Edmonton’s High-Performance Public Schools

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

According to Premier Gary Doer, the idea that a single collective agreement should cover all teachers in Manitoba’s public schools has merit. Although problematic in itself, the worst element of the single bargaining unit would be its acceleration of a long-term trend in our school system, more centralization of an industry that performs better when its power centres are dispersed. The best example resides in the Edmonton Public School Board, which headed in the other direction and improved learning at the same time.

Both Edmonton and Winnipeg serve increasingly diverse populations. For more than a generation, the Alberta capital has responded to that fact by moving the control of resources and programs back to individual schools and allowing them an extraordinary degree of freedom to innovate. Now regarded as a continental model, Edmonton’s embrace of site-based management stands in stark contrast to the old policy model at work in Manitoba’s largest school district, Winnipeg #1.

A new Frontier Centre backgrounder describes the differences. Principals in Edmonton’s vibrant public schools control 92 cents of every budget dollar, with the rest dedicated to items like debt servicing, transportation and board governance. If they don’t like or want the services provided by the Public School Board, they can purchase them elsewhere. That freedom generated an explosion of alternate curricula and theme schools, to the point that about half of the city’s student population now learn outside their neighbourhoods, which stopped the erosion of students into private and charter schools.

Winnipeg School Division #1, on the other hand, has moved towards greater centralization and expansion of its bureaucracy. With the exception of a few bilingual and aboriginal schools, it has refused to allow its schools to specialize. While officially we do have school choice, implemented by a previous government, most parents who take advantage of the limited program find the same offerings no matter where their children attend.

Although the two divisions each spend about a fifth of their province’s education budget, Edmonton’s approach enabled it to contain costs more effectively. Winnipeg #1 spends about $8,200 per student, compared to Edmonton’s $7,500. How? School-based management means that individual schools purchase only the services that frontline educators find useful.

A further clue lies in the numbers and expense of their top officials. Winnipeg #1’s chief superintendent is paid a base salary of $161,000 a year, and is assisted by four associate superintendents, each receiving not much less, all augmented by generous perks and benefits.
The Edmonton Public School Board pays its superintendent $148,000 a year, and he manages to administer a much more complex division without any associates. He and 7,000 staff oversee more than 200 schools with 81,000 students. In comparison, Winnipeg #1’, has 77 schools and 33,000 students serviced by 4,500 employees.

Although the Alberta city’s educrats resisted school-based management at first, they found a market in Canada and abroad for the tuned-up services they now offered. There was job shifting, but overall no job losses.

Edmonton’s current superintendent, Angus MacBeath, explained all this and more in the 2005 Education Frontiers Lecture, delivered October 12 at the University of Manitoba. His wry, sardonic delivery masked a passionate advocacy for the role of teachers, and the importance of spending money and administrative energy where it counts, in support of more effective learning. Although his principals have much more latitude than Winnipeg #1’s, they are also held to account for school performance as measured by a constant regime of standardized tests.

What happens in schools where test scores slip? Every principal in Edmonton knows. They are constantly in classrooms, coaching, mentoring and helping teachers adopt better methods. Even before Alberta started province-wide testing, the Edmonton Public School Board conducted its own. All divisions in Manitoba rely on softer, subjective assessments complicated by time-consuming psychological and sociological evaluations beyond the skill-sets of teachers.

MacBeath cautions against using standards tests as a negative tool, but he firmly believes they are a vital means of informing judgements about the performance of individual schools. In an interview, he described his pride in the accomplishments of the Edmonton Public School Board:

We have done very well at changing who we are as a culture. In my view, the only one way to know if you’re doing good work is to ask some questions: “Are the people you serve highly satisfied with your work and are you growing your customer base? Are you bringing in more enrollment and are your achievement results improving over time? Are your high school completion rates getting better?” I can say “yes” to all four of those.

In the absence of objective standards tests, it’s anybody’s guess whether or not learning in Winnipeg #1 is improving. But the results of the last round of international testing, conducted through the OECDs PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) system in 2003 comparing student performance in 41 countries, offer some general information about different results from the two approaches:

Manitoba’s Minister of Education, Peter Bjornson, has a stock response to such comparisons. He launches into a rhapsody about the accomplishments of our children, who are just as smart as any. That’s correct, but beside the point. Their academic achievements—and their prospects for future incomes and fulfilled, productive lives—are hampered by a public school model that’s less than it could be.

Edmonton’s children are better served, and ultimately better equipped, by superior public policy.