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Archive for June, 2017

“Restructuring education” was a popular reform nostrum that dominated North American K-12 school reform in the early to mid 1990s. Emerging as a stepchild of the “Reinventing Government” movement, it was driven by a reform impulse to introduce school-based management as a means of busting the bureaucracy that dominated public education systems.  Centralization, consolidation, and bureaucracy eventually triumphed, aided and abetted by corporate managerialism, testing, and accountability. Twenty years on, it’s time to take a closer look at why decentralization  capsized and what lessons can be learned from the whole venture.

Today centralization is far advanced in all ten Canadian provincial education systems. A study for the Canadian School Boards Association, conducted from December 2010 to November 2011, raised red flags about the impact of centralization on the state of local democratic control in Canada’s provincially regulated school boards. Surveying national trends over the past two decades, the authors conclude that “the significance of the school district apparatus in Canada has diminished as provincial governments have enacted an aggressive centralization agenda” (Sheppard et al. 2013, 42).

School board trustees, once the bulwark of local school accountability, have been rendered almost powerless through a succession of “corporate model” governance reforms.  Two research studies in 2013 and 2016 produced by Gerald Galway and Bruce Sheppard demonstrated conclusively that democratic school board governance is in serious jeopardy because trustees and superintendents now operate in a politicized policy environment that is “antagonistic to local governance” (Galway et al. 2013, 27–28). Elected school boards subscribing to a corporate policy-making model have also tended to stifle trustee autonomy and to narrow the scope of local, community decision-making (Bennett 2012).

Community-school-based management was first implemented in Canada some 40 years ago in the Edmonton public schools by newly appointed superintendent Mike Strembitsky. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, Strembitsky’s innovation “turned the entire concept of the district upside down” (Neal 1991, 4; see also Ouchi 2008, 24). Adopting a completely new approach, he embarked on an initiative to give self-governance to principals and schools through the decentralization of decisions from the district office to the school. The central idea was deceptively simple: “Every decision which contributes to the instructional effectiveness of the school and which can be made at school level, should be made at school level” (Coleman 1984, 25). Most of the transfers have involved school-based budgeting and resource-allocation decisions, but the basic principle is also applied to all educational decisions.

Decentralized education governance was also implemented in Australia and New Zealand as well as in American cities, including Seattle, Washington and Houston, Texas.  From the 1990s until 2001 the decentralized model was fully established in both US cities and piloted in a few Canadian provinces, including Quebec and Nova Scotia. 

Since the publication of William G. Ouchi’s Making Schools Work (2008), school reformers have been more attuned to the centralizing tendencies of education systems and the advantages of school-based management. Those lessons have been absorbed and implemented in innovative systems around the globe; in particular, they have been adopted by the World Bank in its international educational decentralization development projects. One 2005 World Bank study perhaps put it best: “a service education is too complex to be efficiently produced and distributed in a centralized fashion.”

Introducing education restructuring in Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s proved to be impossible, given the intransigence and passive resistance of school administrators, including anxious school principals.

Three decentralized Governance Models were proposed in a 1994 NSDE Discussion paper and all embraced “school-based management” with school councils at each school site, ranging along the continuum from purely advisory councils to school council-school board shared leadership to totally decentralized school-based local governance. Much more educational authority and responsibility was to be transferred from school districts to the school-level and vested in school councils.  Those local councils were to have authority to make decisions in ten specified areas, including setting school priorities, developing a school budget and improvement plans, making recommendations on the hiring and dismissing of principals, appointing principals and staff, and producing community accountability reports.

A 1995 Nova Scotia Education Horizons report spelled out actual plans for school council governance and the reduction of school district structures from 22 regional boards to either five or seven, complete with illustrative maps and district-to-district student enrolment data. The Dr. John Savage government followed through on school district reduction, but gave ground on entrusting so much authority to school-level councils.  School Advisory Councils (SACs), established in 1995, provided periodic advice and improved school-community communications, but did little to shift the locus of education decision-making.

School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole K-12 school system. Closing schools has led to bigger elementary and secondary school plants and administrators now routinely refer to their schools as “buildings.” Since 1995, School Advisory Councils (SACs) have struggled and floundered, most functioning under the thumb of principals and some competing with holdover home and school groups for legitimacy and recognition. Today, scanning school websites, you will look in vain for the names and contact information for anyone on the school advisory councils. If you inquire about the SAC, you are immediately referred to the school principal.

Provincial and regional school boards, as presently constituted, have completely lost their democratic legitimacy. and it’s time to replace them with a far more responsible, grounded and accountable system of school community-based governance. Like most informed parents, engaged citizens, and awakened communities, small school advocates find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.

Abolishing school boards altogether or conducting provincial reviews of school closure regulations do not really change the situation – our P-12 school system operates more to serve those in charge than those it purportedly serves – children, parents, and local communities.  The time for restructuring education is now.

Why does education restructuring to decentralize school decision-making authority remain a vision beyond reach?  Whatever happened to the School-Based Management model successfully implemented in Edmonton Public Schools? What’s the connection between school-based management and effective local school governance?  How can we clear away the obstructions and obstacles and win the support of the educators who inhabit our schools? 

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Today’s business leaders have a clear sense of where a better future lies for Canadians, especially those in Atlantic Canada. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce initiative Ten Ways to Build a Canada That Wins has identified a list of key opportunities Canada, and the Atlantic Region, can seize right now to “regain its competitiveness, improve its productivity and grow its economy.” Competitiveness, productivity and growth are the three cornerstones of that vision for Canada at 150 and this much is also clear – it cannot be done without a K-12 and Post-Secondary education system capable of nurturing and sustaining that vision.

Yet the educational world is a strange place with its own tribal conventions, familiar rituals, ingrained behaviours, and unique lexicon. Within the K-12 school system, educational reform evolves in waves where “quick fixes” and “fads” are fashionable and yesterday’s failed innovations can return, often recycled in new guises.

Today’s business leaders –like most citizens–also find themselves on the outside looking in and puzzled by why our provincial school systems are so top down, bureaucratic, distant and seemingly impervious to change.  Since Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood described the School System as a “Fortress” maintaining clear  boundaries between “insiders and outsiders” back in 1993 not much has changed.  Being on an “advisory committee” gives you some access, but can easily become a vehicle for including you in a consultation process with pre-determined conclusions determined by the system’s insiders and serving the interests of the educational status quo.

Provincial education authorities, pressed by concerned parents, business councils and independent think tanks like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) have embraced standardized testing in the drive to improve literacy and numeracy, fundamentals deemed essential for success in the so-called “21st century knowledge-based economy.” Student testing and accountability may be widely accepted by the informed public, but they are far from secure. Provincial teachers’ unions remain unconvinced and continue to resist standardized testing and to propose all kinds of “softer” alternatives, including “assessment for learning,” “school accreditation,” and broadening testing to include “social and emotional learning.”

Two decades ago, the Metropolitan Toronto Learning Partnership was created and, to a large extent, that education-business alliance has tended to set the pattern for business involvement in public education. Today The Learning Partnership has expanded to become a national charitable organization dedicated to support, promote and advance publicly funded education in Canada.  With the support of major corporate donors, the LP brings together business, government, school boards, teachers, parents, labour and community organizations across Canada in “a spirit of long term committed partnerships.”  It’s time to ask whether that organization has done much to improve student achievement levels and to address concerns about the quality of high school graduates.

A change in focus and strategy is in order if the business voice for education reform is to be heard and heeded in the education sector. Our public school system is simply not good enough. Penetrating the honey-coated sheen of edu-babble and getting at the real underlying issues requires some clear-headed independent analysis. We might begin by addressing five significant issues that should be elevated to the top of the education policy agenda:

  • declining enrollment and school closures – and the potential for community-hub social enterprise schools,
  • the sunk cost trap — and the need to demonstrate that education dollars are being invested wisely,
  • the future of elected school boards — and alternatives building upon school-based governance and management,
  • the inclusive education morass — and the need to improve intensive support services;
  • the widening attainment-achievement gap — improving the quality of high school graduates.

In each case, in-depth analysis brings into sharper relief the critical need for a business voice committed to major surgery –educational restructuring and curriculum reform from the schools up rather than the top down.

The education system in Atlantic Canada, for example, has come a long way since the 1990s when the whole domain was essentially an “accountability-free zone.” Back in 2002, AIMS began to produce and publish a system of high school rankings that initially provoked howls of outrage among school board officials.  Today in Atlantic Canada, education departments and school boards have all accepted the need for provincial testing regimes to assess Primary to Grade 12 student performance, certainly in English literacy and mathematics.

Prodded and cajoled by the annual appearance of AIMS’s High School Report Cards, school boards became far more attuned to the need for improvement in student achievement results. While we have gained ground on standardized assessment of student achievement, final high school examinations have withered and, one -by-one been eliminated and graduation rates have gone through the roof, especially in the Maritime provinces. Without an active and engaged business presence, provincial tests assessing student competence in mathematics and literacy may be imperiled.  Student assessment reform aimed at broadening the focus to  “social and emotional learning” poses another threat. Most recently, a Nova Scotia School Transitions report issued in June 2016 proposed further “investment” in school-college-workplace bridging programs without ever assessing or addressing the decline in the preparedness of those very high school graduates.

Today, new and profoundly important questions are being raised:  What has the Learning Partnership actually achieved over two decades? What have we gained through the provincial testing regimes — and what have we lost?  Where is the dramatic improvement in student learning that we have been expecting?  If students and schools continue to under-perform, what comes next?  Should Canadian education reformers and our business allies begin looking at more radical reform measures such as “turnaround school” strategies, school-based management, or charter schools? 

Where might the business voice have the biggest impact? You would be best advised to either engage in these wider public policy questions or simply lobby and advocate for a respect for the fundamentals: good curriculum, quality teaching, clear student expectations, and more public accountability.  Standing on the sidelines has only served to perpetuate the status quo in a system that, first and foremost, serves the needs of educators rather than students and local school communities.

Revised and condensed from an Address the the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce, June 6, 2017, in Summerside, PEI. 

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