Best School System in North America
Edmonton’s common-sense revolution helped students and the local economy
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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.
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