Royal Commission on Learning Report: Short Version

Royal Commission on Learning


Power and decision-making in the education system

Thousands and thousands of decisions, from the most trivial to the most momentous, are made about every aspect of Ontario's school system every year. When we remember that in a population of ten million, these schools contain two million students and more than 100,000 teachers, and then add on their families, plus the countless others whose lives are intimately involved with schools, from textbook writers to cafeteria suppliers, we get a sense of just how vast and complex the system is. That's why figuring out who has the power to make those decisions, or the influence to affect them, is so important. In our mandate, this was called the governance issue.

One of the things we eventually learned was how many more sources of influence there were than we expected. At the top, although this doesn't necessarily mean having all the power, are the Minister of Education and Training and his political assistants. Then there's the Ministry's civil service, including its regional offices. Naturally there are the school boards, but there again within most of them we have two distinct groups, the elected trustees and the board administrators. There are principals, department heads, teachers, and the unions that represent all Ontario teachers and principals. There are parents and members of the business community, plus librarians, social service agencies, computer salespeople, and many others. And we mustn't forget students, although in the power picture they're normally at the farthest margins. All of these groups have some influence over the system - even students - and almost all of them want more. Even universities are in the picture in a big way; besides the obvious central role of faculties of education, they have a decisive influence in the way our high schools are organized, although few Ontarians know it.

Frankly, we found the system complex and far from transparent. Many of the players have overlapping responsibilities, such as in curriculum development; some are too often in conflict with others, such as boards and the Ministry; some have powers they fail to exert, such as the Ministry; some, including parents and students, want real power, or at least influence, while others merely want to be consulted more regularly. Inevitably there are struggles for power among these interests. Sometimes those tussles involve legitimate areas of principle, while others seem to be rather more self-interested. At the moment, almost none of the many players is satisfied with the status quo (although it's a real question whether it can ever really be otherwise). For us, the objective became to clarify roles and responsibilities, to reduce overlap and confusion, and to find the elusive right balance of power and influence between them. As always, the overriding criteria we used in seeking that balance is as plain as can be: Does it promote good learning and teaching? Does it put the interests of student achievement first and foremost?

A second issue follows almost inevitably: our mandate calls it accountability, and what it means is how we the public know whether our public education system is functioning well enough, and who is to answer for performance and results. With so many cooks stirring the pot, no-one seems in charge, responsibilities aren't self-evident, ordinary citizens have little idea whom to blame or credit for the way they believe our schools are working. This isn't the way it ought to be in a democratic society.

While the main report has many pages of thoughts and recommendations on these issues, we'll only indicate our key points here. We want more authority for the Ministry, more influence for students and teachers, more precise responsibilities for boards, and a greater role for principals, parents, and community folk in bringing community resources closer to schools. If our proposals are implemented, and if power and influence are redistributed in the way we envision, then those who most directly matter in the achievement of better learning and teaching - kids, teachers, principals, parents, and the community - will all genuinely feel that the system takes them seriously, that their roles and views matter, and that they have a responsibility to make their schools the very best institutions possible.

Students

Only a small number of presentations, other than those from students themselves, suggested more influence for students in their own schools. We see this omission as short-sighted, the waste of an invaluable resource. We don't mean students running schools, or hiring or firing teachers, or any of the silly extreme notions these words could be taken to imply. But students, particularly from Grade 7 on, have insights into their schools, principals, teachers, and courses that no-one else possibly can, and everyone can learn from those insights. Instead of remaining passive participants in their own lives, we want kids to be formally entitled to have their views heard.

That's why we recommend that student councils be given the responsibility for organizing students' views on all aspects of school life. We believe there should be at least one student member, elected by his or her peers, on every school board. We want the Minister to create an Ontario student and youth council comparable to the Ontario Parent Council which was set up in 1993. And we believe kids are entitled to be involved in developing codes of behaviour and other selected school policies and procedures that affect them so directly. Finally, we want students, principals, teachers, and parents to collaborate on a students' charter of rights and responsibilities that would fully set out the roles of students as citizens of the world of Ontario schools.

Teachers and principals

As indicated earlier, we spend many pages in the main report detailing our understanding of how the highly complex process of learning happens. That's why we insist that the process of teachers' professional development be significantly expanded both at the preliminary stage and throughout every educator's career. Understanding kids and their learning requires common sense, experience, and caring. But this is not enough. Considerable skill and specialized knowledge is also required. It would be unreasonable to hope that many parents or, for that matter, business people, would have the kind of knowledge or training that's needed.

For this reason, we've concluded that no-one's better equipped to be in charge of schools than educators themselves - the principals, vice-principals, department heads, and teachers. Of course they are no more infallible than other mortals, and it's obvious that their skills must be substantially enhanced to cope with the tough new world that confronts them. But in the end, it's the principal who makes or breaks a school. There can be excellent classrooms without excellent principals, but there can be no excellent schools. That's why they must be given the responsibility for managing their schools, and must have greater authority than most do now by sharing the hiring of new staff with boards, and by gaining increasing control over their schools' budget.

At the same time, however, any principal worth his salt - we say "his" because the numbers are still overwhelmingly male - will naturally consult parents about the life of the school. They will - they must - make parents feel welcome in the school, and will make sure that the staff gives parents concrete support in helping their children with schoolwork at home. They will create a school climate in which teaching and learning, and student achievement, are seen as the key purposes that unite everyone in the school. They will make the teaching staff full partners in running the school, and will pay close attention to the opinions of students. And they will be the school's senior liaison with its external community, forging those relationships that will remove from teachers some of the inappropriate burdens they have been obligated to assume. Any principal who fails to live up to these obligations is in the wrong job.

Let's focus again on the all-important teacher. We can't repeat too many times that no serious improvement in our schools is possible without the enthusiastic co-operation of every teacher in the system. While studies of school restructuring projects agree on precious little, such as whether centralization or decentralization of decision-making around schools is more effective for better learning, virtually all conclude that making teachers full collaborators in running schools is a positive step. How we can recognize teachers as the keys to a superior learning system and then fail to delegate to them significant responsibilities beyond their own classrooms is impossible for us to comprehend. In return - it should hardly be necessary to say again - teachers must realize they are responsible for their performance to their students and to their students' parents. The vivid symbol of the closed classroom door must not be taken as the right of a teacher to exclude or ignore those with a legitimate right to participation and influence.

Teachers also have the right to have their interests as employees protected by the five teachers' federations. That's why we recommend that these federations restrict their activities mainly to that important role, and that the responsibility for teachers' professional development be given to the new College of Teachers that we call for in Chapter 12. We should also emphasize that while we're pretty sure that few commissions could be more sympathetic to the trade-union functions of the teachers' federations than this one, the right of all students to learn and the need of schools to introduce the kind of reforms our report suggests, must be the absolute priority for everyone involved in the education system.

Let's be candid again. If the system is to be transformed substantially, the need for flexibility which we've stressed must be the rule for all stakeholders, and not just the teachers' unions. For example, while we naturally support university autonomy, we fully expect the ten faculties of education to be co-operative partners in the education system. That means all these faculties will agree - we'd like to think they will do enthusiastically - with the major changes in teacher preparation that we set out in Chapter 12, and will strive to forge a more common agenda than is now the case.

Parents

Just as the research is clear about the positive impact of involving teachers in school management, so it's equally strong about the positive role parents can play in their kids' education. Nothing motivates a child more than a home where learning is valued. If parents show a close interest in their children's school progress, help with homework and home projects, and attend their kids' various school performances and sports events, their kids are more likely to have higher student achievement, higher aspirations, better attendance, and a more positive relationship with their teachers. That's why, for us, this form of parental involvement in schooling takes precedence over all others, and we've described it as a priority for every principal and teacher to take active steps to help parents do exactly those things.

In our view, this is a far more productive use of the often limited time and energy of most parents than being involved in sharing management responsibilities with the principal; as far as we can see, only a small minority of parents are actually interested in playing that kind of role, and there's no evidence we know of to demonstrate that it improves kids' learning. We've recommended a parents' charter of rights and responsibilities that will spell out unmistakably the right of a parent to be welcomed in school, the kind of contact with and support from teachers that they're entitled to, and a line of communication between home and school that will be known to all concerned. There's no doubt in our minds that schools would benefit significantly if the views and concerns of parents were solicited in a regular and systematic way. Many schools and school boards have become highly adept at using the language of openness and sharing with their parents; now the deed must replace fine words.

The community

Similarly, while some want to mandate a parents' council for every school, we think it would be more productive to establish school-community councils on which parents would have significant representation. These councils are the centrepiece of one of our four engines, the one we call community education. We've argued throughout our report that schools, or at least teachers, can't handle everything that's being thrown at them, and that their primary responsibility must be the academic one. We don't for a moment minimize the social and other non-academic needs of our students, but they simply must be shared with appropriate community members or agencies if teachers are going to be able to do their jobs most effectively.

To organize and mobilize those community resources, and to be the school's main structural link with the community, are the general functions of these new school-community councils. Led by the principal, and comprising community representatives, parents, and some teachers and students, it's this council that would create the alliances to allow teachers to concentrate on better academic teaching. Inevitably and reasonably, the council would want to advise the principal on general matters relating to improving the school, and the wise principal would seek and heed its advice.

School boards

By this stage, careful readers will have observed that we've yet to discuss the power and influence of the only two democratically elected players in the world of schooling, the Minister of Education and Training and the 172 boards of education. Let's deal first with those controversial bodies known as boards of education.

Boards are curious animals. On the one hand, we happily acknowledge that some of the most exciting educational initiatives in Ontario over the years have been driven not by the Ministry but by individual boards with dynamic trustees and dedicated administrators. Some of the best educators in this province have worked and still work at the board level. And across Ontario we know of large numbers of committed trustees who work hundreds of hours on behalf of their students for a mere pittance in payment. This is one reality of boards of education in Ontario.

But there's another. For many people, boards are the unknown components in the system. Trustees are elected by a tiny proportion of the electorate, if indeed they don't win by acclamation. It might be embarrassing to discover how many constituents know their trustees' names. Board agendas too often reflect matters that are light years away from what happens in their schools; anyone who has sat in on a meeting of a school board knows that it can be a truly surrealistic experience. The line between trustees as determiners of policy and administrators as implementers of policy is often anything but self-evident. On the other hand, trustees sometimes involve themselves too intimately and inappropriately with the direct lives of their schools.

These are some of the reasons that some jurisdictions elsewhere in the industrialized world have eliminated or sharply curtailed the power of such boards. But the effects of these changes are not at all clear, and we've seen no compelling evidence that they've had a particularly positive effect on kids' learning the supposed point of the exercise, we need to keep reminding ourselves. Besides, in a province as vast and diverse as this, there's no way five thousand schools could be adminstered either individually or by the Ministry, so we don't support the elimination of school boards in Ontario.

On the other hand, because of our overriding belief that Ontario school kids need a largely common and equitable learning experience, we recommend the transfer of several key responsibilities away from boards. We believe that determining the level of each board's expenditures, for example, should be the Ministry's job. The Ministry should also be responsible for developing more detailed course guidelines, although we fully expect they'll use the abundance of existing local expertise to do so.

As a result, the primary responsibility of school boards will be to translate general Ministry guidelines into viable local practice. Their job is to make local policy consistent with both provincial policy and local realities. They set clear expectations and guidelines for their schools and work with them to make sure they're progressing towards those ends. Once they know their budgets, boards must decide - using overall Ministry policy criteria - how the money is to be distributed. Boards provide direct lines of communication between the school system and the general public. Boards must actively support the work of school-community councils in helping schools mobilize community resources that are not specific to a single school.

We want to stress that we don't under-estimate at all the importance of such work. But we also need to keep it in perspective. It is a role with finite boundaries. The job we see boards doing needs to be done, and we're confident it can be done - and done well - on a part-time basis, as it's currently done by most Ontario trustees. For us, the logical conclusion is that boards don't need full-time trustees, so we think it's sensible that their remuneration not exceed $20,000 a year. But we were startled to learn how few trustees this would affect. Only about 5 percent of all trustees, in just seven of Ontario's 172 boards, now make more than that amount. Of course it's also true that these lucky few may be supported by assistants, secretaries, offices, and the like.

It's also possible that boards don't need as many trustees as they have now, although our review of the literature doesn't reveal any magic formula for determining exactly what number of trustees per population makes most sense. Ultimately, whatever number is decided on will be an arbitrary one, and most of us have no strong feelings on the issue.

Similarly, most of us didn't end up sharing the view of some Ontarians that we have far too many school boards. As with trustees, we were never able to establish any objective factors for determining what the right number of boards should be. Ontario has far fewer school boards per capita than any other province in Canada, as well as far more municipal councils than school boards; Chapter 17 has some very revealing data on these comparisons. Nor did we find any evidence that the number of boards relates one way or another to the quality of learning. The amounts of money that could be saved by having fewer boards and used elsewhere in the system don't appear to be huge. We encourage those boards that are so small as to be of dubious viability to amalgamate. But in the end, given the evidence, most of us concluded that this simply wasn't one of the big issues in Ontario education.

And if boards' responsibilities and trustees' time are both reduced, it follows that the number of administrators and support staff in many boards may be able to shrink as well, although we realize this has already begun during some of the budget-slashing exercises of the past few years. At the same time, we shouldn't under-estimate the need for boards to have sufficient top-flight staff to play their important role in assuring that schools are able to meet their learning goals. Similarly, while we naturally recommend that neighbouring boards co-operate as much as possible on as many matters as possible to make their operations more efficient, we recognize that across the province many such arrangements are already in full swing.

If the various changes that we've recommended in this section are implemented, there would be one board that, on balance, would no longer seem necessary. Metro Toronto has a two-tiered system of six local boards, all of which send representatives to a Metropolitan Toronto Public Board of Education. There was once a good reason for this set-up, but we're persuaded that the Metro Board no longer has sufficient responsiblities to justify its separate existence. This will be particularly true if, as we recommend, the province assumes the direct responsiblity for school funding. It should not prove too difficult to make adequate provision for the few remaining Metro board functions, notably Metro-wide collective bargaining. It is time to phase out the umbrella level of Metro's two tiers of school boards.

The ministry

From school boards we move logically to the Ministry of Education and Training itself. But this is one of those cases where last is by no means least because to the Ministry we assign a powerful central role to drive the process of reform that our report is all about.

We understand that this will seem to be a controversial recommendation at a time when there exists considerable dissatisfaction with the Ministry in many quarters. Teachers, parents, trustees, and administrators all expressed dismay about the many changes of directions and additional demands that successive Ministers have imposed on the system in recent years, often without sufficient rationale and adequate planning. At the same time, they also complained of the lack of Ministry strength and focused leadership over the last several years, as staff cuts have taken their toll. So we present our views here keenly aware of these concerns, yet confident they can be overcome.

We're persuaded that the needs of Ontario's students call for a strong Ministry that gives firm, creative leadership to the province's vast education enterprise, while remaining sensitive to the need for maximum local input. We expect the Ministry to establish the overall purposes and direction of the education system as a whole. At the moment, because large assessment-rich boards like those in Ottawa and Metro Toronto are not dependent for funding on the Ministry, they are able to be somewhat selective in carrying out Ministry policies. While throughout this report we've attempted to build in the flexibility to accommodate Ontario's remarkable diversity and scale, it's precisely that diversity and scale that make it all the more important to have common education policies to bind us together. For this reason, although we value the role of boards in giving life to Ministry policies at the local level, we nevertheless want several of the responsibilities that now sit with boards to be transferred to the Ministry.

In order to achieve greater equity for all students, we believe the bulk of the taxing powers that are now in board hands should become the Ministry's. In fact, we see that ensuring equity for all students is a major Ministry responsibility. As well, the Ministry should be primarily responsible for producing a common curriculum and common outcomes for all levels of schooling, although we expect it to use the great expertise of educators across the province to do so. We want the Ministry to produce a uniform new report card for use by all boards.

Yet at the same time, we've deliberately sought to divest the Ministry of significant authority in certain areas where we believe others, closer to the life of schools, are in a better position to make decisions. For example, we expect principals and teachers to have greater authority and responsibility to make their schools work better, and our College of Teachers would take responsibility for teacher preparation and professional development.

Finally, and importantly, besides the Ministry of Education and Training, several other ministries of the Ontario government have key roles to play in realizing our vision of a better learning system for this province's students. If the potential of school-community partnerships is to be taken seriously, rather than as the easy stuff of politicians' speeches, inter-ministerial co-operation both at Queen's Park and at the local level is absolutely vital. It is always dismaying to learn how difficult it appears to be for members in different ministries of the same government to collaborate, and it seems to require leadership at the highest level of government to make it happen. The power of the government is not in question. Whether the will exists remains to be seen.

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