Edmonton Schools have Lessons for Health Care in Canada
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, April 3, 2004

Spring time is shopping time for Edmonton parents seeking schools their children will attend in September.

There are the usual choices of private and public, as well as publicly funded charter schools – that is, schools with unique mandates or operating systems but which must also meet Alberta government teaching and testing criteria. Within the public system, there’s a wide variety of programs including those based on religion, arts, language or science and technology, as well single-sex and International Baccalaureate programs.

The system works so well that William Ouchi, professor of management at the University of California and author of Making Schools Work, picked the Edmonton public school system as best of the 223 schools he studied in six North American cities for offering choice and accountability. These explain why problems exist in education, he says, not class size, teacher training or funding.

A spate of consultations and commissions in the last four years, from Romanow to Blair and Mazankowski, suggest management and accountability problems also plague Canada’s health care system. For health care reformers prepared to think outside the box, the Edmonton public school system provides some ideas for refashioning it. It also demonstrates how the public sector, if put to the test, can successfully compete with the private sector.

The Edmonton system has two operating guidelines, ‘open boundaries’ and ‘site-based decision-making’, and one philosophical guidepost, ‘choice’.

For parents and students, choice means the opportunity to select from a wide variety of learning options and schools with no physical boundaries restricting that choice.

For schools, choice means competition. Government funding follows students so schools must compete to attract students. More students attract more funding. Fewer students attract less funding. Schools carry their savings or losses from one year to the next. Schools that fall behind must improve or shut down and see their students and resources allocated elsewhere.

Site-based decision-making puts authority in the hands of principals who are the hub of the school and the system. With high qualifications augmented by monthly training sessions, they decide everything from hiring teachers and allocating classroom resources to snow removal. “When you give people authority and hold them accountable, you get results,” says Edmonton’s superintendent of public schools, Angus McBeath.

But with the stakes so high, everyone pitches in. Few invoke their professional status to skirt management responsibilities. This in turn contributes to what Ouchi calls a “consistent set of beliefs among school staff about how to meet students’ needs and use available resources.”

The open-boundaries guideline came into effect thirty years ago while site-based management arrived in 1979. By 2000, results from the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed the system was humming. Alberta 15 year olds ranked first in the world in reading and third in mathematics and science – the only jurisdiction in the world whose students placed among the top three in all three areas of assessment.

If more evidence of how well the system works is needed, McBeath notes how “Since 1995, two private schools have joined the public system and we are in the process of negotiating with another.”

Compare this performance and these results with Canada’s health care system which has become the big black hole of government spending. Throw in the mysteries of block funding mechanisms and construction and destruction of hospitals, to mention a few, and the need for reform becomes self-evident.

But rising costs aren’t the only factor. There are waiting lists and overcrowded emergency rooms, too. And if Edmonton demonstrates the benefits of a well run education system, the accidental deaths of two patients by potassium chloride poisoning in a Calgary hospital reveal the perils of an antiquated health system.

Citing the landmark US Institute of Medicine Report, Saskatchewan’s Fyke Commission notes that clinical error is among the leading causes of death in that country. It kills more people than breast cancer, traffic accidents, or AIDS.

Edmonton’s public school system is but one of Canada’s management success stories. It’s spring time - time to start thinking outside the box.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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