strong individual classroom support. They were encouraged to take an “assessment for learning and as learning” approach to their professional learning, which involves specifying goals and implementation strategies, working with peers and engaging in pedagogical reflection (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010). Learning involves not only teachers’ peers but also their students as a vital source of feedback in their personal and professional development.
In an analysis of teaching culture in Ontario school boards, Hargreaves, Shirley, Wangia, Bacon, and D’Angelo (2018) noted a transition from professional collaboration, which is a descriptive approach that refers to how teachers collaborate and emphasizes the equality of all teachers, to the more prescriptive approach of collaborative professionalism, which involves professionals working together to improve student achievement and wellbeing. This approach emphasizes a sense of shared responsibility and values all voices in contributing to a collaborative and equitable learning culture. Key elements of this approach also include regular feedback in professional learning and development as well as collective responsibility among students, defined by “a moral responsibility and a central professional obligation” to student success (Hargreaves et al., 2018). In contrast to the culture of collaboration during the previous administration, once “distractors” had been removed from their workload, teachers were able to focus on developing their teaching skills and be more intentional in their collaboration with their colleagues and students.
Collaborative inquiry, which is an integral part of collaborative professionalism, played a significant role in Ontario educational policy starting in 2010 based on its ability to enhance teacher and student learning by engaging educators as researchers. Consultants and coaches worked with schools to encourage educators to reflect on their practice in collaborative inquiry, not as an expert but as a partner in learning. “Coaching at the elbow” gave teachers the assistance from instructional coaches as they attempted and practiced new strategies in literacy (Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018). Evidence suggests that opportunities for teachers to receive this kind of support and coaching during implementation is a feature of effective programs internationally (Ingvarson, Meiers, & Beavis, 2005). Furthermore, research has found that the level of school support emerges as an ‘enabling condition’ for professional development as it influences the extent of active learning, follow-up and feedback and significant effects on program outcomes.
Another key strategy in providing support for students was resourcing parents to create their own improvement plans. The Parents Reaching Out (PRO) fund allowed school councils and parent organizations to apply for grants to start activities designed to support student learning at school ($1,000 for parent projects), regional or provincial level (up to $30,000). The province made significant investments in education and ensured these funds were distributed among schools and dedicated towards programming which empowered teachers and parents. This initiative was significant because it was an investment in innovation and an act of trust. Ontario funded over 5,500 school council PRO projects and over 200 regional projects with a budget of over $10 million (Mourshed et al., 2010). This program embodied another key component of the reform which was implementing policies and practices that increased individual and collective capacity to achieve accountability via shared responsibility, achieving both internal and external accountability.
Although equity was not an explicit goal of the reform, supports were put in place to narrow the achievement gap among schools. The “turnaround schools” program offered additional support to a small number of low-achieving schools who opted in voluntarily. The number of these schools had been reduced by 75% by 2006 (Levin, 2008), at which point these schools were put under the administration of the LNS and the Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership (OFIP) was established. OFIP is an equity strategy which identifies high needs schools and addresses them with a non-stigmatizing attitude and targeted support by working with educators and stakeholders to plan school improvement strategies. The OFIP School Strategy provides support to OFIP 1 schools, in which under 34% of students are underachieving in reading, and OFIP 2 schools, in which up to 50% of students were demonstrating low performance (Audet et al., 2007).