Who Should Run Our Schools?
Report on the Education Governance Summit
by Brian Jamieson
It seemed topical to debate who should run our schools following the election of a new provincial government.
But while the Learning Partnership's Summit on Education Governance attracted noteworthy panelists and 250 educators, parents and education stakeholders to the Ontario College of Teachers for a day-and-a-half of sp-irited debate in January, it provided no clear-cut answers regarding the roles and responsibilities of those in power now and those wanting a share.
As the discussion table setter, Ontario's Education Minister Gerard Kennedy offered a concise summary of his government's direction. "Peace and stability first. Beyond that, co-operation."
"We've got to be really clear about what we're governing," Kennedy said. "We're governing children and the trust of society and the trust of parents."
According to Kennedy, the issue is how schools, boards and the government can work together to make improvements that kids need in a reasonable amount of time. For example, 40 to 50 per cent of students need help reaching their potential in reading, writing and math. And 25 per cent of those in Grade 9 now will not graduate unless something is done to change things.
"We're tying to get a very clear platform of peace and stability
ha-ppening for boards and for students in this province. We want to see
and will stand accountable for an environment
The Liberal government has a bias towards local government, Kennedy continued. "It isn't practical to try to run 4,7000 schools from Queen's Park."
He noted that trustees play a special role in translating public trust into actions that benefit students. Furthermore, he added, students themselves need to have a "genuine voice" in education governance, and the role of school principals requires more definition.
Fair or not, public schools have to prove themselves again. There simply isn't enough public knowledge of education. Education can no longer afford to run a closed shop, he said.
The final consensus was that more discussion was required.
Even the inimitable Bernard Shapiro, former Principal and Vice-Chancellor at McGill University and former Ontario Deputy Minister of Education, had difficulty summarizing. He said that the conference "provided the stimulus for the careful thinking, planning and constituency building that has to happen if change is introduced."
Is the topic of governance in education too big? Are there too many players in the education marketplace? Will the interests involved ever truly allow for consensus? Those questions remain.
What should the relationship be between individual schools and their school board? How much diversity and innovation is going to be permitted? What is the role of school boards in raising and spending money?
Conference delegates began by clarifying the roles of those in governing positions. But attendees agreed there was no simple solution.
"There is wide agreement that there is need for change that would decentralize the system to some extent," Shapiro said. "There needs to be a provincial framework that includes central objectives for schools and mechanisms for assessing and reporting on whether the objectives are being achieved."
"This may be a reasonable assumption," he added, "but a counter theory is that not-for-profit education is a game in which elites jockey for rhetorical or political power, for which governance arrangements are a screen."
Charles Ungerleider, a Sociology of Education professor at the University of British Columbia, proposed that "political conflict in education is inevitable."
Universality, productive efficiency, equity, accountability, autonomy and flexibility are some of the values associated with public schooling, Ungerleider said. They can't all be realized simultaneously, and conflict arises.
For University of Manitoba professor Ben Levin, conflict is inherent because people want different and contradictory things from schools. Governance is politics, he said.
People for Education spokesperson Annie Kidder noted that democracy is messy. "It is slow. It is cumbersome. It's a pain in the ass. But we love it for those reasons."
She described school boards as "a wonderful level of democracy" and noted the valuable role of trustees. "No matter how angry you are at them you can always get them on the phone," she said. "For parents, that's an incredibly valuable thing."
In the schools
Former NDP government Minister of Education Dave Cooke concurred. "We've changed the roles and responsibilities of the principals in this province without consultation. Now, in many schools we have only part-time principals and they are not able to perform that major role of principal/educator or principal/teacher."
Bill Hogarth, Director of Education, York Region District School Board, advocated an examination of the structures in the school systems, a reconsideration of roles and responsibilities, training for prospective directors and new trustees and the development of new models of co-operative leadership.
"We can change local-level structure, educate the decision makers and encourage a collaborative model of education management to get the results we desire for the ch-ildren in our care," Hogarth said.
Ontario Public School Boards Association president Gerri Gershon noted that "If the only purpose of our schools were to promote student achievement, then there would be alternative methods to consider, such as appointed boards and council committees. However, if our education system also embraces the goals of graduating civic-minded individuals, orienting new Canadians and producing creative, tolerant and just citizens, then there is no substitute for the hair-pulling, knuckle-whitening, teeth-grinding effectiveness of democratically elected trustees."
Gershon also proposed that trustees need the tools to communicate about education to the public and the proper remuneration to fulfill their role. In fact, several trustees in attendance suggested that the provincial cap on their annual $5,000 honoraria be lifted as a means to attract more qualified people to the role and to honour the work they do.
Not just about money
"There will never be enough money to do all the things we want to do in public education," said Michele Mulder, President of the Alberta School Board Association and of the Canadian School Boards Association. "Public education is a bottomless pit of worthwhile investments."
Mulder said that innovation in Alberta schools has boosted students' test results and has enabled public education to win in competitive battles with private schools. She said we must stop playing the blame game and talking about money all the time.
Money is not important for itself, but it does matter, Shapiro said. If we want high stakes testing, accountability, high standards, new school services and co-curricular activities, we must expect to pay for them. And those setting expectations should also be responsible for the cost.
Shapiro concluded that "Choices, often painful choices, will have to be made."
Former Toronto Public School Board trustee Fiona Nelson said that the obsession with numbers in terms of finances and test results clouded more important issues.
Torstar chair John Evans said, "The metrics of success are much more complex and qualitative than the financial measures used for shareholder return. Yet it is important to really define what success will be for the child."
"It still blows my mind," said former education minister Dave Cooke. "We can take over a school board in Ontario if they are not running the board properly from a financial point of view. But every kid in that board could do poorly in tests and there's no provision under the Act for the ministry to do anything about it. The Act continues to focus on the financial side and not on what our expectations are for success and student performance."
Don Drummond, a senior vice president and economist at the TD Bank, said that economies that do not do well are those that have been restrained by central authority that has stifled innovation. Successful economies and companies, on the other hand, do the opposite. "If they're not innovative they fall by the wayside," Drummond said. "Everything is moving at blinding speed. Education doesn't have the luxury of seeing that something's wrong and moving on it over the space of several years. It has to move very quickly."
Former Premier Rae said the province has broad legal responsibility for those decisions, but if it's a simple top-down process, you won't have the buy-in that's required.
Dave Cooke said that part of the problem is that changing laws and regulations outpace the ability of school boards to implement the changes.
Cooke advocated for more local control, a greater role for school councils and clearer definitions of roles. "We need to make decisions about what powers principals need and their relationship with the school council."
He called for a framework of accountability in which schools, school
boards and the province would issue report cards on their progress. He
suggested making the Education Quality and Accountability Office responsible
to the provincial auditor rather than the Ministry of Education.
The Honourable Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Superior Court applauded the work of trustees. He noted that school boards are held accountable to the public and have responsibilities under close to 40 different provincial acts. "School boards can and do make important decisions all the time," Rouleau said. "The model we have can and does work well. Radical change is not required."
Matthew Reid, president of the Ontario Student Trustees Association, reminded the gathering that students also need a voice. "If the only focus is on students' scores, you will fail students," he said.
Bob Rae added that test results don't completely determine a school's success - sports, school bands and drama also define students' educational experience and development. But neither can test results be ignored.
Reid said that students are not recognized nearly as much as they should be. Attitudes towards students have to change, he insisted.
Torstar Chairman John Evans agreed. "They are the customer, the product and the reason for the system and you disregard their counsel at your peril."
Commitment and complexity
School boards need flexibility to maneuver and respond to local conditions. Decentralization is needed in order to release, recognize and reward the creativity, energy and imagination of educators. Transparency and accountability are also essential.
Bob Rae said, during the opening panel, "We're always going to have a very complex system of governance in this province. We have to develop a love for the complexity." He suggested that a strong system does not rise from a centralized power. Instead, the entire system must work together to work well.
"We cannot expect support for public education to arise from some general conceptual understanding of the importance of schooling," Shapiro said. "It can only arise from ongoing experience with the system."
He added that schools need public participation, debate and advocacy. "There will always be problems when one group decides the objectives and another group is responsible for implementing them."
Shapiro noted that all participants in education must find the capacity for mutual respect and learn to appreciate the agendas and welfare of others. And he cautioned against the quest for simple solutions.
"There are no silver bullets. Simple answers to a complex social undertaking do not exist."