Idea: Give School Boards Power to Improve Learning

Province could make them 'venture educators' with real money to spend on experiments.

By Crawford Kilian 18 Aug 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian was a North Vancouver school trustee in the early 1980s.

Robert Harris's classic 1885 painting A Meeting of the School Trustees conveys the feeling of that era: a Prince Edward Island schoolteacher making a pitch to four bone-tired farmers about how best to teach their children -- and to make them more literate than their fathers.

For close to a century, school trustees had a serious role to play. They raised much of the education money from their communities, and answered to those communities for the way they spent it.

That role is over. The province collects taxes for education and hands it out according to a formula. If the money isn't enough, the trustees have to decide what to cut.

It's a lousy job. But no one knows the local schools as well as trustees do, and boards could play a vital role in making those schools the envy of the country.

Much of the malaise in B.C. education, for both trustees and parents, comes from a sense that someone else is in control. When those controlled are our children and grandchildren, most of us want more of a say, not more of a bureaucracy.

At the same time, we don't want local prejudices or problems to limit the quality of our kids' education, especially when they should be able to go on to further schooling anywhere in the country. (The great benefit of making school funding provincial is that it provides the same quality of education in rich and poor districts alike.)

We need standards, but not standardization. Vancouver Island North schools should offer their students something unique, and so should schools in Vancouver. Good education ideas don't come just from the mandarins in Victoria, still less from their elected masters.

Investing one grand per kid

Let's say that the province goes on funding the schools according to the current formula -- however inadequate that may be.

But let's say the province also provides each district with an Innovation Fund of $1,000 per student.

For Vancouver, that would be $56 million. For Vancouver Island North, it would be $1.55 million. For the total B.C. public-school population, the cost would be $580 million. (In 2009-10, B.C. schools' total operating expenses were just over $5 billion.)

Every school board would then issue a request for proposals from local teachers, staff, or district residents on how best to spend this innovation money. It could not go to repainting classrooms, or keeping a school open for another year, or paying for employee benefits. The proposals would have to offer a new program, a new technology, a new way to teach or learn.

Like a venture capital firm, every board would review the proposals and consult with teachers, parent advisory councils, and the public. The winning proposals would have to fit within the funds available and would have to show measurable results within two years of implementation: a reduced dropout rate, or improved test scores, for example.

A proposal that got results would be funded again, and perhaps in other districts as well. The province would also pay a royalty to the originating district: Maybe $10 for every student enrolled in a district that adopts the new program.

So if Vancouver adopted a program from Vancouver Island North, that would bring in an extra $560,000 for the schools in places like Port Alice, Sointula and Alert Bay for every year that Vancouver kept the program. The district could get a double royalty if its program was adopted in another province. And it could spend its royalties on anything it needed to.

A proposal that failed to get results wouldn't get any more money, and the district would receive only $500 per student for the next round of innovation. If that innovation worked, the district would be eligible for full innovation funding in the third round. If the board didn't like any of the current proposals, it could bank the money and wait for better ideas.

A climate of opportunity

By providing this fund, the ministry would create huge incentives for educators to try out new ideas, but to stick to ideas that get results. Teachers, staff, administrators, trustees, parents, and the public would all have a say in which ideas to adopt. The ministry would apply accepted quantifiable standards to judge results.

Instead of chafing under top-down political direction, the public schools would operate in a climate of opportunity. The ferment of ideas, and the excitement of implementing them, would give the stakeholders a real stake in the outcome.

As "venture educators," school trustees would have a role to play again. A seat on the board would be something worth campaigning for. Innovation proposers could hope for dramatic improvements in working and learning conditions -- and a lot of professional glory.

Such proposers are already out there. At UBC, the Master's in Educational Technology program offers a course in Ventures in Learning Technology, where students are learning how to develop an educational concept, pitch it, and then evaluate it.

Boards and governments could go on fighting about basic budgets. But those fights wouldn't be as bitter if some of the innovations actually saved money and produced more successful students.

Every school district would find itself staffed by "intrapreneurs" able to develop and run new programs and techniques that would enrich and enliven students' education. Ambitious teachers and administrators would compete to land jobs in innovative districts, and then to make those districts even more successful.

In the last thirty years we've seen some notable school dropouts like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates do very well by coming up with ideas that looked good to venture capitalists. If we turned our school boards into venture educators, we might finally drag Canadian education from 1885 to the 21st century.  [Tyee]

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