School board management matters – comment/ – School board management matters
August 29, 2008. David Johnson

When a sports team performs poorly, the coach is fired. When a new coach joins the same team and wins more games, likely the new coach is the better one.

Can we say the same thing about school board management?

Perhaps. School boards manage schools, and similar schools can perform better or worse, depending on the board.

Some schools have poorer results partly because they teach many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, while other schools attain better results because a large proportion of their students come from advantaged backgrounds.

In my work, I compare schools that are socio-economically similar. I ask if a school board can be like the coach who takes the same players – similar schools in this case – and produces better results.

To be sure that a team is performing better under a different coach, you need to play many games, rather than just a few.

Winning the next two games could be due to good luck rather than the new coach. But winning the next 20 under the new coach is less likely to be good luck alone.

There are 13 school boards in Ontario where schools from that board are much more likely to produce above-average results, the 20 wins in the coaching example, and there are 10 boards where a school in that board is more likely to produce a below-average result.

What do we learn from this study?

First, 11 of the 13 above-average boards are Catholic boards, while eight of 10 below-average boards are public boards.

For example, in York Catholic District School Board (above-average), the percentage of students who meet or exceed provincial expectations is three points higher than in York Region District School Board (below-average) in schools with the same family backgrounds.

Why? Some people argue that a spiritual education improves overall student performance. This may be true.

An alternative explanation is the role of competition.

For instance, Catholic families can freely choose a Catholic or public elementary school, while parents who are not Catholic do not have the same freedom of choice.

So Catholic school boards compete for students – and their accompanying provincial funding – more vigorously than their public school counterparts, and must differentiate themselves from public schools by providing a better education.

If the local Catholic board were perceived as significantly worse than the local public board, it could lose students, forcing schools shut and laying off teachers.

Currently, there is open choice for non-Catholic parents at secondary schools in some school boards; extending this option to elementary schools could improve both public schools and Catholic schools.

Whether schools are funded directly from property taxes or from the province on a per-student basis, competition over funding could then benefit Ontario students and families.

Besides competition, there could be other differences in management that makes some boards better than others. But there is virtually no research on exactly what type of management practice at the board level – rather than at individual schools – produces better results. My study suggests that better management at the school board level can make a difference.

Parents at lower performing boards should ask why their board has a lower performance. Lower performing boards should be learning what good boards are doing.

And the substantial Catholic-public gap in achievement suggests to me that the province should provide more, not less choice for parents in the education of their children.

David Johnson is a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University and is education policy scholar at the C.D. Howe Institute. His full study is available at

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