High School Graduation: K–12 Strategies That Work


Avis Glaze, Ruth Mattingley & Rob Andrews

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    Educators today are strategically placed to realize both excellence and equity in outcomes for students—to raise the bar for all students and to close the achievement gaps. Variations in learning should no longer be attributed to background factors. Indeed, schools must remove barriers, empower students, and create the conditions necessary to ensure success for all.

    This call to action is not an abstract theory of what could be, but rather an approach that educators are already taking in their districts, schools, and classrooms—an approach that is already producing significant results. Educators are already convinced that they cannot give up now or show signs of disenchantment or discouragement. They are aware of their role in building a civil society, focusing on results, and advocating for students from diverse groups and those who live in poverty. In other words, educators are fully aware that the focus of education in the next few years has to be on removing the barriers that prevent an improvement in graduation rates. This mission is very important to the students from groups that have a history of failure or of dropping out of school. The need to build alliances and coalitions to support learning and to ensure that schools serve the needs of all students will take center stage. Politicians and parents alike will continue to demand that schools use the strategies at their disposal to raise the bar for all students and close achievement gaps for those who have not been successful in the past.

    The litmus test or, indeed, the question we must ask ourselves is this: Can we afford to replicate the status quo? Under our watch, can there be “throwaway” kids? Will our society remain competitive in the global arena if a significant number of students cannot read, write, or do mathematics? Can we accept the fact that a large number of students will not graduate from high school? Can we, as educators, tolerate the waste of human potential if some students leave our schools without the education they deserve?

    There is a cacophony of voices demanding improvement in the number of students who graduate from schools. There are persuasive arguments for a focus on the moral, economic, social justice, and human rights imperatives of schooling. Educators are taking this clarion call very seriously in their efforts to live up to the promise of making education a driving force for societal improvement and global competitiveness. Improving graduation rates will depend on educators and policy makers evaluating the effectiveness of the strategies that they are currently using from kindergarten to Grade 12, and revisiting the criteria for assessing the effectiveness of learning environments. It will require deep commitment to action and to monitoring what effect the implementation of their strategies is having for the success of our students. Student success, in terms of graduation, is not only dependent on the quality of instruction and educational experiences in high schools; it is also dependent on the strong foundation of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that is laid. It is also dependent on the establishment of high expectations for the success of all students beginning in the early years of a child's education.

    The most important role of schools today is to ensure academic engagement and achievement from kindergarten to Grade 12. Our schools are uniquely positioned to equip our young people with the skills they require to be successful, contributing adults in our society. This challenge, however, is constant throughout the full breadth of the child's educational journey; specific interventions must be in place at all stages and transition points along the continuum. It is critical that educators recognize that improved graduation rates are dependent on improving teaching and learning throughout students' journey from kindergarten to the end of high school. Waiting until high school to challenge and engage students or to implement intervention strategies is too late. Success is dependent on a whole-system approach at the district, school, and classroom levels, across the grades, beginning with strategies that are implemented at the first indication that students are not performing according to the established standards and criteria. These strategies must be focused and intentional with specific, appropriate, and targeted supports for students who are not succeeding. A strong safety net must be in place to give students more chances to achieve graduation. In the study Unlocking Potential for Learning (Campbell, Fullan, & Glaze, 2006), it was clearly shown that sustained improvement in student achievement depends on schools, districts, and provinces adopting an aligned approach that builds the capacity of teachers, school leaders, boards, district leaders, parents, and community allies. High SchoolGraduation: K–12 Strategies That Work provides a comprehensive approach to school and district improvement using proven strategies to enhance student achievement and increase graduation rates.

    There are many evidence-based approaches that are being implemented in many jurisdictions across the world. Those promising practices must be adopted, and strategies that do not work must be abandoned. Many jurisdictions are proving that all students can learn and succeed given time and proper supports. This means that it is necessary to ensure that all teachers and principals have access to these approaches and should be encouraged to improve on their knowledge base in an effort to sustain the gains that have already been made. Our experience is that it takes different approaches and renewed effort to bring about improvement at different stages along the journey, especially as one gets closer to the target. What we also know is that this work has to be done with a sense of urgency. The fact is that the students cannot wait—nor will their societies, as each country strives to take its place in the global economy.

    In Ontario, improving graduation rates has been a key priority. Over the past nine years, continuous progress has been achieved. The research-informed strategies outlined in this book are based on the firsthand experiences of the authors who were provincial leaders in the development and implementation of Ontario's improvement strategy for kindergarten through Grade 12. This book provides an improvement framework for school district leaders, school administrators, classroom teachers, and policy makers. It documents the instructional strategies and improvement processes used to bring about the changes that have resulted in continuous improvement in student outcomes.

    Education benefits all members of the community, and making gains in achievement requires the support of all those who have a vested interest in this critical undertaking. The importance of developing community alliances and building coalitions to support learning is important; schools cannot do this alone. Through the development of networks, the sharing of promising practices, and the support of one another, schools and their communities keep the momentum for improvement alive.

    High School Graduation is a detailed, comprehensive resource for the principals, teachers, superintendents, directors, and policy makers whose primary quest is to improve their schools and districts and to help all students achieve at higher levels and graduate from high school. This book outlines high-impact, research-informed strategies that have been demonstrated to improve student achievement. The authors have provided practical processes, tools, and templates that will assist jurisdictions to achieve their improvement goals. Sample tools such as templates for improvement planning are included.

    There is, indeed, a sense of urgency in improving student achievement. Schleicher (2006) asserts that, regardless of where we live in the world or where we stand in terms of development, the ability to compete in the fast-growing economy with demands for high-level skills hinges on significant improvements in the quality of schooling outcomes and a more equitable distribution of learning opportunities.

    In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that Canadian students do well not only on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA); they do so despite their socioeconomic status, first language, or status as Aboriginal Canadians or recent immigrants. OECD stated that Canada has achieved success within a system that accommodates a diverse student population. Researchers examined Canada's success through an in-depth look at the province of Ontario and validated our strategy, which they described as combining a demand for excellence with extensive capacity building, and fostering a climate of trust and mutual respect among all stakeholders (OECD, 2011).

    Teachers, principals, and all those who work in schools are to be commended for the progress they have already made. But as time progresses, we cannot rest on our laurels. We know we can do better. We know that we can raise our expectations of the number of students who can graduate from high school successfully with our guidance, support, and effective teaching.

    As countries across the globe focus on educational improvement, there is an expressed need by educators to discover and implement the strategies that improve student learning and achievement. This book documents Ontario's success story and provides a reflection on the reasons the approaches that were selected, from a field of possibilities, worked. Educators across the world will find that many of the processes described can work in their own contexts. It also helps that the Ontario system has received external recognition and validation for its focus on excellence and equity and for closing achievement gaps.

    We invite educators to share our enthusiasm for the future of education. We certainly have the will and the skills to improve graduation rates. This requires inspired, persistent performance and motivation, and an enduring belief that our efforts do, indeed, enhance life chances. Our confidence is based on recognition of what we have already achieved. We know we can do even better. We must keep the momentum alive. Improving graduation rates is a mission that is possible and one that we embrace with confidence.

    Campbell, C., Fullan, M., and Glaze, A. (2006). Unlocking potential for learning: Effective district-wide strategies to raise student achievement in literacy and numeracy. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Education.
    Ontario Ministry of Education. (2011). Ontario schools: Kindergarten to Grade 12: Policy and program requirements. Toronto: Author.
    Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2010, December 6). Education: What students know and what can they do? [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0D-JpL5fFgc
    Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2011), Education at a glance 2011: OECD indicators. Paris: Author. http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/education-at-a-glance-2011_eag-2011-en
    Schleicher, A. (2006). The economics of knowledge: Why education is key for Europe's success (The Lisbon Council Policy Brief). Brussels: The Lisbon Council.


    We extend heartfelt gratitude to Ontario educators with whom we have worked over the years to improve student outcomes. The strategies we describe in this book and the lessons we have all learned together have contributed to the gains that Ontario has made on the world stage. Ontario teachers, principals, policy makers, parent and community members deserve many encomiums for the progress that has been demonstrated over the years. Ours was truly a team effort—one in which we contributed to each other's professional learning and motivation to constantly raise the bar of performance.

    We cannot thank all of the individuals who have played key roles in the improvement agenda. We are compelled, however, to thank Michael Fullan, George Zegarac, Mary Jean Gallagher and all the staff of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Ministry of Education, and the school boards across Ontario. We also recognize the contribution of Nathalie Carrier, Hilary Edelstein, Sabina Persaud, Robyn Reid, and Jacqueline Sohn.


    Avis wishes to thank her husband, Peter Bailey, for his keen insights, helpful critiques and tireless support of her work and career.

    Ruth thanks her husband John and son Billy for their constant support and encouragement. In addition Ruth would like to personally thank Avis Glaze for her vision and passion to improve educational outcomes for all students and for inviting her to work by her side at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.

    Rob thanks his family and friends for their ongoing support. On a professional level, there are seven very important leaders who have made a tremendous difference for him and for the countless students whose lives they have enhanced. He would like to thank Barry O'Connor, Grant Clarke, and Kit Rankin for their inspirational leadership in the early years of the Student Success strategy. He also thanks Avis Glaze, Sylvia Terpstra, Mary Jean Gallagher, and Kevin Costante for the work they have done to ensure that the students always came first and that the supports they needed were optimized to the fullest extent possible.

    We thank the following expert reviewers of the manuscript for their excellent feedback and recommendations:

    • Susan Kessler
    • Executive Principal Hunters Lane High School
    • Nashville, TN
    • John P. Rice, Director of Science, Technology Education, Health Education, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Health Services North Syracuse Central School District
    • North Syracuse, NY
    • Dr. Richard Rutledge, Assistant Principal
    • Arab High School
    • Arab, AL
    • Kelly VanLaeken, Principal
    • Ruben A. Cirillo High School
    • Gananda Central School District
    • Walworth, NY
    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Ann Dargon, Assistant Superintendent
    • Westport Community Schools
    • Westport, MA
    • Robert A. Frick, Superintendent
    • Lampeter-Strasburg School District
    • Lampeter, PA
    • Douglas Gordon Hesbol, Educational Consultant
    • Yorkville, IL
    • David Hodgdon, Superintendent
    • School Administration Unit 38
    • Swanzey, NH
    • Martin J. Hudacs, Superintendent
    • Solanco School District
    • Quarryville, PA
    • Virginia E. Kelsen, Assistant Principal
    • Rancho Cucamonga High School
    • Rancho Cucamonga, CA
    • Neil MacNeill, Head Master
    • Ellenbrook Primary School
    • Ellenbrook, Western Australia
    • Jadi Miller, Director of Curriculum and Professional Development
    • Lincoln Public Schools
    • Lincoln, NE
    • Belinda J. Raines, Principal
    • Northwestern High School
    • Detroit, MI
    • John Rice, Director of Science, Technology Education, Health Education, Family and Consumer Sciences, and Health Services
    • North Syracuse Central School District
    • North Syracuse, NY
    • Richard Rutledge, Assistant Principal
    • Arab High School
    • Arab, AL
    • Bonnie Tryon, Past President
    • School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS) Latham, NY
    • 2007 National Distinguished Principal—New York
    • Kelly VanLaeken, Principal
    • Ruben A. Cirillo High School
    • Walworth, NY

    About the Authors

    Dr. Avis Glaze is a well-known international leader in education. As Ontario's first chief student achievement officer and founding CEO of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, she played a pivotal role in improving student achievement in Ontario. Avis is currently the founder and president of her company, Edu-quest International, Inc.

    Avis has worked at all levels of the education system—from classroom teacher to superintendent of schools, director of education, and education officer. She was research coordinator with the Ontario Women's Directorate of the Ministry of Labour. She also served as Ontario's education commissioner and senior adviser to the Minister of Education.

    Avis was commissioner on the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, influencing the direction of education in the province. She represented the Canadian government with education reform in South Africa and at the UNESCO conference on inclusive education in Riga, Latvia. As well, she has worked with educators in Australia, New Zealand, England, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Singapore, the Caribbean, and many parts of the United States.

    Avis has received honorary doctorates from several Canadian universities, including her alma mater, the University of Toronto. She has won more than 40 awards for outstanding contribution to education, including Educator of the Year, the Sandford D. McDonnell Lifetime Achievement Award for Character Education offered by the Character Education Partnership in the United States, and the Order of Ontario.

    She has been involved in a landmark research on Ontario high school girls and has written many articles on topics as diverse as leadership, career development, character education, diversity, equity, and inclusive education. She co-authored Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience (with Ken Alexander) and Breaking Barriers; Excellence and Equity for All (Glaze, Mattingley, & Levin, 2012).

    Ruth Mattingley has provided leadership in education provincially, nationally, and internationally. Ruth was formerly the senior executive officer at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ontario Ministry of Education. In this role, Ruth worked closely with Ontario's chief student achievement officer, Dr. Avis Glaze, to develop Ontario's provincial strategy for improving achievement in literacy and numeracy for elementary school students. Ruth also worked closely with school districts and schools across Ontario as they developed strategic plans that focused on improving student achievement. Ruth is currently an associate with Edu-quest International.

    Prior to joining the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, Ruth was a superintendent of education with the Lambton Kent District School Board with portfolios ranging from curriculum development and implementation, special education, and human resources, as well as supervising a family of schools. Ruth also has experience as an elementary school principal, classroom, and special education teacher.

    Ruth has worked with educational leaders both within Canada and internationally with a focus on district and school improvement planning, high-impact strategies for improving student achievement, equity and diversity, and improving student achievement in schools in challenging circumstances. Ruth has written numerous articles and recently co-authored Breaking Barriers: Excellence and Equity for All (Glaze, Mattingley, & Levin, 2012).

    Ruth is a past president of the Ontario Public Supervisory Officers Association (OPSOA) and a past president of the Canadian Association of School Administrators (CASA). She was the recipient of the OPSOA Distinguished Leadership Award and the Ontario recipient of the CASA Excel Leadership Award.

    Rob Andrews is the director of the Student Success/Learning to 18 Strategic Implementation, Innovation and Support branch of the Student Achievement Division at the Ontario Ministry of Education. He has also served as a teacher, vice principal, principal, and superintendent of education with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (Peterborough, Ontario) with responsibility for student success, alternative education, and secondary school reform. Rob spent an additional year serving as an education officer for the Strategic Policy Branch of the Student Success Branch at the Ontario Ministry of Education in 2005–2006. He has been involved with Ontario's Student Success initiative since its inception in 2003 and has worked in this capacity with directors of education, supervisory officers, Student Success leaders, secondary school principals, Ministry of Education staff, teacher teams, and consultants to develop and implement professional supports. With an emphasis on the four “pillars” of student success, these supports focus on the leadership, facilitation and strategies that allow for broad changes in secondary school programs, transitions to secondary schools, supporting students at risk, and changing school and system culture with respect to serving all students. He has also been engaged in planning for the enhanced use of instructional technology in the teaching and learning process.

    Rob has been involved in school and community collaboration and has engaged key stakeholders in the analysis of system data, in the performance of baseline establishment, gap analysis, goal and target setting, strategic planning, implementation, and monitoring for initiatives related to the Student Success portfolio. He has been a secondary school teacher and administrator since 1987 and has extensive experience with adult and alternative education. He holds a master of education degree in educational administration and has been a supervisory officer in Ontario since 2006.

  • Appendices

    Appendix 1: SMART Goals

    Specific and Strategic
    Questions to AskObservations/ EvidenceComments/ Recommendations
    Have you articulated precisely what you want to achieve?
    Have priorities been strategically selected based on an analysis of system or school data?
    Is the goal aligned to specific curriculum expectations?
    Does the goal represent the greatest area of need for students?
    In what area(s) are a significant number of students experiencing difficulty?
    Has a baseline been established?
    What tools will best measure if targets have been achieved?
    How often will you measure progress?
    What is the achievement target for the school?
    How will you know if you have been successful in achieving your goal?
    Is what you are expecting reasonable? How do you know?
    Is the goal ambitious yet attainable?
    How can you build capacity to achieve the desirable change?
    How do you get buy-in from everyone to ensure you achieve your priorities?
    Results Oriented
    What will be different for students if you achieve your goal?
    • Why is it important to achieve this goal?
    • For students?
    • For staff?
    How will you monitor your progress?
    Have you clearly articulated your desired results?
    How will you communicate your progress?
    Time Bound
    What is the time frame for achieving this goal?
    What strategies are in place to keep you on track? (Monitoring strategies at specific points in time are identified.)

    Appendix 2: District or School Improvement Plan

    Needs Assessment

    Members of the Improvement Team

    Achievement and Other Relevant Data

    Based on these data, where should we focus our efforts? What are our SMART goals?

    Appendix 3: Key Questions to Support Improvement Planning

    Needs Assessment
    • What do our student achievement data tell us?
    • Have we disaggregated the data to identify groups of students who are not meeting with success?
    • Are there differences in achievement among similar schools or populations?
    • What trends or patterns in student achievement do we see that we are trying to support or alter?
    • Have we carefully examined the data to identify underlying causes of strengths and weaknesses in achievement?
    • What improvement targets have we set?
    Identifying Goals
    • Based on our diagnosis and data, what will we focus on to raise student achievement?
    • What are the three or four priorities that we will focus on to ensure student success? What barriers must be overcome?
    • Will these priorities address both short-term needs and actions and long-term sustainable improvement?
    • What will we do to achieve equity of outcomes?
    The Plan
    • What are the specific strategies and actions that we will implement to achieve our priorities?
    • How will the district engage and support schools and communities in this process?
    • Does the plan identify the roles, responsibilities, time frame, and resources to support implementation strategies?
    • How will we provide required professional learning and capacity building?
    • Have we drawn on research and professional experience to select the best strategies to maximize student learning?
    • Are all strategies in the plan clear, concise, and consistent with the key priorities? Are they integrated and mutually supportive?
    • How will we communicate the plan to our schools and communities?
    Action, Monitoring, and Evaluation
    • How will we communicate our actions and results?
    • How will we measure our progress and the impact on student learning?
    • How has instructional practice changed?
    • How will we address changing needs or issues that may be identified in the monitoring and review process?
    • How will our diagnostic and monitoring information support future improvement planning?

    Appendix 4: Sample Improvement Plan Checklist

    District Target Setting and Improvement Planning: Key Components

    District _________________________________________

    • The district improvement team is in place, with roles and responsibilities defined.
    • Priorities are determined through analysis of district data.
    • There is a clear focus.
    • A limited number of goals is clearly articulated based on data analysis and determination of the greatest areas of student need.
    • Indicators of success are measurable in terms of student achievement.
    • Required resources are identified.
    • The district's budget priorities align with achievement priorities.
    • Clear timelines are articulated.
    • District targets are established.
    • Specific strategies to achieve goals and meet targets are identified.
    • Accountability systems are established: Who is responsible? How will progress be monitored? How often?
    • Equity issues are being addressed (e.g., low-performing schools, struggling students, strategies are in place to support specific subpopulations).
    • Capacity-building strategies are in place to support the implementation of the plan (e.g., learning communities, job-embedded professional learning, leadership development).
    • Are there expectations that school plans align with district plans?
    • Communication strategies are in place to ensure everyone understands the plan and knows their role.
    • Strategies to engage the community are identified.
    • At what point will targets, strategies, responsibilities, and resources be revised or adapted?
    • Has there been an evaluation of the previous year's plan? Were the commitments in the previous plan achieved?
    • If not, why? What were the obstacles? Are there strategies in place to overcome the obstacles?

    Appendix 5: School Target Setting and Improvement Planning: Key Components

    School ______________________________________

    • A school improvement team is in place, with roles and responsibilities defined.
    • A needs assessment has been conducted to determine school improvement priorities.
    • A small number of precise improvement goals is identified.
    • Ambitious school achievement targets are established.
    • Specific strategies to achieve goals and targets are identified.
    • Measurable indicators of success are in place.
    • Required resources are identified.
    • Clear timelines are articulated.
    • Monitoring systems have been established: Who is responsible? How will progress be monitored, and how often? At what point will targets, strategies, responsibilities, and resources be revised or adapted?
    • Equity issues are being addressed (e.g., struggling students, strategies are in place to support specific subpopulations) through differentiated instruction.
    • Capacity-building strategies are in place to support the implementation of the plan.
    • Communication strategies are in place to ensure that individuals understand the plan and know their roles.
    • There are strategies in place to engage parents and the community.
    • How have you planned, if needed, for mid-course corrections in the plan?
    • Has there been an evaluation of the previous year's plan? Were commitments in the previous plan achieved?
    • If not, why? What were the obstacles? Are there strategies in place to overcome the obstacles?

    CORWIN: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK–12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

    Ontario Principals' Council: Exemplary Leadership in Public Education

    The Ontario Principals' Council (OPC) is a voluntary association for principals and vice-principals in Ontario's public school system. We believe that exemplary leadership results in outstanding schools and improved student achievement. To this end, we foster quality leadership through world-class professional services and supports. As an ISO 9001 registered organization, we are committed to “quality leadership—our principal product.”

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