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Archive for the ‘School Advisory Councils’ Category

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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Guided parent engagement has become, like apple pie and motherhood, almost sacrosanct in publicly-funded education. School systems across North America now have an established apparatus to sanction ‘approved’ parent organizations and many employ senior staff to guide and mentor school-level parent advisory councils. Promoting “parent involvement” to overcome administrative roadblocks and systemic problems has become a business in and of itself, especially in more affluent provinces like Ontario and British Columbia.

EdWeekLogo2015Surveying Canadian provincial systems, you will discover that official parent organizations promoting increased “investment” in public education are themselves beneficiaries of provincial education funding. A few groups, like Ontario-based People for Education enjoy exalted status, called upon to provide “parent opinion” on every issue from student testing to child poverty and sex education to First Nations schooling. Groups seeking significant reform or challenging the status quo like the Society for Quality Education or WISE Math get nothing but crumbs as a reward for their independence. In public education, it’s all too often about rewarding the “friendlies” and marginalizing groups that are seeking deeper and more systemic changes.

Leading parent voices like Annie Kidder and a host of provincial Parent Teacher Federation presidents claim to have moved “Beyond the Bake Sale,” but their organizations spend most of their time lobbying for funding and promoting the latest provincial education panacea for what ails the system. In Ontario since 2006, the Ministry of Education has awarded more that $24 million to fund 15,000 Parents Reaching Out (PRO) grants to local school councils and 568 regional grants — all aimed at increasing “parent involvement” in schools. What’s been the impact? At the school level, the vast majority of parent councils still busy themselves raising money for class supplies, sponsoring multicultural festivals, and even running “cupcake” parties for the kids.

Ontario’s PRO grants were initially tied to the Dalton McGuinty Liberal Government’s “Poverty Reduction Initiative” and presented as a way of addressing social inequalities facing identified “priority” school neighbourhoods. By the Fall of 2014, the Ministry’s Ottawa Field Services Branch  was putting a positive spin on the increased participation of school councils in socially-disadvantaged communities. Since 2006, after awarding thousands of grants across the province, the Ministry reported that applications from priority schools were up 300 % and approvals up 450%. That bears further investigation.

Poverty reduction has all but disappeared from the public announcements about PRO grants.  In early March 2015, Education Minister Liz Sandals was singing a different tune: “When parents are active in their children’s education, student well-being and achievement are improved — especially in challenging areas like math. This helps students reach their full potential and better prepares them for a bright future.”

A Ministry media release (March 3, 2015), announcing the Parents Reaching Out grants for 2015-16 claimed that they were now designed to fund  “a wide range of initiatives that help parents become more involved in their child’s education.” The posted “success stories” reported on grants to reduce language barriers, celebrate diversity, conduct parenting sessions, alert parents to cyberbullying, foster community connections, and assist parents with homework. None of the cited examples related directly to reducing educational inequalities or child and family poverty.

From its inception, the Ontario PRO grant program was also presented as a provincial initiative lauded in a 2010 McKinsey & Company report analyzing high achieving school systems around the world. The Ministry spin on that report is far more positive than the actual report.  That global school system review,  introduced, incidently, with a Forward by Ontario’s own Dr. Michael Fullan, makes only a fleeting reference (p. 101) to Ontario’s PRO-grant driven “parent involvement” program. The American Aspire charter school model earns far more praise.

The McKinsey global school system reports issued in 2007 and 2010 considered holy grail in Ontario are now mostly repudiated elsewhere.  Most of that “independent report” anoints Ontario schools as “among the best in the world”and actually attributes it to the “tenure of strategic leaders,” specifically Fullan and his former OISE colleague Ben Levin  as well as Premier McGuinty and then Education Minister Kathleen Wynne. Most of the authoritative critiques, summarized in January 2012 by University of London professor Frank Coffield, dispute such success claims based upon “implausible” declaratory statements with a “thin evidence base.”

Spending $24 million spread out over thousands of school councils is unlikely to make much of a difference in closing the social inequality gap between school communities. In a TV Ontario program, aired in September 22, 2014 and hosted by Steve Paikin of The Agenda, four leading Ontario anti-poverty activists reviewed the progress made in eradicating poverty since 2000. Coordinator of Freedom 90, Yvonne Kelly, showed her impatience with the “broad-based prevention framework” which “doesn’t help those already marginalized.” That’s a neat summary of what went wrong with the PRO grants as an “anti-poverty” initiative.

Promoting parent engagement, it turns out, is not really about addressing inequality in Ontario’s schools. The Toronto District School Board’s Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) for 2014 reveals that the “gap” is as wide as ever.  Funding parent groups is simply not properly aligned with the overall strategy.  Giving parent councils PRO grants to expand their diversity of membership and activities has clearly taken precedence over reducing educational inequality. Indeed, the one program that might have made a difference, the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG) was substantially cut in 2006 when PRO grants were introduced by the McGuinty Government.

Who’s promoting Parent Engagement — and for what purpose?  What does Ontario have to show for spending $24 million since 2006 on shoring-up friendly parent advisory councils? Whatever happened to that initial rationale for the PRO grants — closing the gap for schools in the 133 “priority neighbourhoods”?

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For the past three months, parents of students attending Park West School in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park have been in a state of upheaval. Concerned parents now find themselves essentially ensnared in a Boundary Review Process, managed by the Chief Superintendent, excluding the elected board, and providing political cover for “rezoning students” and implementing pre-determined school grade reconfiguration plans.

ParkWestSChoolBoundary Reviews are often contentious because they are a concrete demonstration of the coercive power of the education state. Under provincial Education Acts, school boards are entrusted with establishing school attendance zones (catchment areas) and “assigning students to various schools” in the district. Some boards spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on enforcing attendance zones and on balancing “the catchment population with the capacity of the school.”

Major metropolitan boards in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Toronto have learned to become more flexible, establishing free attendance zones and broadening the range of school choice for parents. Atlantic Canada’s largest school board, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) is more representative of the majority of school boards which invest much of their administrative time in re-engineering school communities to occupy vacant school spaces.

Most recently, the HRSB initiated an extensive 12 school boundary review process targeting two schools, Park West and Grosvenor Wentworth Park, deemed by the Superintendent and school officials  to have more than the optimum number of students. When the board’s real agenda, moving Park West’s Grades 7 to 9 students elsewhere, was eventually revealed, hundreds of Park West parents led by local Kumon Math manager Janet Lee, rose up in protest.

A clear majority of the Park West Parents are opposed to the enforced school reconfiguration and the shipping of their senior grades to a school some 45 minutes walk away.   While the school with 783 students is over capacity, it was never an issue until the board decided to “fix” the non-existent problem. School enrollment projections going forward, unearthed by the parents, show an actual decline of numbers and do not support the board’s preferred scenario.

The Boundary Review has proven just as divisive as a school closure process. A Save Park West School P-9 petition was posted on Change.org and generated a strong response from aggrieved parents and community members. Former HRSB board member, Dr. David Cameron, spoke out against the disruptive intervention in a healthy, harmonious and diverse school community. On April 13, 2013, Save Park West advocate Janet Lee issued a circular letter to 26 public officials and reporters lambasting the process.

Save Park West parents have expanded their critique to include the entire HRSB Boundary Review process. The 12-school Boundary Review Committee, appointed by the Superintendent, is, by all accounts, a totally staff-driven exercise, pitting parents from 10 schools against the two reps whose schools face reconfiguration or eventual closure. They have also discovered that this arbitrary, autocratic process has already claimed two earlier school victims, Cavalier Drive (P-9) and Bedford South (P-9), in the 2011-12 cycle of reviews.

A close-up look at HRSB Policy B.003- Creating School Populations (2013), demonstrates that it’s the Superintendent’s preferred process with decision-making criteria right out of a facilities planning manual. Nowhere is the Process really spelled out; instead the policy assigns total control to the Superintendent, who makes the recommendation to the board. Even the recently abandoned Nova Scotia School Review process provided more rights to parents and community representatives.

Serious concerns being raised about the fairness and legitimacy of the Boundary Review process are simply dismissed by the sitting HRSB Board Chair  as “board bashing.” The reality is quite different when you carefully consider the 11 different community complaints registered by Park West School parents, documenting a total lack of transparency, due process, and public legitimacy. The whole process is being tested and, like the provincial SChool Review Process, is slowly being exposed and discredited.

School Boundary Reviews are by their very nature often disputed  and potentially divisive. The Halifax Board model, however, is particularly so because it is so draconian and undemocratic compared to that of many other school boards. Back in 2011, former Lower Sackville trustee Donna Hubbard actually divulged that, in proposing grade configuration changes, she was only acting at the behest of the Superintendent and staff. More recently, Board member Sheryl Blumenthal-Harrison publicly disclosed that she had been warned to stay out of the Park West dispute or she was liable to “lose her vote at the Board table.”

The Halton Catholic District School Board’s policy, No. I-29, School Boundary Review Process (2003) is far superior in terms of democratic principles and governance practices.  The Board, rather than the Superintendent, oversees the whole process and elected Board members (trustees) are “invited to attend committee and community consultation session meetings as observers.”  While such processes are not perfect, they are light years ahead of the HRSB School Boundary Review policy in terms of their respect for the rights of parents to full, fair and unfettered participation in any matter directly impacting upon the future of their school.

Why are School Boundary Reviews so potentially divisive and damaging to school communities?  What’s the real purpose of “zoning students” and “reconfiguring schools”?  Are there situations when school boundary realignments might make good sense?  Is it time for large urban boards to consider free attendance zones and authorizing more cross-boundary students?

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Seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal as a fiery young mother standing up for the kids in Won’t Back Down will be a shocker for many parents active in their local schools across Canada.  Joining up with a passionate teacher, played by Viola Davis, to ‘Take Back the Schools’ would be a stretch of the imagination. While “parent power” is bubbling up in California and six other American states, active parents and school advisory groups in Canada’s provincial systems are either glorified “PTAs” or Parent Councils suffering from a “power outage.”

The feature film Won’t Back Down is being dismissed by prominent movie critics as a Hollywood melodrama with a strident, patently obvious message. The Globe and Mail’s fine critic, Liam Lacey, to his credit, recognized that it was far more than another Hollywood confection.  One of America’s leading education policy wonks, Andrew J. Rotherham, writing in TIME Magazine, weighed in with a column entitled “Why the Education Movie Matters.”   Bring out the popcorn — and take out a Kleenex –Parent Power has now gone mainstream.

With Don’t Back Down hitting the movie theatres, the time is ripe for a look at the state of parent activism and involvement in Canada’s provincial school systems.  And, by sheer coincidence, the film’s release coincided with the appearance of the latest report on the health of School Advisory Councils, the 2012 People for Education review of Ontario’s School Councils. Each year, for the past 15 years, P4E has been issuing such reports, all pointing at the same deficiency — local Parent Councils revert back to fundraising when they are afforded little opportunity to do much of anything else.

Active parents supportive of their local public school are prime candidates for School Advisory Councils, especially in school districts where the Home and School Association is either weak or non-existent. Concerned parents with “agendas” are considered dangerous and discouraged from applying for such positions on School Councils normally guided or dominated by the principal or a trusted senior teacher.  Such parent councils, created originally to promote parent involvement in policy matters, normally end up doing nothing of the sort and back organizing fundraising bake sales or, in Nova Scotia, hosting ice cream socials.

Parent Advisory Councils have proven very effective in keeping a core of parents in the inner circle, shielding principals from “parent power” types, and generating extra funds for school supplies.  Where Home and School Association groups exist, principals generally favour the group that is the most inclined toward fundraising and the most politically intert of the two groups.

What’s really going on inside the schools?  The Ontario case is the best documented example. Some 80 to 84% of  over 720 school councils surveyed from 68 different Ontario school boards now do fundraising and spend over 70% of their time either raising money or organizing school events.  They spend, on average, about 10% of their time working on School Improvement Plans, discussing educational standards, and ensuring local public accountability.  Fewer than a dozen parents are actually involved on the Parent Council in the vast majority of public schools.

Since the abolition of the Ontario School Council in 2003-4, local school councils have fallen under the influence of the publicly-funded lobby group, People for Education.  A Parent Voice in Education report in March 2005 completed the evisceration of any semblance of Parent Power in Ontario schools.  Today “student learning” is the stated priority, but P4E under Annie Kidder is best known for promoting education spending and gutting Ontario’s testing and accountability programs. Most principals, for their part, resist parent involvement in curriculum and teaching, so discussion of “student learning” is very limited and constrained.

Parent Advisory Councils have, for the most part, served to muffle parent dissent and to channel active parents into school support activities. In the case of Ontario,   “partnering” is definitely in and rocking the boat is decidedly out in the teacher-friendly world of People for Education. Looking across the country, school advisory groups are all over the map and remain, for some reason, under the de-facto umbrella of provincial Home and School Associations. Provincial school council organizations only exist in Manitoba, British Columbia , and Alberta.

Some provincial Education Departments go to great lengths to ensure that School Councils remain strictly “advisory” in law and in practice. Nova Scotia’s School Advisory Councils, under the Education Act (Section 22), play a very limited role described as “advises the principal on behalf of the school community, especially parents.”  Two decades after their creation, some of the province’s 420 public schools still do not have functioning “school advisory councils.”

Parent involvement in Nova Scotia is a carefully managed domain.  The “ground rules” established in March 2010 by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union make it clear that parents are expected to “contribute to the academic success of their children.” In many Halifax Regional School Board schools, SAC’s may exist, but so do Home and School groups, and the members of the SAC’s are not posted on public websites and accessible only through the school principals.

Parent in-service programs run by the Nova Scotia Federation of Home and School Associations accept and reinforce the “School Code of Conduct” setting out “duties” for parents that sound like those intended for a primary class. Raising your voice or being unpleasant on school grounds is “specifically forbidden” in that Code.  All legitimate school reform groups with “political agendas” like Students First Nova Scotia , Save Community Schools, and Choice Words operate outside the lines and continue to be effectively marginalized by the core interests that control the system.

Will the feature film Won’t Back Down get a fair hearing and perhaps ring a few alarm bells here in Canada?  Will concerned parents begin asking why School Advisory Councils are so weak and are inclined to attract parents best described as ” teachers pets”?  How can public education lobby groups like People for Education get away with the duplicity of neutering parent councils, then fretting about why they still busy themselves with “bake sales’?  Most importantly, how long will the Parent Power outage continue in K-12 Canadian education?

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