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A Tale of Education in Two Cities

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A few months ago, we released a study showing that for at least ten years Edmonton students have consistently and significantly outperformed Calgary students, and furthermore the gap gets larger the longer the students are in school.

The world yawned, and the study sank without a ripple.

But the world should have paid attention. There is no reason why every city can't get the same great results as Edmonton.

Edmonton and Calgary are only 300 km apart. So what's Edmonton's secret?

Back in the seventies, a successful hog farmer named Mike Strembitsky started a revolution in Edmonton when he became the superintendent of schools. Dr. Strembitsky turned the concept of school boards upside down by sending most of the provincial funding directly to the schools and letting the principal and teachers decide how to spend it.

At the same time, Dr. Strembitsky gave Edmonton parents the freedom to choose their children's school. All of a sudden, schools had to work to attract and retain students. Click here for more about Dr. Strembitsky's reforms and what they led to.

As a result, Edmonton schools started to improve their service, in some cases developing specialties. Now there are all kinds of excellent public schools in Edmonton: in addition to the many fine neighbourhood schools, there are public Christian schools, sports schools, bilingual schools (German, Arabic, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Hebrew), Waldorf schools, traditional schools, dance schools, and the list goes on.

So when, in the 80s and 90s, the province of Alberta introduced legislation designed to increase the amount of educational competition across the entire province, the Edmonton public schools were already well positioned. In fact, the public schools were so good that very few new private schools could get a toehold. Why pay for private school when the public schools are first-rate?

In Calgary, by way of contrast, the school board ignored the new Alberta-wide legislation, and tried to carry on with business as usual. As a result, Calgary parents started withdrawing their children from conventional public schools and sending them to the various alternatives that had now become available. In spite of the fact that the city was growing, the Calgary school board began to hemorrhage students and was forced to close one school after the other.

Finally, things got so bad that the Calgary school board did a complete about-face. They created new schools to compete with all the charter and private schools that had sprung up as a result of the new legislation. Not surprisingly, many of its newly-created schools resembled the competition.

For example, to compete with a rival all-girls charter school, the Calgary public board started up an all-girls school of its own. The board also started a special science school similar to one that was siphoning off a lot of its students, and established fully five schools using the very popular traditional approach used at the competing Foundations for the Future Charter Academy.

But, while these improvements staved off disaster for the Calgary school board, the Edmonton school board was still way out front, and it has been able to maintain its advantage ever since.

The good news is that every city can introduce the same changes that Mike Strembitsky brought to Edmonton 40 years ago. The blueprint is simple:

• Make every principal an entrepreneur.
• Let every school control its own budget.
• Make everyone accountable for student performance and budgets.
• Delegate authority.
• Turn the spotlight on student achievement.
• Make every school a community of learners.
• Give families real choices among a variety of unique schools.

These changes are not expensive or difficult. Every city in Canada could have the same level of academic achievement and parental satisfaction as Edmonton.

All it takes is leadership.

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