California looks to Ontario schools' reformer for guidance

Michael Fullan may be coming soon to a school district near you.

The man credited with transforming the Canadian province of Ontario into one of the world’s most effective school systems is ready to help California do the same. Fullan, though, would lead the state in a sharply different direction from the forced march that federal officials in Washington, D.C., have led over the past decade.

Michael Fullan is interested in expanding his work in California. Photos by John Fensterwald

Michael Fullan is interested in expanding his work in California. Photos: John Fensterwald/EdSource Today

“I want California to become an alternative model to No Child Left Behind; that would be a great thing to aspire to,” Fullan said last month during an interview in Sacramento. Instead of improvement through the “negative drivers” of standardized testing and quick school turnarounds, he would shift the focus to improving instruction through “motivational collaboration” between teachers and administrators.

California is full of education leaders eager to listen to, if not act on, his advice on systemic reform.

During his swing through Sacramento in April, Fullan:

  • Led a four-hour discussion for about 100 administrators and employees at the State Department of Education on changing their mission from monitoring districts’ program compliance to helping to build up districts’ strengths;
  • Conducted an all-day seminar for 20 superintendents at the Superintendents Executive Leadership Forum, run by the UC Davis School of Education, on how the district office can support classroom-based innovation;
  • Dined with superintendents of the nine districts that have applied for a joint waiver from the No Child Left Behind law; their application promises to incorporate some of the methods that Fullan instituted in Ontario.

In March, Fullan had a wide-ranging, three-hour discussion with Gov. Jerry Brown, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and State Board Executive Director Karen Stapf Walters during a dinner in Oakland. It was organized by Oakland Unified Superintendent Tony Smith and UC Davis School of Education Dean Harold Levine, who had previously discussed Fullan’s work with the governor. The purpose was to gauge any interest by the governor in pursuing Ontario-like reforms on a statewide basis.

Brown’s sweeping plan for reforming the system for funding K-12 schools envisions a shift of decision-making from Sacramento to districts; this is his “principle of subsidiarity.” Fullan said his question, in turn, to Brown, is “How do you know local districts will have the capacity to take advantage of their freedom?”

Strong influence

In January and last fall, two delegations of California educators that included Torlakson, Chief Deputy Superintendent Richard Zeiger, California Commission on Teacher Credentialing Executive Director Mary Sandy, Vogel, Levine and a half-dozen superintendents and CEOs of charter management organizations made sojourns to Toronto, funded by the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation.* There they observed classrooms and met with Fullan, teachers and provincial leaders about Ontario’s strategy of school improvement.

Levine left impressed with what he saw in Toronto. Everyone they met with, from the provincial level to the school sites, consistently talked about progress toward the same universal goals and credited Fullan and the premier who appointed him, Levine said.

Fullan has worked with Sanger Unified and Garden Grove Unified, where he led two days of discussions with teachers and administrators this year. Last month, he launched a three-year project on building systemic change involving every school in four unified districts – Napa, Alameda, Pittsburg and San Lorenzo. It too is funded by the Stuart Foundation at $375,000 per year and organized by the School of Education at UC Davis.

But his biggest involvement in California could come soon, if the federal Department of Education grants nine districts comprising the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, a first district waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

Fullan reviewed CORE’s waiver application, which cites his writing and says that CORE’s “alternative accountability model and day-to-day work” is motivated by the “changed culture and positive and lasting improvements” in Ontario. The waiver

Michael Fullan with Rick Miller, left, executive director of the California Office to Reform Education, during a stop at Miller's office in Sacramento last month. Photo by John Fensterwald.

Michael Fullan with Rick Miller, left, executive director of the California Office to Reform Education, during a stop at Miller’s office in Sacramento in April.

expresses confidence that the same philosophy – paying attention to data but using it as a basis to improve, not as a cudgel to declare failure – would work in California.

The most controversial idea in the CORE waiver application – to give standardized tests for federal accountability purposes in only one grade per school – was based on work in Ontario, where provincial tests are given in grades 3, 6 and 9, along with a literacy test in grade 10. Rick Miller, executive director of CORE and a former deputy state superintendent, said the CORE districts have asked Fullan to work with them if the waiver goes through, to see that the implementation is done right.

“Michael is the moderating force that pulls sides together,” Miller said. He represents the “third way” and “middle ground” between rejecting the methods of NCLB and renewing a commitment to its main goal, raising the achievement of all students.

Fullan, in the interview, was blunt: “NCLB has no credibility whatsoever now so it is easier to step to the plate and push against it. If I were Arne,” he said, referring to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whom he has met, “I would encourage a quid pro quo – ‘Show us good ideas that are likely to work, and I will signal that we can be more flexible.’”

The Ontario experience

A professor emeritus and former dean at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Fullan was already a renowned author and authority on large-scale school reform when Ontario’s newly elected Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty asked him to be his special adviser on education in 2004. With 2 million students in 72 districts and 5,000 schools, Ontario is a small-scale version of California. Like California, its teachers are unionized; English is not the primary language spoken at home for 27 percent of families, and in Toronto, it is 57  percent – and this does not include French speakers, Fullan said. “People in the United States dismiss Finland and Singapore as ‘not like us,’ but Ontario has similar geography and is English speaking. You can no longer say that you cannot learn from another jurisdiction.”

Michael Fullan

Michael Fullan

In Canada, provincial governments, not the federal government, control education. When he became McGuinty’s adviser, Fullan said in a 2012 published interview, progress had stagnated, and there was continual friction between the provincial government and the four unions representing teachers.

The first step, he said, was “to send a message … that we were going to show respect to teachers and commit ourselves to a focused partnership with a link to actual results.”

The provincial government set a few ambitious goals: improve the rates of proficiency in literacy and math and increase the graduation rate. In the past two years, it has added a fourth goal: phase in a universal, full-time kindergarten to increase the percentage of children who are school-ready.

Improvement the first year fed on itself, he said, helping to establish a “collaborative culture to get teachers to work together, led by principals who know how to focus on instruction.”

“By focusing on teacher development,” Fullan wrote in a May 2012 article in The Atlantic, “Ontario was also able to raise teacher accountability. Decades of experience have taught Canadian educators that you can’t get greater accountability through direct measures of rewards and punishments. Instead, what Ontario did was to establish transparency of results and practice (anyone can find out what any school’s results are, and what they are doing to get those results) while combining this with what we call non-judgmentalism. This latter policy means that if a teacher is struggling, administrators and peers will step in to help her get better.” Because “collaborative competition” among teachers encourages experimentation, provincial intervention for schools that fail to improve is a last resort.

Rhonda Kimberley-Young, secretary/treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Teachers, agreed that McGuinty and Fullan took steps to involve teachers in the improvement process. “There was really a partnership on big-picture items,” she said in an interview. “There was respect for the work that teachers do as professionals.”

The creation of the Professional Learning and Leadership Program, providing grants to teachers “to do what intrigues them and then build networks to share excellent resources, was symbolic of what the ministry tried do at that time,” Kimberley-Young said. Where the unions sometimes differed was on the use of evidence. “The drive to constantly compare data, with a laser-like focus on numeracy and literacy, took away from an enriched classroom experience; it went too far,” Kimberley-Young said.

There has been steady progress over seven years in meeting the original goals. Students meeting or exceeding goals on the province-wide tests in math and literacy rose for elementary grades from 54 percent to 70 percent, though shy of the target of 75 percent. High school graduation rates rose from 68 percent to 82 percent. Public confidence in schools rose from 43 percent to 65 percent during that time. Ontario students’ scores in reading on the 2009 international test, Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were among the highest in the world, ranking with South Korea and Finland; scores were good, but not quite as high in math. Scores in science on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) have declined over the past decade. (The OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, creator of PISA, devoted a chapter on Ontario in its 2010 publication, “Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States.” In its 2010 report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, McKinsey & Company named Ontario, along with Long Beach Unified and Aspire Public Schools in California, among the 20 most effective school systems in the world.)

Right and wrong drivers

Fullan contrasted Ontario’s strategy and the approach of the United States through NCLB in a highly critical and widely circulated article, “Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform” (May 2011). The U.S. emphasis on “accountability – using test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers,” its reliance in technology to spur improvement and its “fragmented strategies” are flat-out the wrong drivers for systemic improvement, he wrote. “And it is a mistake to lead with them.”

The Obama administration compounded the problem, Fullan wrote, with Race to the Top, the competitive grant for districts and states that required the adoption of Common Core standards, robust data systems, teacher evaluations linked to standardized test scores and prescribed methods to turn around the worst-performing schools. There is a place for elements of those strategies in the “constellation of reform” but they will never establish the conditions for reforming a whole system, whether a state or a district, because they don’t change the “day-to-day culture of school systems.” They don’t build trust within schools and they don’t focus on improving instruction.

“Throw a good appraisal system in a bad culture and you get nothing but increased alienation,” he wrote.

Fullan’s advice: “Jettison blatant merit pay, reduce excessive testing, don’t depend on teacher appraisal as a driver, and don’t treat world-class standards as a panacea.”

In the EdSource interview, Fullan cited work in Sanger, where teachers from a cluster of three or four schools meet several times each year to learn from one another about what works. Principals lead the discussions and set high expectations, he said.

What’s next?

No other state besides California has expressed such intense interest, from state officials to a collaborative of districts to individual district leaders, in Fullan’s work. Whether this will lead to a coherent involvement in setting state policy isn’t clear.

The CORE districts should learn within weeks whether they stand a good chance for an NCLB waiver, creating an opening for Fullan.

Fullan characterized his conversation with Jerry Brown as inconclusive. “Jerry Brown was interested, but not convinced because of the lack of specificity. When I talked about capacity building, he said, ‘it sounds like jargon to me.’ That was our fault, not his, but he followed up with lots of questions.”

It’s not apparent, even to those at the dinner, what the next step should be – and who should take it. Levine said he left the dinner with the understanding that there was a strong interest in pursuing the path of Ontario reforms in California. He said he was hoping that the State Department of Education would write a white paper defining three or four common goals that Brown, the Department and the State Board could agree on.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said that “Fullan has momentum here” because so many of those who went to Ontario returned, to a person, enthusiastic that the changes in Ontario would be a good fit with California. But at this point, he said, “it’s too general to say where we are with this.” Someone has to turn Fullan’s broad ideas into specifics, an operational plan for California. “What are the blueprints for following what he wants? What is the timeline? What are the costs?”

Torlakson agreed that it’s still at an early stage, with a need for a lot more discussion. He and other leaders at the state Department of Education have acknowledged the need to shift their role of enforcing state and federal mandates to sharing areas of expertise and best practices with the state’s 1,000 school districts. Bringing Fullan to Sacramento was part of that effort to inspire his team. One Ontario innovation he’s interested in adopting, he said, is a fellowship program in which a team of teachers and principals rotate in and out of the Ministry of Education, sharing their perspective on running schools with government officials.

Christy Pichel, president of the Stuart Foundation, said that what attracted the foundation to Fullan was “the idea of changing the culture of a school by developing not just individual skills of teachers but by creating conditions where teachers work together to improve conditions for learning and teaching.” What makes Fullan distinct is that “he was able to do this across an entire province and big districts in a systematic way.”

Tom Timar is executive director of the Center for Applied Policy in Education (CAP-Ed) at the UC Davis School of Education, which has brought Fullan to its annual superintendents’ seminar for six straight years and is coordinating the four-district project for system reform that Fullan is leading. He said he has come to agree with Fullan that “real change will not come from top-down intervention strategies. They must be grassroots, collaborative, and professionalized with teachers working with administrators for a common cause.”

He’d like to see the development of a statewide collaborative of districts, not unlike what CORE is proposing in its waiver application, only bigger. “Fullan would be the one to provide leadership and expertise on how to pull these groups together. He’d be the glue,” Timar said.

If the state Department of Education looks at Ontario and sees “a convergence of ideas,” Stuart would be willing to bring them together, Pichel said.

“Ontario is a neighbor,” she said, “and Michael Fullan has a particular interest to help California if California wants to learn from him.”

* Note: The Stuart Foundation is a funder of EdSource.

Filed under: Federal Education Policy, Reforms, State Education Policy, Teaching, Testing and Accountability

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8 Responses to “California looks to Ontario schools' reformer for guidance”

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  1. LEEP6ER on Aug 13, 2013 at 12:32 am08/13/2013 12:32 am

    • 000

    Thanks for the debate on this article, I am interested in the perspective of Ontario’s teachers, specifically since Fullan seems to view the teacher as essential in decision making about curriculum and instruction. My question is centered around what Navigio hints at, are the differences in governance and the provision of social services between Ontario and California too great, to adequately compare the two? Is it possible to control for the differences in social variables that effect school outcomes in California and Canada, socialized medicine being the most obvious among many?


    • Paul on Aug 13, 2013 at 8:10 am08/13/2013 8:10 am

      • 000

      LEEP6ER, inquiring into the effect of externalities such as public and social services makes a lot of sense.

      One thing to be aware of is that Ontario’s social services contracted sharply during two terms (ten years) of Conservative Party leadership (search keyword “Common Sense Revolution”). Welfare benefit levels and spending on public housing were reduced, and some social expenses were transferred from the provincial to the municipal level (search keyword “downloading”), resulting in uneven access and further reductions.

      A conservative federal administration followed on the heels of the provincial one. As Canada’s largest province, Ontario has been severely affected by federal cutbacks.

      To add insult to injury, Toronto now has a conservative mayor, who has, among other things, neglected the city’s public housing stock. Toronto is one of the world’s most diverse cities, and is home to the third-largest school district in North America. Thus, it is a bellwether for service to minority, low-income, and immigrant children.

      Socialized medicine is a positive factor, although here again many Americans are unaware of the details. News stories about long waits for specialty care are exaggerated, patients choose their own doctors (most of whom operate in private small-group rather than large-group practice), and routine care is excellent. At the same time, service categories such as prescription drugs and dental care are completely excluded; private payment or private supplementary insurance is necessary. (Very-low-income families have access to the Ontario Drug Benefit, which does cover prescription costs.)

      I grew up in Ontario and am spending my adult life in California. Historically, social conditions were far better in Ontario than in California. Sadly, just as Ontario chose to adopt the California-style educational policies (centralized funding by formula, etc.) detailed in my first post, Ontario has adopted U.S. social spending practices as well. From my perspective, the child of a low-income family is only nominally better off today in Ontario than in California.

  2. Bob Bruesch on May 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm05/3/2013 3:19 pm

    • 000

    Without getting into the “Who’s right/Who’s wrong” syndrome most discussions on educational reform boil down to, can we agree on some central tenets of Dr. Fullen’s writings? First an foremost, it seems he is saying that systemic change cannot occur under constant duress – i.e. budgetary restrictions, the threat of test scores, top down management. Secondly, he professes that the teacher is not the CAUSE of the problem but the solution. And, finally, he places great belief that the professionalism of our teaching corps will lead them, through collaborative discussions,to provide the systemic change our educational systems so desperately need. I have observed this as a school board member on a small scale in certain schools where the administrator has challenged the staff to “…come up with solutions rather that complaints.” The problem is that NCLB and other “reforms” are basically top-down knee jerk reactions. Over the years, teachers have seen dozens of reforms that will “revolutionize our children’s education” wilt on the vine. Is it any wonder that they look at current educational fads with a jaundiced eye?


    • navigio on May 4, 2013 at 12:51 pm05/4/2013 12:51 pm

      • 000

      I doubt it. The ‘who’s right/who’s wrong’ syndrome is a function of disagreement on all those points.

      Some people believe humans cannot effectively perform without duress, threats and impositions from on high.

      Some people believe we spend too much money on education and would cut further.

      Some people believe teachers are actually the cause.

      Some people believe professionalism is useless in the teaching profession because success is pretty much pre-determined by socioeconomic status. Some reform proposals build on that concept by essentially saying ‘hire anyone and everyone possible to be teachers then filter out those who shouldn’t be there with evaluations’.

      Yes, policy and/or policy desires almost always are knee-jerk reactions. This is because our electorate can’t be bothered with actual understanding and political success does a good job of taking advantage of that fact.

      But one thing I will say is rather than understanding who’s right/who’s wrong, its probably even more useful to (really) understand both sides of the arguments. Its one reason the disagreements persist.

  3. navigio on May 3, 2013 at 7:37 am05/3/2013 7:37 am

    • 000

    Two points:

    Geography and language do not make a culture. Canada and California are still more different than similar when it comes to cultural aspects that would influence education policy and incentives. (though admittedly we are closer than with Finland). This cultural notion of trust and community is key for some of the ideas he’s referencing (even if, as Paul points out, they did not actually manifest in the way we’d like to believe).

    His point about questioning whether districts have the capacity to respond to increased freedom is right on, imho. We never ask questions about capacity in our culture. We just assume that given the right incentives (ie money), people will simply do the ‘right’ thing. Zzzz…

    From the CORE waiver,

    Therefore, CORE is proposing an alternative accountability system grounded in the concept of moral imperative outlined in the work of Michael Fullan, Ph.D. The central tenant is that college-and career-readiness for all students can be achieved only if disparity and disproportionality are eliminated. It also recognizes the importance of factors beyond academic preparedness and values multiple measures of student success in social/emotional development, and the critical importance of a school’s culture and climate.

    In fact, this idea of eliminating disparity and disproportionality seems to be the fundamental component of the strategic aspect of the CORE proposal, IMHO. The problem is, of course, that these things exist outside of the educational system as well. The other problem is that we are likely to assume we can symptomatically treat those elements, ie independent of their causal components.

    I do think the willingness to explore an alternative model that is based in trust and respect is at least promising. Whether it can transcend our politics and culture is a different question.

  4. John Fensterwald on May 3, 2013 at 7:26 am05/3/2013 7:26 am

    • 000

    Thanks for this information, Paul, but what does that have to do with the work that Michael Fullan did with teachers in Ontario schools over the past decade?


    • Paul on May 3, 2013 at 9:12 am05/3/2013 9:12 am

      • 000

      Hello, John.

      I’m cautioning readers that Ontario’s public K-12 education system is not the success story it’s made out to be, and that teachers are definitely not happy. I wanted to show how we got here, without getting into a debate about standardized testing — also far from the success it’s made out to be. I would encourage you, and your readers, to visit the ETFO Web site (Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario) for a different perspective on the Education Quality Authority standardized testing program that you mention. It’s another legacy of the Mike Harris conservatives, and teachers report that it has narrowed the curriculum, placed the emphasis on test-taking skills, and cut into instructional time. I don’t think that Americans recognize the degree to which authority is centralized in a Canadian province like Ontario, let alone how this has affected public education. It’s difficult to make accurate claims about Ontario’s education system without acknowledging the sweeping changes imposed by Mike Harris and his “Common Sense Revolution”.

      Thanks for considering this feedback!

  5. Paul on May 2, 2013 at 11:14 pm05/2/2013 11:14 pm

    • 000

    Good God! As someone who has lived in both jurisdictions, I can say that this is hogwash. The lines of influence run from California to Ontario, not the other way around. What was once a model public K-12 education system has become unstable.

    The article tells only part of the story of recent Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, a centrist, and it completely ignores the legacy of his predecessor, Mike Harris, a neo-conservative. Harris’ education policies (reference: “Common Sense Revolution”) were based on much older California policies, except that they were legislated willfully, not imposed by the courts or at the ballot box. (Briefly, Ontario has a single-chamber provincial parliament. The premier — the equivalent of the governor of a U.S. state — is selected by the majority party. Since the premier hails from the majority party, since there is no second chamber, and since elections are not staggered, the premier and his or her party enjoy absolute legislative control over a five-year interval.)


    Harris attacks teacher professionalism in the media and creates the Ontario College of Teachers as a purported solution. Certificates must now be renewed periodically. Fees are high, processing times are long, and teachers regard the College as extremely bureaucratic. (California analogues: CTC is carved out of CDE, life credentials are eliminated, and processing times rise even as fees increase)


    School boards lose all taxation authority. Harris replaces local property taxes with provincial funding under an arbitrary, per-student formula. After geographic consolidation, the Toronto District School Board becomes the third-largest school district in North America. Accustomed to high revenues, from its rich property tax base, and to high expenses, due its concentrations of low-income earners and recent immigrants and its turn-of-the-century, neighborhood-scale school buildings, Toronto is forced to cut programs and close schools. (California analogues: Serrano v. Priest, revenue limit funding, Proposition 13, Jarvis-Gann spending limit)


    When the Toronto District School Board — again, the third-largest in North America — is unable to balance its budget, the conservative government appoints a receiver. Acting in place of the democratically-elected school board, the receiver has full decision-making authority. A non-elected person is able to impose a $90 million budget cut. (California analogues: FCMAT district take-over, interest-bearing FCMAT loan)


    The conservative government eliminates the fifth year of high school. Like A.P. classes in the U.S., the former Grade 13 or Ontario Academic Credit (OAC) classes allowed Ontario students to enter university with advanced standing. Fifteen years worth’ of material (Ontario had long offered two years of kindergarten, junior and and senior, at the beginning, and the Grade 13 high school year, at the end) is compressed into fourteen years.

    In the fall, the conservatives are replaced by centrists, under the leadership of Premier Dalton McGuinty.


    A chronic teacher oversupply means that most new teachers in Ontario are unemployed when they complete their training. If they find work at all, new teachers can expect to spend several years as substitutes (“supply teachers”, in Canada).

    Toronto continues to close schools and lay off teachers and support staff. (In fairness, some suburban school boards are growing.) There is no money for pools or playgrounds, which, in Ontario, have historically been shared by school users and the general public. With the end of adequate, regular funding for maintenance and retrofits in the 1990s, Ontario’s school buildings begin to look like their U.S. counterparts.


    The McGuinty government wavers on universal full-day kindergarten. The program is diluted in that early childhood educators (daycare workers) rather than teachers will provide some of the services, and in that before- and after-school care will not be funded by the province. Historically, kindergarten has been a half-day program in Ontario, except in certain inner-city schools.


    Unable to stomach delayed salary credit for increased experience and coursework, no cost-of-living raise, and already-imposed cuts to pension benefits, Ontario’s elementary teachers work to rule. This includes stopping supervision of extra-curricular activities. McGuinty suspends teachers’ collective bargaining rights, passing the “Putting Students First Act” (Bill 115).

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