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Peter CowleyNearly two years ago, Quebec’s ministry of education reorganized the management of the province’s elementary and secondary schools to enable each school’s principal, staff, and parents to take over the operation of the school.

The external political school board no longer exists.

In a sense, the Quebec system now looks very much like the management model used by most of Canada’s private schools. The principal is the school’s chief operating officer and leader reporting to a small board of directors, and that is it.

In such a system, the principal takes on two roles: first, as the supervisor of day-to-day school operations and, second, as the leader of the school. In this role, the principal drives improvement of student outcomes.

Over the 20 years that I managed the Fraser Institute’s school rankings project, I was able to discuss with many principals how they saw their most important roles and how they found success.

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A veteran Alberta principal spoke of the leadership role. He told me that, as principal, if the students want to be at school and the teachers are eager to speak to me about their latest ideas for improvement and if my vice-principal has successfully taken over the day-to-day school operations, then the students will do well, and I will have succeeded in my role as leader.

The techniques that successful principals use to achieve their school’s goals are many and varied. Certainly, inter-school comparison of student results is a tool that many principals use to set their own goals and assist teachers and counsellors in setting theirs.

An Ontario principal told me that if any principal says that they do not know or care how their school scored on the Fraser Institute ranking, that principal is probably lying.

Another initiative of the Fraser Institute provided schools in four provinces with a very public incentive to improve. The Garfield Weston Awards for Excellence in Education annually recognized schools that had either shown outstanding student results, improvement in student results, or results that exceeded expectations given the personal and family characteristics of the school’s students.

Principals in all four provinces appreciated the value of such school recognition.

Another principal told me that he was an adherent of the concept of management by walking around, a tool first introduced by management guru Tom Peters.

I saw this at work in his habit of dropping by school sports teams at practice. He would appear on the sidelines and chat briefly with the coach, who would make the principal aware of some aspect of a player’s improvement. The principal would congratulate the player at an opportune time. By doing this, the principal would have a chance to see how the coach was doing and, at the same time, remind all the players that the school’s principal was interested in their individual and team success.

These are all examples of the many ways an outstanding principal moves the school forward to the benefit of all its students.

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My experience has also convinced me that the most active and valuable supporters of school principals are the members of the parents’ council (known by various names in the provinces). When parent councils see problems at the school, they will speak first to the principal. When principals want to make changes, they are wise to first consult with the parents’ council.

As a parent myself, I remember the wide range of issues that the principal or the parents tabled for consideration at meetings. Some were matters of district-wide or provincial policy, while others were very specific problems within the school. Importantly, principal/parent co-operation produced effective solutions to most issues put before us.

Improving school results – not just on exams but on every aspect of student achievement– is the primary job of the principal – and their focus is on a single school, not a district. With the healthy assistance of the PAC, a school has a formidable team to lead its continuous improvement program.

Quebec’s overhaul of school governance has shown how to keep the management of each school close to the community it serves while eliminating the unnecessary and often political actions of a local school board. Other provinces should use the Quebec system as a starting place to develop even better governance models that take full advantage of the value of the principal as the school’s COO and education leader.

Peter Cowley is a retired Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute.

Peter is a Troy Media contributor. For interview requests, click here.

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