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The Achievements and Limits of Evolutionary Centralism: The Ontario Conservatives’ Record in Education


Presentation to the Centre for the Study of State and Market Conference, "Conservatism or Counterrevolution? The Harris Government at Mid-Term", at the University of Toronto, 10 October 1997

To a surprising extent, the Ontario Conservative’s approach to elementary and secondary education has followed directions laid out by the previous NDP government. Given the education system’s dysfunctional mix of centralized and decentralized authority, the Conservatives’ bias toward centralization has yielded mixed results. Some powerful forces for improvement are now in place, but a key missing ingredient — greater autonomy for individual schools — remains a task for the future.


William Robson

 Author Notes

Senior Policy Analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute, member of the Ontario Parent Council, director of the Organization for Quality Education, the Ontario Coalition for Education Reform, and the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education.

 Essay - 10/10/1997


My 15 minutes of fame here today divides into three parts: first some comments about the state of Ontario’s publicly funded school system before the Conservatives came on the scene; second, an attempt at describing the Tories’ basic approach; and third, some thoughts about how the interplay between starting situation and approach played out in a number of areas.

In case 15 minutes is not enough for all that, let me anticipate. The Conservative’s record to date is the outcome of a collision between a system characterized by a dysfunctional mix of centralized and decentralized authority and a fundamentally centralizing strategy — one that had more continuity with that of the previous government than is commonly realized. Not surprisingly, the outcome, though positive on balance, is mixed. Some powerful forces for improvement are now in place. The key missing ingredient is greater autonomy for individual schools.

The situation

The publicly funded elementary and secondary school system that the previous NDP government was grappling with and that the Conservatives inherited was not exceptionally bad by any historical or world standard, but it was not in good shape.

Ontario is, by any standard, a well favoured society. And it devotes, by any standard, ample resources to its schools. Yet Ontario’s performance on comparative tests is unimpressive. The achievement gap between students from more and less promising backgrounds — the narrowing of which is what public education is fundamentally about — is larger than in neighbouring provinces. And post-secondary teachers and, less audibly, their secondary fellows are signalling their alarm about the deteriorating level of preparedness of each new cohort of incoming students.

The main force for quality has been the commitment of many individual teachers, principals, trustees and, when allowed, parents. But commitment alone is far from sufficient if good performance is not systematically recognized, rewarded or imitated, and bad performance goes unnoticed, unpunished and uncorrected. In many areas of Ontario’s public education system, there have for some time now been no systematic incentives to improve student learning.

One key to these poor incentives was a dysfunctional distribution of authority. Much that ought to be established on a province-wide basis was not. Curriculum and testing differed — sometimes to the point of not existing — from board to board; reporting was in the same state. And much that ought to be dealt with at the local or school level was not. Boards bargained with province-wide unions whose strength derived from provincial laws. And management at individual schools played stunningly little role in matters such as budget, staffing, or setting pedagogic style. All in all, bad fundamentals.

The NDP had started addressing some of these dysfunctions. Their Common Curriculum, while flawed, marked a move by Queen’s Park back into curriculum. The NDP had all but established an arms-length provincial testing agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). They had laid the ground for an Ontario College of Teachers. More tentatively, they had instructed boards to establish advisory school councils (to spotty effect — the province’s biggest board, in Toronto, simply refused to implement the policy). But the bad fundamentals adversely affected many of these initiatives, and certainly limited the credit the NDP got for them.

The Conservatives’ approach

Then came an election, and a new management team. Like many new managers, but perhaps more so, the Conservatives brought a centralizing mind-set to the job. Let me highlight three relevant contributing factors to this attitude.

First, they had a job to do. They knew that people generally, especially their core constituency, were unhappy with the schools. And they had absorbed Roger Douglas-style lessons about the need to move quickly and resolutely.

Second, and related, they saw themselves — not without reason — as opposed by powerful vested interests. The unions, with their huge budgets and their direct access to students and parents through the schools, liked things the way they were. Many boards were hostile. The Tories were unsure about many of their officials. So a small group at the centre had to hunker down.

Third, they thought they were better managers — better than their predecessors, and better than many of those they found in charge of the system. And, if you think you are a better manager, you get right in there and manage.

The results so far

Warren Buffett, an investor of some note, has remarked that when a management with a reputation for excellence encounters a business with a reputation for lousy fundamentals, it is usually the reputation of the business that survives. Indeed, the Tories’ reputation as managers has, perhaps even in their own eyes, slipped a few notches.

The government has taken key steps toward central setting of academic standards, addressing part of the dysfunctional accountability structure that the previous government faced. But they are having trouble with the idea that even a brilliant central manager’s competence is eventually stretched past the breaking point: that at some point, the system needs strong mechanisms for local accountability and control.

Elementary curriculum

First some good news: the new math and language curriculum for grades 1-8. Although the province’s move back into curriculum-setting under the NDP was a positive step, the “Common Curriculum” documents themselves were notorious for their fuzzy standards and de-emphasis of content in favour of process and attitude. The new material sets out richer expectations grade-by-grade, which is appropriate from the centre, and makes far fewer pedagogical prescriptions, which is not. So I see these documents — soon to be joined by science and technology — as a big step forward.

Secondary curriculum

The elementary curriculum got a big political push forward when it was languishing. The high-school reform process appears to need something similar. Two separate teams have been consulting and generating mountains of paper for months, with the cumbersome “expert panels” teams that met over the summer being a particularly dubious use of time and talent. Unless something remarkable has happened over the past few weeks, someone from the centre needs to step in to move things along, or I do not see how a sensible, content-oriented, four-year high school system is going to emerge in time.


The Tories passed the legislation for the EQAO, which undertook its first major test of Grade 3 students last year. That test had big problems: it pre-empted 10 days of class time; it was not properly controlled; it was overly ambitious in its attempts to assess the “whole student.” Some of this trouble was foreseeable, having been prefigured by the U.K. experience in the late 1980s, but the EQAO is arm’s-length, and was bound to find its own way in these matters.

In my opinion, what we need is less ambitious testing at more frequent intervals. Ironically, I suspect that the hammering the EQAO has taken from the unions and others who oppose testing in principle will drive it faster toward the sort of standardized tests that opponents of testing really deplore, since it has little hope of ever getting support from those opponents, and will want support from those who think tests are legitimate and important.


Another positive step that the Conservatives initiated and have largely seen through is the new provincial report card. Two positive highlights are: letter grades and percentages — unfortunately along-side, rather than instead of, the Ministry’s original more compressed and opaque four-point system — and achievement by subject, rather than by affective categories (like “attitude”).

College of Teachers

The Conservatives also inherited the College of Teachers from the NDP in largely finished form. The evolution of the teachers’ federations from professional associations to public-sector industrial unions made the College highly desirable. The Conservatives’ innovation was to increase the representation of non-teachers on its governing council. Predictably, in the elections for the council, the unions successfully promoted a slate of candidates whose platform was fundamentally hostile to the College’s mandate, and some non-teachers on the council may have felt at a disadvantage to their better organized and more focussed colleagues. I am hopeful, however, that dynamics similar to those at the EQAO will help make the College into a force for higher standards in the profession.


When it comes to funding and governance, the centralist thrust is leading to some problems. School board consolidation was in the air before the Tories arrived, and they went for it with Bill 104, apparently thinking — as with megacity — that bigger means cheaper. Bill 160 signalled their intent to move to a funding model dominated by province-wide per-student allocations, which makes sense, financed by property taxes, which is going to be an inconvenient and illogical anachronism once the new system is in place.

Indeed, the Roger-Douglas-like overlay of education finance reform on the rejigging of the burden of the property tax among regions and among various categories of property appears to have presented the Tories with one of their most serious problems. Increasing or even maintaining the overall size of the property-tax contribution to education funding will create some huge losers. If they avoid that by reducing the overall property tax take, however, they will need to top up the shortfall from other revenue sources — something they appear so far unwilling to do. Transitions tend to cost money, and failing to finance the system adequately as these changes occur could cause shortfalls in the classroom that will discredit the whole exercise.


Bill 160 also, as has been widely noted and criticized, would extend provincial power over key aspects of school management — such as instruction time and pupil-teacher ratios — that have up to now been established in collective bargaining between unions and boards. The proposed $5000 cap on trustee salaries signals clearly that boards figure little in their long-term thinking, raising the question of where the local input that boards provide — or, more accurately, provided when they were smaller and less bureaucratic — will come from in future.

This brings me to a final rather neglected inheritance from the NDP: school councils. More stretched and weaker school boards mean that Queen’s Park will loom larger in school management. The prospect that class size, prep time, length and timing of school year, and so on may be set, formally or de facto, by province-wide collective bargaining fills me with dismay. Those should be school issues. Bill 160 makes school councils mandatory, but provides them with no effective role or support. Autonomous public schools now exist, and are showing their worth, in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the United States and Alberta. Unfortunately, this idea does not resonate with centralizers.


To conclude, I would observe that the Conservatives have moved along lines in many respects similar to those followed by the NDP, with a priority on central initiatives.

A liability of this orientation has been the absence of any initiative to give individual schools greater autonomy. Ironically, given the intense union opposition to Bill 160, one of its principal effects may be to increase union influence through the new powers centralized at Queen’s Park. Dealing with that problem, among other things by making it possible for individual schools to become the employers of record, will be a task for the next government. Without more school-based management, Ontario will continue to lack a key mechanism that can make bottom-up pressure to improve effective.

That said, however, evolutionary centralism has yielded key progress on several top-down issues. The better elementary curriculum, province-wide testing, standard reporting, and the College of Teachers have set up dynamics of standards and accountability that will improve our understanding of how Ontario’s public schools are doing. Particularly if reinforced by stronger autonomy at the school level that gives us more tools for acting on our new knowledge, that improved understanding will be a powerful force for better schools in the future.

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