Reforming Public Education in Canada

Commentary, Education, Rodney Clifton

Canadians generally agree that getting and keeping good teachers and principals is crucial to building and maintaining an effective education system. How to do this, however, is a matter of serious debate. We have many good educators, but we don’t have enough of them, and we certainly don’t have enough of them in inner-city schools and rural and northern communities.

Our governments have chosen to tackle the challenge in two, largely unsuccessful, ways. The regulatory approach centralizes control in the offices of ministers of education and superintendents. Its supporters argue that senior administrators must enforce countless regulations on the training of teachers, curricula, maximum class size and a host of other things. Manitoba’s present NDP government and those in many other provinces think detailed regulation is the best way to improve students’ learning.

The spending approach has cleverly been re-labelled “investing in education” in order to lend it the same positive emotional tone as “motherhood”. Its supporters argue that additional expenditure is urgently needed, especially for reducing student-teacher ratios and increasing teachers’ salaries. Not surprisingly, most teachers’ unions, including the Manitoba Teachers Society, hold this view.

A third approach is now emerging. Termed the reformist approach, it proposes turning the authority to run schools over to principals and teachers, and holding them accountable for student performance. It involves deregulating schools and empowering principals to make crucial decisions about teachers, students and curricula.

The regulatory approach is unrealistic. Centralized control of curricula, teacher certification and the time spent on core subjects is no guarantee of good teaching or effective learning. Micromanagement by ministers of education and superintendents is, in fact, a classic example of what Max Gammon, a physician who studied the British socialized medical system, has called “the theory of bureaucratic displacement”. In using this approach, senior administrators have driven many fine teachers and excellent principals away from public schools and into private schools and other occupations.

The spending approach is also unrealistic. Spending money on education is, of course, necessary. However, it is only part of the solution. Canada already spends more than any other OECD country on education–more than 7% of GNP–but the performance of Canadian students on international tests is, at best, mediocre. Moreover, recent trends suggest that provincial governments are shifting resources from education into health care. As the Canadian population ages, healthcare costs will undoubtedly increase, necessitating further transfers from the education budgets.

By contrast, the reformist approach is realistic. Supporters argue that turning more authority, responsibility and money over to principals and teachers is the only way to recruit and retain good educators and turn around the academic performance of their students. Specifically, principals would have the authority to reward good teachers through salary differentials, a capacity that is currently denied them. In turn, principals themselves would be rewarded for having students reach or surpass established standards.

Across the United States, the reformist approach is slowly but surely gaining momentum. Many states and school divisions are giving greater authority to principals and teachers, increasing competition between schools and school divisions, and establishing higher standards for student performance. Many educators, parents and students now realize that the “one -size-fits-all” model is not effective for all students. Instead, people are beginning to understand that schools need principals who can make important decisions about curricula, teachers, support staff and students. Increasingly, parents want to select schools with teachers who can effectively instruct their children.

Some people call the reformist approach “neo- conservative”, but in the United States, it is embraced by people on both the right (Milton Friedman, for example) and the left (Robert Reich, for example). Moreover, a number of states, with governments from across the political spectrum, have implemented vouchers and/or established charter schools.

Nevertheless, in Canada only Alberta and Ontario are beginning to experiment, with considerable trepidation, with reformist principles. Alberta has 10 charter schools and Ontario has recently enacted legislation that will give tax breaks to parents who send their children to independent schools. It is now time for all provincial governments to turn away from attempting reform through increased bureaucratic control or pumping more money into the system. It is therefore time to implement reformist principles so that, in the future, our public schools will be able to recruit and retain good teachers and principals.