Rodney A. Clifton

July 10, 2001

Canadians generally agree that getting and keeping good teachers and principals is extremely important for improving education. How to do this, however, is a matter of serious debate. We have many good educators, but we don’t have enough of them, and we certainly don’t have enough of them in inner-city schools and in rural and northern communities.

In obtaining and keeping good educators, two approaches have been used, largely unsuccessfully, and a new approach has been proposed. The regulatory approach centralizes the control of education in the offices of ministers of education and superintendents, and its supporters argue that senior administrators must enforce countless regulations on the training of teachers, the curricula that is used in schools, the maximum number of students in classrooms, and a host of other things. Like socialist governments worldwide, the NDP government in Manitoba thinks that regulating education is the best way of improving students’ learning.

The spending approach is often called “investing in education” so that it sounds like “motherhood.” Its supporters argue that to improve education more money must be spent, especially on reducing student-teacher ratios and increasing teachers’ salaries. Not surprisingly, most teachers’ unions, including the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, hold this view.

Finally, a few people are advocating a reformist approach which proposes to turn the authority of running schools over to principals and teachers and then to hold them accountable for the performances of their students. In this approach, schools would be deregulated and principals would be empowered so that they could make crucial decisions about teachers, students, and curricula.

The regulatory approach is unrealistic. Regulating teacher certification, the time they spend on core subjects, and the curricula in schools, is no guarantee of good teaching or effective learning. Micromanaging schools by ministers of education and superintendents is, in fact, a classic example of what Max Gammon, a physician who studied the British socialized medical system, called “the theory of bureaucratic displacement.” In using this approach, senior administrators in education have driven many fine teachers and many excellent principals away from public schools and into private schools and other occupations.

The spending approach is also unrealistic. Spending money for education is, of course, necessary, but it is only part of the solution. Canada already spends more than any other OECD country on education–more than 7% of GNP–and the performances of Canadian students on international tests are, at best, mediocre. Moreover, recent trends suggest that there is a shift in the allocation of resources by provincial governments from the education envelope into the health care envelope. As the Canadian population ages, the cost of health care will undoubtedly increase, and additional money will be transferred from education to health care. Consequently, no additional money will be available for education.

By contrast, the reformist approach is realistic. Supporters of this approach argue that to recruit and retain good educators, it is necessary to turn greater authority and more money over to principals and teachers and then to hold them accountable for the academic performances of their students. Specifically, principals would have the authority to reward good teachers with differential salaries, a responsibility that is currently denied to them. In turn, principals themselves would be rewarded for having students reach or surpass established educational standards.

Across the United States, the reformist approach is, slowly but surely, gaining momentum. Many states and school divisions are giving greater authority to principals and teachers, increasing competition between schools and school divisions, and establishing higher standards for students’ performances. Many educators, parents, and students now realize that the “one best model” of education is not effective for all students. Instead, people are beginning to understand that schools need principals who can make important educational decisions about curricula, teachers, support staff, and students. Increasingly, parents want to select schools with teachers who can effectively teach their children.

Some people call the reformist approach “neo-conservative,” but in the United States, it is embraced by people on both the right (Milton Friedman, for example) and the left (Robert Reich, for example). Moreover, a number of states, with governments from across the political spectrum, have implemented vouchers and/or established charter schools as ways of reforming education and improving the performances of students.

In Canada, however, only two provinces, Alberta and Ontario, both with conservative governments, are beginning to tentatively experiment with reformist principles. Alberta has 10 charter schools and Ontario has recently enacted legislation that will give tax-breaks to parents who send their children to independent schools. It is now time for all provincial governments to turn away from attempting to reform education by increasing bureaucratic control over schools or by promising that more money will be pumped into the system. It is time for all governments to implementing reformist principles so that, in the future, good teachers and principals will be recruited and retained by public schools.

Rodney A. Clifton is Professor of Sociology of Education at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba. He teaches in the Faculty of Education. He can be contacted at: Clifton@MS.Umanitoba.CA