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Large-scale educational reform—systemic approaches to changing the way schools operate—helps to meet students’ learning needs more effectively. These approaches focus on reorganizing entire school systems, rather than implementing individual school-improvement initiatives.
Such reforms require a significant investment of resources and—if unsuccessful—risk wasting students’ and teachers’ time and damaging learning outcomes. Thus, what lessons can be drawn from previous attempts at educational reform, and how can these help shape future reform efforts in Canada?
A number of jurisdictions around the world have recently implemented large-scale educational reforms. For example:
News releaseStudent Success / Learning to 18 (SS/L18) StrategyStage 2 Final Report (PDF, 2.8 MB)Stage 1 Report (PDF, 415 KB)
In Manitoba, the Kindergarten to Senior 4 Education Agenda for Student Success was developed to address six specific priorities:
In Quebec, educational reforms are being gradually implemented over a 10-year period. These reforms include extensive changes to the provincial curriculum and to the organization of schools, as well as new approaches to evaluation, special education and complementary educational services.
In Ontario, the Student Success/Learning to 18 strategy was designed to ensure that every student is provided with the tools to successfully complete their secondary schooling and reach their post-secondary goals, whether these goals involve apprenticeships, college, university or the workplace. The strategy was designed to meet five goals focussed on the secondary-school system:
The implementation of large-scale school reforms often takes time, is met with resistance or controversy, and faces systemic barriers. Educational change is a slow process that requires adequate time and resources, but decision-makers often wish to see rapid results. Educational reform efforts have typically moved through pendulum-like cycles, swinging back and forth between different ideologies. As a result, critics have argued that reforms are based on educational trends rather than evidence, are implemented too hastily, and are without effective assessment systems.,, As well, reform attempts are often criticized for excluding teachers from the decision-making process.,
These common criticisms point to the importance of considering empirical evidence when initiating large-scale educational reform programs, and of the need for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the impact of change. Overall, the evidence is clear that comprehensive educational reform programs can be much more effective than more targetted initiatives that are focussed more narrowly on students at risk of school failure.
The research on large-scale educational reform is still at a relatively early stage, and it remains difficult to draw clear lessons from the overall body of research. For example, a recent meta-analysis of 232 studies conducted in the United States on the achievements of such programs highlighted four key features of educational reform:
While these features are clearly important to the successful implementation of reform programs, they represent concepts that are difficult to measure. Moreover, their individual and combined contributions to improved learning outcomes remain unclear.
An Australian study of 25 schools recognized as working innovatively to engage students revealed five key principals of successful reform:
A Canadian Council on Learning evaluation of Ontario’s Student Success/Learning to 18 strategy (Evaluation of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Student Success / Learning to 18 Strategy, located at www.ccl-cca.ca) also highlights several features of educational reform that have contributed to improved outcomes (e.g., higher graduation rates) among Ontario high-school students:
Large-scale educational reforms are costly and potentially risky. Despite the challenges of drawing definitive research-based conclusions, recent Canadian and international evidence suggests a range of promising strategic elements—from the importance of governmental supports, to building upon student strengths and maximizing their engagement in the learning process.
 M. Hayakawa, "The impact of the present educational reform upon student learning in Japan" presented at the Japan/United States Teacher Education Consortium, August 1999 (Honolulu, HI: 1999), (accessed January 7, 2009).
 J. Lee "School reform initiatives as balancing acts: Policy variation and educational convergence among Japan, Korea, England and the United States", Education Policy Analysis Archives, 9(13), (2001).
 U.S. Department of Education, Comprehensive School Reform Program, (accessed January 7, 2009).
 Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth. Manitoba K-S4 Education Agenda for Student Success, (Winnipeg: 2002), (accessed January 7, 2009).
 Ministère de l’Éducation, de Loisir and du Sport, The Education Reform: The Changes Under Way, (Québec: 2005), (accessed January 7, 2009).
 SS/L18 report
 C. Ungerleider, Failing our Kids: How we are Ruining our Public Schools, (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003)
 R. E. Slavin, "The PET and the pendulum", Phi Delta Kappan, 70, (1989), pp. 752-758.
 C. Gauthier, "Education research and reforms in education: Weaving connections", Education Canada, Winter 2005/2006, (2005), (accessed January 7, 2009).
 V. Jobin, "Pédagogie différentiée : Nature, évolution et analyse des études ayant pour objet les effets de cette pratique pédagogique sur la réussite des élèves", unpublished masters thesis, Université Laval, (Québec: 2007).
 C. Gauthier, "Réussite scolaire et réformes éducatives", Journal of Applied Research on Learning, Special Issue 2008-2009, (Ottawa: Canadian Council on Learning, 2009). Article 1, pp. 1-20, available at www.ccl-cca.ca
 H. Thomas, "The education-reform movement in England and Wales", (Ch. 3) in H. Beare & L. Boyd, (Eds.), "Restructuring schools: an international perspective on the movement to transform the control and performance of schools", (London: Falmer Press, 1993).
 J. Lee, "School reform initiatives as balancing acts". U.S. Department of Education. Comprehensive School Reform Program.
 G.D. Borman, G.M. Hewes, L.T. Overman & S. Brown, "Comprehensive school reform and achievement: A meta-analysis", Review of Educational Research, 73:2, (2003), pp. 125-230.
 G.D. Borman, G.M. Hewes, L.T. Overman & S. Brown, "Comprehensive school reform and achievement".
 S. Lamb & S. Rice, Every Child, Every Opportunity: Effective Strategies to Increase School Completion. Report to the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, (2008), (accessed January 8, 2009).
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