Dear Minister Eggen
Today you accepted the challenge of being a Minister for Education in Alberta in a new combined Ministry which embraces all of our schools, culture and tourism. You are indeed most welcome in this large and daunting portfolio, though right now you must be somewhat overwhelmed with the challenges ahead. Here I will focus on the education and our school system.
There are many challenges, but the key to them all is the challenge of rebuilding trust. Few who administer schools, colleges or universities trust Government to either listen or do the right thing. There is a long history of the Government saying one thing and doing another. For example, saying that they would end the practice of Provincial Achievement Testing (PAT’s) and then not doing so, but using a sleight of hand to make it look as if they were doing so. On curriculum reform in schools of saying that they would engage teachers as a profession in this work, but then imposing on them solutions that come from elsewhere (e.g. “Math Facts” as part of the Grade 3 SLA’s).
Rebuilding trust and finding opportunities for genuine collaboration is your number one challenge.
This requires you to change the culture of your Department, which may in turn require significant changes in leadership and new relationships. You need to see the Alberta Teachers Association not as a Union, but as one of the world’s leading professional bodies in education. See them as partners in the task of creating a Great School for All. Involve them as partners in real decision making, not just as members of symbolic consultation bodies that have little if any impact on decisions, actions or process.
Spend time with Alberta schools Boards. They are locally elected as stewards and trustees of our schools – the hub of our communities. Understand their role and make sure that they once again have clarity and understanding of their important role in our system and that many of the opportunities to sustain and develop our school system depend on them. Listen to them. Engage them.
Deal with some issues which are “festering” messes in the system. The Diploma Examination needs to change, but the changes being proposed by your Ministry do not align with the educational goals of our schools and are designed as a new form of provincial statistical performance analysis rather than as an affirmation of learning. Stop this work and start again. You do not have a lot of time. It is urgent. Use the ATA and the Alberta Assessment Consortium to help you. Similarly, the Grade 3 SLA’s are a messy, poorly thought through dogs breakfast. The ATA and the Alberta Assessment Consortium can help you (and were helping, until a clique inside the Ministry made decisions without consulting anyone which threw a monkey wrench into the plans.
You also need to encourage the expansion of the very good work that is going on called High School Redesign. This work encourages high schools – some 200 of them – to experiment and innovate with flexible approaches to learning. There are some wonderful school-led developments taking place reflecting the best of what schools can do. Support and expand this work.
One more thing you need to address urgently: the plight of those students in our system with special needs. You will already know that we have too many under supported special needs students included in our classrooms. Ask to meet with the ATA’s specialist council on Special Needs to understand the complexity of this problem. Look at best practice in school systems elsewhere. Develop an ideal statement of what should happen and compare what is happening in practice with that ideal. We need more adult supports in schools; more specialist help available to schools more often; more practical supports for teachers working with special needs students. It is a significant and substantive issue. Take your time, but see this as a priority.
There are hundreds of other issues – curriculum redesign, public assurance, money, teacher preparation, research in education, staffing within the Ministry – but rebuilding trust, dealing with inclusion and working on the Diploma/ SLA’s are urgent. For all other issues its time to ask for help.
Premier Wynne asked for help. She asked a small group of international educational experts to look at what was happening in Ontario and suggest to her the actions her Government should take to sustain Ontario’s position as one of the leading school jurisdictions in the world. You should do the same. A small expert panel – Pasi Sahlberg, Andy Hargreaves, Simon Breakspear, Dennis Shirley, Pak Tee Ng all highly respected and all known Alberta well – could help you answer these five questions:
- What do we need to do to build genuine collaboration and trust across our school system to improve performance, rebuild trust and truly engage with the profession?
- What role should the Ministry of Education play (if any) in terms of curriculum development, assessment and public assurance? What is their role in relation to that of school boards, parents, the profession and other groups?
- In terms of public assurance, can we look at innovative approaches to ensuring that Albertan’s are getting a strong return on their investment in our schools, that we have an evidence base for continuous improvement of our schools and school system and that we support engaged learning?
- How should curriculum development occur in Alberta, given our commitment to change in line with Inspiring Education and our commitment to developing great schools for all? Do we need to refocus the Ministerial Order, change the approach, change who and where this is being done? Shouldn’t the profession own this work far more than it does at this time?
- What is the one thing we can do to stimulate system-wide innovation in our schools? For example, Ontario has a powerful collaborative program which funds teachers to achieve specific outcomes through innovative projects which are then shared widely across the system – you can read about the Teacher Learning and Leadership Program here. It is like a focused, lower cost version of AISI. It is producing truly creative outcomes which are effectively shared with others across the system.
An expert panel which knows Alberta and cares about the work could help you look with “fresh eyes” and renew the confidence in direction for the work you need to do.
Putting this all together will be tough. But you are not alone. A large number of very able people are “in waiting” to help and support. Ask for their help. Encourage a period of trust-building and conversation focused on collaboration, innovation and change all aimed at improving performance. Alberta’s system is not broken, but it is not healthy either. Your job is to restore its health by restoring trust and collaboration.
You will have a lot to think about. Congratulations and sincere best wishes.
Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBPsS FRSA