Equity, Opinion, Pathways, Policy

Making even better use of existing resources to reduce course failure and prevent dropouts

The Ontario Ministry of Education’s recently renewed goals for education – achieving excellence, ensuring quality, promoting well-being, and enhancing public confidence – are praiseworthy and, in my view, attainable[i]. An important step in achieving these goals is to provide the necessary supports to students who are considered at-risk and, in particular, those students who are at-risk of dropping out.

Help for these students typically come in the form of a new or revised policy, program or other initiative. One such example is Ontario’s lauded Dual Credit program, which aims to helps students who are at-risk of not graduating to graduate from secondary school and increase their likelihood pursuing further education[ii]. Investments in innovative programs like these are translating into measurable results. In 2004, the five-year graduation rate was 68 per cent; in 2014, the rate is 84 per cent, a climb of 16 percentage points[iii]. This increase is a major success for the ministry and should be recognized. Despite this success, 16% of students are not graduating in five years and, presumably, this is because some of these students are failing their enrolled secondary courses.

Failing secondary courses is problematic for all sorts of reasons, the four most important being[iv]: 

  1. a significant body of empirical evidence across many disciplines of study finds that failing (retaining) students has a negative overall impact on achievement outcomes (the degree of negative effect ranges across different studies); certainly there is consensus that failure has a negative overall impact on student socio-emotional well-being;
  2. failure disproportionately affects students who are already at-risk;
  3. course failure is an precursor to dropping out; and
  4. from a cost perspective, failure consumes resources whether or not a course is completed successfully, and these resources could be used to better support the needs of students. 

I’m not going to propose a new program or policy to tackle the challenge of course failure. Rather, I propose tackling the issue from another angle: thinking of alternative ways the ministry, school boards, and schools can use the resources available to them (e.g., funding and human resources) to minimize course failure and, ultimately, student dropouts. One area in particular is to rethink the resources that are tied to course failure in public secondary schools. The graduation rates discussed earlier are an indication that thousands of secondary courses are failed each year, and these outcomes represent a significant fiscal cost to the public. Surely we can do something better with these resources. I am not the first researcher to propose this idea. What I offer here are some possible recommendations based on research I conducted in 2012. 

My study began by asking a straightforward and yet unanswered question about failure in education: how much money does secondary course failure cost the Ontario public education system in one school year? I conducted a study that estimated the volume of course failures in Ontario’s public secondary schools and estimated the annual cost of secondary course failures, taking into account some factors known to be systematically related (i.e., grade level, subject area, special education status). You may have read similar studies that used secondary dropouts as the measure and estimated the private and public costs over the lifetime of the student. This study focused on the direct budget impact on districts and the school system. 

Below I present some of the key results of the study[v] and some recommendations, intended mostly for education leaders, on how the resources tied to secondary course failure could be used differently to reduce course failure and better meet student needs. 

Results – In 2008-09, there were 5,082,543 secondary course attempts across 70 publicly funded school boards in Ontario with secondary schools; 4,682,535 completed successfully (or passed) and 400,008 unsuccessfully (or failed). This means 92.1% of all enrolled secondary courses were completed successfully and 7.9% unsuccessfully. The total gross cost of these course failures is estimated to be $472,729,698, or 7.7% of total instructional and operational spending. 


Reducing all secondary course failures in the province could result in efficiencies up to $472 million. How so? If more students are passing their enrolled courses and graduating on time, then districts will receive less overall per pupil funding from the ministry; the cost savings would be realized by the ministry. How does any of this help prevent dropout? One idea would be for the ministry and districts to enter into an agreement allowing school boards to keep any funding as a result of improving efficiency in their schools, i.e., reduced course failure. This arrangement would create a significant positive incentive for school boards to experiment with new ideas to prevent course failure and dropout, and use any resulting efficiencies to hire teachers, in-class/school tutors, etc.

Results – The number of course failures for Math and English were estimated to be 79,096 and 58,580 respectively across all 70 school boards, with an estimated annual cost of $162 million for these two subject areas alone. 


Given the critical importance of these two core subject areas, school leaders could also use the data to justify re-orienting existing professional development and learning supports to target these two subject areas, across all secondary grade levels and student types (academically inclined and not, students receiving special services, etc.), to improve fail rates.

Results – Students who receive special education and English-second language services fail at higher rates in all subject areas and across grade levels, compared to students who do not receive these services. 


Education leaders may want to consider evaluating the effectiveness of these services. The data suggest that the millions (and billions) of dollars spent each year providing services to these student groups are not levelling the fail rates. In no way am I suggesting that these services be cut. Rather, I propose more research into the effectiveness of resources/services provided to these students.

Another recommendation is to use of some of the statistics reported in the study as district and system level performance indicators. For example, the province could share school board and provincially aggregated course pass/fail rates with district leaders to allow comparative analysis, reflection, and encourage dialogue among education leaders. Another interesting statistic to share would be the average number of course failures per student enrolled in each school board. These statistics could help ministry and district leaders identify those boards that seem to be more successful than others at helping students complete their enrolled courses. 

To be sure, the recommendations presented here cannot on their own resolve the issue of course failure. What I offer here are recommendations that can help to tackle the issue from another angle – making even better use of existing resources to minimize course failure and prevent dropout. 

Easy solutions are in short supply when it comes to addressing complex social problems, like student dropouts. Instead, solutions to these challenges often require confronting the issue from multiple angles to achieve success. If implemented, my recommendations would converge with other policy and program efforts aimed at supporting student success. Given what is at stake, I believe that it’s worth considering a wide range of available options. 

n.b.: The data used in the study were provided by the Ontario Ministry of Education. The views expressed in this piece are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ministry. 



[i] Ontario Ministry of Education (2014a). Achieving excellence – A renewed vision for education in Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/about/renewedVision.pdf

[ii] Whitaker, C. (2011). The Impact of dual credit on college access and participation: An Ontario Case Study. Retrieved from University of Toronto library tspace https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/29641/6/Whitaker_Christopher_201106_PhD_thesis.pdf

[iii] Ontario Newsroom (2015, April 1). More Ontario students graduating high school than ever before – Ontario publishing board-by-board rates to help more students succeed. Retrieved from http://news.ontario.ca/opo/en/2015/04/more-ontario-students-graduating-high-school-than-ever-before.html?utm_source=shortlinks&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=b9ap

[iv] Faubert, B. (2013). The cost of failure in Ontario’s public secondary schools. Retrieved from University of Toronto library tspace https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/35818/1/Faubert_Brent_C_201306_PhD_thesis.pdf

[v] ibid.


This blog post is connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Towards Fewer Dropouts theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, How Can We Prevent High School Dropouts? Please contact info@cea-ace.ca  if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.