Global Perspectives: Improving High School Graduation Rates

Mary Jean Gallagher, Chief Student Achievement Officer of Ontario (left) and Satya Brink, former Senior Advisor to the OECD GPS project at the OECD’s Education Directorate (right)

Starting in 2004, the province of Ontario in Canada made a concerted effort to increase its high school graduation rate.  Just 68 percent of high school students graduated in 2004 compared to 82 percent today – and Ontario educators expect that figure to continue to improve as their reforms mature.  The Center on International Education Benchmarking’s Director, Betsy Brown Ruzzi, asked two experts to answer a few questions about how Ontario was able to dramatically increase its high school graduation rate in a short period of time and what advice they have for other countries working to improve graduation rates and lower their dropout rates today.  The experts we reached out to include Mary Jean Gallagher, Chief Student Achievement Officer of Ontario and Assistant Deputy Minister of the Student Achievement Division at the Ontario Ministry of Education and Satya Brink, former Senior Advisor to the OECD GPS project at the OECD’s Education Directorate, former Directory of National Learning Policy Research at Human Resources and Skills Development, Canada, and a co-author of the recent OECD publication Learning Beyond Fifteen which looks at Canada’s approach to improve reading proficiency between the ages of 15 and 24.

Brown Ruzzi: A centerpiece of Ontario’s education reform agenda since 2003 was to lower the high school dropout rate.  What were key elements of Ontario’s strategy to meet this goal?

Brink:  There were four central strategies.  First, the Premier was totally committed to reforming schools.  He demanded action from all the relevant parts of government and the entire school system.  Furthermore, he was consistent and persistent.  These goals have been intact since 2003.  He led the reform, even though he had a Minister of Education.  Second, Ontario focused on whole system reform – encouraging all schools to perform better, rather than only focusing on struggling schools.  These performance demands received appropriate government support such as additional funding, student success leaders and student achievement officers (see below for more on these functions).  Third, Ontario focused on standards rather than standardization.  The government set five clear and ambitious targets, one of which was improving the graduation rate.  The strategies for improving the graduation rate included apprenticeships, student success programs, credit recovery and dual credit programs.  The important thing about all of these strategies is that these options could be customized to the needs of the student.  Finally, the improvement strategy was based on information.  The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) made regular public reports about the progress being made in the schools, and Managing Information for Student Achievement helped schools make decisions based on evidence.

Gallagher: To achieve the improvement in graduation rates, Ontario articulated three system-wide goals for education: improved levels of student achievement, reduced gaps in student achievement, and increased public confidence in publicly funded education.

More specifically, with respect to achievement in secondary education, Ontario set a goal of reaching an 85 percent graduation rate.  The Student Success strategy was developed to reach this goal; it focuses on interventions, programs and practices designed to reach students who are disengaged and at risk of not graduating.  The six key areas of the strategy are: leadership development, interventions for students at risk of not graduating, the creation of relevant programming, effective instruction, increased use of data to monitor student progress and legislation and provincial policies to support the changes to the system.  The specifics of each of these areas of focus can be found at: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/parents/studentsuccess.html.

A few examples of the Student Success programs to engage students are Specialist High Skills Majors (students take a sector-based bundle of courses in a specific field, plus earn industry certifications and gain workplace experiences), Dual Credits (students participate in apprenticeship training and college courses, earning credits that count towards both their high school diploma and their postsecondary diploma, degree or apprenticeship certification), and co-operative education programs.  These programs support different styles of learning and engagement, provide learning opportunities tailored to students’ interests and talents, and help more students succeed at school.

Crucial to achieving positive changes to the system was the funding of two key positions in school boards and secondary schools.  First, a Student Success Leader position was created in every school board to lead the implementation of the strategy across the board (school boards in Ontario are similar to districts in the US).  Second, a Student Success Teacher position was introduced in every school.  These are teachers who know and track the progress of students at risk of not graduating; who support school-wide efforts to improve outcomes for students struggling with the secondary curriculum; who re-engage early school leavers; and who provide direct support and instruction to these students in order to improve student achievement, retention, and transitions.  They also work with parents and the community to support student success.  These positions ensured a high degree of consistency of implementation of the strategy and its initiatives.

Brown Ruzzi: From your point of view, which of these elements is working?

Brink:  All of them are.  The one strategy that I do not think was necessary or effective is smaller class sizes.  It is expensive and unproven, but teachers and parents wanted it, so a compromise was made.

Gallagher: The Student Success Strategy is working because it integrates a wide range of targeted interventions, programs and practices to address learning and achievement for students in Ontario.  No single element of the strategy explains its success.  However, one key driver for improvement is the collection and analysis of data on student performance so that progress can be measured and informed decisions can be made about next steps.

Brown Ruzzi: What were the biggest challenges Ontario faced in working towards raising the high school graduation rate?

Brink: Ontario has a large number of schools, and some of them are small and located in rural and remote areas.  Additionally, Ontario has a high number of immigrant children in its schools.  Creating policies that would work across this type of diverse system was a challenge.

Gallagher: Acceptance of the need for change is always one of the major challenges when trying to transform a system.  Full implementation takes sustained effort, time, focus and the reduction of distracters.  Consistent and ongoing support and pressure is required to sustain and extend the successful trends and focus on the areas of greatest need.  Initial skepticism on the part of some observers has dissipated as evidence mounts on the effectiveness of the Student Success strategy.

As progress towards the target graduation rate continues, new, more precise actions are required to increase success while at the same time maintaining existing strategies.  The shared focus between the Ministry, and school board and school staff on good outcomes for every student is the basis upon which continued refinements can be made, tested and disseminated across the system.

Brown Ruzzi: What advice would you give to other countries, states or provinces trying to increase high school graduation rates based on what you have learned about Ontario’s efforts?

Brink: Set clear targets; put the full power of government behind the reform; invest in the system by building capacity; provide the tools (including student- and school-level data) and strategies for customized approaches to help students; monitor and report progress, and, finally, stick to it until the goal is achieved!

Gallagher: There are five main suggestions that I believe others should take into account as they work to increase high school graduation rates.  One, provide new and varied learning opportunities for students designed to address the wide variety of individual learning needs, to engage all students, and to prepare students for the postsecondary pathway of their choice.  It is very important that all post-secondary activities be valued—apprenticeships, college (colleges in Ontario are polytechnical institutions), university and the workplace—and that the secondary curriculum and programming articulates well to all four of these destinations.

Two, set high standards and targets, e.g., within five years of entering high school, 85 percent of students will graduate.  These goals are recognized as “stretch targets” – as aspirations for the system as well as expected outcomes. Communicate these targets and key messages at every opportunity.

Three, encourage risk-taking, learning and sharing of successful practices. Professional learning communities are very effective in supporting teachers in their professional growth and in aligning their learning with the learning needs of students.

Four, intervene to support low performing schools. Intense support for improvement is provided to these schools and school boards in the way of human and financial resources and professional learning opportunities.

And finally, fund system and school board personnel whose responsibility it is to implement or promote the required changes to the system.  The need to have one consistent and informed view of the changes being initiated is crucial to transforming a system.