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Best School System in North America

Edmonton’s common-sense revolution helped students and the local economy

(page 1 of 2)

Photo: Nina Lee

Mike Strembitsky launched an education revolution in the northern Alberta city of Edmonton in the 1960s and, today, many people consider it the best public school system in North America. It has inspired many districts across the United States to copy its reforms – especially giving financial and operating independence to individual schools. In 2001, the American Association of School Administrators devoted a whole issue of its journal to exploring the Edmonton way.

Strembitsky, now an education consultant and part-time resident of Maui, helped Hawaii leaders develop the idea of School/Community-Based Management and the state’s Reinventing Education Act of 2004. However, Hawaii only took baby steps toward the Edmonton model – and never achieved the same successes.

In this exclusive interview, Hawaii Business talks to the former school superintendent about treating students like customers, granting individual schools autonomy and persuading unions to accept the changes.

How did the transformation in Edmonton begin?

The system had been organized around departments – silos – and the function of a silo was to keep everyone happy in that silo. Not one single silo was responsible for the education of a child. The system didn’t make sense at the school level.

But the minute you ask, “How are schools performing?” the focus shifts. So the big thing for me was to align the resources with those responsible for the results. Therefore, if the schools are held accountable for results, then the schools should control all of the money. People today still can’t believe that in most jurisdictions less than 5 percent of decisions are made at the school level and the rest are made at the district level.

In Edmonton, the decisions over about 92 cents of every dollar, excluding debt retirement and transportation, are made at the school level. For transportation, we give the money to the parents. With no boundaries and kids going every which way, many students did not ride buses. So those that did were subsidized with monthly bus passes, which saved greatly on transportation costs. The passes also worked for city buses – so kids could ride 24/7 to extracurricular events.

What were the first steps?

We picked seven schools to pilot these ideas and said, “We’ve all heard all the criticism about how the system isn’t working, so, if given the chance, how would you put it together just for your school? What is it you need for schools to make things work better?” We literally cut them free from the system – and they operated beautifully. We did this with only a small number of schools because we didn’t know if it would work. One of the things we found is it freed them from the frustration of going to the central office and always being turned down. We helped them reinvent themselves, but they needed to know how much money they had to spend. Before that they had no idea. Later we found out there were great disparities – and no clear rationale – in the way resources were allocated. It depended on who the principals were, who they knew in the central office. If you had people who knew how to milk the system, then the school got a lot more. It was the old boys’ club.

What else did the pilot project reveal?

For those seven schools, the success was clear. One, they managed their budgets. Two, they started to take on issues they had never faced before and took on ownership at the school level. They felt responsible for how the money was used and being able to justify it. For instance, when they took over handling their own utility money, they were able to save money and yet no one felt the schools were too cold in winter.

In fact, those seven schools went hog wild. They even took on maintenance. They said, “We can’t draw the line between small and large items, so we want it all. And if the boilers blow we’ll look after them at the school level and pay them off over several years.” But that’s where the rules do come in. All the maintenance had to be performed under our people or bid out. So they had to follow those system rules. They could make the decisions as long as they lived within their budgets. Previously, no school had been asked to live within its budget. By the end of the first year we knew we had a winner. We then gave Central a year to get ready to make the change systemwide. By the fourth year after its adoption, everyone had embraced the change.

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Old to new | New to old
Apr 30, 2010 09:15 am
 Posted by  AnEdmontonParent

There is no doubt that we have some fine schools in Edmonton; However there are very serious problems as well. There is no simple solution to excellence in Education. Please, look carefully at any approach taken, especially ones that sound too good to be true. The current system is inefficient and our Superintendent is reorganizing it to attempt to deal with one of the highest dropout rates in Canada.

Apr 30, 2010 11:14 am
 Posted by  Heather MacKenzie

While I appreciate some aspects of our relatively decentralized school system in Edmonton, it has not been a 'silver bullet' solution, and it has created some challenges as well. Because of our consumer based model, we do not always think about the best interests of our communities and there are many problems that our unions have identified in managing maintenance and custodial staff at an individual school level - old schools have been getting run down and closed in part due to these problems.

Apr 30, 2010 11:42 am
 Posted by  Christopher Spencer

This article appears at the same time the current superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools is bring forward a plan to centralize many of the services Mr. Strembitsky turned over to site-based decision-making during his term. The lesson we are learning in Edmonton is that ideology is not a good way to run an educational system. That's the real silo -- getting stuck in right-wing or left-wing thinking. In all things we need to put the kids first, not the system.

May 3, 2010 01:16 pm
 Posted by  Randy Roth

Of course the Edmonton school district has challenges, as do all districts, especially in times of belt-tightening. But Edmonton is NOT moving away from the principles of site-based decision making. The opposite is true. Those principles continue to be "fundamental," according to the current superintendent. Proponents of top-down management sometimes confuse the issues. The question is whether to align resources with responsibility. Edmonton said yes in 1970s and says yes now.

May 9, 2010 09:01 am
 Posted by  AnEdmontonParent

Edmonton public schools have a very high dropout rate and achievement that is no better than similar districts in the area. Their board is proposing a new tax to deal with inadequately maintained schools. For those interested in a current, peer reviewed consideration read: “Three decades of choice in Edmonton schools” in the Journal of Education Policy Vol. 23, No. 5, September 2008, 549–566. Many in Edmonton are saying no. Sadly, some have already left the district because of poor management.

Oct 12, 2010 06:25 pm
 Posted by  Former Edmonton Public School Principal

As a former principal and teacher in Edmonton Public Schools, and now actively involved as a US national school reform consultant and consultant business owner in the US, I still hold proud the days that I spent in Edmonton when Mike Strembitsky was Superintendent. I didn't understand how empowered we were to set our own course and to have the freedom and flexibility (partnered with high accountability) to determine program design. I continue to be amazed at what we were able to accomplish.

Oct 12, 2010 06:36 pm
 Posted by  Former Edmonton Public School Principal

Continuing with the above, I have worked as an education consultant in more than 20 of the US States since moving from Edmonton, but I've yet to see the kind of public school system where responsibility and accountability are so beautifully linked. I don't know where the district is headed now, but I do know that when I was there in the 80s and 90s, site-based decision making really did work - it was both top down and bottom up. Truly, I don't know that anyone really understood how lucky we were

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