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The Canadian education system is largely provincially-driven and stands as among the most decentralized among the member states in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Within the small group composed of a dozen provincial/territorial ministers known as the Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC), the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia tends to exemplify a “middling province,” almost routinely finishing in the middle-of-the-pack when it comes to national and international student assessment results.

While Nova Scotia education is widely seen as “median Canadian,” it might also be viewed, in some respects, as a bellwether.  It may be hard to imagine Nova Scotia as “the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck,” but the province may well be where national trends are most visible.  With the abolition of Nova Scotia’s seven English school boards in March 2018, national education observers are taking more interest and wondering if it is an omen of things to come elsewhere. If so, reading the signs of public disaffection may provide a few vitally-important lessons.

A November 2018 Public Opinion survey commissioned by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union revealed that the Stephen McNeil government’s structural education reforms are far from popular with the public. What is clear, based upon an analysis of responses to all of the questions in that the NSTU survey, is that there are educational lessons for governments elsewhere.

Centralizing education in April 2018 through the elimination of the seven English school boards created more problems than it solved. Of those Nova Scotians who think public education is getting worse, over three-quarters (78 per cent) believe it is because the structural reforms have made the system “too centralized” (30 per cent), reduced input from community/local groups (24 per cent), or eliminated regional input from boards (24 per cent).

More than half (52 per cent) of Nova Scotians polled rated the quality of public education as “fair/poor,” very much in line with surveys going back to 1992. Whatever the problems, some 82 per cent of Nova Scotians still hold teachers in relatively high esteem. The most critically important current public concerns identified were, in order: lack of support for special needs students (74 %), violence in classrooms (72 %), poor student achievement (67 %), lack of leaning supports (65 %), and teacher morale (65 %). Fewer than 60 per cited teacher workloads, class sizes, and student bus issues.

Provinces looking at following Nova Scotia in abolishing their elected school boards would be well advised to take a closer look at Nova Scotia and the legacy of that decision. Eliminating the seven English school boards and replacing elected board members with an appointed Provincial Council on Education (PACE) is looking more and more like a serious blow to both public accountability and school-level democratic participation.

With the exception of sweeping aside elected board members, nothing much has changed and it’s actually reaffirmed bureaucratic rule. Regional Superintendents of Education have come out on top and preside over eight school districts without any real school-level accountability. School-based management and governance was squashed, aided and abetted by School Advisory Council Chairs comfortable in their current roles.

Two more provinces, Quebec and Manitoba are reviewing the status of their elected school boards and have signaled that they may be moving to eliminate those democratic structures.

Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge confirmed in December 2018 the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s policy commitment to abolish school boards.  He made that statement right after meeting with representatives of the Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) and its French counterpart, the Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec (FCSQ),

“Let’s be clear: the Quebec government will turn school boards into service centres and will abolish school elections,” Roberge said in a Facebook post. “We’re open to comments, but we will not deviate from this plan.”  He also contends the move is necessary.“It is imperative to bring decision-making closer to those who know the students by name,” he said.

Manitoba could well be next. Former PC education minister Ian Wishart announced in 2018 that a provincial governance review would take place and it is to be released in 2019.  The Manitoba School Boards Association (MSBA) strongly opposes amalgamation, claiming that the savings would be minimal and it’s a question of democracy, transparency and accountability.

All is not well with Manitoba’s existing boards. The Winnipeg School Division (WSD) was the subject of a scathing report in 2015 that criticized the irresponsible conduct and performance of trustees. In 2016, the province ordered a third-party audit, after noting that while the school board had made progress in transparency and accountability, an independent review was still required. The WSD continued “under a dark cloud” for a number of years with growing concerns that too much business was being conducted behind closed doors. While the WSD may have improved, news in January 2018 that the Louis Riel School District had suspended a school trustee, without explanation, suggests that transparency and accountability may be just a slogan.

One outspoken Manitoba trustee, Patty Wiebe of Pembina Valley, MSBA Region 2 Director, urged fellow trustees in early December 2018 to send out a consistent message that elected members speak for their communities: “That we are your local elected officials. That we represent your voice when it comes to how your schools are run, and how important that voice is,” she said. “Schools are the hubs of your community, it’s important to have local voice when it comes to governing those buildings and what happens in those buildings.”

The Brian Pallister government in Manitoba has said everything will be examined during the education review, including proposals to eliminate or amalgamate school boards.

School board promoters can, and do, damage to the cause by conveying confused and contradictory messages about the philosophy and purpose of elected boards — and the expected role of elected trustees. One veteran school board consultant, Stephen Hansen of BoardsworkCA, provided a recent example of what has gone sadly wrong in school board governance.

His “New Years Message to School Trustees” espoused the sort of governance philosophy that has rendered elected board members totally ineffectual. Judging from the established ground rules, trustees are expected to behave much like children in grade school: Focus on policy and don’t mess with administrative matters; think corporate interest/regional and keep your distance from local groups; respect the code of board solidarity; express your views in a respectful manner; act as a goodwill ambassador; and come prepared to meetings (i.e., do your homework).

Giving the public a voice and bringing local concerns to bear on board decisions are not even mentioned as core responsibilities. No school reformers need apply because the rules of engagement are a recipe for toadyism. It’s just the kind of thinking that spelled the end of elected trustees in Nova Scotia.

Hardened, unresponsive, insular and unaccountable school boards tend to self-destruct.  That was the case in Nova Scotia and may well be what is happening in provinces such as Manitoba and Quebec. If Quebec and Manitoba go the way of Nova Scotia, seven of the ten provinces (including New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador, and Prince Edward Island) will have eliminated elected regional school boards and adopted far more centralized educational administrative systems.

Simply brushing aside local democratic control of the schools is definitely not the answer if we wish to retain a semblance of public accountability in the education sector. Provinces eliminating elected regional boards without replacing them with locally-responsive, school-based governance alternatives can expect the same kind of backlash witnessed throughout 2018 in Nova Scotia. That’s in no one’s interest.

Will Nova Scotia turn out to be a national bellwether for educational  centralization? What lessons can be learned from the elimination of elected boards in Nova Scotia? Looking ahead in 2019, has public resistance to elected boards, as presently constituted, stiffened in the mold? Why are provincial and regional school authorities so resistant to alternatives such as school-based governance? 

 

 

 

 

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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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Making space for creativity in the classroom sounds like common sense. Few educators today would dispute the wisdom of challenging students to think critically and to solve problems in creative ways. When it is elevated to the primary goal of elementary schools, displacing the acquisition of foundational knowledge and skills, it’s time to ask deeper and more fundamental questions.

KenRobinsonTEDprofile

Teacher Aaron Warner, initiator of the Google-inspired “Genius Hour” at Regina’s Douglas Park Elementary School, is definitely a true believer in teaching creativity.  Justifying his two hour-a-week program in a new book, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Nancy Steinhauer’s Pushing the Limits (2017), Warner provides this declaratory statement: “Sixty per cent of the jobs of the future haven’t been invented yet.”  That “insight”, we are told, echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s contention in “Do Schools Kill Creativity?,” the most watched TED Talk of all time.  It is Robinson, of course, who uttered what became that simple, unassailable, unverifiable educational truth that “creativity” is central in developing education that will “take us to a future we can’t grasp.”

What’s the problem with repeating Robinson’s claim and citing a statistic to support that hypothesis? It’s a classic example of transforming education or “building the future schoolhouse,” on what Hack Education commentator Audrey Watters has termed “theory of mythical proportions”  instead of evidence-based policy-making. Citing the statistic that  “60% (or 65%) of future jobs have not been invented yet,” is doubly problematic because no one can authenticate the research behind that oft-repeated statistic.

Two enterprising British teacher-researchers, Daisy Christodoulou and Andrew Old, recently tracked the origin  of that statistic and found it essentially without substance. On the BCC World News Service program, More or Less, aired May 29, 2017, they identified how that statistic originated and got parroted around the globe.  Most fascinating of all, one of the researchers who popularized the claim, Dr. Cathy Davidson, of The Graduate Center CUNY, has now reached similar conclusions and ceased repeating the “65% statistic.”

“I haven’t used that figure since about 2012,” Davidson said, in response to the BBC News investigation.  Her explanation of how the statistic disappeared is revealing about the sorry state of educational policy discourse, not only in Canada but across the world.

The disputed statistic was promulgated in Davidson’s 2011 book, Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  The figure, she says, didn’t originate with her.  She first encountered it in futurist Jim Carroll’s book, Ready, Set, Done (2007). and it has been tracked down to an Australian website where the “65%” figure was quoted with some visuals and categories of new jobs that hadn’t existed before. After Now You See It  appeared, that 65% figure kept being quoted so Davidson attempted to contact the authors of the study to be able to learn more about their findings but with no luck.  By then, the site was down and even the Innovation Council of Australia had been closed by a new government.

Since the reputed source of the statistical claim had disappeared, Davidson began issuing a disclaimer and stopped repeating the figure. She also embraced “Big Data” and started to deconstruct what the category of “job” really means. Much to the surprise of the British researchers, Davidson welcomed the probing questions and agreed that educators need to be far more careful about their use of statistical claims, and, most significantly, the wisdom of “using statistics like that at all.”

SevenMythsBookCoverWhy is 65% so problematic?  The BBC researchers, Christodoulou and Old, also did rough calculations by looking at jobs that exist now and jobs that existed in the past and compared job titles.   They found that maybe 1/3 of all jobs today are actually “new,” even by the most generous count.  That’s 33% not 65% and hardly justification for turning the entire school system upside down.

No one has yet challenged one of Daisy Christodoulou’s key points in the BBC News broadcast. When asked whether “21st century skills” would last, she responded that, in her judgement, “the alphabet (language) and numbers (numerology)” would outlive us all. Surely that claim deserves a much wider public discussion.

Davidson has abandoned that unverified statistic and changed her rationale for system-wide change in the direction of “21st century learning.” Her brand new book, The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (2017), carefully avoids recycling the statistic and, instead, claims with “intuition” rather than “data” that “closer to 100 per cent of jobs have changed in some way” in recent decades.

The American promulgator of the “65% statistic” has definitely backtracked on one of her best known claims. The whole episode has real implications for Canadian education policy discourse. Indeed, it raises serious questions about a whole set of related claims made in Pushing the Limits that schools have to be “transformed to prepare kids for jobs that don’t exist.”

What is the research base for the popular claim that schools should be transformed to “prepare students for jobs not invented yet”? Should we base system-wide reform on unassailable, unverified claims in Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks?  Is the spread of the “65% statistic” another example of “bias confirmation’?  Are promoters of “creativity in schools” expanding the space for creativity or looking to displace foundational skills?  Most significantly, how do we dispel claims made using questionable research data? 

 

 

 

 

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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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