Manitoba’s public education is about to undergo its biggest overhaul in more than 60 years. Bill 64, the Education Modernization Act, will see to that. Not surprisingly, this bill has attracted the ire of several unions, politicians and journalists.
The Manitoba School Boards Association (MSBA) dramatically claimed that replacing school boards with 15 larger regional associations will make it almost impossible for parents to ensure their children receive the education they need. Carl DeGurse, Niigaan Sinclair, and the Winnipeg Free Press have echoed this concern.
The Manitoba Association of School Trustees (MAST) claimed its members will not be close at hand to bring the concerns of parents to the officials in the board offices. Not to be upstaged, the president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), James Bedford, has said the new policies will mean the "collegial working environment" in public schools will disappear, and the education of almost 200,000 students will get worse, not better.
With the battle heating up, isn’t it time to stop thinking about negative outcomes and start thinking about positive ones? What new possibilities can Bill 64 bring for students and their parents?
One of the most important changes is separating principals and vice-principals from the MTS, letting them form their own professional association. This change will give administrators the freedom to be leaders without the interference of the teachers’ union.
But schools won’t transform right away. The most likely change is that the majority of school administrators will continue doing what they have been doing. Parental councils may become stronger and a little more active, but seasoned administrators will easily take that minor change in stride.
Some school administrators, with the support of their teachers and parents, are likely to see an opportunity to break away from the status quo and try something new. These leaders will use Bill 64 to take control of their schools in ways they could only dream about when they were burdened by overbearing school boards, trustees and the teachers’ union.
There are well over 1,000 public school administrators in Manitoba, and at least some of them have studied the literature on school and teacher effectiveness. Surely, a few of these instructional leaders will realize their desire to create more effective schools is now within reach.
Surely some administrators have been impressed with the alternative programs discussed in the school improvement literature. These educators will know about the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) that has taken over an increasing number of schools in the U.S. Now, with Bill 64, these school leaders will have an opportunity to reorganize their schools in ways similar to KIPP schools.
What is the KIPP model?
The three KIPP objectives are simply the basis of good educational practices.
First, poor children can learn. KIPP teachers work hard to support their students’ learning. When educators, politicians and journalists say poor children cannot learn because of their poverty, they are giving up on poor kids. Millions of people have, in fact, pulled themselves out of poverty because good educators believed they could do it.
Second, the KIPP philosophy stresses that students need to be well prepared for post-secondary education and for living a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Third, these schools focus on structured courses, continuous assessment and helpful feedback. KIPP teachers agree to inform all students on what they have been doing well, what needs to be improved and how they can work with their teachers to ensure they understand what has been taught.
Of course, changing the status quo in education will not be easy. Nonetheless, the Manitoba government is giving principals, teachers and parents a great opportunity to improve the lives of children. And it is up to all these interest groups to make public education work better.
Moving away from the status quo is not to be feared. Public school principals — instructional leaders — need to take their new responsibilities seriously, working co-operatively with teachers and parents to create knowledge-based programs that are responsive to the educational needs of their students.
That is an opportunity that should not be turned down. It’s time to put away the swords and start rebuilding better schools in Manitoba.
Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. His most recent book, edited with Mark DeWolf, is From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.