Assessment, Diversity, Policy

The International Quest for Educational Excellence: Understanding Canada’s High Performance

In 2010, when the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released its 2009 PISA results, the big story was that eight of the top ten performing systems were Asian. Almost everyone overlooked the strong performance of Canada: sixth overall and the highest English-speaking and French-speaking nation in the world.[1]

The oversight didn’t persist for long. Canada is now a “go-to” country for educational inspiration and policy learning. Despite the tendency of international policy organizations to highlight the success of only one province – Ontario – and to equate it with the whole of Canada, no province can or should stand for the country in general.

Canada is now a “go-to” country for educational inspiration and policy learning.

Looking at PISA results province-by-province, four Canadian provinces performed particularly well, often within just a few points of each other. On reading literacy, Alberta led, followed by Ontario and British Columbia. On mathematics, Quebec came first, followed by Alberta and Ontario. On science, Alberta was ahead, followed by B.C. and Ontario. In these four top-performing provinces, educational policies and strategies, the parties of political control, and the relationships between governments and teacher unions are often quite different. How, then, should we understand consistently high results in very different provincial contexts?

In these four top-performing provinces, educational policies and strategies … are often quite different. How, then, should we understand consistently high results in very different provincial contexts?

In large and complex policy systems, it is difficult – if not impossible – to attribute achievement gains to one particular policy or another. Many policies and their interaction, not just those that are most prominently emphasized or preferred, explain a system’s success. If four provinces perform very similarly on PISA, it is therefore important not only to look at the recent policies and strategies that seem to differentiate them, such as Ontario’s Literacy and Numeracy strategy, or the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI), but also to examine the policies, strategies, and professional histories these provinces share in common over longer periods of time within the general context of Canadian culture and society. 

Twin Peaks

Our book, The Global Fourth Way, reports on our research into six examples of high performance internationally.[2] Two are Canadian: Alberta and Ontario. Both jurisdictions illustrate the interaction of recent policies and longer-term trends.

In 2009, we were asked to evaluate AISI.[3] Alberta Education has allocated 2 percent of the education budget, for 95 percent of the province’s schools, to support school-designed innovations over three yearly cycles through a partnership with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and other stakeholders. The schools report on these innovations, measure their impact, and communicate them to other project participants. And yet, our team was unable to determine the independent effect of AISI on student achievement on Provincial Achievement Tests, in part because AISI had become so embedded in how schools and districts operated over ten years that it was impossible to disentangle its influence from other features of the system.

From 2009-2012, one of us (Hargreaves) also co-directed a collaborative study in Ontario, with ten school districts and the Council of Directors of Education (CODE), into the design and implementation of the province’s special education strategy.[4] This strategy promoted differentiated instruction, universal design for learning, use of assistive technologies, and the development of collaborative professional relationships and responsibility in schools and school districts. The idea was that what was essential for students with special educational needs would be good for all students.

Although a spike in achievement results among students with special educational needs coincided with the first year in which these students had been allowed accommodations that included assistive technologies, we could not establish a causal relationship. Indeed, as senior Ministry of Education staff in Ontario pointed out, “You won’t be able to isolate variables. You have to put it in context of the school effectiveness planning process, the board effectiveness planning process, aligning all of those with the use of data.”

So where does that leave us in learning from international and inter-provincial comparisons? First, according to the OECD, factors to be considered – in addition to specific policies – include the quality of teachers and teaching, the importance of professional collaboration, the public’s investment in the education and health of the nation’s children, and the emphasis on providing strong, system-level support.[5] Second, specific policies may be examined or justified on grounds other than their immediate impact on tested student achievement. In The Global Fourth Way, we identify common factors that are associated with long-term high performance (rather than short-term policy implementation), and that contribute to a broader educational and social good. Here, we look at seven of these and how they play out in the two Canadian provinces we studied in particular.

Seven Principles of High Performance

1. An inspiring dream. This moves a system forward and places educators in the forefront of shaping that system’s future. It is a questionable truism in the educational change literature that people’s practice has to change before their beliefs. In business and in educational systems, this mainly applies to externally imposed change. In the collaborative Canadian Way, changes in beliefs often precede changes in practice. In Alberta, for example, the widely shared commitment to innovation galvanized the Ministry of Education and the province’s teachers, leading to more than ten years of continuous government funding for innovation and to increases in teachers’ satisfaction levels. In Ontario, the province’s policy statement on Education for All was so inspiring that the leaders of the ensuing strategy for inclusion couldn’t “imagine a teacher worth their salt who couldn’t buy into that philosophy.”[6]

2. Local authority. In Finland, Singapore, and Canada, within broad central parameters, the local school district currently secures public engagement and democratic involvement, responds to diverse communities, and forges collective professional responsibility for curriculum or pedagogical development and school-to-school assistance. In Ontario, the special education initiative offers flexibility to school districts in designing projects that serve very different needs depending on whether their communities consist of high numbers of new immigrants, Old Order Mennonites, First Nations students, or Franco-Ontarian populations. In Alberta, many school-designed innovations are clustered together at the district level where they are networked with each other in processes of mutual learning. It is therefore worrying that currently, in Canada, local influence is being imperiled as districts are being merged into large administrative units that may become little more than conduits for delivering centralized Ministry policies.

3. Innovation with improvement. High performing systems like Finland and Singapore successfully combine improvement and innovation. They improve existing practice and pioneer new practice at the same time. Innovation is not regarded as a luxury to follow basic improvement, but as something that must accompany improvement in a disciplined way if incipient decline is to be averted. Ontario has gained a global reputation for its improvements in literacy and numeracy, yet under the official radar, it has also put 5,000 teachers through its union-sponsored program of teacher-designed innovation and committed all its districts to multiple and locally-developed ways of increasing inclusion.[7] Equally, while Alberta has made a prominent commitment to school-designed innovation, it has also persisted with its long-standing achievement tests. As Finland demonstrates, standardized achievement tests are not necessary for high performance, but it is time to grasp that the two processes of innovation and improvement are not mutually exclusive, but should go hand-in-hand.

4. Platforms for change. Pipelines that deliver reforms from the centre to the schools build teachers’ capacity by training them in government-decided priorities; platforms for change enable and empower people to develop the capacities to help themselves. AISI is a platform for schools and districts to design their own innovations and to build teacher capacity in curriculum and pedagogical development through that process. Ontario’s special education initiative expected all 72 provincial districts to develop their own initiatives within broad guidelines and to build their own capacity for change, with outside support from a team of former superintendents and directors.

5. Professional capital. Highly successful systems select teachers from the upper reaches of the achievement range, engage them together in curriculum development and shared inquiry, and retain them until they reach the years of experience where they will be at their best. They invest in, develop, and circulate teachers’ professional capital.[8] Teachers in 95 percent of Alberta’s schools are, through AISI, involved in continuous inquiry as a routine part of their professional practice. “We are becoming true professionals,” one of the province’s mid-career teachers said. “We are reading and we are talking about what is promising in the field and really trying to implement it.” Meanwhile, instead of being subjected to drive-by workshops and big “ballroom” professional development sessions, most teachers in Ontario’s special education reform have been involved in job-embedded professional learning processes, including “coaching-at-the-elbow”, that improve their effectiveness in practices such as differentiated instruction and analysis of student data to pinpoint effective interventions for struggling students.

6. Collective responsibility. In high performing systems, everyone experiences and exercises shared responsibility for all students and for the improvement of teaching. Ontario’s special education reform was designed to get district office staff out of their “silos” and to encourage special education and curriculum staff to work together for the benefit of all students. In schools, classroom teachers shared responsibility with special education support staff for students identified with special education needs, and these support staff helped all students who struggled, not just those who had been formally identified. Teachers said things like “There’s a change from my students to our students,” and “It’s not all on the classroom teacher. They never feel like they’re responsible for this one child.” In Alberta, meanwhile, the inclusion of principals within the Alberta Teachers’ Association means that principals and teachers work together very closely on change initiatives, and AISI builds collaborative and networking principles into the basic criteria for approving its projects. 

7. Intensive communication. High performing systems do not create system coherence through rigidly aligned bureaucratic structures, but by developing their system’s culture. The key mechanism here is intense communication. AISI’s educators network regularly with each other. Educators move back and forth between the teachers’ association, the Ministry, and the university, and university faculty undertake research projects collaboratively with school and district colleagues. In Ontario, the districts involved in the special education reform were interconnected by a small steering team of former superintendents who cross-pollinated the projects with each other, and by a team of over 30 project monitors who visited the districts to help them and their schools reflect on their progress and their goals.


The Canadian Way to educational excellence is not a silver bullet or short-term miracle. It cannot be attributed to this or that recent short term policy, but to constellations of policies that run across provinces and systems.

The Canadian Way to educational excellence is not a silver bullet or short-term miracle. It cannot be attributed to this or that recent short term policy, but to constellations of policies that run across provinces and systems, accumulate over time, and are consistent with a longstanding culture of high regard for public education, strong support for the teaching profession, and broadly collaborative and inclusive processes of educational change management, inspired by sets of commonly shared beliefs. This embedded and inclusive Canadian Way – that is being threatened by the global trend to weaken district involvement and control in favour of more and more centralized direction – says more about Canada as a society than it does about the relative value of any specific provincial policy. Perhaps U2’s Bono put it best when he said, “I believe the world needs more Canada.”

EN BREF – En 2010, quand l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE) a publié les résultats du PISA 2009, on a beaucoup parlé du fait que huit des dix systèmes les plus performants étaient asiatiques. Presque personne n’a souligné l’excellent résultat du Canada : au sixième rang général et en tête de file des pays anglophones et francophones. La performance au PISA des quatre provinces ayant obtenu les meilleurs résultats – l’Alberta, la Colombie-Britannique, le Québec et l’Ontario – était similaire, malgré les différences marquées entre leurs politiques et stratégies éducatives, les partis politiques au pouvoir et les relations entre les gouvernements et les syndicats d’enseignement. Comment l’expliquer? Leur performance ne peut être attribuée à des politiques spécifiques à court terme, mais à une constellation de politiques communes à ces provinces et systèmes dont les effets s’accumulent. Leur résultat découle d’une culture historique tenant l’éducation publique en haute estime, d’un solide appui de la profession d’enseignant et de processus généralement collaboratifs et inclusifs de gestion du changement en éducation, inspirés par des convictions communes.

[1] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2011). PISA 2009 at a Glance. Paris: OECD.

[2] A. Hargreaves and D. Shirley, The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2012).

[3] A. Hargreaves, R. Crocker, B. Davis, L. McEwen, P. Sahlberg, D. Shirley and D. Sumara, The Learning Mosaic: A Multiple Perspectives Review of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement AISI (Edmonton, AB: Alberta Education, 2009).

[4] A. Hargreaves and H. Braun, Leading For All: Final Report of the Review of the Development of Essential for Some, Good for All—Ontario’s Strategy for Special Education Reform Devised by the Council of Directors of Education (Toronto: Council of Directors of Education, 2012). 

[5] OECD, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States (Paris: OECD, 2011).

[6] Ontario Ministry of Education, Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel of Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6 (Toronto, Ontario: Queen’s Printer, 2005).

[7] A. Lieberman, “Teachers, Learners, Leaders,” Educational Leadership 67 (2010).

[8] A. Hargreaves and M. Fullan, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2012).

Meet the Expert(s)

Dennis Shirley


Dennis Shirley is a Professor at Boston College. His book, The Global Fourth Way: the Quest for Educational Excellence, is co-authored by Andy Hargreaves and published by Corwin Press.

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Dr. Andy Hargreaves

Professor, University of Ottawa

Andy Hargreaves is Director of CHENINE (Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education) at the University of Ottawa, and Research Professor at the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College.

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