Some Schools Are Better Than Others: Part 4 in an ongoing excerpt series on education from the Frontier Centre and Michael Zwaagstra et al

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra


William Ouchi’s study of over 200 public schools in both Canada and the United States, Making schools work: A revolutionary plan to get your children the education they need, clearly shows that the most successful schools have the most decentralized management by principals who are responsible for the hiring of teachers and have primary control of the school’s budget, and where parents can choose the schools their children attend. In contrast, school districts that permit little autonomy for principals and allow little parental choice are less likely to improve their students’ academic achievement. From the viewpoint of common sense, this suggests that just as competition between sports teams spurs them to higher levels of achievement, schools that compete for students in fair competition will seek to improve their students’ academic achievement.
One of the most successful examples of Ouchi’s revolutionary plan is the scheme implemented by the Edmonton Public School District in Alberta. Over the last two decades, the superintendent and the school board have allowed the principals to make key managerial decisions and have allowed parents to enroll their children in any of the district schools. Furthermore, schools are held accountable for the achievement of their students through the publication of both school programs and the schools’ standardized test results. Consequently, the schools in the district have narrowed their focus to a few attainable objectives. As such, a variety of specialty schools, such as traditional, athletic, and religious, operate within Edmonton’s public educational system and parents can choose the school and program that best accommodates the interests and needs of their children.
Because the programs and achievement scores for all schools are published, parents have significant information for making informed choices. Not surprisingly, allowing parents and their children to have these choices, and making reliable achievement data publicly available, has served as a powerful incentive for principals and teachers to ensure that student achievement remains the primary focus while they maintain the special identity of their schools.
Unfortunately, not many school jurisdictions in North America provide the degree of choice and school accountability that Ouchi recommends. Until this situation changes in many more districts, parents will continue to be stymied by educational bureaucracies that are more interested in preserving the status quo than adopting policies and administrative arrangements that improve the academic performance of schools. Obviously, we think that more school boards should implement Ouchi’s recommendations. In fact, we believe that all parents, regardless of family income and background, should have the right to select the appropriate school for their children.
The reluctance or refusal of school boards to allow parents to choose schools for their children is especially unfair for low-income families who have limited resources to ensure that their children receive a good education. Of course, to select the appropriate school, parents will need suitable and trustworthy information. Far from weakening the public education system, giving parents more choice would invigorate public education because it would identify and strengthen schools that are successful and provide incentives for less effective schools to improve.
The accountability of schools is not as precisely determined as it is in other enterprises or professions where success can be measured in terms of cost and customer satisfaction, and where dissatisfied customers can go to alternative providers. For reasons we set out earlier, parent involvement in schools is strongly justified, and in some jurisdictions there is the recognition that substantial parent involvement may have specific advantages for school governance.
Sometimes, policies imposed by school boards, their superintendents, and provincial or state departments of education engender less commitment than those established by the people who are directly involved in the school. We notice that this tendency has been anticipated and countered in the organization and management of charter schools in some American states and in Alberta. In these charter schools, substantial parent involvement in local governance has been a distinctive aspect of their success. Is there a lesson in the experience of such schools for school boards and state or provincial authorities? We think so.
Where school choice is not policy, a rigorous scheme of assessment and reporting of students’ achievement, including the use of standardized tests, nevertheless can play a key role in strengthening the school’s effectiveness and accountability. As such, we recommend that all schools develop a comprehensive system for monitoring students’ achievement and progress toward the realization of school-wide goals. Certainly, the school district should give major support to this endeavor, if not specific leadership.
Excerpted from What’s Wrong with Our Schools: and How We Can Fix Them by Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton, and John Long.  Zwaagstra and Clifton are research fellows with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and are, respectively, a high school social studies teacher and a University of Manitoba education professor.