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The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic proves, once again, the old adage that “it takes a crisis” and especially so in the world of K-12 education. Surveying the fallout from the school shutdown, the six-month hiatus, and the rocky school-start-up in September, everyone from school leaders to students, educators and parents, is absorbing the lessons, rethinking past assumptions and considering what once seemed like unlikely scenarios.

Pandemic distance learning was mostly an educational disaster. The centralized and overly bureaucratic school system described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Students, parents, and teachers have –in many ways – still not recovered from the disruption and subsequent upheaval.

The three-month long school shutdown exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure which traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control. We came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Little did we realize that it would devolve into a marathon and that possibly the worst was yet to come.

Since the resumption of school in September, the unsettling impact of the massive distance learning experiment, compounded by fears and anxieties over COVID-19 health risks, have destabilized whole school systems. Tens of thousands of Ontario students and parents, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, abandoned in-person schooling for hastily assembled online learning programs. Some 11,000 parents, in spired by Toronto parent Rachel Marmer, flirted with creating pandemic “learning pods” and hiring teacher/tutors to serve small groups of four or five students.

The initial school schedule combining in-person and online classes proved incredibly complex to manage and, in some cases, unsustainable. Hundreds of teachers were reassigned to centrally managed online instruction and school timetables ended up being reorganized several times. Smaller class cohorts have now been collapsed as school districts, starting with the Dufferin-Peel and York Region Catholic boards, readjust again and resort to offering single stream combined courses utilizing live streamed lessons.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities. It’s also looking, more and more, like schools will need to be far more responsive to the radically altered health conditions and shifting preferences of students and families.

Community-school based reform
Some forty years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of school governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education
Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human, student scale. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s draw upon the lessons learned through the Human Scale Education (HSE) movement, particularly downsizing high schools, giving students a voice, and building genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms
Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. The recent wave of neo-liberal education reform, driven by large-scale testing and accountability, has chipped away at teacher autonomy in the classroom. That has bred what Gert Biesta has termed “learnification” – a new educational language where students are “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and the classroom is a “learning environment.” Now promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, the technocratic language threatens to subvert the real point of education—to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Teachers know what works in the classroom and are attuned to the spread of unproven theories and practices. Challenging education gurus and the school improvement industry will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools
Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.
What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day
Centralization of school administration has had its day. Eliminating or neutering locally elected school boards has moved us further in the direction of centralizing control over provincial systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. The pandemic shock has made us more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities. Rescuing the system may turn out to be essentially about taking back our schools and charting a more constructive path forward.

What’s happened to our centralized, bureaucratic and stable K-12 school system? Will the pandemic shock lead to a complete rethinking of the current structure and clear the way for systemic reform? Where do we start in building education back from the schools up?

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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School systems across Canada, from province to province, are in crisis.  The massive school shutdown during the first phase of COVID-19 was much like a power outage which left students and parents in the dark and educators scrambling to master unfamiliar forms of education technology. Making radical readjustments following lock-step with public health directives upset the normal order in Canadian K-12 education.

EmptyClassTorontoLifeWhat emerged to fill the vacuum was what online learning expert Michael K Barbour aptly termed triage schooling in the education ER aimed at stabilizing the shaken K-12 system. Three months of slapped together home learning produced predictable results—bored and tuned-out students, exhausted parents and exasperated teachers.

Charitable observers described emergency home learning as “Doing Our Best Education” under impossible circumstances. It was so sub-standard that harsh critics applied the label “a failure of pandemic proportions.”

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The centralized and overly bureaucratic School System described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Instead of rising to the unexpected challenge, provincial school leaders played for time and eventually took refuge in clinging to comfortable structures and ingrained policy responses, such as delaying e-learning implementation until all students had access to technology and the internet. When it was over, at least one quarter of all students went missing and were unaccounted for in Canadian public education.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. The famous German sociologist Max Weber provided us with the very helpful metaphor of the “Iron Cage” capturing well the nature of a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a system of order, rationality, predictability, conformity and control.

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Education’s “Iron Cage” was exposed during the COVID-19 shutdown and we came to see how dependent students, teachers, and families were on provincial and school district directives.  Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families, and communities.

Hardening of the Bureaucratic Education State

The modern bureaucratic education state has a fundamental problem and its roots run deep.  Since the rise and expansion of the modern bureaucratic state over the past hundred years, public education in Canada has grown far more distant and much less connected with students, families, teachers, and communities. Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve.

Voicing concerns about the state of our public schools can be exceedingly frustrating – and more often than not, an exercise in futility. Parents advocating mathematics or reading curriculum reforms, families seeking improved special needs programs, or communities fighting small school closures regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. During the COVID-19 school shutdown the fragility of the impenetrable fortress was exposed for everyone to see. What my new book provides is a reality check on what’s happened to Canada’s Kindergarten-to-Grade-12 schools and a plan to reclaim them for students, parents, teachers, and communities alike.

Sources of Unease and Stress

Today’s schools have been swallowed up by provincial ministries and regional school authorities. Everywhere you look, the march of urbanized, bureaucratic, centralized K–12 education is nearly complete, marking the triumph of the System over students, parents, teachers, and the engaged public  Putting students first has little meaning in a system that gives priority to management ‘systems,’ exemplifies top-down decision-making, thwarts community-based schools, and processes students like hamburgers in a fast-food operation. Graduation rates have risen so dramatically that high school diplomas are awarded to virtually everyone who meets attendance requirements.

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The System, originally conceived as a liberal reform enterprise aimed at expanding mass schooling and broadening access to the populace, largely achieved its goals twenty-five years ago. Having achieved near-universal access, school authorities in the 1980s began to pivot toward introducing bureaucratic managerialism in the form of “instructionally focused education systems.”

In a North American wave of structural reform, the systematizers saw the ‘incoherence’ of instruction from one classroom to another as a problem and teacher autonomy as an obstacle to further modernization. School change came to mean supplanting didactic instruction, knowledge-based curricula, and the teaching of basic skills, while embracing “ambitious instructional experiences and outcomes for all students.” At the school district level, it was reflected in new forms of school consolidation aimed at turning loose aggregations of schools into school systems.

Today’s central administrative offices, layers of administration, big-box elementary schools, and super-sized high schools all testify to the dominance of the trend. Elected school boards, a last vestige of local education democracy, are now considered simply nuisances and fast becoming a threatened species.

The teaching of foundational skills and knowledge was subsumed in a new school system improvement agenda focused on ‘educational excellence and equity.’ The shift also exemplified the logic of standards-and-accountability, resisted by classroom teachers as another encroachment on their prized autonomy as professionals.

Centrally established accountability infrastructure continued to encounter resistance when it came to penetrating what American education analyst Larry Cuban termed the “black box” of classroom practice. That may well explain why growing numbers of classroom teachers are drawing the line in defense of what’s left of teacher autonomy and breathing life into a movement for education on a more human school-level scale.

Education – What Kind and for Whom?

The System, as exposed during the COVID-19 disruption, is not working for students or teachers in the classroom. Educational gurus spawned by the school improvement industry have succeeded not only in commandeering school districts, but in promoting a succession of curricular and pedagogical changes floating on uncontested theories and urban myths. This trend is most visible in the development and provision of resources by commercial purveyors closely aligned with learning corporations, curriculum developers, and faculties of education. Challenging unproven progressive pedagogical theories will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Top-down decision-making, educational managerialism, and rule by the technocrats has run its course. Rebuilding public education needs to begin from the schools up. Putting students first has to become more than a hollow promise and that will require structural reforms, including community school-based governance and management.

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

Re-engineering the System in the wake of COVID-19 has never been more urgent. For all that to happen, the walls must come down, and those closest to students must be given more responsibility for student learning and the quality of public education. The time has come for us to take back our schools and chart a more constructive path forward.

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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“Too big, too unwieldy and utterly dysfunctional.” That’s a neat summary of the mounting criticisms leveled against the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) five short years ago. The problems were so acute that former Deputy Education Minister Charles Pascal was urging the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government to consider other models for running school boards, including breaking it up into smaller administrative units.  The Toronto Star‘s Ontario politics columnist Martin Regg Cohn saw the TDSB’s dysfunctional governance as evidence that trustees should be abolished and boards dissolved, once and for all.

Senior educational leadership at Canada’s largest school board is about to change, once again, and it raises anew questions about the viability of the existing order.  Four years after joining the TDSB, Dr. John Malloy, who was set to retire as Director in November 2020, is now leaving August 1 and heading to California to become chief superintendent at San Ramon Valley Unified School District, a small California school district near San Francisco.  He’s jumping ship just before the 2020-21 school year resumes and while educators everywhere are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and how to safely reopen schools in September of 2020. 

Malloy’s surprise announcement sparked a wave of social media congratulations, mostly from his close political allies and friends in the upper echelons of K-12 education.  Once the initial stir had subsided, tougher questions came to the fore: Why was Dr. Malloy leaving the TDSB colossus and going to a tiny school district in, of all places, Donald Trump’s America? Who would steer the TDSB though the toughest phase of the COVID-19 crisis — the complex and challenging reopening of regular classes? And, perhaps most significantly, what had Malloy accomplished during his relatively short four-year tenure? 

The mammoth TDSB is a sprawling mega-city school district with a budget of more than $3-billion, encompassing 583 schools, enrolling  247,000 students and employing some 40,000 staff.  The Director is supported by four Associate Directors, and reports to an elected board of 22 public school trustees. In terms of size, it is the fourth largest school district in North America.

The TDSB was founded on January 20, 1953 as the Metropolitan Toronto School Board (MTSB), a “super-ordinate umbrella board” to coordinate activities and to apportion tax revenues equitably across the six anglophone and later a francophone school boards within Metro Toronto. The current TDSB was established on January 1, 1998 when the six anglophone metro school boards and MTSB merged into one massive school district. It was unwieldy from the beginning and top-heavy with layers of administration and empowered trustees. A series of initial talks about de-amalgamation, proposed in 2008 by then Education Minister Wynne, went nowhere. 

During the five years prior to Malloy’s arrival, the TDSB lurched from crisis to crisis, and shed two of its chief superintendents, Chris Spence and Donna Quan, each time in the midst of controversies. Director Spence (2009–2013) resigned in the wake of a plagiarism scandal and subsequently had his teaching license revoked (2016).  Dr. Quan, appointed as Acting Director in 2013, left in December 2015 to work under contract with the York University Faculty of Education and the Ministry of Education.  A provincial investigation during 2014-15 conducted by independent consultant Margaret Wilson provided a scathing review and ample evidence of “a culture of fear” within the TDSB, and a toxic environment unrecognized by either experienced trustees or senior administration. 

Current Director John Malloy was hired on January 4, 2016, as a “healer,” initially on an 18-month interim basis. He was essentially parachuted-in from the Ministry of Education where he was Assistant Deputy Minister and Chief Student Achievement Officer. Prior to his short Ministry stint, he was Director of the Hamilton-Wentworth District Board of Education (HWDSB). Closing eight schools in the HWDSB landed him in controversy and precipitated his departure in 2014 from Hamilton to the Ministry. He was a seasoned career administrator who worked his way up the ladder, moving from board-to-board, starting out as a principal with the Metropolitan Separate School Board at Cardinal Carter and Cardinal Newman high schools.   

Malloy brought peace to the conflict-ravaged Toronto DSB and embraced an explicitly progressive equity agenda in tune with the former Wynne government. From 2016 onward, the school district was largely spared from previous Muslim religious freedom protests and violent racist incidents. As Director, Malloy invested much of his time and energy into a TDSB Enhancing Equity Task Force and in advancing its core mission. 

The TDSB’s policy of offering school choice for students and parents ran counter to Malloy’s agenda for promoting equity of opportunity and outcomes.  In his introductory video, explaining the Equity Task Force, he professed to be a champion of the board’s ” long-standing commitment to equity and inclusion” and expressed concern that it iwas not being fully met, judging from the persisting inequities affecting ‘racialized’ and ‘marginalized’ students.  His lead facilitator, Liz Rykert went further in identifying the supposed source of those inequities: “There are barriers, creating divisions with schools, or between schools. The impact has been more inequitable outcomes.”

Alternative schools for the arts exemplified one of those barriers to equity and targeting them got the Director into hot water with students and parents in those politically-active, upwardly-mobile communities.  On October 24, 2017,  facing a severe public backlash, Malloy distanced himself from a TDSB draft report recommendation calling for the phasing out of the board’s arts-focused schools. Those schools survived the TDSB initiative. 

Malloy fully embraced the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission aimed at addressing inequities faced by Indigenous students in the system. It led him to support a plan to remove the use of the word “chief” from all job titles out of respect for Indigenous communities, even though it was not explicitly recommended in the T&R report. It attracted critical fire in some quarters. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee did not mince any words in describing the move as a “ridiculous” example of political correctness. “It does nothing for the cause of indigenous rights, ” he wrote.  “In fact, by making something out of nothing, it discredits the cause, tainting it with the scent of wild-eyed zealotry.”  

The June 2018 election of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government put Malloy in a difficult spot, since his elected board, chaired by Robin Pilkey, was aligned more with the NDP opposition at Queen’s Park.  Pilkey’s predecessor Marit Stiles was now NDP Education Critic and fiercely opposed to much of the PC “back to basics” education agenda. It was the TDSB that passed the first of many public board resolutions in the Summer of 2018 condemning the Ford government’s plan to re-instate the 1998 Health and Sex Education curriculum.  This did not endear the Director to the Fordites now inhabiting the Ministry of Education. 

Most Directors of Education spearhead Strategic Planning initiatives aimed at putting their stamp on future directions.  At the TDSB, Malloy’s administration produced an April 2019 “Vision for Learning” embracing a three-point plan for student improvement, enhanced learning culture, and shared leadership. “Equity, well-being and achievement,” in that order, were his priorities, and they were to be embedded in an inclusive school culture. “Shared leadership, productive working relationships, trust, high expectations, and collective efficacy” were the official buzzwords of his administration. It was abundantly clear that they did not really align with the new order in Doug Ford’s Ontario education world. 

Leaving in the first year of a Multi-Year Strategic Plan and during the most challenging phase of the pandemic strikes close observers as odd timing.  After only four years at TDSB, and following a series of leadership changes from 2009 to 2016, Malloy leaves with considerable unfinished business. While his personal legacy will be generally positive, he moved on before he really made a lasting mark on the TDSB educational colossus. In fact. the TDSB remains  “too big” and “too unwieldy” and could easily become just as dysfunctional again.  

Is Toronto’s Super-Board the finest example of a school district that is too big and too distant from the public to be accountable and responsive?  Is it possible to steer the TDSB in a new direction, counter to the dominant professional culture?  Should the TDSB be broken-up into smaller, more governable administrative units? What’s the likelihood that the TDSB bureaucracy would ever accept more decentralized governance, including school-level governance and budgeting, more responsive to local communities?  Most importantly, should these questions be confronted before proceeding to appoint another CEO with a skill set best suited to leading a corporate managerial school system? 

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School district consolidation is a striking phenomenon not only in Atlantic Canada, but right across Canada and the United States. Two levels of consolidation, encompassing the merging of smaller schools and the collapsing of school districts, leads to the centralization of management. It also rests primarily on two presumed benefits: (1) fiscal efficiency and (2) higher educational quality.

With the recent release of Dr. Avis Glaze’s education restructuring report, Raise the Bar, a fierce public debate is underway in Nova Scotia focusing on her plan to dissolve the seven remaining English school boards, reassign administrators to the schools, and reinvest any savings in the classroom. Following that report, a CBC News Nova Scotia investigation revealed that the 38 school board administrators potentially affected earned $4.7 million a year. Whether her plan retaining the seven districts will yield much in the way of cost savings is very much in question.  The research, so far, is decidedly mixed when all factors are taken into consideration.

The sheer scale of district consolidation is staggering. Driven largely by the pursuit of financial economy and efficiency, district consolidation swept across the United States, reduced the number of K-12 districts from 117,108 in 1939-1940 to 13,862 by 2006-2007, a decline of 88 per cent. The rate of consolidation has slowed over the past decade, but at least a few districts consolidate every year in many states (Duncombe and Yinger 2010). While comparative Canadian data is not readily available, it is relatively safe to observe the existence of a similar pattern (Bennett 2011, Corbett 2014).

School district consolidation in Canada is driven by provincial education authorities looking for cost reductions, but in some cases, the trigger factor is eliminating local education authorities obstructing education initiatives. Provincial announcements authorizing educational restructuring, such as the 1996 Ontario School Reduction Task Force, justify the school district consolidation as a cost reduction measure and commit to redirecting any savings into the classroom (Ontario 1996). Declining student enrolments, demographic trends, out-migration, and duplicated functions are among the common factors cited in making the case for consolidation (Galway, Sheppard, Wiens and Brown 2013).

In some cases, such as Prince Edward Island, the prime justification is clarity of direction rather than any economic benefits. In October 2011, for example, the P.E.I. Education Governance Commission recognized that the evidence of “operational efficiencies and net savings” is mixed, based upon previous ventures in Prince Edward Island and elsewhere. “There is a risk,” the Commission report recognized, “that any savings that may result from elimination of duplication in some areas could be offset. Initially by transition costs, and in the longer term by rising expenditures in other areas such as increased specialization and more hierarchy.”   (PEI Governance 2011).

Most American state governments are more explicit about the incentives uses to nudge along the process of school district consolidation. The most common form of U.S. state policy is transition funding designed to encourage district reorganization, typically in the form of consolidation, by providing additional money for operations or capital projects during the transition to the new form of organization. The aid bonus from consolidation can be quite large. In the State of New York, consolidating districts may receive an increase in their basic operating aid of up to 40 percent for five years, with declining increases for an additional nine years.

On top of this aid, consolidating districts also may receive a 30 percent increase in building aid for projects initiated within 10 years of consolidation.  Possibly as many as one-third of all American states, including some with consolidation bonuses, still maintain countervailing policies that provide support to school districts for “sparsity” (or low population density) or for small scale operations, factors that work against consolidation (Duncombe and Yinger 2010).

Forecasted Savings

The prime justification for school district consolidation has long been that it is a way to cut costs. These cost savings arise, the argument goes, because the provision of education is characterized by economies of size, which exist whenever the cost of education per pupil declines as the number of pupils goes up. In this context, the cost of education is not the same as education spending but is instead the amount a school district would have to spend to obtain a given level of performance, as measured by test scores, graduation rates and perhaps other output measures. To put it another way, economies of size exist if spending on education per pupil declines as the number of pupils goes up, controlling for school district performance. Because consolidation creates larger school districts, it results in lower costs per pupil whenever economies of size exist (Duncombe and Yinger 2010).

Economies of size could arise for many reasons:

Indivisibilities: First, the school services provided to each student by certain education professionals may not diminish in quality as the number of students increases, at least over some range. All districts require a superintendent and the same central administration may be able to serve a significant range of enrollment with little change in total costs.

Increased Dimension: Second, education requires certain physical capital, such as a heating system and science laboratories, which require a certain scale to operate efficiently and therefore have a high cost per pupil in small districts.

Specialization: Third, larger districts may be able to employ more specialized teachers, putting them in a better position to provide the wide range of courses required by public accountability systems and expected today by students and parents.

Innovation and Learning: Finally, teachers in larger districts have more colleagues on which to draw for advice and discussion, interactions that presumably lead to improved effectiveness (Duncombe and Yinger 2007, 2010).

Potential Mitigating Factors
Popular assumptions about economies of size have been challenged by researchers focusing on the relationship between school and school district size and student performance and well-being. Rural education studies have demonstrated that the sizes of the school district and the high school are highly correlated and, in many cases, cost savings are rarely realized and larger schools can have detrimental impact upon student performance and engagement (Howley, Johnson and Petrie 2011). Effective schools research also tends to show that small to moderate-sized schools are more successful than mega-schools at retaining students through to high school graduation (Howley 2002). Leading American experts on school district consolidation William Duncombe and John Yinger have found that extremely large districts (those enrolling 15,000 or more students—are likely to be fiscally inefficient because consolidation has proceeded beyond the point of a favourable cost-benefit ratio (Duncombe and Yinger 2005, 2010).

Four sources of potential diseconomies of size are:

Higher Transportation Costs: First, consolidated school districts usually make use of larger schools, which implies that average transportation distance must increase. As a result, consolidation might increase a district’s transportation spending per pupil.

Levelling Up of HR Costs: Second, consolidating districts may level up salaries and benefits to those of the most generous participating district, thereby raising personnel costs.

Lowering of Staff Morale: Third, administrators and teachers tend to have a more positive attitude toward work in smaller schools, which tend to have more flexible rules and procedures.

Less Student and Parent Participation: Finally, students can be more motivated and parents more comfortable to interact with teachers in smaller districts, which tend to have a greater community feel. These reactions and closer student-faculty relationships may result in higher student performance at any given spending level. Longer school bus rides have a detrimental impact upon student engagement and achievement.

Overall, the net impact of consolidation on education costs per pupil is not always clear. Consolidation of tiny school districts of 1,500 students or less is likely to tap into economies of size and thereby lower these costs, but, beyond those numbers, consolidation might actually cause costs per pupil to rise (Duncombe and Yinger 2010). The most recent research literature review, published in 2011 by the U.S. National Education Policy Center, concluded that “claims for educational benefits from systematic state-wide school and district consolidation are vastly overestimated and, beyond school districts of 1,500, have actually been maximized years ago” (Howley, Johnson and Petrie 2011).

What happens to the projected savings forecasted in school district consolidation plans?  How does the education finance process work to obscure and conceal the data required to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis? What mitigating factors arise to compromise or nullify the forecasted savings?  Is it possible to assess the full extent of losses, financial and social, at the school level? What are the real lessons for those tempted to tackle education restructuring? 

Research conducted for this post is part of a larger project on Restructuring Education (Halifax: Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, 2018).

 

 

 

 

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“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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Twenty five years ago New Zealand faced a crisis of school system accountability. Then Prime Minister David Lange responded by introducing a “self-managed schools” system that turned the whole education world upside down. With that sweeping education reform, New Zealand became the test case for employing school-based governing boards to re-engineer the public school system.

SchoolCouncilBrainImageThe Tomorrow’s Schools reform plan of 1989 implemented nation-wide “self-governing schools,” eliminated school district bureaucracy, and delegated much of the responsibility to elected school council governing boards. Most decisions affecting students and teachers would be made at the school-level and closer to the point of implementation. It was particularly aimed at providing more flexibility to accommodate Maori schools and improve the educational opportunities for Aboriginal children.

Lange’s government went even farther than the Edmonton Public Schools in utilizing the model to reduce education bureaucracy and to create greater cost efficiencies. Seeking to improve system responsiveness, organizational flexibility, and public accountability, New Zealand’s model also held out the promise of more immediate delivery of services and resources, more parental and community involvement, and greater teacher responsibility for managing local schools.

Today New Zealand has a well-established “self-governing schools” system. Successive educational reviews, mostly conducted by Cathy Wylie of the NZ Council for Educational Research, have sustained the experiment and addressed a few early phase shortcomings, including the high turn over of the initial cohort of school-appointed principals.  Current Education Minister Hekia Parata is again reviewing the education system, assessing its effectiveness, and looking at making a few reforms.

Many Canadian provinces are saddled with a school board governing system that is floundering with expanding centralized administration far removed from students and parents. Back in 2013, a Canadian School Boards Association study, conducted by Memorial University’s Gerald Galway and a respected research team, issued a stiff warning that elected boards were in serious jeopardy. Elected school boards were no longer perceived to be the “voice of the people,” feeding the growing public concern that boards had lost their “raison d’être.”

The only real policy options presented in a subsequent Journal of Canadian Education Administration and Policy article (September 2013) were crystal clear: “quiet acquiescence to centralization” or “take action to save the sinking ship.” Rather sadly, the warning and the call to action went largely ignored, particularly in the Maritime provinces.

SchoolCouncilsPeelLogoThe CSBA research report identified the crux of the problem facing elected school trustees. For elected school board members to be credible, they must be perceived to be “accountable and committed to their mandate and their electorate; ensure a level of openness and transparency…; demonstrate a responsiveness (ensuring) that decisions are made within reasonable timeframes…; make the best use of their resources; (and) work to mediate different interests for the best outcome.” By adopting the corporate designation “board member” and adhering strictly to a “policy making role,” they had become distant from parents and communities and, in far too many boards, were suffering from a loss of democratic legitimacy.

School councils, proposed in Nova Scotia Premier Dr. John Savage’s 1995-96 Education Horizons reform plan, may well have filled the void in strengthening school-community relations. In their initial form, they were “school governing councils” designed as the centrepiece of a New Zealand-like “school-based management model.”

The original conception of school governing councils was rejected by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union and many of its NSTU-member principals, one of the principal victims of the 1995-96 NSTU campaign against Savage’s Education Restructuring plan. While school councils were sanctioned in the Education Act reform, they were reduced to “advisory bodies” with no power to appoint principals, manage the school budget, or pass binding resolutions contrary to school or board policy.

Today the SACs still limp along in Nova Scotia with mostly a handful of ‘hand-picked’ members functioning as little more than a sounding board for local principals. Elected board members are not only barred from membership in their local SAC, but actively discouraged from attending unless invited by the principal. A survey of the October 2011 School Advisory Council Handbook reveals that SACs “exist in most schools” but not all. With only six members, the principal and staff representatives hold half the SAC seats, and motions require 2/3 majorities, so none ever pass without teacher support. Any such school reform activity is strictly limited because the Handbook recommends “all decisions be made by consensus or be deferred until the next meeting.”

New Zealand’s system of self-managing schools may not have lived-up to its initial aims, but we know why and can address the identified shortcomings. School councils populated by elected trustees have succeeded in “bringing together school and community” and, at their best, allow local interests, including those of Indigenous peoples, to be reflected in education-policy making. The ideal size for a SGC of elected trustees is 10 to 12, double the N.S. SAC number, and a clear majority must be parents or community members, including representatives of local business employers.

Even with school-based governance, there is still a critical need for district education administration, albeit a much scaled-down version. There is also a continuing need for Regional Boards of School Trustees, possibly the elected SGC Chairs, to ensure proper linkage among and between local schools. All Regional School Trustees should be elected from, and remain ex-officio members, of the SGCs in their district.

District school administration would have to be re-purposed for their “support circle” role.  All school councils, we know now, still need professional support in the appointment and appraisal of principals, the development of provincially-aligned school plans, the provision of school-by-school student performance data, and in resolving periodic school-level disputes.

School Governing Councils, like those in New Zealand, Edmonton and Quebec, have never been given a fair chance in most Canadian provincial school systems.  It’s high time to seriously consider turning the whole system right-side up by focusing on building school-based education governance, redefining the role of elected school trustees, and providing improved democratic representation in all provincial public schools.

Would a school governance system based upon elected school-level trustees improve educational accountability and help to expand the number of “good schools”? What can be learned– 25 years on– from the New Zealand Tomorrow’s Schools educational reform? If educational research suggests elected board members have little impact upon student learning, how and why did it become their narrowly-defined mandate? Would community-school based governance help to spark innovation and strengthen community partnerships?

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A year after Nova Scotia’s official adoption of the Hub School model and the imposition of a set of school-level regulations, the Province of Ontario is now preparing to embark on a Community Hub initiative of its own. While the Maritime province was first out of the gate in June 2014 with Education Act amendments, the recent “rejection” of three grassroots Hub School projects in the rural communities of Maitland, River John, and Wentworth, has stalled the venture in its tracks.SaveLocalSchoolsSign

On August 10, 2015, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne publicly endorsed a special report by provincial consultant Karen Pitre calling for closed public schools to be given a second life as “community hubs.” Premier Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals are certainly much more active than their N.S. counterparts in promoting the changes and clearly see ‘hubification’ as a provincial priority.

The Nova Scotia experience, so far, has produced a few bitter lessons for provincial policy-makers and Hub School advocates alike. First and foremost, without committed and determined “cage-busting” political leadership, policy pronouncements go nowhere.

Ontario may be playing ‘catch up’ on hub schools, but that province, with visible political leadership, is taking a far more comprehensive, short- and long-term, approach to transforming schools into hubs.

In Ontario, the hub school initiative is being driven as much by urban neighbourhood imperatives as by rural village concerns. It was all precipitated by the Toronto District School Board governance review conducted by Margaret Wilson and related provincial school facilities studies revealing that the province was littered with “half-empty” and abandoned schools.

Ms. Pitre’s report recommends an immediate measure to lengthen the time allotted for school site disposal, giving public bodies and community groups 180 days to come up with hub proposals. Her plan would also allow prospective buyers to pay less than market value and open the door to shared funding by the province.

Instead of proclaiming legislation and then imposing restrictive regulations, Ontario is looking at clearing away the red tape to preserve schools as public buildings and making space-sharing easier (not harder) for community activities, health clinics, daycares, seniors’ centres, and cafes.

Jumping ahead with enabling legislation without integrating community planning and investing in making it work may turn out to defeat the whole Nova Scotia project. Leaving Hub School advocates to produce proposals without any visible provincial or school board support likely doomed the pilot projects. Two months after the axe fell, River John hub school promoters are getting the ‘runaround’ in their determined attempts to get someone, somewhere to take responsibility for community renewal.

Will Ontario’s Community Hub initiative suffer the same fate? The prospects look brighter in Ontario for a number of reasons. From the beginning, Nova Scotia’s provincial strategy was essentially reactive, driven by a desire to quell a 2013-14 rural earthquake of widespread and fiercely determined local school closure protests. Community hubs were an idea proposed by “outsiders” and almost reluctantly adopted by Nova Scotia education authorities.

Community hubs are already more accepted and common in Ontario than in Nova Scotia even without the enabling legislation. Some 53 examples of hubs are cited in Pitre’s report, most located in urban and suburban communities rather than rural localities. The big push at Queen’s Park is also coming from Toronto and major population centres with far more political clout.

Nova Scotia hub school proponents faced a wall of administrative obstacles and totally unrealistic cost recovery targets, and Ontario is looking instead at clearing away the red tape. In addition, Pitre’s report proposes recognizing the Social Return on Investment (SROI) in hubs. There is a clear recognition that investing in hubs produces social dividends, including lower delinquency rates, better health outcomes, healthier lives for seniors, and higher levels of community trust.

Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform schools and other public buildings into viable community hubs. It starts with tackling the fundamental structural constraints: the need for integrated community planning, the adoption of an integrated cross-departmental service delivery model, and the provision, where needed, of sustainable public funding.

Gaining access to school space is a bigger challenge than finding the keys to Fort Knox. Only a multi-lateral, whole of government approach will break into the educational silo.  At the school level, principals will have to accept broader management responsibilities, including commitments in July and August where today there is no visible “property management.”

Creating viable community hubs is a true test of political and educational leadership. Little or nothing that is sustainable will happen without busting open the “iron cage” of education. Only then will we see community hub schools that fill the glaring local social and community service gaps left by the regionalization of public services.

What’s standing in the way of establishing community hubs in emptying and abandoned public schools? What went wrong in Nova Scotia, the Canadian province first out of the gate with enabling legislation? Will Ontario fare any better with a more comprehensive “whole of government” policy framework?  And where will we find the “cage-busting ” leadership at the provincial, board, and school levels?

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The famous German sociologist Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” of rationality and bureaucracy has proven not only durable, but applicable to the changing nature of modern bureaucratic education systems. In its original form, it was applied broadly by Weber to explain the tyranny of rationalization in the modern transformation of social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage,” in his view, trapped individuals in systems purely driven by teleological efficiency, rational calculation, and control. Weber’s most brilliant insight was seeing, into the future, the potential “bureaucratization” of the social order into “the polar night of icy darkness.”

BureaucracyCageThe original German term was stahlhartes Gehäuse and  it morphed into”iron cage,” in 1930 with the appearance of Talcott Parson’s translation of Weber’s classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. More recently, sociologists have interpreted the term a little differently as meaning “shell as hard as steel.”  Whatever the precise meaning, its utility in assessing school systems will be readily apparent to anyone attempting to affect change or to promote community-driven initiatives in the modern and post-modern bureaucratic education state.

Weber’s “iron cage” concept is so broad that it almost invites education reformers to pour whatever they want into the theoretical framework. Prominent Canadian education thinkers, most notably George Martell, have appropriated Weber’s concept and applied it in their analysis of schooling in our global capitalist world.  Moving beyond such ideologically-laden conceptions, Martell and his colleague David Clandfield have provided a very thoughtful critique of the school system’s stubborn and persistent resistance since the 1980s to true “community schools.”

In their Summer 2010 Special issue of Our Schools/Our Selves, they see the demand for Community Schools as a manifestation of popular, progressive impulses provided that they “stay true” to their essential democratic principles.  True community schools, operating as genuine two-way community hubs, they argue, can advance “really useful” learning and community development.

That vision has taken root in Nova Scotia over the past three years, incited by Dr. David Clandfield’s advocacy and nurtured by a determined  provincial parent advocacy group, the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative. Every step of the way, the Nova Scotia community school advocates have confronted and tangled with the provincial and school board mutations of the “iron cage.”

Three Nova Scotia school communities spent the past two years developing Hub School proposals and recently suffered a calamitous fate.  All three innovative community school development projects were crushed like a bug on June 10 at the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board meeting in Truro, effectively abandoning three more small villages, Maitland, River John and Wentworth. Confronted with a senior staff report recommending “rejection,” the sixteen elected school board members made their fateful choice – management priorities driven by strict bureaucratic rules trumped community interests, once again.

Properly serving children, families and communities does not figure in such calculations. While the new School Review process, adopted in June 2014, is designed to be broader and more community-based, the provincial Hub regulations, written entirely by educrats, conspire against such local innovations. It is, regrettably, just the latest example of the workings and inner dynamics of what is known as the “iron cage” of education.

EdBureaucracyGraphicOf all the public bureaucratic systems, education is perhaps the most puzzling. Provincial authorities and school boards all purport to put “children first,” but do not really operate that way. Advocating actively for your children, fighting for your child’s school or questioning board student services policies is considered being ‘disruptive’ or, even worse, ‘overly emotional.’ Big stakes negotiations with teachers over salaries, class composition, and instructional days are, we are told, also none of our business.

The logic of the iron cage even leads elected board members to accept the bureaucratic mentality. “We only responsible for running schools,” as one Chignecto-Central RSB member stated, “we are not in the business of saving communities.”

Eighteen months ago, Robert Fowler’s February 2014 Nova Scotia School Review report exposed the”iron cage” and attempted to change the whole dynamic by recommending a community-based school planning and development process. If Fowler’s strategic approach had been followed in Truro, one or two of the Hub School proposals would have secured a green light and gone some distance towards winning back damaged public trust in those communities.

Myopic educational thinking is next-to-impossible to stamp out. Closing schools, the Chignecto-Central administration now claims, saves money and preserves teaching jobs. School librarians, we are assured, will survive because schools and villages are abandoned in Maitland, River John and Wentworth. That’s a complete fabrication designed only to counter the political fallout. North American research shows that consolidations rarely save any taxpayer’s money in the long run. The three Hub School groups, in their submissions, not only pointed out the limited immediate savings achieved through those closures, but provided sound and viable plans with some modest revenue generating potential.

Studying how educational bureaucracies function provides a window on what happens and why in the world of state education. Disrupting the status quo would mean confronting these deeply concealed educational realities and busting down the bureaucratic silos – for the sake of children, families and communities.

Does Max Weber’s conception of the “iron cage” still have utility in explaining the impulses and dynamics of educational bureaucracies? Why do true community school initiatives encounter such resistance at all levels of many school systems? What can be learned from the fate of local Community Hub School projects championed by the Nova Scotia Small Schools Initiative? What might work in breaking down the silos and opening the door to more local projects of genuine social enterprise and educational innovation?

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Elected school board members deserve far more public respect, but can be their own worst enemies. Fighting to promote public engagement and strengthen public accountability at the school-community level is what really matters, not the shape or form of public education governance. What’s really at stake is the fundamental Canadian principle of “responsible government” in our school system.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) we are told is in “chaos” and populated by “dysfunctional trustees,” but so was Rob Ford’s City Council and no one called for its disbanding.  Just when it seemed that Ontario’s elected school boards might be on the chopping block, Toronto Star Education reporter Louise Brown did what official school trustee associations have consistently failed to do –made a compelling case for why elected representatives form a potentially “vital bridge between the public and the bureaucracy.”

SchoolTrusteePattiBacchusThere’s one significant problem with Brown’s very compelling story entitled “Secret life of a trustee.” TDSB school trustees like Pamela Gough, Jerry Chadwick, Shelley Laskin, Gerri Gershon and Sheila Cary-Meagher are seasoned and effective “school trustees” with a clear sense of purpose and identity. So is YRDSB Trustee for East Gwillimbury Loralea Carruthers and Vancouver Trustee Patti Bacchus.  Surveying the school governance models elsewhere, they are exceptions because they have public profiles, push at the boundaries, and wield far more influence than is normally permitted under the prevailing strict “governance rules.”

The Tri-County Regional School Board (TCRSB) exemplifies all that is wrong with the current governance model.  Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup’s damning December 2014 report identified the core of the bigger problem. The Tri-County board is simply not fulfilling its core mandate of “educating students,” school management is lax in overseeing “school improvement,” and the elected board is not exercising “proper oversight.”

The Tri-County board in Yarmouth, regrettably, is not alone in exhibiting these critical shortcomings. All eight of Nova Scotia’s boards display, to varying degrees, the same chronic weaknesses in performance management and public accountability. Such governance lapses have already sealed the fate of elected boards in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland/Labrador. Where elected bodies exist, they are little more than examples of democratic tokenism in public education.

Consolidating school board administrative structures might be desirable and cost-effective, but abolishing elected school representatives without an alternative actually makes matters even worse. Without an elected representative, you are left on your own trying to get answers, lodge concerns or navigate your way through the many layers of educational bureaucracy.

While auditing a single school board, the Nova Scotia AG stumbled upon a more fundamental governance problem. Most elected school trustees, now socialized to act like “board members,” are easily co-opted into the corporate administrative culture. Over time, elected boards come to think, act, and react like corporate entities inclined toward protecting their interests, defending their “little empires,” and muzzling critical voices. Even more independently minded members succumb to fussing over “head lice” regulations and meddling in mundane operational matters.

Provincial government responses, so far, have been purely reactive: Dispatching former superintendent-turned-in-house consultant Jim Gunn back to Yarmouth to put the pieces back together is a stop-gap measure. Disbanding the fourth elected school board in Nova Scotia in the short space of eight years will not do any good either.

Each time an elected Nova Scotia board has been dismissed, in Halifax (2006), the Strait Region (2008), and the South Shore (2011), elected board members have been rendered more timid than before, further eroding public accountability at the school-community level.

Since those school board firings, they are now explicitly discouraged from, or obstructed in, working with School Advisory Councils or in responding directly to parent or media concerns. Nova Scotia Bill 131, the School Board Members Duties Clarification Act, enacted in November 2012, only compounded the problem by directing elected members to “respect” the superintendent and represent “the school board,” (not constituents) in their communities.

All of this may explain why Tri-County members, elected multiple times, still have no idea that their role is to hold the administration accountable for student and teacher performance. “Acclamation disease” is now in an advanced stage. In the October 2012 Nova Scotia-wide municipal elections, two-thirds of the seats were uncontested and only 155 candidates surfaced to contest 94 school board positions.

What might work best in fixing education governance and strengthening public accountability? Of the emerging policy options in Nova Scotia , three possible alternatives deserve serious consideration:

1. Re-empower elected boards: Reform the Education Act, clearly define the role and powers of “school trustees,” increase their public profile and compensation, and restore proper public accountability;

2. SAC the boards: Rebuild the existing School Advisory Council (SAC) system, and replace elected school boards with school governing councils entrusted with expanded powers and membership, including a better balance of parent, community and employer representatives;

3. Establish a community-school governance model: Replace school boards with district community-school councils and introduce true community school-based management at each school.

Establishing community school-based governance is a long-term project, but might ultimately be the best option. It was first implemented in the Edmonton public schools by superintendent Mike Strembitsky some 40 years ago. In the words of former teachers’ union president Karen Beaton, it “turned the entire concept of the district upside down.” 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.” Under this system, school principals were given more autonomy, school-community councils established, and parents ultimately secured more choice in terms of school and program options.

Centralized, top-down administrative decision-making, especially in priority areas like literacy, numeracy and school improvement, has been a real bust in the Tri-County area because initiatives were rarely monitored and simply did not “trickle down” to schools.

Introducing a community school governance model with elected district community education councils, supported by re-engineered school-level governing councils, might just be the shake-up the system needs. It is far more likely to foster what Harvard University’s Richard Chait terms “shared decision-making” and “generative policy-making.” It would also help to build public engagement, produce better decisions, and to attract elected members with something significant to contribute to public service.

Whatever happens, the Nova Scotia auditor general’s report has punched a giant hole in the current model of governance on display in far toom many school boards. Letting superintendents run the show in an accountability-free board earns you a clear failing grade. Forget the tinkering — only major governance reform and structural change can address the withered state of local public accountability in education.

Let’s start by asking the right questions: Why do we still need responsible government (elected representatives) at all levels of the provincial education system? What, if anything, can be done to salvage local education accountability and how can we reconstruct the current system of education governance? Is it time to start all over again?

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Sitting in the dimly lit, bunker-like Conference Room on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Canada’s last surviving Wandlyn Inn was a little depressing. Listening to a veteran Nova Scotia School Superintendent explain — with clinical precision– the new Hub School Model regulations released in July 2014 was almost too much to bear. The session title gave it all away: “The Operation, Opportunities and Challenges of the Community Hub Model.”  A funny thing has happened to an exciting idea on its way to implementation.

NSSSILogoSmall school activist Kate Oland, a veteran of several Cape Breton school closure battles, was rendered virtually numb. After fighting to save her Middle River School, co-founding the Nova Scotia Small School Initiative, celebrating the April 3, 2013 school closure moratorium, and welcoming the Hub School guidelines, it had all come down to this: the Superintendent in charge of advancing the project still didn’t seem to “get it”: open the school doors to the community and let social innovation in.

Community hub projects come alive with proactive leadership and the scent of social innovation.The founder of Toronto’s Centre of Social Innovation, Tonya Surman, speaking in Sydney, Cape Breton in April 2014, was right on the mark. “You’ve got to be able to dream about what’s possible, ” and she added “social change takes time.”

NewDawnErikaSheaA “New Dawn’ arrived for Holy Angels Academy in Sydney, Cape Breton, but three years after its closure as a public school. Today it’s a thriving Centre for Social Innovation hosting a lively mix of 20 commercial and non-profit enterprises.

That transformation, spearheaded by Rankin MacSween’s New Dawn Enterprises Limited, should be on the curriculum for the training of School Superintendents. It’s time to embrace economic renewal and social enterprise, particularly in a struggling economic province like Nova Scotia.  Founded in 1976 initially as a community development fund to combat plant and mine closures, New Dawn is now a beacon of light for faltering communities on the verge of losing their schools.

With the adoption of the School Hub regulations, the Nova Scotia Education Department is coaxing school boards into being more proactive in transforming emptying schools into shared use facilities and potentially revenue generating operations.

The Hub School guidelines, in the hands of reluctant administrators, may threaten to extinguish community spirit and enterprise. Developed by a faceless team of school administrators, it treats Hub School proposals as “business case briefs” and guides proponents through a virtual “obstacle course” of new approval rules. Serving existing students should come first, but why is the “protection of property” so prominent in the regulations?

Three Nova Scotia community-school groups in River John, Maitland, and Wentworth are fighting to save their schools and fully committed to supporting the “Hubification” process. Economic and social innovation thrives when it is welcomed, as in the case of the New Dawn success in Sydney. It perishes on sterile ground marked off like the hurdles on a high school track field.

Economic renewal and social innovation are possible under the right conditions. What’s the secret to unlocking Social Innovation and revitalizing our schools? What has happened to the Nova Scotia Community Hub School Model on its way to implementation? Is it still possible for small school advocates to clear the latest hurdles and transform schools into true community hubs?

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