By Bobby O’Keefe

Over the past two years, two of Nova Scotia’s elected school boards have had members removed from their roles for highly publicized internal squabbles. Given the supposedly important role elected school boards play in education, one would expect that the education provided by schools within these boards would be suffering.

Overall results for all boards have been relatively poor. Average provincial math exam marks hovering around 30 percent is but one example of that. But while their elected members are busy squabbling, schools within the affected school boards, Halifax and Strait, have been outperforming their peers across the province. They are the best of a bad lot, but they are still the best, with evidence from several sources to show it.

High schools in the Halifax and Strait Boards have occupied several of the top spots in our high school report card in the past few years. Of the 18 schools getting a ‘B’ or better in this year’s report, 9 were from the Halifax and Strait Boards. Four of the five with a ‘B+’ or better were schools in these two boards. And this excludes two traditional strong performers from the Halifax board, Queen Elizabeth and St. Pat’s, both of which earned ‘B+’ grades in last year’s report. At the other end of the scale, only six of the 24 schools earning a ‘C+’ or worse were Halifax or Strait schools.

We can also look at the province’s provincial elementary and junior high literacy and math assessments. On the seven different assessments written at the Grade Three, Six, and Nine levels, the overall results for the Halifax board were first, second, first, first, second, first, and first among the seven English provincial boards. Strait students performed almost as well, achieving at least the provincial average and ranking no worse than third among the school boards on all but one of the seven assessments.

Need more? The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) gives a unique snapshot of school performance in that it is an international assessment that makes school board level results available. Overall and in each of the four subcategories reported, Halifax and Strait were number one and two of the eight school boards in Nova Scotia, and were the only two boards to be ahead of the provincial average in every category. Statistically the difference in results was not found to be significant, but the trend is pretty clear when the top two boards in every single category are the same, particularly when combined with the other assessment results presented.

So what does this mean when dysfunction among the elected officials overseeing our school boards seems to be inversely related to the performance of schools under those boards? Perhaps it means that during these times of dysfunction staff at individual schools are appropriately left to do what they do best – teach their students.

By this I mean that schools in these boards are able to take advantage of the autonomy to operate their schools in the way that is best for that individual school’s community. While elected school boards occupy themselves with arguing and public posturing, often tying up school board staff time in the process, school principals, in cooperation with their school communities, can operate without the interference of centralized decision making that may or may not be in the best interests of an individual school given its specific circumstances.

It should not, however, take the inadvertent actions of elected members to achieve this autonomy. Decentralization and delegation of authority to the communities where schools operate should be done by design. Until that day comes, I say the more board level chaos the better. The results speak for themselves; it’s good for the kids.

Bobby O’Keefe is a senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent public policy think tank in Halifax, and co-author of its Annual Report Card on Atlantic Canadian High Schools.