Edmonton School Reforms Copied in US

The troubled public SCHOOL SYSTEM in Oakland, Calif.
The troubled public SCHOOL SYSTEM in Oakland, Calif.

Edmonton School Reforms Copied in US

The troubled public SCHOOL SYSTEM in Oakland, Calif. - operating under a state-imposed administrator and graduating just 35 per cent of its students - reaped a bonanza last November: US$24 million in donations from an A-list of corporate America, including the charitable foundations of computing pioneers Michael and Susan Dell and Bill and Melinda Gates. Curiously, the debt-ridden administration owes much of this largesse to an unlikely source: the EDMONTON Public Schools system - a darling of American educational reformers and a model for Oakland's dramatic and controversial initiatives.

Across the bay from Oakland, the San Francisco Unified School District isn't as fortunate. The Gates foundation - donors of almost US$1 billion to schools across the U.S. to foster a more responsive, results-based EDUCATION system - has halted all new grants to the district. It's a move that many educators in the city interpret as a response to the board's failure to embrace the kind of sweeping school reforms that Edmonton began 30 years ago under Mike Strembitsky, who worked his way from teacher to principal to superintendent, while also running a large Alberta hog farm.

For 21 years, Strembitsky - part educational visionary, part pragmatic farmer - demanded public schools run on the sort of business principles and bottom-line accountability more often seen in corporate board rooms than school boards. His successors, including Angus McBeath, who retired as superintendent of schools late last fall, have expanded that entrepreneurial vision. Principals in the Alberta capital receive unheard-of autonomy and budgetary control, as well as the right to draw students from anywhere in the district. Once system-wide expenses for things like transportation and debt service are removed, Edmonton's central board controls just eight per cent of revenue. The rest - 92 per cent - is spent by principals, based on priorities set by staff at each school. "You don't have to be getting anybody's permission down here to do stuff, you know what your level of authority is, and that's quite a load off your back," said McBeath, during one of his final days at the Centre for Education, the board's electric-blue headquarters building. "In the old days - and in Canada, in most districts - the principals have to be on their knees begging somebody for something." In exchange, principals have the responsibility to deliver the goods, as both managers and instructional leaders. That means doing what it takes to attract students, to keep them, and to graduate them at higher levels of academic achievement.

"We were amazed at the efficiency, the customer-service element and the efficacy of resource usage we saw in Edmonton," says Barak Ben-Gal, interim executive officer for financial services at the Oakland Unified School District. Three delegations of administrators, principals, teachers and parents trekked to Alberta before adapting a modified version of school-based accountability Oakland calls Results-Based Budgeting. Other U.S. cities, including Seattle and Houston, have adopted some of Edmonton's reforms, though not with the scope or urgency of Oakland, which lives off a US$100-million line of credit from the state government. "We're constantly grateful that Edmonton exists because we didn't have 25 years to develop the nuances of what is a very positive model," says Ben-Gal.

The idea of educator as entrepreneur distresses critics on both sides of the border as a sign of creeping corporatization. The Edmonton Public Teachers Local 37, the bargaining unit for both teachers and principals, has long been critical of the heavy use of provincial and district standardized testing to track school performance. Union president Mark Ramsankar also worries that Oakland's courting of pro-business foundation money is a trend that could travel north. "If your school performs, we'll give you money. If your school doesn't perform, we won't," he says. "As soon as you run into that situation, your school has lost all its autonomy."

Yet others see it as a salvation of an unresponsive and, as Microsoft founder Gates puts it, "obsolete" public education system. In Edmonton, for all its reputation as Alberta's bastion of anti-corporate liberalism, there isn't much taxpayer debate. The experiment in site-based budgeting and decision-making has evolved to the point where parents expect nothing less than the right to comparison shop. Even with Edmonton's brutal winters, almost half of all students attend schools outside their neighbourhood catchment. That compares with about 20 per cent in a national survey published this November by the Kelowna, B.C.-based Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education. That survey found that 89 per cent of parents and 77 per cent of teachers want the right to select schools - a demand, it seems, most Canadian boards aren't meeting.

In Edmonton, families pick from a stunning array of products: schools specializing in arts, sports, sciences, advanced academics, Aboriginal culture. There are traditional schools, an all-girls school, bilingual schools from Arabic to Hebrew to Ukrainian. There are Christian schools, including three that gave up private status to join the public system. Edmonton Public has more than 81,000 students and sees itself in competition with private institutions, as well as the smaller but highly innovative Catholic board. It wants every last student, and their blessed provincial grants. Such rapaciousness has critics accusing the board of a hidden privatization agenda. "Not in Edmonton," McBeath insists. "We absorb private schools here."

Keeping kids in class, and parents from fleeing the public system, is one of the Oakland district's great challenges. That contributed to its financial meltdown, and the state's decision in 2003 to fire the board and install its own administrator, Randolph Ward, an uncompromising reformer with a sweeping mandate for change. Transplanting an Edmonton hybrid into Oakland's stony soil is not easy. Debt, declining enrolment and bitter opposition from the teachers' union are part of the problem. So, too, is Oakland's profound socio-economic divide, between the wealthy, predominantly white schools in the hills, and those, such as Fremont High, in the poor, largely black and Hispanic flatlands.

"I'll just speak bluntly," says Oakland principal, Dan Hurst. "Fremont High School has been a failure for decades." He should know. In the '90s, Hurst used to teach at Fremont, a grand old school built in 1907. By 2000, it was a crumbling mess with a guarded gatehouse at the entrance and dozens of portable classrooms sprawling across the school grounds. Dropouts were endemic, the school was painted in graffiti, and an education there seemed like anything except a ticket out. "Each year, the CST - California Standard Tests - scores would come out and we'd score a one on a scale of one to 10," with 10 being the schools with the best results, Hurst says. The worst performing schools were also rated in a subgroup. "And again we'd score a one," says Hurst. "So it was just a failure of failures."

Then local and state school officials started to make changes. The first, about five years ago, was to split old Fremont up into five smaller, specialized schools - part of a small-schools initiative championed by the Gates foundation. Now Hurst is the principal of College Preparatory and Architecture Academy, which hangs out on one corner of the old school and includes a few portables just outside it. It ain't the Ritz, and Hurst seems to be on semi-permanent patrol, cellphone in one hand, belated lunch sandwich in the other, keeping track of what's going on. "But now our teachers all know the kids. And I know all the kids. That anonymity is gone, and kids behave better."

The second stage of the revolution is the Edmonton-inspired decision to vest school principals with the lion's share of spending decisions. "That has made a massive difference to me," Hurst said. Most boards leave the big allocation decisions to a central school administrator who sets budgets for teaching staff, support staff, maintenance or security. Under results-based budgeting, Hurst adjusts those variables himself.

The Oakland board has set itself two big and seemingly contradictory challenges. It needs to bring massive overspending under control even as it gives hope to some of the most under-performing schools in America. Hurst can't spend beyond his means, but at least he gets to make his own decisions about where the money goes. His decision is to reduce class sizes in math and English, so teachers in those core subjects aren't overwhelmed. "Then the social studies department is saying, 'Well, how come we've got 32 students per class?' Well, because that's the decision that was made." But because Hurst can stop wasteful spending - turning off air conditioning in empty classrooms, letting a wall go an extra season without paint - and reallocate the money to priority areas, he feels less powerless than he used to. "There are more resources than you thought there were."

A tour of the sun-drenched little College Prep and Architecture archipelago reveals a lot of chatty, slouching students who still make no secret that they'd rather be elsewhere. But most of their classmates are attentive, bright-eyed and often laughing. There is no graffiti in a school that used to be covered with it. And although every once in a while a student will drop out because he has "jumped in" to one of the local Latino street gangs, the rest are doing modestly, but measurably, better. Last year, the school's average Academic Performance Index test score was 444 on a scale from 200 to 1,000. This year, it's 542. Attendance is up across the Oakland board - a crucial improvement, because school funding is apportioned according to the number of students who show up for class.

While it's unlikely most students here have even heard of Edmonton, the board administration certainly has. This, in no small measure, is due to the advocacy of William G. Ouchi, a professor of management at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and author of Making Schools Work. Ouchi's 2003 book, a prescription for salvaging America's public education system, is based on a study of 223 schools in six cities. Ouchi cites Edmonton as the instigator - and most successful proponent - of running schools with entrepreneurial flair. "[W]hat we are talking about here is not improving the existing system, nor is it gradual change," Ouchi writes. "It is revolution."

Support for this style of revolution appears to be gaining momentum. In his recently published book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, the celebrated Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman argues that the existing structure of the U.S. educational system is flawed because it "offers the mostly competent and well-intentioned people working within it little incentive, apart from personal satisfaction, to deliver superior performance." By providing students and parents with greater choice, he says - and by encouraging competition among schools - the effect will be to create tangible stakes for teachers, administrators and principals, consequently boosting the overall quality of public education. "The motivation for change springs from disappointment with what the application of ever greater resources has delivered," writes Friedman. "And it reflects a recognition that no amount of resources will lead to improved outcomes unless both the people who provide these services and the people who use them have an incentive to do so effectively."

At Edmonton's Ottewell School, a Grade 7 to 9 facility, principal Jane Klaray is crunching numbers: matching her enrolment (up to 718) with last year's academic results - several points above the provincial and district norm, she says, with no hint of false modesty. By poring over these indicators - test results, student demand, satisfaction surveys of parents, students and teachers, and monthly budget statements - she and her staff set priorities. It's little things, like when carpets need cleaning, and important things, like when to purchase the services of a consultant or hire a teacher. "Sometimes it's a little scary," Klaray says. "You're treated as an adult. You're given a great deal of responsibility. The expectations are very high and you're judged on the results."

By all rights, Ottewell should be shuttered. Just 20 per cent of the students here are from the neighbourhood, a 1960s-era slice of empty-nest suburbia. But students come from elsewhere because of its rigorous reputation for academics, and for a Mandarin language program so successful that its students are winning language awards - in China. At the close of her interview with Maclean's, Klaray offers her business card, printed in-house to save money. "We have a surplus at the school," she says. "I'm very proud of it, and I'm hanging on to it." Take away a school's surplus once, McBeath, the superintendent, has said, and they'll never have another.

For all Edmonton's autonomy and choice, it's not clear there is a direct link to improved outcomes, says Peter Cowley, director of school performance studies for Canada's right-wing Fraser Institute, which tracks academic indicators, and supports an increased role for private schools - to the dismay of public teachers' unions across the country. Edmonton schools habitually score near the top in international rankings, but no better than other Alberta schools, even in areas with centrally driven hierarchies, he says. Still, Cowley concedes, "there is far more to schooling and education than the basics." There are sound reasons to offer choice, he says. "Within the limits of the public system - and I can still argue that a private system would do a better job - I think what Edmonton has done is certainly quite helpful to a number of parents."

If one school epitomizes Edmonton's hunt for innovation and market share, it's L'Académie Vimy Ridge Academy. It houses an improbable mix, even by Edmonton standards: a professional-level dance program in partnership with the Edmonton School of Ballet; hockey, soccer and ski programs, where academics are balanced with high-level athletics, and the namesake Vimy program, a uniform-based academy with an emphasis on military history and cadet training. "We get the kids here because of what we offer beyond a regular educational environment," says principal Don Blackwell. "The parents say, 'I've got a kid I can't keep away from school.' "

"Tanks and tutus" is how one local paper described Vimy. Drill or dance, both require discipline, says Margaret Flynn, artistic director of the dance program. "To us, uniforms can be a good thing." After years of watching the best dancers at her private school sacrifice their education for a shot at careers onstage, she approached the board. Together they found an alternative: academics in the morning, and her afternoon program of ballet, jazz, modern dance and choreography. The result, she says, is a delightful mix and match: dancers invited to the Vimy program's military tattoos, her vast store of dance costumes helping outfit the school play.

In another part of the building, down corridors lined with military memorabilia, is Ortona Hall - a gym, climbing wall and drill hall - named for the 1943 battleground that cost so many Canadian lives. Here, 11-year-old Maija Siik is drilling her fellow Grade 7s at great volume, if limited success. "I have a very loud voice," she later explains. "It gives me a chance to use it." There are a few collisions, and giggles, and one phalanx comes perilously close to wheeling into a wall. Never mind, it's early days, whispers Georg Arndt, Vimy program director and a retired regimental sergeant major, in a grinning aside.

Vimy isn't a boot camp, nor is there weapons training. But its students can burrow into an Edmonton snowbank and survive quite nicely. They can do rifle drill (albeit with wooden replicas). And come graduation year, they'll walk the battlefields and graves of Vimy and Ortona. Guaranteed, says Arndt, "it brings everybody to tears." For Grade 12 student Michael McPhee, 17, Vimy is a stepping stone to university and a career as a military doctor. "I owe my entire future," he says, "to this school and my cadet program."

Such innovation is a double-edged sword, warns Ramsankar, the union leader. From his own teaching experience, alarmed at the dropout rate for troubled teens, he and his school's "forward-thinking administration" established a special education program. It didn't come from the board, he says. "We were able to look at a need, and make it work." But, he says, teachers and principals here face pressures those in other boards don't - the need to hustle up and sell bright new products, perhaps at the cost of a core education. "If everybody is fighting for these innovations, at what point does the system get watered down?" he asks. It becomes, Ramsankar says, "one big competition."

On that point, he has the full agreement of McBeath, looking back on three decades of teaching. Canada competes, and not very well, against the emerging education powerhouses of China and India. Schools in poor neighbourhoods, be they in Oakland or Edmonton, compete against the wealthy, because the stakes are too high to contemplate failure. To offer the chance of success is to transform society, he says, summing up an interview, a career and a calling. "That's the kind of social justice work we do."

Maclean's January 16, 2006