Campus Radical

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

How did Emery Dosdall turn Edmonton’s public education system into a continental Mecca for school reform? By making principals CEOs, introducing consumer choice and even taking over a few private schools. Now he’s bringing this radical recipe to B.C.

When Emery Dosdall became superintendent of Edmonton’s public school system in 1995, teachers and principals alike thought the silver-haired manager had escaped from a zoo. Instead of sitting at his desk in central office attending endless meetings as supers are wont to do, the 51-year-old Dosdall started poking his tall frame into schools. Why, he even talked to teachers and principals which is pretty audacious behavior for a big city school chief. “Who is this zebra? I’ve never seen anything like it,” gossiped staff in the halls.

The zebra added to the gossip mill when he asked teachers, principals and custodians to identify all the rules and policies that prevented them from doing their jobs. Dosdall knew that educational bureaucracies could pile up useless rules the way a dead hippo attracts alligators. Edmonton’s “dumb rule committee” quickly came up with 359 rules and regulations. To Dosdall’s astonishment, only 60 were written down, illustrating the public sector¹s penchant for making rules. “That to me was a huge statement.” He eliminated all of them, including sticklers about measuring fields for Track Day and nostrums about reserving parking spaces for trustees.

With zebra-like swiftness Dosdall also asked parents and teachers what an ideal school system looked like. Everyone side stepped the craze for innovation or say creativity and put student achievement at the top of the list. (“And surprise, surprise, the parents also didn’t want their kids to get beat up at school,” he adds.) As a result, he started to ask each and every principal a question they’d rarely heard before from a super. “What are you doing to improve student achievement?” he demanded.

And that’s just a sampling of the unorthodox decision-making that transformed the Edmonton school district into a continental model for school reform, or what Dosdall realistically calls “a work in progress.” While other school jurisdictions such as Ontario remain mired in Stalingrad-like battles about how to revive let alone reform public education, Edmonton has stepped to the front of the class.

In just seven years Dosdall and staff (and the super admits he had a lot of help) took a ho-hum, highly centralized big-city district hemorrhaging students to private schools (and what big-city district isn’t?) and gave parents and teachers (dare we say it) a system that was more customer based and results-driven.

And just how did Edmonton do it? By bringing tough-minded business style management practices to central office and the neighbourhood school. Why it even made its school principals CEOs and all with a clear focus on achievement. In the process the district increased enrolment, boosted teacher morale and even won kudos (albeit qualified ones) from the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA). “A lot of Edmonton¹s reforms are very good,” admits Larry Booi, ATA¹s outspoken president. “I applaud them for it.”

Although the crusading Dosdall recently left Edmonton to become assistant deputy of minister of education, his successor, Angus McBeath, another unorthodox manager, aims to make the board even more accountable and achievement-oriented. Nor does McBeath apologize for the board’s obvious business-like savvy. “We focus on productivity, value for money, accountability and top results and are responsive to the people we serve,” explains McBeath. “And what¹s wrong with that?” With a budget of half a billion, capital assets worth more than a billion and a staff of 8,000 serving one of North America’s fastest growing cities McBeath believes Edmonton Public should be listed as one of Alberta¹s top 100 corporations. “No, make that one of the top ten,” adds the new super.

The politicians and bureaucrats who have turned Ontario schools into chaotic war zones should take note. Dosdall, a former teacher, has done right what Mike Harris, another former teacher, has done very wrong. In fact, whenever U.S. educators from Miami or New York want a glimpse of a vibrant public school system, they now fly north to Alberta¹s capital city. Israeli and Australian educators do the same. Last year School Administrator, the educational equivalent of Forbes or Executive, even put “Edmonton’s Enterprise” on its cover.

Edmonton Public won that recognition by doing things a shareholder would love. In the process of beefing up its schools, Alberta¹s second-largest school district branched out into writing better school curricula – now a board revenue maker. And instead of fighting government funding for private and charter schools, Edmonton decided to put its competitors out of business by operating more schools of choice than other North American school district. You name it and Edmonton has it: a Hebrew school, an all-girls school, several aboriginal schools, a Spanish academy, schools for drop-outs and even a school devoted to Canadian history and budding ballerinas. To great gasps of disbelief the district also acquired or “publicized,” two private evangelical Christian schools. “And why not?” asks Dosdall. “We believe every child between the age of 5 and 20 is ours.”

To Dosdall most of these reforms boil down to reviving the spirit and energy of public education in hostile times. “Public educators can’t huff and puff and say they will never change – and expect the public system to survive,” he declares. “Because if public education doesn¹t change, someone someday will come along with an alternative and it will happen so fast no one will know what happened.” Adds McBeath “We figured out what works and just stick with it. And true reform has to do a lot more than create uproar in a system.”

Edmonton¹s bold approach to big city school management partly stems from Dosdall’s maverick and visionary legacy. Unlike many of his peers, the educator speaks directly and eschews the kind of edu-babble that carefully hides the vacuity of many of his peers. As such, Dosdall talks mainly about kids, teachers, community and achievement – the radical passwords of education. This makes Dosdall stands out like a zebra in a wallow of hippos. In fact, most big-city superintendents avoid candid talk, let alone school visits, explains Peter Coleman, a former Winnipeg super and professor emeritus of education at Simon Fraser University. “They are generally a self-satisfied, smug group that happily goes from meeting to meeting, each more futile than the last,” he explains. “Ontario is probably the home for such bureaucrats.”

But Edmonton’s reform also embodies Dosdall’s commitment to public education. (“He is one of the best public advocates for public schools that I’ve ever met,” confesses ATA¹s Booi.) As the son of a Saskatchewan principal, Dosdall was largely raised on the Little Pine Reserve north of Prince Albert, where he was the only white kid in an all-Cree school. He then became a teacher, working in Edmonton, Australia and Zambia. After holding several senior managing jobs with Edmonton public, he became the super of “Looney Langley” in southern British Columbia at the tender age of 37. School politics had become so political there that even administrator¹s homes were being torched by angry parents. But Dosdall worked among the warring parties (“Lets put kids first”) and slowly turned the fractious district around. Within a couple of years it boasted one of the nation¹s best fine-art schools.

Dosdall took that same pioneering zeal to Edmonton when called to revitalize its district six years ago. Out of the province’s four large city districts, Edmonton, a blue-collar town, routinely performed the worst on provincial achievement tests even though it served one of the most highly educated populations in Canada. But the 79,000-student district also had a history of risk-taking. In 1979 under the leadership of Mike Strembitsky, the district introduced site-based decision-making, which essentially gave individual schools more control over their budgets. Although letting schools pay their own phone bills seemed like a fine idea at first, most principals felt the reform was largely cosmetic. “Site-based management in Edmonton was more show than go,” notes Coleman.

To give the local-decision model more umpff, Dosdall took $20-million earmarked for the district’s central office and pumped it back into the schools. (Edmonton principals now control 92¢ out of every school dollar.) This radical move changed the role of central office overnight and convinced principals that they were truly in charge. Instead of schools being servants of district psychologists, social workers and other service staff, central office became a servant of the schools. Each and every school, whether it had a budget of $700,000 or $9 million, now has the power to buy the services and resources its students need.

As a result, schools quickly stopped patronizing some central office departments all together, says McBeath. The people who supplied after-school workshops, for instance, lost 85% of their clientele while the technology-services department tripled its business. “It became abundantly clear that schools behaved differently when they were spending their own money than when the district was expending resources,” he adds.

At the same time Dosdall took the centre out of central office, he flat-lined management by fully recognizing the importance of principals in school improvement. He started by getting rid of the district’s nine associate superintendents (and most big urban boards have oodles of them). With the elimination of middle management, the system’s principals became CEOs, or owners of their own franchises. As a result, Edmonton¹s 209 principals now report directly to the super, an unprecedented move for a big-city board.

Dosdall’s mandate to his principals was direct if not scary: “The district is going to focus on results. I don¹t care how you get them but you can¹t break any laws. I don’t have any special problem solving skills anymore than you do. You¹re the superintendent of your plant – deal with it. I’ll hold you accountable but you get the results.”

To many principals such as Bob Maskell, the 61-year-old leader of Victoria Park Fine Arts School, the change was profoundly liberating. “I was used to a system where it was impossible to get through the fortress of central office,” notes the former businessman. “Can you imagine a super who visits your school once a year?”

But Dosdall’s keen focus on principals just reflected sound school research. Every study on school effectiveness over the last 30 years has identified the principal as a key actor ‹ the instructional leader who sets the tone for the entire enterprise. “You can have an effective school without an effective principal, but it won¹t last long,” notes Dosdall.

But Dosdall quickly realized that autonomy wasn¹t enough to make effective principals. As a result he increasingly focused on accountability. “You have to have it,” adds Dosdall. “People have to trust they will be held accountable. Otherwise school reform is just table talk.” To this end, the school district introduced its own annual math and English tests to keep tabs on student progress.

Whenever Dosdall visited a school he typically reviewed the school¹s achievement scores, its budget surpluses and deficits as well as teacher and parent approval ratings. He also came armed with specific questions. If scores in Language Arts, say, had declined, he’d ask for an explanation. “Is it a personnel issue or something else?” And he swiftly dismissed answers that placed blame outside the school. “You never blame the kids. There is no such thing as a bad crop. I tell my principals that parents are sending us the best they got.”

To deal with this greater responsibility Edmonton¹s principals now receive 200 hours of leadership training. (Nearly half a dozen failed in the first year.) In addition, every new principal now works with a mentor and regularly meets with a support group. As a result of these reforms Edmonton’s administrators and teachers spend more time talking about teaching and learning than they do about early retirement – a favourite topic in most boards.

But principals and decentralization weren’t the only items on Dosdall’s reform plate. He also decided to aggressively go after new customers by expanding the system with unique mergers and acquisitions. Provincial politics largely directed this foray. In 1996 the Alberta government changed the School Act and provided full funding for charter schools. (Charters are public schools run by communities or groups other than crusty old school boards.) The province also increased government funding to private schools by 60%, a sort of defacto voucher program. Dosdall realized that if Edmonton didn’t act, it would soon be bleed students to competitors.

Rather than wail and complain (the cherished Ontario response), the super took the case for expansion to his school trustees. “Our system can serve kids as well if not better than any charter or private school,” he argued. Countries don¹t limit the diversity of their communities; so why should public schools? The highly multicultural district had no problem understanding that. Edmonton had pioneered the development of language schools in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a Hebrew and Waldorf school, a funky artistic educational vision based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. The trustees gave Dosdall a thumbs up for more choice.

In 1996, six community groups came forward with proposals for charter schools. Staff from Edmonton met with them and turned four of the plans into public schools, including a hockey school and an all-girls school named after the famous Alberta suffragette, Nellie McClung.

But Dosdall didn’t stop there. Parents proposed a school with a Protestant Christian perspective and Edmonton soon sprouted eight Logos (“The Divine Word”) schools. (Unlike most provinces, Alberta¹s School Act actually allows for religious and patriotic exercises in public schools.) District teachers lobbied for the celebrated International Baccalaureate program and four schools now offer this challenging academic program. And on it went. Edmonton took over the Alberta School for the Deaf and a young offenders centre. It also reached out to communities that public education routinely fails, such as aboriginals. Based on successful inner-city schools in New York, Amiskwaciy Academy (Cree for Beaver Hills) begins the day with a Sweetgrass purification ceremony and a no-nonsense approach to academics.

To support its growing choice program, two district now employees work full-time with communities to develop alternative schools. “It takes about three years to grow a program and none come in a box,” explains Gloria Chalmers, who heads the alternative schools program. The district just opened a Spanish bilingual program and is now working on a proposal for a Moslem school. All schools of choice must teach the provincial curriculum and “be consistent with sound educational theory and practice.” The district¹s only choice failure to date is Alpha, a school started in 1978. It was based on libertarian ideas of A.S. Neill, who believed that children should be kept as far away from their grandparents as possible. “It just wasn’t getting the results people wanted,” explained Chalmers.

When Edmonton incorporated two Christian private schools in 1998, many thought Dosdall had finally crossed a line. “Would schools for Satanists be next?” demanded some critics. But Dosdall replied that a great many Edmontonians just happened to be Christians. “The critics were trying to define the limits of choice before we had taken the first step. It was like telling child that he shouldn¹t walk because he might fall. Every school that a parent choices should be a public school as long as it’s doing the mandated curriculum. Why can’t we do it for you? Why pay extra fees.”

Dosdall’s rationale for the district¹s incredible range of choice (more than 30 programs altogether) isn’t terribly complicated. For starters, he believes that choice just invigorates the entire system with new ideas and better practices. A highly acclaimed women’s history textbook designed for three Nellie McClung schools is now available to the entire district. A successful reading program used by the district¹s three Cogito schools (that’s Latin for “I think!”) has worked its way into other classrooms. The success of Victoria Park, a fine arts school, also increased the demand for superior arts instruction across the entire system. And so on. Even neighbourhood schools strive for distinction by offering environmental science or arts programs that would be the envy of any other school district.

Not surprisingly Dosdall argues that the one-size-fits-all approach to schooling should be given a decent burial. And Edmonton’s statistics largely support his case. About 40% of Edmonton’s elementary students and more than 50% of its high school students now attend schools outside of their neighbourhoods. As a result, achievement scores are very much on the rise in the schools of choice. “If you have a teacher committed to a certain topic or form of pedagogy and combine that with parents and kids committed to a school where they want to be, then you are going to have better achievement,” explains Dosdall.

While some public school supporters argue that schools of choice will kill public education, Edmonton’s alternative schools have actually done the opposite. Private school enrolment in Edmonton is on the decline (there are only six in metro Edmonton) and the district, which forecasters predicted would lose 1,500 a students a year, keeps on growing. In the last six years enrolment has actually climbed by 3,000 to more than 81,000. In contrast, the city of Calgary, which offers parent’s limited choice and one very intransigent central office, has been losing thousands of students to dozens of new private schools.

But not every one hails Edmonton’s approach to choice. ATA president Larry Booi, for example, argues that the district¹s alternatives have been over-rated. Although he applauds the district¹s “responsiveness” to parental needs, he worries about the fragmentation of neighbourhood schools and dismisses many offerings as “educational boutiques.” Most parents, he argues, just want a solid neighbourhood school run by competent staff that offers a well-rounded education in a safe environment. “I think Dosdall has gone too far in spinning out alternatives but I really like his creative energy.”

Critics also point out that Edmonton’s achievement gains have not been overwhelming. In fact the number of students failing the province¹s grade three math exam has only dropped from 17 to 13 percent in the last six years. In other comparisons Calgary, which has embarked on few reforms, still out performs Edmonton’s students. In addition the city’s high school completion rate from 1995 to 1999 is only 64 percent compared to Calgary’s 73%. ” The bottom line is results,” notes Denis Lapierre, a former Edmonton principal and parent advocate. “And Edmonton hasn’t pushed its reforms down enough into local communities.” He thinks Dosdall should have made every school a charter school accountable to its local community.

But no one denies that some of Dosdall’s reforms have led to some startling and very entrepreneurial spin-offs. For starters the district is now producing some of the nation¹s best classroom textbooks including a novel history series for junior high school. When teachers loudly complained about the vagueness and confused state of Alberta’s mandated math curricula, the district hired teachers to produce a better program: Math to the Max. It’s been a million-dollar best seller. In addition, the board has commissioned scholars to write books on Canadian history, military history and women’s history – all to support its programs of choice.

Like their European counterparts, Edmonton’s educators also strongly believe that teachers teach best what they know. As a result the board pays teachers to upgrade their education by taking university courses in math and English literature – something no other district in Canada does. “You can’t know too much,” explains Stuart Wachowicz, the district’s trailblazing director of programs curriculum and planning and a former award-winning principal. “In North America there has been a war against knowledge that has to be addressed that is anti-intellectual and contrary to the spirit of having a public education system.”

As such a system, Edmonton is moving closer to a European-like school system where musicians teach music and mathematicians teach math – a rare phenomena in many school boards. “We are starting to see a renaissance in the economic and social value of grounding students in a good liberal arts education,” adds Wachowich, “That culture is on its way.” Edmonton is home to a great many eastern European immigrants, adds Wachowich. “They come with high educational expectations and it behooves us to serve that.”

Last fall Dosdall took his public school revolution over the Rockies where he became British Columbia’s deputy education minister. Like Ontario, British Columbia doesn’t have a peaceable school kingdom – or a terribly responsive one. Dosdall’s first act was to fire a couple of associate deputy ministers. Education minister has promised big changes soon and no doubt Dosdall will be in the thick of them.

Back in Edmonton, Dosdall’s replacement, McBeath looks like another feisty zebra. He is now introducing an ambitious program to help teachers adopt what the research says are best practices for reading and math in the classroom. McBeath knows that the city¹s provincial achievement gains have been modest and could be much better. As such he wants schools to identify a school wide instructional focus and use math or English programs with winning track records. Of course no district has ever tried doing anything like this before.

McBeath supports this new focus on teaching because it highlights what he reverentially calls “the work” in schooling. For far too long educators have been distracted by frills and trends. “It might be good to have Dolphin Days in schools,” notes McBeath, “but we need to give up the good and focus on the best things for kids.”

And that’s means making sure every money or management style reform eventually reinforces the mandate of public education: achievement. As good supers know, that’s no easy task. “Leadership,” adds McBeath, “is getting people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” And in Edmonton principals, teachers and parents very much like what they have: one of North America¹s finest school system.