EdCan Magazine spring 2016 Cover image

Leadership, Policy, Well at Work

District Leadership for Democratic Governance

Policy interdependence and tri-level engagement

DESPITE CLAIMS to the contrary, effective educational governance flourishes in many Canadian school districts. Such democratically oriented jurisdictions are typically well served by elected school trustees, who work closely with their superintendents1 to focus the lion’s share of their political efforts on supporting student success locally and provincially. District leadership teams in these settings invest in the capacity of principals to meaningfully engage parents and teachers in effective governance at both the school and district levels. In their provincial relations, proactive trustees and district administrators actively take part in the larger policy discourse, realistically advocate for local needs, and regularly convey their ideas and feedback to the Ministry of Education on important policy matters. District leadership plays a key role in effective governance at all three levels of the Canadian education system.

Leadership of this kind is a vital component of vibrant educational governance focused on ensuring high levels of learning and well-being for all Canadian students. In the words of a respected veteran superintendent of a large urban school district:

“I have a strong belief in democracy, the important role of citizens, and the abilities of trustees to represent their communities. Though our processes of purposeful, collective inquiry are sometimes messy, we almost always come to a decision that is good for our kids. My role is to guide conversations and to help bring the views of the entire community – including under-represented minorities – to bear on matters of importance to student learning.” 

Framing educational governance in Canada

In Canada, responsibility for public education governance is assigned to the provinces; yet, with few exceptions, public schools have historically been established as local institutions. Tensions have long existed between the provinces’ constitutional educational authority on the one hand, and claims for local autonomy on the other. The more centralized theoretical takes on this relationship view school districts as both representative and subordinate administrative agents of the state. In these conceptions, basic policy is developed at the provincial level, but implemented and administered locally. At the opposite end of the theoretical spectrum, communal autonomy views local governments as the primary public authorities with greater legitimacy.

Policy interdependence theory conceives of central and local governments as separated institutions sharing powers.

Understanding educational governance in a rapidly changing, pluralist, and globalized context involves more than conceptualizing central-local relations. However, policy interdependence theory does shed light on several aspects of what works in the current environment, wherein administration, policy, and politics are often intertwined.2 Governance and policy-making at the ministry, the district, and – increasingly – the school level now involves continuous engagement in complex, interdependent webs of policy and influence bargaining with interest groups as well as intergovernmental and cross-ministry agents. The terms reciprocal, collaborative, and interactive begin to capture the types of governance relationships that have the best chances of supporting student success within these dynamic realities of contemporary Canadian education. Within districts, high levels of interaction among school and district leaders are best driven by a shared sense of responsibility for student learning and well-being; similarly, student success is also better served through district-ministry relationships which feature high levels of reciprocity and parallel attention to both provincial and district goals.

Effective school board governance

Recent studies of educational governance in Canada3 remind us that governance by an elected board is not corporate governance. This literature informs us of the importance of adopting a policy governance model well suited to the local context. Ongoing education for both elected board members and district leaders can foster collaboration, reciprocity, and interdependency among professionals, trustees, and the wider community. Effective governance models call for trustee participation in assessing community values and interests and incorporating these into the school district’s beliefs and vision for student learning and well-being. In effective board governance systems, trustees play a vital role in mobilizing parents and the wider community in supporting the vision and helping to create a culture of excellence that makes achieving the vision possible.

The following six principles have been synthesized from the research literature on effective school board governance. Effective school boards:

  1. Use the district’s beliefs and vision for student learning and well-being as the foundation for strategic planning and ongoing evaluation of board governance.
  2. Focus most policy making on the improvement of student learning and well-being, consistent with the beliefs and vision.
  3. Support and monitor progress on the district’s multi-year strategic plan for the improvement of student learning and well-being.
  4. Identify and fund policies and programs that provide rich curricula and engaging forms of instruction for all students.
  5. Maintain productive relationships with senior staff, school staffs, community stakeholders, and provincial education officials.
  6. Support and act, individually, in accordance with decisions made by the board of trustees as a whole.

Community engagement is a core governance function of school boards. The importance of ongoing public participation in educational processes is critical to a healthy public school system. As stewards of the community conversation about schools, effective school boards employ a proactive stance that seeks multiple voices to inform well-reasoned and carefully articulated policy choices. It is through these processes that trustees demonstrate their integrity and their commitment to the educational well-being of the community’s children, and cultivate the support needed to make difficult decisions that invariably go with the role.

Mutual benefits at the province–district nexus

Operating from a policy interdependence perspective benefits educational governance at the provincial level in at least two ways. First, legislative agendas and policy ideas can be strengthened through ongoing engagement with trustees and administrators who bring forward perspectives from the broader geographic, demographic, social, and economic spectrum. When the combined and more fully articulated views of the organizations representing teachers, school boards, superintendents, school councils and other members of the educational policy community are factored into this ongoing dialogue, greater policy interdependence and enhanced student success can accrue. Second, implementation tends to go more smoothly when the voices of those who are impacted have been solicited, heard, acknowledged, and acted upon through the design and adoption phases. Even more success is achieved when attention continues to be paid to these perspectives throughout the implementation phase.

Governing from a policy interdependence perspective also benefits school districts. A growing body of research indicates that savvy district leaders often see provincial policies as mechanisms for achieving local goals.4 Their strategic engagement with the Ministry of Education can take a number of forms, including active interpretation of provincial initiatives in light of local needs, mobilization of local resources, and actively participating in provincial decision-making processes. Three distinct approaches to working with the government’s agenda have been identified in this literature: (a) complying with the government’s initiatives and implementing them well; (b) supplementing the province’s initiatives in order to increase local impact; (c) leveraging the initiatives in the interests of the district’s priorities.

Successful districts actively engage with government initiatives and resources in order to strengthen support for their own strategic directions. Successful ministries of education focus on student success, encourage collaboration across the system, and encourage multiple pathways to student success. Policy interdependence can provide the theoretical foundations for effective governance and student success in our complex and evolving educational realities.

Nurturing effective school governance

Recent research on effective governance at the school level has yielded at least two important findings. The first is that highly effective school councils are now frequently participating as members of the collective leadership teams in schools and school districts. Collective leadership is total amount of influence attributable to all the participants in a given educational system: teachers, parents, principals, district office staff, and community members. This is good news for students in view of the evidence that in schools “with more democratic collective leadership practices that include parents in influential positions, student achievement is higher.”5 District leadership support of schools in their parent engagement initiatives has greater effects on student success than system efforts to engage parents.

The importance of the organizations frequently known as councils of school councils in strengthening system-level planning, deepening community engagement, and assuring public confidence is another important research finding.6 Ongoing connections among school council representatives across a school system can be of tremendous help to leaders navigating transformative change. Sustained community dialogue on important educational initiatives can build support and/or guide course adjustments.

Studies and annual provincial surveys indicate a general state of comfort with and appreciation of school councils’ involvement in schools and have put to rest past concerns that that school councils would evolve into de facto school boards. To the credit of provincial governments in Alberta and Ontario, a more evidence-based policy course has been steered since the introduction of school councils in the 1990s. In contrast to policy directions in places like New Zealand and England, school councils in Canada have not wavered from the path of serving schools and districts as collective associations who work together to effectively support student learning. 

ENLIGHTENED district leadership plays a key role in strengthening governance at all three levels of the Canadian education system. At the school board level, effective superintendents work with trustees to meaningfully engage members of the wider community in understanding and supporting their district’s strategic plans for the learning, engagement, and well-being of all students. At the school level, district leadership teams foster the collective leadership capacity of principals so that the voices of teachers, students, and parents have greater influence in shaping direction. And at the provincial level, proactive trustees and district administrators actively participate in policy interdependence, advocate for local needs, and convey important and timely feedback to the Ministry. These notions of policy interdependence and tri-level engagement offer guidance to superintendency leadership teams in their efforts to positively contribute to democratic educational governance in Canada.


Photo: courtesy des commissaires de la Commission scolaire de Montréal


1 The term superintendent is used throughout this article to refer to the chief educational leader in school districts, including those in provincial jurisdictions where the official title is director of education.

2 R. Manzer, Public Schools and Political Ideas: Canadian educational policy in historical perspective (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).

3 G. Galway, B. Sheppard, J. Wiens and J. Brown, “The Impact of Centralization
on Local School District Governance in Canada,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy 145 (September 18, 2013); K. Leithwood, “Characteristics of School Districts that Are Exceptionally Effective in Closing the Achievement Gap,” Leadership and Policy in Schools 9, No. 3 (2010): 245–291; K. Seel and J. Gibbons, Interviews with School Board Chairs: Perspectives on governance (Edmonton: Alberta School Boards Association, 2011); B. Sheppard, J. Brown, J. and D. Dibbon, School District Leadership Matters (New York: Springer, 2009).

4 K. Leithwood, “Characteristics of School Districts that Are Exceptionally Effective”; K. Leithwood, K. S. Louis, S. Anderson, and, K. Wahlstrom,  Learning from Leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning (New York: The Wallace Foundation, 2010).

5 M. Gordon and K.S. Louis, “Linking Parent and Community Involvement with Student Achievement,” in K. Leithwood & K.S. Louis, Linking Leadership to Student Learning (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012).

6 J. Brandon and P. Hanna, Inspired Partnerships: School council contributions to student success in Alberta. (Edmonton, AB: Alberta School Councils’ Association, 2014).

Meet the Expert(s)

jim brandon

Jim Brandon

Jim Brandon, PhD, is the Director of Graduate Professional Programs at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education. Dr. Brandon is a past president of the College of Alberta School Superintendents and his research focus is on school and district leadership, educational policy, and quality teaching practice.

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