California looks to Ontario schools’ reformer for guidance

May 2, 2013

Michael Fullan at EdSource's 2014 symposium in Los Angeles

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.

“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:

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 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.”

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.

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