Dear Premier (To Be) Prentice
Congratulations on securing such a convincing victory in the race to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Now it is time for you to show leadership, courage and focus.
This letter focusing your attention on what you need to do to repair the relationship between your Government and all who care passionately about the future of our school system. You will hear that former Minister Jeff Johnson was “trying to do the right things” but “perhaps went about it the wrong way”. You will hear that your predecessor Alison Redford, “cut a deal with the ATA which came back to haunt her”. I suggest you put all this nonsense to one side and focus on what you need to do rather than what others did, should have done or could have done.
First, you need not have an agenda for education other than to sustain and develop Alberta’s leading education system. Do not get sucked in to issues about assessment, accountability, teacher unions and professionalism, class size and all of the items on everyone’s list. Focus on the big outcome: Alberta continuing to be amongst the best systems in the world. Avoid, at least for now, issuing a Government strategy, position paper or policy paper.
Second, your most critical task is to restore trust between all who work to make such a system possible. Two Ministers in a row eroded and then broke that trust. Teachers do not trust Government; many School Boards do not trust government; parents are suspicious of government (especially in relation to curriculum reform); there is mistrust within the Department; there is certainly a lack of trust between the profession and government. It doesn’t matter why these situations exist – they do.
To remedy this I suggest:
First: You need to appoint a senior, competent and trusted Minister to this portfolio with a mandate letter which says: (a) restore trust; (b) secure alignment between teachers, school boards, superintendents and parent representatives about the 2-3 key things that need to happen in the next 24 months to get everyone back on track; (c) deal with the special needs file and the poor system of support for such students; (d) deal with the conditions of practice which teachers find themselves in so that there is a real chance we can deliver on the promise of Inspiring Education and a Great School for All.
Second, hold a summit of the key leaders of the PSBA, ATA, CASS and Parents with you in the Chair and the President of the ATA as the co-chair with 25-30 invited individuals to help the new Minister focus on the 2-3 key issues for the next 24 months. This would be a demonstration of trust, would signal a recognition of the importance of the profession and would be a watershed moment for education in Alberta.
Third, ask an expert advisory team to take a cold hard look at Alberta’s K-12 system and ask them in particular to look at pedagogy, curriculum, inclusion, assessment and accountability. My recommendation would be that you ask Harvard Professor and world-class educator Pasi Sahlberg and Professor Andy Hargreaves of Boston College to select a team of three others to work with them to undertake this work. Sahlberg and Hargreaves know Alberta well, know schools, Superintendents and teachers well and have their trust.
Fourth, halt work on curriculum prototyping and refocus this work on the need to strengthen knowledge, skills and understanding at the elementary school level. Trying to change the K-12 curriculum in a short period of time with little or no real involvement of teachers is and was always a mistake. While some really valuable work has been done (and is not lost), there is no urgency about the changes and no appetite for such a massive change to be imposed on the system. Once the system review has been done, then we can see what (if anything) needs to be done.
Fifth, refocus on what (if anything) needs to happen to the early period of pre-school and kindergarten schooling to strengthen the base knowledge, understanding and skills students have as a foundation for all subsequent learning. This may require some new investment and thinking in pre-school and early childhood education.
Finally, rethink the approach your Government has taken and continues to take on public assurance and accountability. In particular, encourage your Minister and your caucus to stop relying on simplistic and relatively poor evaluative instruments (PAT’s and PISA, for example), and start to move towards a strategy for engaging communities (especially parents) in a focused approach to assurance based on school development plans.
Your really tough task is to make clear that schools are about more than serving the short to medium term economic needs of Alberta. They are also about our democracy, the character of our society, the nature of our public institutions and about how we interact and engage with each other in a fast growing and increasingly diverse society. If you give undue emphasis to competencies and skills needed by the Alberta economy – not unimportant but also not the raison d’aitre for schools – you will be sending the signal that many of the things schools are intended to do around creativity, the arts, citizenship, nurturing civil society and democracy, encouraging and enabling innovation and imaginative entrepreneurship are not important to you or to our communities.
You also need to stop using schools as a backcloth for politics. Minister Johnson and Premier Redford liked to use schools as the canvas for political announcements. If you or your Ministers visit schools it should be to encouraging reading, science, discourse, entrepreneurship, imagination, music, art, laughter and fun. Help kids read, do not use them to make political points.
I know that, in your family, education is important. Make it the key to your legacy as Premier, however much time you have in this role. You can make a real difference, but only if you begin by rebuilding trust and seeking focused alignment from those who actually make things happen.
Good luck in making your party progressive again. Alberta needs to be and be seen to be progressive.
Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBsS FRSA
Educator, entrepreneur, writer and imaginer and a friend of learners everywhere.