Opinion-Policy Nexus


Dr. Jennifer Wallner is assistant professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. She has published articles in many of the discipline’s leading journals, such as Publius: The Journal of Federalism, Comparative Political Studies, the Peabody Journal of Education, and Canadian Journal of Political Science. Her new book, Learning to School: Federalism and Public Schooling in Canada, was recently published by University of Toronto Press and explains how and why the Canadian provinces have achieved a remarkably coherent system of elementary and secondary education, without the intervention of the federal government.

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Wallner about her new book via email in 2014.

Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Wallner: Well, as you know, one big practical motivator for writing a book is the fact that we need to publish to get tenure! But, more substantively, this book evolved from my PhD dissertation. A student of federalism and public policy, I wanted to understand the ways in which the constituent members of a federation manage to craft coherent yet differentiated policy systems despite institutional fragmentation and societal diversity. I picked the education sector because it is critical to the success of any state and one of the most important services it delivers. What is more, in federations, the responsibility for schooling falls to the substate governments – or provinces in the Canadian context. This institutional design creates, on the one hand, unique opportunities for policy experimentation but, on the other hand, also ushers in the potential for incoherent and unequal schooling systems to emerge as the provinces pursue different practices. As I PhD student, I wanted to understand the evolution and management of the provincial elementary and secondary schooling systems.

Alcantara: So how different or similar are educational policy systems across provinces and territories?

Wallner: Before answering that question, I have to clarify something. Because of major differences in the respective institutional and economic capacities of the provinces and territories – let alone their historical independence and autonomy from the federal government – I decided to focus on explaining and understanding the evolution of the provincial systems alone. So – if we look at the provinces, in the main, the core components of their respective education systems demonstrate far more similarity than difference. I show this in three ways. I track the relative investments that are made, the achievements realized, and the substantive content of the policies themselves. To unpack the content, I break the schooling sector into five dimensions (administration, finance, curriculum, assessment, and the teaching profession) and detail what each province is doing. This is not to suggest that the are exact replicas or copies of one another – obvious differences include separate Catholic school boards in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario and the unique transition years between secondary and post-secondary schooling in Quebec, known as CEGEP. But – taking a broad view, the schooling systems are remarkably similar across the federation.

Alcantara: That is really surprising! As you know, the old school federalism literature talks about how federal systems are advantageous because they permit policy experimentation and so it’s somewhat surprising to hear how similar the provincial education systems are. So is this a case where the systems have always been similar right from the beginning? Or did the systems evolve and converge through policy experimentation and learning?

 Wallner: I was definitely surprised by the results! Once it was clear that there was convergence, I wanted to see if provincial similarity was a more recent phenomenon driven by such things as globalization or US influence. So, I decided to take a long view and adopt an historical approach and went all the way back to the 1840s when then-colonial governments of British North America began to enact policies for public schooling. It turns out that at first some interesting differences appeared among the colonies – and what would later become the provinces – as officials in the different areas pursued different options. However, following Confederation, provincial officials were keenly aware of the fact that they needed to meet and exchange information on their different education arrangements and so formed the Dominion Education Association. Teachers and school board officials also got into the mix by the 1920s and created their own associations that brought together representatives from coast to coast. This activity set down a tradition of dedicated information exchanges that helped facilitate what public policy people like to call ‘policy oriented learning’. And so – by 1945, many of the differences that had originally marked the provinces were already disappearing thanks to experts and officials learning from one another and adapting practices to fit within their respective jurisdictions.

Alcantara: How did these policy learning processes and networking exchanges become so permanent and robust and resistant to differentiation and the forces of change (e.g. economic shocks, international and local/regional labour trends, and the like)? Were they institutionalized in some manner?

 Wallner: I should clarify something – it is not as if in 1945 all policy experimentation stopped and all the provinces looked alike with the education systems as we know them today. In some ways I wish it had been that simple. Instead, some provinces always continued to experiment often in response to many of those factors you mentioned above like economic shocks and labour trends. When new practices popped up in one province, the others could watch to see if they worked – like university-led teacher education programs, that started in Alberta and then spread across the rest of the country. So, what contributed to the permanence and robustness of the learning network? One of the major things that contributed to this was the creation of the Council for Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) in 1967. This is an organization for education ministers and their senior deputies alone. They have regularly scheduled meetings and a permanent secretariat based in Toronto that helps keep things going – even as governments change hands across the provinces after elections. I am not saying that everything is channeled through CMEC – but the Council helped to institutionalize the learning network and offers a focal point for information exchanges thus facilitating the necessary communication from coast to coast.

Alcantara: So what are the implications of your research findings in terms of a) what we should expect to see from provincial education policy in the future; and b) what policymakers might learn from your work?

 Wallner: Great questions! For many people, one issue that is already getting considerable coverage is the declining math scores in all provinces, except Quebec. I hope that officials are going to capitalize on Canada’s comparative advantage and draw lessons from Quebec to help improve things in the rest of the jurisdictions. Moving beyond what I covered in my book - another issue that receives considerably less attention but is one that needs to be addressed is the quality of schooling for Aboriginal children, and the new autonomy that the territories have over schooling in their respective regions and what that will mean for provincial and territorial cooperation in education.

On the lessons learned – I hope that three things come out from the book. First, and this is something we did not have a chance to get into here but schooling systems are in fact a collection of policies and practices that are often developed in isolation from one another. For example, some area of the bureaucracy will specialize in curriculum while another focuses on administration. Decisions in administration, however, can influence things in curriculum and so it is important to recognize the interconnections among the different dimensions of education policy. Second, interprovincial communication is critical and must happen regularly. It is only through actively exchanging ideas that we learn from one other and make overall improvements to our schooling systems. Third and most importantly is that provincial policy makers can build remarkably effective policy systems – like education – without the direct intervention of the federal government and without expecting each province to do exactly the same thing.

Alcantara: Now that this book is done, what are you hoping to write about next?

Wallner: I am turning my attention to other Anglo-American federations – Australia and the US – to unpack the different trajectories of the schooling systems in those two other countries. Both cases are fascinating in and of themselves and in comparison with Canada. Did you know, for example, that more than 30 percent of Australians attend private schools that are supported by public funds? Or that many US governors have little authority over schooling policy in their states? Both countries are also in the throws of considering some major changes to the way that schooling is managed, specifically with respect to the role that should be played by the Commonwealth and Washington respectively. Bottom line: this makes great fodder for political science and public policy research!