In September 2010. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board moved its Central Administrative Office from downtown Dartmouth to a Corporate Industrial Park in Burnside, on the city’s outskirts. The decision to expand the central office to 73,000 square feet for some $1 million more in annual leasing costs was justified on the grounds that the board had, it was only then revealed, accumulated a $4.3 million surplus for this purpose. Few, at the time, questioned the move or what it signified as a concrete example of the so-called “controlling politics” of the “new managerialism” in public education.
Centralizing the administration was assumed to be necessary to advance what OISE’s Dr. Ben Levin champions as “macro-directions” and presumably to minimize the dissonance and local resistance emanating from “micropolitics” in the schools. The then Chair of the Board Irvine Carvery defended the move as sound financially and claimed that the then Chief Superintendent Carole Olsen saw the need for a much bigger central headquarters to facilitate large scale professional developmemt activities. Some 30 years after the advent of School-Based Management (SBM), this school board, like many across North America, remained wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service.
School-Based Management arrived in Canada in the early 1970s when an American educator, Dr. Rolland Jones, began experimenting with the concept as Superintendent of the Edmonton Public School Board. Described as “a visionary 20 years ahead of his times,” he favoured local decision-making and espoused “site-based budgeting.” From 1976 until 1995, his successor Michael Strembitsky and school planner Alan Parry effectively dismantled a centrally-managed school system and operationalized school-based decision-masking.
A determined team of administrators led by Strembitsky implemented a robust plan shifting more responsibility to local schools, increasing local budget allocations to schools from 2% to 82% of provincial education dollars. While not entirely perfected, the decentralized approach, in the words of Board Chair Joan Cowling, was “a dramatic improvement in the way schools were administered” and more attuned to school-level needs.
The Edmonton Model was further developed by Strembitsky’s successor, Superintendent Angus McBeath. School choice was introduced and implemented along with site-based budgeting. Students and parents were offered their choice of schools within the city and, by 2003, 62% of high schoolers and 54% of junior high students attended schools outside their attendance zones. A depopulating decaying high school was transformed into an arts academy and its enrolment rebounded, largely at the expense of competing private schools. An energy conservation initiative, entrusted to local schools, netted $2 million at year in savings. Publishing school-by-school student achievement results improved overall test scores. While it was a top-down reform initiative, the key to its success, according to McBeath, lay in the strong support it engendered among “allies outside the educational system.”
After a flurry of school-based management initiatives in the mid-1990s, including some school districts in Ontario and Nova Scotia, school administrators pulled back from the whole approach. Centralization and administrative build-up proved to be powerful forces, strengthened by the consolidation of school boards, the introduction of system-wide testing, the proliferation of special programs, and the spread of program consultants. Student loads per teacher, known as Total Student Loads (TSLs), according to William G. Ouchi, actually rose in junior and senior high schools. Superintendents acquired more power by increasing the size of their headquarters staffs, created more non-teaching positions, and this, in turn, led teachers to abandon the classroom. A 1997 American research study revealed that only 43% of district employees were regularly engaged in classroom teaching.
The Edmonton Education Model attracted many public accolades but few followers in the ranks of North American educational administration. In his 2008 book Making Schools Work , Ouchi, a leading UCLA management professor, reported that Edmonton had “the best-run schools” compared to those of many other North American cities. He credited Edmonton’s educational leadership in school-based management with engineering a “revolution” and charting the way for other school systems to escape educational mediocrity and under-performance.
While North American educational leaders still shy away from School-Based Management, it is now undergoing a renaissance in the developing world where school systems are seeking immediate “turnaround” educational reforms. Since 2003, The World Bank has been particularly active in supporting and funding SBM initiatives in countries like Kenya, Indonesia, Nepal, and Senegal. A recent international study, commissioned by the World Bank (2011) , claimed that “education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.” (p. 87). In spite of some successes, the study found “ambiguous results” in countries where “elite capture” was a problem and “teachers and unions” resisted ceding more control to “parents and community members.”
Senior administrators who promote the latest educational panacea known as ”distributed leadership” remain surprisingly resistant to a more democratic, school-level, decision-making model. Yet more open minded educators like New Yorker Thomas Whitby, initiator of #Edchat, and Australian researcher Bruce Johnson continue to muse about the unsettling impact of centralizing administration on the quality and tone of teaching and learning in schools.
Sympathetic observers like Whitby express concern over teacher -administrators who get swept up in the “Education Center world” and managerial matters and lose touch with the classroom, In Australia, Johnson contends that ”bureaucratic managerialism” has been used to “construct a seemingly irresistible top-down juggernaut of reform that largely excludes the possibility or desirability of local agency.” School-based management has considerable appeal because it fosters a ”positive politics” of negotiation, collaboration, and conflict resolution to address issues of local concern in schools.” He longs for the day when teachers, as well as parents, could enjoy a more “positive framework” with ongoing opportunities to participate in the “school improvement journey.” (p. 23)
What’s feeding the continued growth of central administration in K-12 public education? Why has the Edmonton Model of school-based management won so few converts among senior educational administrators? Can “distributed leadership” ever be achieved without ceding some control and responsibilities to school-level principals and parent-community councils? What stands in the way of achieving a more locally-accountable, school-based system?