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.


  1. David Biltek2:34 pm

    I do not know why anyone would want to serve on a school board. You cannot do anything interesting unless be part of the free food and beer gang is interesting

    You cannot raise money; you cannot set a budget independently, you cannot appoint the super independently , you cannot set curriculum, you cannot decide on school locations or building schedules ....none of this can you do UNLESS the provincial government what is the point...again unless you like being a scapegoat for the province in negotiations with teachers and staff...

  2. Good points, Ken. I think the opportunity is there (for trustees who wish to take it) to transform boards and the manner in which they connect with communities. Clinging to out-moded styles and methods of decision-making (and communicating) won't cut it anymore as the public is getting more discerning and, as a consequence, more demanding.

    RE: new governance team members
    "Who decides?" is the critical question. If it comes from the community I think the addition of new voices to the table (as part of a governance team) could be very positive. If it comes from on high, I am less enthused and more cautious.

  3. Susan Longmore9:38 pm

    Your stated key questions in regards to “Governance Teams” are on point. The other key word is “if”.

    Our school board members are voted for at an election. Once elected the voting public rarely hear what happens with the Board unless there is some controversy. I believe with local school boards having more control in their local communities there would be renewed interest and not so much frustration and the feeling of one’s hands being tied. That being said, who judges the experience, competency or how focused the members may be. Maybe with these changes the elections would be on these qualifications and not a popularity contest, with the voting public taking more interest in what the candidates have to offer.

  4. Anonymous11:39 pm

    The history of successive Conservative governments in Alberta shows them to be long on appearance and short accomplishments. The report will be nothing more than the repetitive window dressing that has inflicted itself upon public education in Alberta since 1971. Lots will be said, but little accomplished because politics continues to get in the way of sincere and dedicated action.

  5. Hi dear
    You are doing well to improving the education system in Alberta Public's school.Your effort will come with a assured innovative change in the Education system.

  6. Susan Longmore6:29 am

    Your stated key questions in regards to “Governance Teams” are on point. The other key word is “if”.

    Our school board members are voted for at an election. Once elected the voting public rarely hears what happens with the Boards unless there is some controversy. I believe with local school boards having more control in their local communities there would be renewed interest and not so much frustration and the feeling of one’s hands been tied. That being said who judges the experience, competency or how focused a member is. Maybe with the knowledge that the board’s members have a more defining role the voting public will be more interested and the elections will mean more than just a popularity vote.

  7. Carol Bazinet10:40 pm

    I have an issue with Chapman's comments about Carver. I believe the Carver model works if done properly. The difficulty is that it is rarely done properly. There is usually a strong “Carver culture” but it is not Carver. The “Carver culture” in Boards makes disagreement in advance of decisions seem somehow divisive and therefore inappropriate. Nothing could be further from what Carver actually says. Carver would encourage debate with all viewpoints being brought to the table prior to any decision and the one voice being only that of the Board to the administration. Trustees can present any voice to the public either before or after a decision (but after must support the board decision – can still explain why they voted against a motion.)

    The primary governing role under Carver should not be to evaluate admin but to provide leadership and direction. That being said, very few Carver boards effectively give direction. In my mind giving direction would mean looking at the current policies, suggesting changes, going out to the public to see what they would like to see and then handing over the new policy to admin to implement. This can and should (given that Albertans according to Inspiring Education want to see major changes in education) mean that a Carver board will collaborate with the public and will lead tranformational change.

    I agree most Carver boards operate poorly. So the question in my mind is whether a board can truly do Carver properly. Is it possible given the nature of human beings and the nature of school boards that have new members every 3 years and given that school boards tend to spend very little time getting training for themselves as they assume that governing comes naturally?

    I have yet to see a different governance model that works but would certainly be interested in it.

  8. Anonymous7:47 am

    Clearly it's time for a more choice-based, private education model where the funding follows the student. Not more monopolistic education models like the unions would have you believe. It only serves the unions - not the parents, not the students.

  9. Anon at 7:47 Where is the lack of choice in the public model and why do so many alternative schools migrate back to the public model. You want uncertified and unqualified teachers with no professional responsibilities teaching your kids?

  10. Anonymous11:00 am

    The School Board can be an effective voice of the community in the governance of education and the making of educational decisions for a community. The issue in Alberta, as I see it, is that the centralized control of governing in the Provincial Legislature (in effect the PC caucus/Premiers office)reduces the ability of the local school board to be seen to make decisions that are perceived to matter. The school boards in Alberta make many very critical decisions but there is a perception that the really important ones are centralized. I believe that a return of taxing power, real ability to provide infrastructure where the local community wants it (not where there is the most political return to the PC's), support for broad community consultations on the long range planning process, and other changes would result in better decisions made in the interest of community.

  11. Carol Bazinet9:33 am

    Interesting article in the American School Board Journal April 2010 "The future of school boards"

    The article argues that school boards must seize their destiny by speaking out and influencing the education debate in their communities.

    Don McAdams a former school board member and founder of the Center for Reform of School Systems. "I've looked at a lot of school board policy manuals and every single policy in these books is a compliance policy." Where, he asks are the policies that guide the school system into the future? Where are the policies that set measurable goals and empower teachers and administrators to implement innovation? "You guys are being uncreative, You claim you need local control but you haven't done anything unique. Your board hasn't adopted a single policy designed to have any transformative effect on your district."

  12. Anonymous9:24 am

    I think it is questionable to look to the American School Board model for guidance in Alberta. The American Boards are far more party political. Americans also maintain local control vis a vie the State Legislature than in the case in Alberta. No American community would have allowed the centralization of control that we have had.
    In many Alberta school jurisdictions there is a great deal being done, in spite of Provincial controls, to implement innovative programs. AISI, planning documents such as RVS, and other jurisdictions are marks of doing unique and innovative things across the Province.

  13. Pam Crosby1:48 pm

    Governance Teams, School Boards, Butchers, Bakers, Candlestick Makers – the issue is not what the governing body is called; rather I believe the central challenge is understanding roles and responsibilities.
    I agree with a previous response regarding Carver, usually individuals who criticize Carver have just never worked effectively with the model. I will not say more here because Bazinet made the points effectively and correctly.
    What I would like to add to the conversation is a bit more about roles and responsibilities. Organizations and Systems, flounder when there is lack of organizational/system structure outlining who is responsible/accountable and for what. Additionally, the organization or system needs to be clear about the Outcomes expected so that throughout the system everyone is working toward the same End. Carver defines Ends Statements/Policy as “what good, for what people, at what cost”. Effective High Level Outcomes Statements must articulate the same values as espoused by Carver; what good do we want to do, for what population, at what (relative) cost.
    I would submit that the entire System from the Government to Governance Teams/School Boards, Principals, Teacher, Parents and Students ALL have roles and responsibilities, the trick is to articulate these and in so doing provide a continuum that will provide an excellent learning environment for students along with an excellent work environment for teachers and support staff.
    Finally, where there are expectations against Outcomes there also has to be a system of evaluation. However evaluation that is not punitive but rather evaluation that builds on what is working well and learns from that which is not.
    If we understand our roles and responsibilities, are given meaningful authority to ensure we can accomplish what we have committed to and welcome an evaluative process that will help us grow personally and our organization to deliver excellence – well we just may be on the way to transformational change.
    Inspiring Education aims to be just such a Transformative tool. My vote is to support it and through the initial framework continue to build an educational system provides leadership for the country and beyond.

    Pam Crosby