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How is a School System Like a Modern Automobile?

Towards a more cohesive type of systems thinking

I had a fascinating conversation today with my mechanic. I had brought my 2005 Toyota in for a 70 point inspection in order to help me decide whether I should hang on to it for a few more years, or whether it might be better to dump it and take advantage of the peace-of-mind offered by driving a newer model.

Tom was in a talking mood and I took advantage of his enthusiasm and knowledge. As a result, I came away with a deeper appreciation of the technology that drives the modern automobile. In particular, our conversation focused on the complex set of computer modules that are used to control almost every aspect of functionality. We spoke of body control modules, ECM’s, oxygen sensors, emission and fuel controls. For me, the discussion really became interesting when Tom explained how each of the system controls “talk” to each other, adjusting functionality and performance based on the information received from other components. I came away thinking of my car as this perfectly synchronized ecosystem, complete with a finely-tuned feedback loop designed to respond to a series of quality controls and performance indicators.

If something happens in one control system, a component somewhere else will either respond or refuse to respond. This, in turn, may trigger a response from another module which will either adjust its performance or begin a series of pre-determined tests. The final result of this process may result in the activation of an indicator light on my dashboard which, when investigated, will provide a full report on what has gone on as well as a code that can be used to find a plan of action to correct the problem.

Now, it just so happens that, while waiting for Tom to complete the inspection, I was reading our Ministry of Education’s School Effectiveness Framework (really, I was!), a support document that identifies evidence-based indicators of successful practice in a number of components of effective schools. The SEF document encourages educators at all levels of the system to use these indicators as a way of building coherence and aligning practices across an entire school.

Ontario’s SEF outlines six components ranging from assessment practices, leadership at various levels of the system, quality of classroom instruction, programs, and partnerships between school, parents and community. A great deal has been written on this site and elsewhere about each of these components, but the SEF does a nice job of bringing them together into a unified whole. But the SEF goes further by offering a series of indicators and observable points of evidence that make quality within each of the components visible and, as a result, actionable.

This is a process that is to be carried out with integrity and transparency for the purpose of promoting reflection, collaborative inquiry and ultimately improved student learning.

—Mary Jean Gallagher and Raymond Théberge(Introduction to the Ontario School Effectiveness Framework, 2010)

Just like my automobile, I came away from reading our SEF with a sense that our school systems are another type of ecosystem, made up of component parts that, when they are running smoothly and effectively, are a thing of beauty.

The School Effectiveness Framework that is now part of the drive toward quality and accountability in Ontario presents a vision for integrated, evidence-based planning and practice. It has something to say to folks working at every level of the system.

In the long term, the SEF has the potential to drive the transformation agenda for years to come. In the short term, it forces us to look beyond the political darlings that currently drive our planning agendae—large-scale assessment scores and graduation rates— and focuses our vision on the actual components that ground these narrow indicators.

Beyond that, however, the School Effectiveness Framework invites us to look at how each of the components within our modern education system is interconnected and interdependent. It’s a complex way of thinking, to be sure. At the same time, by placing our role in the system within the larger context of a tool like the SEF, our school systems become a thing of immense beauty—a marvellous type of ecosystem!

Over the next few weeks, I would like to take a closer look at Ontario’s School Effectiveness Framework, exploring each of the component parts in a little more detail. But I would also love to hear about your experience in working with this type of process in your own district, in your own province. Have you been exposed to a similar tool for effectiveness planning? Are you involved in similar conversations at the school, district or community level?

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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