Thursday, June 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on Governance Teams for Alberta School Boards

This blog post has been a long time coming with all the meetings, events scheduling and traveling I have been doing. So while it has been promised a few times other priorities have taken precedence. So now here is my take on the Inspiring Education Dialogue with Albertans report on Governance in public education. For the record, I did not participate in the process except to attend one day to listen to some key speakers including Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind.

There is much more to the Inspiring Education document than governance. So a brief overview, without commentary, I expect will be helpful for context to those who have not read the report. It was a process about setting a long-term vision for public education in the province. Minister Hancock wanted to raise awareness of the importance of education in the life of Albertans and its contribution to a prosperous society and economy. He wanted to “develop a clear understanding of what it will mean to be a successfully educated Albertan” in the future and finally, to develop a broad policy framework around the overall direction, principles and long-term goals for public education in Alberta.

The goal was to be “transformational” about the education system by empowering educational innovation throughout the province. Time will tell if that is going to happen, but the governance provisions in the report are one fertile place to focus for transformation to occur in public education.

The underlying aspect of governance transformational directions in Inspiring Education is a “principles based” approach instead of rules based. There is merit in this but if it is to be effective the school trustees are going to have to pick up their game and be more engaged in policy development and execution.

The over reliance on the Carver governance system that has been adopted by many school districts is a significant barrier to school trustees being principled based governors. This old-fashioned and outmoded governance model is antithetical to a principles shift in accountability for learning excellence and away from accountability to bureaucracy. In a horizontal networked connected community engaging world the centralizing narrow approach to governance in the Carver model is more than a barrier, it is a danger to realizing the transformational direction Inspiring Education is all about.

There is a shift in focus to local direction form central influence which is a good thing too but that means school trustees are going have to be much more engaged in the overall life of the communities they serve, beyond the limited interests of schools and students as isolated form community. The potential for more direct and collaborative engagement of the local schools and school districts in other critical aspects of their communities is where the transformational change in public education needs to happen first.

These principles based shifts is very significant but received scant attention compared to the more politically contentious provision for “Governance Teams.” This idea was seen by some as a provincial government power move to replace locally elected school boards, or at least to dilute and decrease the role and power of local school boards.

I don’t think that is the intent of this Minister, but political power is so centralized in the Premier’s office in Alberta and Cabinet shuffles happen. Who knows what might happen in the future that sees local school boards eliminated or at the very least, even more eviscerated? Regional health authorities were eliminated overnight an unceremoniously without advanced warning or consultation so it would be naive to think the same could not happen to local school boards in one way or the other.

My take is the potential for effective governance teams is that they can be the key to the culture change in public education that needs to happen so other changes can be enabled and empowered as well. More public engagement and involvement in the political culture of the province can start with the local schools and municipalities. That is where the citizen’s concerns are closest to the politicians and policy-makers. Adding talent and expertise to school boards in governance teams, on an as needed basis, to serve the greater good of the community by integrating schools and increasing learning capacity is a critical issue for the future prosperity of Alberta is there ever was one.

The key questions are who decides the need for a governance team, who sets the objectives for the team and who selects the team members? It the Minister or the provincial bureaucracy who makes these decisions then we have a serious governance problem. It will be paternalism at best and more likely lead to the eventual elimination of effective local governance in public education. That is a policy decision that needs to involve all Albertans and not just the unilateral imposed action by the government of Alberta, as they have done in the past.

If the essential issues about governance teams are in the control of the local school boards then we can see public education transforming and finding renewed relevance as a positive political force and as effective public policy instruments to enhance local communities. This is the preferred option in the execution of governance teams. The reality is that most school boards and individual trustees are not nearly prepared, experienced, engaged, focused or even competent enough at present to take advantage of this transformational opportunity emerging with governance teams.

There is a lot more to say on the subject but for now, I think cautious optimism is the appropriate response to governance teams. That optimism is justified so long as Dave Hancock continues as Minister. There is a reasonable likelihood of another Cabinet shuffle before the next election so time is of the essence for enlightened school boards to embrace governance teams. Not every board has to take on the challenge and opportunity inherent in governance teams but those with the inspiration to do so need get at it.

I will be doing a number of blog posts on the Inspiring Education implications in the weeks ahead as my part in increasing citizen engagement in school board and municipal elections coming this October. In the meantime there is energy and effort available to transform public education for the better but it needs more and continuing citizen engagement to be realized and effective. Elections are a great time for citizens to get informed and engaged and Inspiriting Education is healthy fodder for that to happen.