This is a story about school-based change on a broad scale. It is about how one school board embraced a series of government directives with two basic beliefs: (1) all students can succeed and (2) the path to school improvement is through sustainable teacher-learning networks. Developing such networks both within and between 67 schools at the same time is a challenge, given traditions of school and teacher autonomy and independence. However, our results, as we move through this process, give us reason to be optimistic. The English Montreal School Board (EMSB), the largest of nine English boards in the province of Quebec, increased its graduation rate from 83 percent to 88 percent between 2009 and 2014, fully five years ahead of its targeted date for that level of achievement.
Quebec’s graduation strategy
At the start of 2008, an important consultation process took place with the main education stakeholders in Quebec. A 28-member group, including representatives from the Quebec Ministry of Education, the business world, educational organizations and experts working in the field of student retention, released a report entitled Knowledge Is Power. These experts reported that Quebec was not doing enough to ensure students were graduating with a high school or vocational diploma. The authors of the report painted a bleak picture of the potential long-term impacts, both economic and social, of the high dropout rate in Quebec. They argued that “promoting student retention is nothing less than rescuing our children from the life of poverty, ignorance, exclusion and distress that awaits them if they drop out of school.”
The report sounded the alarm that the Quebec education system was letting one in three students fall through the cracks. As a consequence of the report, significant changes were made to the Education Act through the adoption of Bill 88 in 2009. This introduced a results-based management model for school boards. School improvement, from that point on, had to be based on measureable results.
The Ministry identified five common goals that every school board in the province had to address, with the aim of increasing the provincial graduation rate from 69 percent to 80 percent by 2020. A signed Partnership Agreement between each school board and the Ministry of Education, and similarly, between every school board and its respective schools, were used to ensure coherence and complementarity between the Ministry of Education’s strategic plan, the school board’s strategic plan and the school’s success plans. These agreements are aimed at integrating all actions within a global vision.
The added challenge facing the EMSB was to increase its graduation rate, which was already relatively high at 83 percent. The target graduation rate of 88 percent seemed impossible, given the range of challenges facing our schools: the EMSB includes 37 inner-city schools and 11 alternative schools; one-third of our student population lives below the poverty line. Despite the successful initiatives that established our baseline at 83 percent, we realized that new strategies needed to be considered.
The core values and beliefs guiding the school board did not change with the partnership agreements. What did change was how school improvement occurred, both at the school board level and at the local school level. The partnership agreements provided a framework and mechanism that allowed schools and the school board to use student achievement data to identify areas of strength and weakness, to set attainable goals and identify the pedagogical strategies to achieve them. While this did not suddenly make changing schools and improving teacher practice easy to do, it did lead some schools that had lost momentum to reflect on their successes and challenges, and to formalize plans for improvement. What these agreements did, then, was to turn our beliefs into concrete actions.
As a direct result of the partnership agreement, the EMSB created a plan to adopt evidence-based practices. Using an evidence-based approach for decision making meant that we had to acquire data literacy skills, to ensure that we used data effectively. Prior to 2008, schools did set objectives as part of their strategic plans each year; however, these tended to be generalized goals that were based on teachers’ observations rather than concrete data. Moreover, the old plans did not establish clear, measureable objectives, or the mechanisms to determine if they achieved those objectives. The data that was available to schools prior to 2008 was either in the form of local, teacher-set assessments, or in the form of global exam results that did not provide the kind of focused, relevant information required to inform practice. Furthermore, teachers did not have a structured forum for sharing this information.
Within the framework of the partnership agreements, teachers meet on a regular basis to reflect on the effectiveness of their practices and share knowledge about how to better serve the needs of their students. These changes did not occur overnight – in fact, some changes are not fully in place five years after the introduction of partnership agreements. We faced several challenges in this process, perhaps foremost among them the need to convince all stakeholders that data can be used as a guiding light to inform pedagogy and interventions, rather than as a punitive tool to lay blame where results were disappointing.
Recognizing the complexities involved in changing traditions and mindsets, we adopted a tiered approach to establishing teacher learning networks. This tiered approach, which involved four stages, began with a summit that introduced the concepts of professional learning communities (PLCs) and data teams to all our stakeholders. We followed up with PLC and data team training for all our in-school administrators and educational consultants. Moving from a broad to a more focused support model, the next step involved training lead teams from each school, comprised of teachers and administrators, accompanied by an educational consultant. The fourth stage saw consultants going into schools – on multiple occasions – to provide site-based training to school staff.
The adoption of an evidence-based approach and the creation of PLCs grew directly out of the partnership agreement. It is important to recognize, however, that some initiatives that had already been introduced prior to the partnership agreement became a priority and were strengthened within the new framework. These include a literacy initiative and the system of alternative learning schools.
Early literacy initiative
A balanced literacy initiative at the elementary level had been introduced two years prior to the launch of the partnership agreements. This initiative recognized the importance of early intervention as critical to student success. Based on solid evidence that students’ chances of success in high school and beyond can be traced to their reading ability as early as Grade 3 – or even by the end of Grade 1, according to some research – the need for a literacy strategy was evident. Two principal objectives governed the creation of this strategy: promoting literacy instructional practices that would allow all students to be successful, and implementing a professional development model that would support the teacher learning needed to make this happen. This required far more than a few workshops on literacy instruction; it meant putting a comprehensive plan into place, one that would bring human and material resources to schools and pedagogical expertise to teachers, and that would incorporate a long-term strategy for effective, sustainable professional development.
The more challenging part of the literacy plan was creating a model for ongoing, sustainable professional development for teachers. Our response was to create a network of in-house literacy facilitators – one teacher from each elementary school – which was supported for five years as part of the ongoing balanced literacy implementation. These facilitators met once a month for five years for professional development and sharing, and were released for one day each week to work with other teachers in their own schools promoting best practices in literacy instruction. In some schools and classrooms, this work took the form of mentoring and modeling; in others it took the form of co-teaching, or collegial talk. The part-time release for facilitators in each school was intended to jumpstart the change process by fostering professional sharing.
Results from standardized testing, which have been analyzed yearly by our academic partner, Concordia University, provide reason for optimism. The rate of students reading at grade level in our original cohort increased from 67 percent to 88 percent over the five-year period. However, even with this notable investment in human resources, changing practice proved challenging. In some schools, traditions of autonomy were stronger; in other schools, local priorities received more attention. Buy-in among teachers – and even among administrators – was dependent on many factors that either impeded or promoted the change process.
The implementation of the partnership agreements shifted literacy instruction to the forefront, even at some schools where it had not previously received much attention. With heightened levels of accountability, schools were obligated to set measurable objectives along with specific strategies to achieve them, and they had to report back to their stakeholders on their progress. Vital to our success, we believe, is that the process of using data and producing these reports was not a punitive model. Schools were free to choose their targets and their strategies, and encouraged to reflect on their successes and challenges. What was required, though, was that school teams examine their data together in order to prioritize student needs. They were required to evaluate the success of their efforts with a view to considering how to continually improve.
Another initiative at the EMSB that pre-dated the partnership agreements, but that took on a new focus within the results-based framework, was the system of alternative learning schools at the high school level. This network of alternative schools caters to high school students who are struggling to achieve in the more traditional learning environments found in mainstream high schools. These schools offer a range of flexible learning environments according to the particular needs of each school’s at-risk student population. Students in the alternative system are those who may have otherwise dropped out of school because they felt like they were not able to work within the confines of their time schedule, learn at the set pace and/or find their place and purpose in the mainstream school setting.
Prior to the results-based management framework, teachers in our alternative schools sometimes struggled in isolation to deal with a wide range of student learning needs. Within the structure of the partnership agreements, these schools came together to set goals and objectives specific to their student population. This network allowed teachers to share their challenges and their collective expertise and knowledge of how to best serve their student population.
Changing practice in schools is never easy; it comes with its own set of challenges. The tradition of working independently is something that many teachers hold dear and continues, at some schools, to be an obstacle to collaborative networks of learning. This challenge is exacerbated by school structures that often impede teacher collaboration: timetables, physical layout, and a range of extra duties leave teachers with little time to work together. Moreover, staff and administrator turnover is a constant destabilizing factor that affects the building of trusting relationships. Yet change is occurring at the EMSB.
Many schools have found creative ways to build in common meeting times for teachers to collaborate during the workday. Teacher teams are beginning to use data as a catalyst for discussions focused on pedagogy and student learning. School teams regularly visit colleagues’ classrooms in other schools to learn and share ideas and practices, and teachers from the alternative schools are meeting to find solutions to the unique challenges their students face. While we are only midway through this process, we are optimistic that we are on the right path: The data we are collecting show that student learning and graduation rates continue to improve.
En Bref – Une commission scolaire dont le taux de diplomation est élevé peut-elle relever la barre et améliorer ses résultats en cette ère de reddition de comptes? Cet article indique comment la Commission scolaire English-Montréal, dont plus de 50 pour cent des écoles sont désignées comme étant en milieux urbains défavorisés, a accru son taux de diplomation de 83 à 88 pour cent en sept ans, soit cinq ans avant la date cible du gouvernement. À mi-parcours d’un plan d’action décennal provincial, la commission scolaire continue de miser sur l’instauration de pratiques fondées sur des preuves, le développement de réseaux d’apprentissage pour les enseignants, la priorité accordée à l’alphabétisation précoce et le soutien d’écoles secondaires alternatives. D’après les données recueillies, l’apprentissage des élèves et le taux de diplomation continuent de s’améliorer.
Photo: Marie-Claude Bergeron, English Montreal School Board
First published in Education Canada, May 2015
 In the Quebec context, student retention refers to student perseverance in school, not to holding students back a grade level as a result of failing.
 The five Ministry goals included: increased graduation rates of students under the age of 20; reducing the number of dropouts; improvement to the mastery of the French and English languages; greater success for students with handicaps, social maladjustments or learning difficulties; promotion of a healthy and safe environment through the adoption of violence prevention measures; and, lastly, increasing the number of students under the age of 20 registered in vocational training programs.
 P. B. Gough and C. Juel, “The First Stages of Word Recognition,” in Learning to Read: Basic research and its implications, eds. L. Rieben and C. A. Perfetti (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991).