School & District Management

An Edmonton Journey

By Jeff Archer — January 25, 2005 11 min read
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They just keep coming. Education leaders from Chicago, Colorado, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Oakland, Calif., and the District of Columbia have all flocked to the Edmonton public schools. Among the visitors have been district superintendents, state schools chiefs, organization heads, and a governor.

And that’s only in the past 12 months. For more than two decades, U.S. officials have come here to import ideas from what many regard as the most innovative school system in North America. So many, in fact, that Edmonton officials, in the Canadian province of Alberta, are giving serious thought to charging fees as a way to compensate for the time the visits take away from their work.

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For the most part, these pilgrims come to learn about site-based management. Here, schools control 80 percent of the district’s total budget. They pick their own reading programs and their own staff training. They decide how many people to employ, and in what jobs. If they don’t like services the district’s central office is offering, they can take their money elsewhere.

“This really is not the ‘flavor of the month’ for them,” says Christina Warden, a program director at the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, located in Chicago, who estimates that she’s made at least 10 trips to Edmonton since the early 1990s.

“They really do work very hard, in very practical ways, to make these things happen.”

Adding to the interest of late is a book by William G. Ouchi, a professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles. In Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need, he touts the Edmonton model, and retells how it’s been copied by the school systems in Houston and Seattle.

Angus McBeath, who became the superintendent of the 81,000-student Canadian district in 2001, is conflicted about all the attention. He’s flattered that the system is still seen as a pioneer. But he fears that many visitors come looking for a silver bullet, when the reality is more complex. If anything, he says, Edmonton has found that site-based management, by itself, doesn’t ensure success.

John Edey, right, the principal of the McKernan School in Edmonton, Alberta, talks with a group of visitors from Minnesota last month. The Edmonton schools, known for their experience with site-based management, are a popular destination for U.S. educators interested in moving more decisions to schools.

“There is no pill, or bullet, or quick fix for school systems,” says McBeath. “There are some sensible things that districts can do, and I think site-based has a lot of power. But I think even its authors would tell you it’s not a solution to raising achievement results.”

Indeed, in the past four years, the district has taken a different tack. After long focusing on ways to decentralize its governance, Edmonton has embarked on a decidedly district-led push to raise student performance. All schools now follow a common approach in managing instructional improvement. And all building leaders get heavy doses of professional development.

But rather than abandon site-based decisionmaking—as some U.S. school systems have done—Edmonton has tried to channel the process more toward the core business of teaching and learning. School leaders are under orders to analyze data, collaborate with their staffs, and use research-based instructional techniques. But each site still decides how that plays out.

The strategy has its challenges. Already shouldering more budget and operational responsibilities than their peers in other districts, school-level leaders in Edmonton now must also devote more time to planning for instructional improvement. But ask them if they’d rather have district officials make all the calls, and their answer is emphatic.

“I think we would have a huge problem if they tried to make decisions differently,” says Karen Beaton, a principal and the president of Edmonton Public Teachers, a union that includes teachers and administrators. “It is so much a part of our culture and the way we think and act.”

With its history as a trading post, gold rush town, and oil city, the provincial capital of Edmonton has thrived on market forces. Its school district is no exception: Parents here can pick any school they want for their children.

To market themselves to families, some 80 of the district’s 200 schools have created special programs, such as concentrations in the performing arts, virtual instruction for the home-schooled, and foreign-language immersion.

With no government ban here on public support for religious education, the system includes three Christian schools and a Jewish school, all of which were founded independently, but later opted to join the district.

Tellingly, the central office is called Central Services. More than half the people who work there are in departments that live or die based on the demand by schools for their expertise. If a site needs help on an instructional or administrative matter, it contracts with the office to provide the assistance, often charged on an hourly basis.

The provincial capital of Edmonton has thrived on market forces. Its school district is no exception: Parents here can pick any school they want for their children.

At the heart of these arrangements is the premise that organizations run best when decisions are made closest to the customer. Edmonton first put that idea into practice in the 1970s, when it began to give schools control over their budgets under Superintendent Michael A. Strembitsky, who has since risen to legendary status and continues to advise policymakers in the United States.

The customer-driven model resonates with people like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The first-term Republican, who would like more districts in Minnesota to adopt site-based management, brought 12 state and local education officials here last month for a two-day visit. Edmonton, he says, has an “entrepreneurial” culture that’s rare in public education.

“You need to have educators work in systems that encourage them to be empowered, to be dynamic, and to be innovative,” Pawlenty said in an interview during the tour. “And this perhaps does that.”

McBeath, a 29-year veteran of the school system and only the third person to hold its superintendency since 1972, is a true believer in the site-based approach. He makes an analogy to an apartment complex where the renters are asked to conserve electricity: If each unit doesn’t pay its own bill, chances are that few will heed the call.

“When you give people the money and the authority, they behave like owners, and boy, do they do that in our system,” McBeath says. “And that is really powerful. Our principals really believe the buck stops with them.”

For many years, student performance in the district has tracked close to the averages for Alberta as a whole. That’s impressive for an urban system. When the results of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were released last month, a breakdown of the 41-nation comparison showed Alberta neck and neck with the top-performing countries in mathematics, reading, and science.

Graduation rates tell a different story. Four years ago, when Alberta’s ministry of education began computing the data in a new way, Edmonton discovered that only 63 percent of its students finished their secondary education within five years of starting high school. In other words, about four out of 10 high school students were failing to complete their studies as expected.

Angus McBeath, the Superintendent of the Edmonton public schools, talks with principals and teachers attending one of the district's mandatory training sessions.

“What we had focused on was: ‘Gee, look what a great job we’re doing with the students who are graduating,’ ” says Corrie Ziegler, who heads the division of Central Services that plans improvement initiatives. “We weren’t paying attention to the students who had actually dropped out, or did not complete high school. That’s when we decided we needed to do something different.”

To figure out what, Edmonton has relied heavily on Focus on Results, an education consulting company based in Huntington Beach, Calif. The decision to use money from a new professional-development fund created by the province to hire the outside group initially prompted internal grumbling about “the Americans.”

But the group proved a good fit. What it came up with was a process, not a program. Each school was required to form a leadership team of staff members, who led their school in analyzing performance data and identifying weaknesses. From that, schools picked priorities for improvement, or “instructional focus,” as the district calls them.

Many sites chose literacy. But some decided their students had mastered the basics, and so focused on critical-thinking skills—the kind that students use in making their own informed judgments, based on evidence. In allowing such differences, the district contrasts with systems such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, which requires all buildings to use the same instructional programs.

“We would never presume to say: This is the best practice,” says Zeigler.

That approach, however, is not to say anything goes. The provincial government has long mandated a highly specific curriculum, often credited for Alberta’s strong standing in international comparisons.

The district has set clear expectations as well, including a new decree that principals attend monthly training meetings with members of their staffs on such topics as how to design their own student assessments, how to plan collaboratively, and how to recognize strategies that work. Principals are now required to spend 50 percent of their time on instructional issues.

Those demands might seem in conflict with site-based management. But McBeath says it’s a mistake to assume that individual schools know everything they need to about what to do with the authority they’ve been given.

“All I’ve said is: ‘OK, now that we have all this under way, the moral purpose of schooling is success from all students,’ ” the superintendent explains. “So we need to take site-based to where I think it was originally intended, which is a vehicle to get us to superb results.”

‘When you give people the money and the authority, they behave like owners, and boy, do they do that in our system. ... And that is really powerful. Our principals really believe the buck stops with them.’

The adjustment hasn’t been without struggles. With the monthly training and other professional development that they receive, principals are out of their schools more than ever before. Many admit they don’t yet spend half their time on classroom matters. What’s important, says McBeath, is that they’re trying.

John Edey, who until this month was the principal of Edmonton’s McKernan School, said he never got near meeting that goal. Instead, he strived to spend time in three classrooms each day—but even that objective he thinks he missed about four out of every 10 days.

Still, he valued the effort, which helped him link up teachers facing similar challenges. “I think it does have an impact in your school,” says Edey, now an official in Central Services. “It has a huge impact.”

Located near the University of Alberta, McKernan School reflects the past and present of site-based decisionmaking in Edmonton. Since the 1980s, the school has run a French-immersion program. From kindergarten through grade 9—a grade span found in many schools here—the 630-student school teaches students every subject in French.

When asked to adopt an instructional focus four years ago, the high-performing school zeroed in on the teaching of critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and organizational skills. The latter is clear in even a glimpse of its classrooms, where most students keep their notes in the same kind of spiral notebooks with zippers.

For their training, educators at the school chose a popular trade book. In regular discussions, they’ve worked through the text, which describes the application and effects of nine distinctly different teaching methods.

“The one thing that I am absolutely certain about all of this is, that when you can get teachers talking to each other about what they’re doing, student achievement will improve,” Edey says.

Many educators here echo that sentiment. One downside of site-based management, they say, is that it can exacerbate the professional isolation that already plagues those who work in schools. As a result, they’ve tried to open up new lines of communication within and among buildings.

A key strategy stressed in the new training is the “instructional walk-through,” in which teachers and administrators observe others engaged in teaching. Many U.S. districts use a similar technique. In Edmonton, the practice is strictly a learning tool, not part of any evaluation. It’s now commonplace for educators here to do walk-throughs in their own schools, and to visit others.

Daniel Boissonneau-Lehner, center, and Spence Colburn, both 12, work on a science project using French at the McKernan School.

“We had teachers who said: ‘I haven’t been in somebody else’s classroom in 15 years,’ ” says Tanni Parker, a Central Services official who organizes staff training. “The sharing and problem-solving wasn’t happening, and so we gave them a license to be able to open up the classroom door.”

In a district that already scores well, the best hope for Edmonton has been to nudge past its previous performance. That seems to be happening. Since 2000, the district has edged out in front of Alberta overall in the percentage of 6th and 9th graders scoring at the “acceptable” level on provincewide exams. On 3rd grade exams, Edmonton still is behind, but gaining.

The latest graduation rate reported for Edmonton is 68 percent, up from the 63 percent that sounded the alarm four years ago. District leaders are especially encouraged by the improvement last year in the percentage of high school students completing individual courses, a predictor of future graduation rates.

Michael Fullan, an expert on standards-based school improvement in North America and Europe, thinks Edmonton is right to marry site-based management with a districtwide focus on instruction. Systems that adopt a purely top-down approach often see a quick boost in scores, followed by a leveling off, he says.

“The reason they plateau is that a centrally driven system, even with an investment in capacity building, doesn’t really get at ownership deeply enough,” says Fullan, a dean emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Of Edmonton’s strategy, he says: “This is kind of having your cake and eating it, too.”

When American policymakers come here, they usually ask about the nuts and bolts of site-based management. They want to know how the money is divided among schools, and how much discretion principals really have in budget and personnel decisions. McBeath believes a bigger lesson is about how to stick with an idea while at the same time adapting it.

As he told the group of visitors that came here last month from Minnesota: “We’ve been in an endless system of reform. We’re not finished yet.”

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Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as An Edmonton Journey


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