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Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in the Legislature during the discussion of a controversial bill that would force a new contract on thousands of teachers across the province.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

To a large extent, Dalton McGuinty lived up to his billing as the Education Premier: He repaired the relationship between government and educators, raised literacy and numeracy scores substantially and boosted high-school graduation rates and the number of students enrolled in postsecondary schools. And it was on his watch that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development described Ontario as a world model in education.

But as he leaves, the province has come full circle. The Education Premier is reviled by teachers. Morale in schools has plummeted. After-school programs are suffering, but so are the basics. This week, the elementary teachers' union instructed its members to do the minimum on student progress reports. In this environment, there is no commitment to continued improvement in teaching strategies. And while the Premier was right to hold the line on teacher salary increases, he failed to see that years of buying labour peace with generous settlements, followed by an agreement that the teachers say deprived them of their right to negotiate, set him and his government up for a dramatic fall.

A 2010 OECD report called Ontario's education strategy "perhaps the world's leading example of professionally driven system change." Instead of closing schools with poor literacy results – a U.S. approach – the province sent extra support to poor performers, drove improvements through a centralized unit specializing in literacy and numeracy and worked with teachers to analyze the results of provincewide tests, school by school, to show where they needed to improve and what new approaches they could take.

But a huge amount of spending has gone into Mr. McGuinty's pet projects – first, smaller classes in primary schools, and now, as Ontario's economy reels, a multibillion-dollar program of full-day kindergarten – even as simple but necessary elements such as educational assistants fall by the wayside. When a principal with 425 pupils has no vice-principal, any focus on school improvement is illusory. As Mr. McGuinty leaves, the sustainability of his achievements is in doubt.