Internationally known public school superintendent visits Michigan

“We decided we’d just out-compete them”

Angus McBeath 3 shots
Former Edmonton schools Superintendent Angus McBeath addresses legislators and educators at an Issues & Ideas forum.

While parents, administrators, teachers and legislators talk about school reform, one man is carrying the message throughout North America on just how to do it.

Angus McBeath, retired superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada, recently met with school officials, policymakers and members of the media across Michigan to discuss the 30-year track record of school reform in his district.

"Edmonton is not unique because we were not any more inclined to reform," McBeath (pronounced "McBeth") told an Issues & Ideas forum in Lansing sponsored by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "At any point, if you don’t get better, that would seem to satisfy everyone in the system."

During McBeath’s trip to Michigan, he also spoke with several public school superintendents in Grand Rapids, and later appeared as a guest on the Frank Beckmann show on WJR 760AM.

McBeath said his predecessor was the first to embrace change.

"He realized that no matter what, as long as the state gave us more money, we were going to spend it all," he said. "It didn’t matter if the parents were happy or unhappy."

In the province of Alberta, much like Michigan, tax dollars for school funding are given out on a per-pupil basis, and the money follows the student. There are, however, major differences between other parts of the school systems in Alberta and Michigan. Charter schools in Alberta are funded at 100 percent of what conventional public schools receive, while private schools get two-thirds the amount per pupil that public schools get. In Edmonton, there also are two separate, distinct public school systems that cover the same territory.

"But is a ZIP code more or less thoughtful than a parent who visits six high schools before deciding which one to send their child to?"

Throw in all of Edmonton’s suburbs and their school districts, which also are available to EPS students, and the number of choices parents have for their children’s education is wide and deep. McBeath said 57 percent of students in the district do not go to the school to which they normally would be assigned. Because of that choice, it is interesting to note that from a metropolitan area of 1.1 million people, the Edmonton district has just 81,000 students. In comparison, the city of Detroit has roughly 900,000 people, but Detroit Public Schools has 129,000 students.

"With all that choice, you have to be so much more responsive to your customers," McBeath said.

Because of the funding mechanisms for charter and private schools in Alberta, all schools compete for students.

"Our goal is to not have any charter or private schools left," McBeath said. "The legislature decided to fund them, we didn’t. There was no vote of the people on that. So we decided we’d just out compete them."

McBeath makes it clear that he has nothing against charter or private school education, but in his quest to make EPS the best it can be, he thought it necessary to lure students away from those schools. Because there are no anti-parochial school laws in Alberta, most of the charter and private schools in Edmonton have actually joined the Edmonton Public School system while being allowed to maintain their faith-based instruction.

"The union was horrified at first, saying we wanted to connect church and state," McBeath recalls. "Then I explained to them that bringing these schools in would swell their ranks by hundreds. We did the first one and the world didn’t end."

ZIP CODES VS PARENTS

Letting parents pick what school to send their children to played an integral role in Edmonton’s reform, although not without much opposition.

"The central office was very worried," he said. "Everyone basically took the approach that parents were too stupid to choose schools for their children. Resistance is natural. But is a ZIP code more or less thoughtful than a parent who visits six high schools before deciding which one to send their child to?"

McBeath said one of the main complaints was that parents would not choose the bad schools, which drew several chuckles from his audience.

"People were actually worried about how to keep bad schools open," he said. "I told them there were two options. Make it better or shut it down."

As late as 2005 Edmonton closed four schools, including one that had dropped to 300 students.

"I told everyone that the school board was not closing this school," McBeath recalls. "The parents who are in charge are. There’s no magic to keeping a school open that’s doing a good job."

McBeath says every student starts out every school year with a "passport," that allows them unfettered choice of Edmonton Public Schools. The district even gives students subsidized bus passes to help them facilitate their choice.

PROGRAMS

Some 40 percent of EPS students attend a school that offers one of 35 specialty programs, ranging from Mandarin language and culture to performing arts to science to hockey, as well as schools that have pockets within them for Christian, Jewish and Arabic studies.

"Whatever parents want, we offer," McBeath said. "If we don’t offer it, they’ll call a charter."

To help ensure that schools in low-income areas of the district are not completely ignored – about one-fourth of the school population is below the national poverty line – the district places the most sought after programs in them.

"Our most popular performing arts program is in a school in the city center, next to a row of pawn shops," McBeath said. "Kids from middle and upper income families are riding through different parts of town, meeting different people, because they want to. If you have to make a law to induce that, it’s not as compelling."

THE 92 PERCENT SOLUTION

In 1976, on the verge of Edmonton’s reform, the district decided to give 80 cents of every dollar it received in taxes directly to the schools, based on how many students each building enrolled. Building principals became responsible for how that money was spent, and therefore no longer had the excuse that they were "just following orders."

That level of authority allows them to decide what textbooks to buy, how to deliver the best education for their building, and even how to control energy costs. In 1995, the amount going to the schools was increased to 92 cents of every dollar.

"It caused some distress among the central administration," McBeath said. "They all went through every one of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving. They realized ‘my god, no one would ever actually buy our services.’"

Critics claimed the money would not be spent properly, or that some areas would get more attention while others were ignored. McBeath said that is where central administration does still play a role, including setting standards and policies.

Maintenance, for example, is an area where principals have a great deal of latitude.

Edmonton Public Schools has drawn worldwide attention for its innovative reforms, and was called one of the most decentralized and effectively managed school systems in North America by William Ouchi, a management professor at UCLA.

"If a building needs painted, they can either use our internal tradesman, or they can put it out for tender (bid) and see if a private company can do it for less," McBeath said.

Technology spending went up three times what had been budgeted as individual buildings were able to appropriate money for what they felt was most needed, while other spending categories decreased.

"The number of school social workers fell to six, after they had just been begging us for 500 of them," McBeath said. "People realized you can get that service from the state, and maybe that isn’t necessarily the role of schools."

Edmonton Public Schools has drawn worldwide attention for its innovative reforms, and was called one of the most decentralized and effectively managed school systems in North America by William Ouchi, a management professor at UCLA. McBeath, who now serves as a Fellow in Public Education Reform for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Canada, has worked with school districts across the United States and Canada, including New York City, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Colorado Springs, Colo.

ROOM TO IMPROVE

McBeath makes it clear that parental choice is not an avenue to better school performance.

"Choice alone is not enough," he said. "It should not dictate the quality of education. You cannot have islands of quality."

Even after many of the changes had been implemented, Edmonton Public Schools found it was only graduating 63 percent of its students.

"We published that everywhere," McBeath recalls. "We posted it in our elevators, we put it on our answering machines. Even today, if you call and get put on hold, you’ll hear how we’re doing."

McBeath said this, too, horrified people, with many saying that publicizing it would drive parents away.

"We deserved to lose kids," he said. "But parents are very forgiving. "If you can show progress and they know you’ve got the best interests of the students in mind, they’ll stay with you."

McBeath said research proves that anyone who does not graduate from high school is "doomed," including a life of lower pay, fewer opportunities, substandard housing and even worse health.

"And that’s in a country with free health care," he jokes.

TEACHERS INTEGRAL TO SUCCESS

Along with getting money and the authority to spend it, buildings must now account for results. Principals are required to spend 50 percent of their time in classrooms.

"We can’t rely on teachers colleges to teach teachers how to teach," McBeath said. "It is a relentless, exhausting life. We shouldn’t just put them in a classroom and leave them there for 30 years."

McBeath, who began his career as a teacher on Prince Edward Island, said he thinks continuous, useful professional development is a must for a district that respects its teachers.

"The guy fixing my car shouldn’t have more training than the person teaching my son," McBeath said.

McBeath said Edmonton schools even paid for billboard advertising to show support and respect for its teachers. Principals now go through a two-year training program before even getting the job, learning how to mentor, coach and observe teachers, as well as providing professional development.

Today, 90 percent of elementary students in EPS can read and write at grade level. McBeath said that’s better, and some people would stop there, but it’s not enough. He asks why 100 percent shouldn’t be the goal, and likens it to not flying on an airline that doesn’t strive for 100 percent of safe landings.

"Which children in Michigan would we not want to be successful?" he said. "Maybe telling them at 6 years old that they won’t graduate from high school and that they’ll lead a life of poverty is cruel and inhumane, but it’s cruel and inhumane to wait until they’re 20 to tell them, too."

Reader Comments

I am a believer. I remember my first real introduction to the Mackinac Center, it was during an education portion of Leadership Midland in 1999 and a representative of the Mackinac Center was hosting a session about education. I found that I was the main person asking lots of questions. I grew up in a house where both parents were public school teachers. Interestingly though I have a brother that home schools, a sister that sent her daughter to a private Christian school, and another brother who sent his kids to public school. At the time I had no child. Now however, I have a 5 year old attending public school and it is all so relevant. What has taken place in Edmonton, we need to facilitate here ASAP. The combination of competition and ownership has allowed them to move forward and we must do the same. Thank you for the story.
- Christian Velasquez, parent, Midland, Mich.

Enjoyed it.
- Theo Kerhoulas, prinicpal, Croswell-Lexington High School.

The statement "Choice alone is not enough" says it all. I believe in continuous school improvement. I do not feel schools of choice have made a difference in the education provided. But, it has made a difference in facilities. More schools have built new buildings and improved facilities to increase the enrollment. Programs are more difficult for someone from the outside to understand then a nice new building.
- Don Myers, superintendent, Vestaburg Community Schools.

Competition works in Canada. Keep the heat up on the public education monopoly!
- Randy Rogoski, reader, Muskegon, Mich.

The things that Mr. McBeath spoke about in the article seem so logical to me. The ideas about competition and running the schools like a business make so much sense. I can’t understand why more people in the U. S. don’t seem to get it.
- Dan Reinert, teacher, St. Lorenz Lutheran School, Frankenmuth, Mich.

I believe Mr. McBeath's views are very progressive and fair. Why should we keep "bad" schools open? Just because we feel sorry for the teachers that will be without jobs? No! I believe we need to improve our educational system without even thinking about who is going to be displaced. Our first priority should be the students and they should have a choice as to what school to attend; by doing so everyone (including teachers and principals) will feel the pressure and the need to improve themselves and give the best of themselves for the betterment of our educational system. Sounds cruel? May be, but even more cruel is the fact that we (US) are becoming a society that does not create brilliant and inquisitive minds anymore, we just buy foreign ideas, patents, etc. and put them into production in foreign countries (how creative is that?). We need to get back to our roots and start being a country of ideas, innovation and progress; this can be achieved only if we start reforming our school systems.
- Sam Villamizar, technology director, Village Adventist Elementary School.

"...schools even paid for billboard advertising to show support and respect for its teachers." WOW! What would it be like to have that kind of support?
- Lisa Ferrante, teacher, Airport Schools, Carleton, Mich.

Schools of choice can be a good thing for accountability.
- Rachael Frikken, teacher, Port Huron, Mich.

In this day and age of uncertain and changing funding, this look at comparing us with a Canadian province is interesting and is one of many issues/stances that should be looked at to ensure adequate and equal funding for Michigan's schools.
- David J. Stanton IV, teacher, Walled Lake, Mich.

Coming from a business background, I believe in competition. Competition will drive teachers to implement best practices in the classroom. Referring to the article discussion about the closing of the schools. We are in business for doing what is right for the children, not the buildings. As education is changing, sometimes older buildings are not adequate for meet the needs of the learners. I do believe that as these children then are forced to move to different learning environments that not only will the family need resources (subsidized bus passes) to get to their new place of education, but the buildings themselves will need the proper funding to handle the proportionate growth. By putting 80 cents on the dollar into each school you are entrusting the building leadership to manage that growth.

Although I see a lot of positives for this decentralized approach, I can see how it could compromise the integrity of the curriculum. Having common assessments between same classes in a building and from building to building in a district is a positive to ensure that students are being taught the curriculum standards of the state.
- Brian Johnson, teacher, Grand Rapids Forest Hills.

I feel that we as public eduacators need to be open to change. I agree that we should work hard to out perform the charter and private schools. I also agree that parents having choices does help too. I also think it is so important that they cater to the parents and what they want. I feel there is a fine line there though too. Being an educator and a parent, I feel that I should have an influence in my chidren's education, but shouldn't be the only party with decision makeing power. I want my parents to have a say, but not to dictate everything we do as teachers.

I also find it important that principals were required to spend 50% of their time in the classrooms. I know that many don't, and we have teachers who are not doing their jobs. There seems to be no accountablilty. You can buy many books, many new packages, and train teachers in whatever program you want, but someone needs to be sure they are doing a quality job of teaching in the classroom.

I also feel it is important for teachers to feel appreciated and respected. School districts can do this by encouraging teachers, like the billboards mentioned, and by treating their employees in a fair and equitable manner. Many things seemed to have changed with this in the past few years. In my experience, we have not been even given a "good Job," at all during the course of the school year for the past 2 to 3 years now. We were previously given a luncheon here or there, or even a note in our checks at Christmas to show appreciation. Now, we get nothing. It hurts morale and that could be part of the problem with success rates at many public schools.

We are here for the children, many people have lost sight of that, and that is so very sad!
- Trischa Buseth, teacher, Concord Community Schools, Jackson, Mich.

Mr. McBeath has some interesting ideas on improvement of school systems. I am interested to know if the charter and private schools in Edmonton get the same amount of money if they joined the public school system. Also, how do the principals have enough time to be in the classrooms 50% of the time and have to deal with the entire budget for the school?
- Steve Matthews, teacher, East Jackson High School, Jackson, Mich.

A few years ago I read a book by Samuel Casey Carter of the Heritage Foundation. It was called, NO EXCUSES, Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools. It pointed out how strong principals could change a failing school into a successful one. It changed the way I teach, and it gave me hope, that over time, American schools could change our culture into one that expects and rewards success. To see a superintendent delivering the same message that this book did, gives me even more hope.
- Harry Onickel, teacher, Einstein Elementary School, Oak Park, Mich.

A reader's comments said, "believe Mr. McBeath's views are very progressive and fair. Why should we keep "bad" schools open? Just because we feel sorry for the teachers that will be without jobs? No" Are we to assume that "bad schools" are solely the responsibility of teachers? Won't teachers only want to accept positions at "good schools" to protect their careers rather than try to help raise the standards at a "bad school"? Let's not oversimplify.
- Ron Hughey, teacher, Rockford, Mich.

I think it is important to consider what other school districts in other places are doing the same and different.
- Jane Greenman, teacher, Ottawa Public Schools.

McBeath said his predecessor was the first to embrace change. I agree and a good idea. "People were actually worried about how to keep bad schools open," he said. "I told them there were two options. Make it better or shut it down." This statement has merit for all public educational institutions to consider.

Look at the myopic view of the auto industry that tells us, we better decide to just out-compete as a state and as a country as it relates to educating the people. If we are not among the top five or top ten countries performing in education in the World we will be economically shut out of a global economy. Right now, we are experiencing and seeing some of the affects of closed minded thinkers. To be quite honest, there are a good number of people doing a better job with less. However, can we really afford to ignore the troubling state of the core families in our state and country? Many of the problems plaguing the public educational system start well before a student comes to school to receive an education. Consequently, the law enacted by “our planners” a.k.a. the Federal Government “No Child Left Behind” Law. The effect of that law was like a hydrogen bomb being drop into the already state of confusion and crisis in education. No funding was the cry and a truthful cry. Take away the 1400 plus pages of documentation and no monetary support to assure its reasonable success.

The message is a simple one to the people across America in the educational arena. Do what you can to assure that no child in your presence and under your “educational tillage” is locked out of realizing their natural potential and productivity as a human being in our society. This is what is just and right. There is an urgent and grave need for educators to transform the lives of children in our society. “The Call to Teach” now demands and commands educators to transform the lives of children. It is just that simple. Not to just earn a paycheck. We know the results. Children with diploma in hand leave the school building and can’t even read. That is a tragedy in Public Education. What was inherent in children some thirty years ago is not, today. The core family structure is in a state of confusion. Dysfunctionalism is normal on some level.

Today, the journey in education requires that the leadership and all staff members are to be committed to transforming children lives. It simply cannot and will not happen solely in the current family structure prevalent in today’s American Culture. The marginal benefit of transforming lives far exceeds any marginal costs structure analysis. Now, if we can get the funding to do the job and do it the right way. Transform education, not reform. Reform just is not working out the way many have told us it would. Can’t keep using old keys in transformed locks, far too many people are not getting a basic 21st Century Education in America and are being locked into a life of relative poverty in a country with the highest Gross Domestic Product in the World. Go figure.
- Cassandra Steele, director, Leap2Literacy, Redford, Mich.

"People were actually worried about how to keep bad schools open. I told them there were two options. Make it better or shut it down," makes so much sense. The only way businesses can survive is to become better. Continuous school improvement is necessary. Sustained professional development makes so much sense. I don't mean to compare McDonald's to a school system, but if McDonald's didn't change with the times and offer customers what they want and need, they wouldn't be successful. The same goes for Coca Cola. The organization didn't listen to its customers ... instead, they just changed for the sake of change (New Coke, 1986?) and it didn't work. They had to go back to the old way of doing things (their formula.) Schools are in the same boat: we need researched-based initiatives that work for kids. Too often we forget we're doing this for children, not for ourselves or for teachers. McBeath, who began his career as a teacher on Prince Edward Island, said he thinks continuous, useful professional development is a must for a district that respects its teachers.

When I read "... The number of school social workers fell to six, after they had just been begging us for 500 of them. People realized you can get that service from the state, and maybe that isn’t necessarily the role of schools," I thought about something I often tell teachers: teaching is about number seven on the list of things we actually do in the classroom. Today, being a social worker is part of teaching.

However, it's interesting to note that "today, 90 percent of elementary students in EPS can read and write at grade level." McBeath said it’s not enough. He asks why 100 percent shouldn’t be the goal, and likens it to not flying on an airline that doesn’t strive for 100 percent of safe landings. I like this idea, but keep in mind, the folks who become pilots are driven and focused on becoming a pilot and would prefer safe landings. Not every single child who enters a school system is going to be able to read and write at grade level right away. Schools are working on interventions and processes to make that happen, but it's not going to happen overnight.
- Rick Heitmeyer, principal, Sheridan Elementary School.

The laws, regulations, unions and social climate in Canada are so vastly different from those in their neighboring Michigan preclude much, if any of the reform measures from being implemented in our local districts. I do think we have to have the same spirit of openness to new ideas, but must work within the framed restrictions we have locally. About the only thing that I could get out of this was the hope that people can cooperate and change, something that seems to be more and more difficult to accomplish.
- Kevin Tuckey, board of education member, Jackson County Intermediate School District.

I thought it was a great article. What an innovative leader McBeath is. At the very least, the article should keep us thinking.
- Christine Annese, assistant superintendent, Whitehall schools.