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Friday, August 7, 2009

Whole-System Reform

Yeah, that's what we need for education in America—whole system reform. But it sounds daunting and overwhelming. Is whole system reform even possible? Opposing ideologies argue themselves into stalemate, and the upshot is nothing changes. Teachers ride the roller coaster of one educational fad after another. A few schools here and there may garner media attention for their success in raising the academic of achievement of their students, but their results seem immune to wholesale transfer. A great strategy with proven results in one school fails dismally in another.

Actually, America has experienced a form of whole-system change. “Reform” is the wrong word. The change has been gradual and insidious, taking decades to get where we are today. Decades ago, a strong liberal arts education was the objective of any student dreaming of a bright future and social mobility. Now the university is a job-training center, and some people think "liberal arts" is a political term.

Wasn't whole-system reform the goal of No Child Left Behind? Is whole-system reform even a reasonable goal?

Ontario, Canada thinks it is. In fact, they say they have accomplished whole-system reform.

We have done (whole-system reform) in Ontario, Canada, where we have had the opportunity since 2003 to implement new policies and practices across the system-all 4,000 elementary schools, 900 secondary schools, and the 72 districts that serve 2 million students. Following five years of stagnation and low morale, from 1998 to 2003, the impact of the new strategies has been dramatic: Higher-order literacy and numeracy have increased by 10 percentage points across the system; the high school graduation rate has risen 9 percentage points, from 68 percent to 77 percent; the morale of teachers and principals has improved; and the public's confidence in the system is up.

For the Canadians in Ontario, whole-system reform does not mean taking on every single issue. It means diligently accomplishing a set of “core policies and strategies.”

Whole-system reform is possible, but it must be tackled directly. There are no single-factor solutions. By implementing a core of fundamental components, system leaders can get results in fairly short order, and build on those results for sustainable futures.

Ontario worked on six “fundamental components.”

1.The entire teaching profession.
2.A small number of ambitious priorities-literacy, numeracy, and high school graduation.
3.The two-way street between instruction and assessment.
4.Distributive coordinated leadership at all levels of the system.
5.Focused, mostly nonpunitive, comprehensive, relentless intervention strategy.
6.Use money to drive reform only in the service of the previous five fundamentals.

Those six fundamentals seem pretty comprehensive and the report lacks specific details. What exactly did everyone do to accomplish the fundamentals?

The only way to get whole-system reform is by motivating and mobilizing the vast majority of people in the system.

There we are, the crux of the problem—motivating and mobilizing the vast majority of people in the system. Did the leaders simply order mobilization by fiat or did they motivate individual buy-in?

One major piece is the student success program. Instead of restricting curriculum as we have so often done here in the US, Ontario believes expanding the curriculum is the way to go. Ontario students can choose a specialist major in a number of fields.

Specialist High Skills Majors are now available in:
Arts and Culture
Community Safety and Emergency Services
The Environment
Health and Wellness
Hospitality and Tourism
Horticulture and Landscaping
Information and Communications Technology

Students can choose a work coop situation. Back in the day, my own high school in California offered work coops. Maybe it's time to bring them back.

Our students are plugged in anyway. What about offering high school students online courses? Ontario offers fifty of them.

How about this idea? Dual credits.

Students participate in apprenticeship training and postsecondary courses, earning dual credits that count towards both their high school diploma and their postsecondary diploma, degree or apprenticeship certification.

Clearly, Ontario's main strategy for motivating success is to give students a rich variety of choices. Meanwhile, many American schools have been eliminating choices and electives. American universities have been following suit, so that students must strictly follow a curricular flow chart if they expect to graduate, and the number of available electives has been reduced as more and more classes become required in order to ensure, as one example, exposure to multicultural information. Breadth is no longer built into a liberal arts education. With the emphasis on meeting the market demand for job training in the university, liberal arts may be a dying concept.

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