Friday, October 30, 2009

Hancock's Moment of Truth

Alberta has a progressive Minister of Education, Dave Hancock. He has used 2009 as a year of dialogue and engagement. His aim was to create an informed basis for a reform of the Education Act and a repositioning of Alberta’s school system to better prepare students for life and work in the twenty first century. Widespread community based sessions, major conference events and serious consultation with the ATA and thought leaders throughout the Province have taken place. Hancock is now preparing to act.

Part of the background to this reform is that education in Alberta is seen to be successful, at least in terms of outcomes. Using standard measures, Alberta fairs well in international comparison of pupil performance – generally ranked among the top jurisdictions in the world and as the best performing Province in Canada. Where we are weak is in the number of students completing high school and the skills they leave with – many in the workforce have poor literacy and numeracy skills and poor innovation literacy.

The twenty first century demands many new skills from our school leavers – an ability to engage in lifelong learning, technology literacy, teamwork and problem solving skills, the ability to design, to create and to challenge as well as the core skills in science, math, language arts, social studies and language. Many, including the Alberta Teachers Association, have argued that our outcome heavy curriculum gets in the way of real learning and student engagement and that now is the time not just for a rethink of what students are asked to learn but also of how the students are being asked to learn.

In particular, the role of technology in teaching and learning is seen as a key issue. Many, but not all students have access to broadband enabled systems, gaming, the internet, social networking and other digital devices which can be used for learning. Yet, despite spending over $1.8 billion on technology for schools over the last ten years, many teachers are not using technology effectively as a learning resource and many schools have inadequate IT equipment to make real learning through technology effective.

In other parts of the world, educational reform has focused on structure and competitiveness. David Cameron, Prime Minister in waiting in Britain, has committed to a voucher like scheme which would permit for profit schools to offer the required educational programs and additional learning specialities in exchange for government cash. Similar reforms in Sweden have produced remarkable results, with over twenty percent of Swedish students attending private schools. One in eight schools are private and some fifteen hundred applications to establish a school are in progress. Ending the power of school boards to block Charter Schools, letting funds follow the child and funding schools directly through vouchers are all part of the scheme. Sweden also performs well on international outcome measures. The fear amongst some in Alberta is that Hancock will adopt the mega Board model used in the reform of Alberta’s health care system. Devolved authority is the key to performance improvement.

The big challenge for Alberta is that it has spent two decades centralizing control of curriculum, teaching and technology and, in the process, has de-professionalized teaching. While many teachers have seized opportunities to develop their professional skills and competencies through graduate degrees and professional development activities, curriculum control and testing now inhibits innovation and risk taking in terms of teaching. Many teachers do not have the skills sets needed to facilitate new forms of learning and new uses of technology.

A related challenge, which educators have been quick to draw the publics attention to, is that education is slated for budget reductions along with health, social services and all other Ministries in Alberta. A figure of $300 million in 2010-11 has been used to highlight this challenge. The Ministry of Education has some seven hundred staff and an additional one hundred full time equivalent staff on contract – a very large Department by any standard. Most of the required savings could come from reducing this bureaucracy and changing some of the ways in which the Department functions, for example, ending Grade 3 Provincial Achievement Tests.

There are three criteria by which we should judge Hancock’s reforms when they become known. The first is what they will do for the process of learning – how will it change as a result of the Hancock reforms? The second is what will the changes do to give greater levels of empowerment and control to schools directly – and, consequently, reduce control by the Department? Finally, we should ask what they will do improve student engagement, retention and performance?

Hancock is a vey capable Minister – his challenge will be to manage reform with a caucus which appears hesitant when faced with a chance to make significant change and reluctant to invest in the future at a time of budget restraint. Bold is what is needed – the dynamics are such that modest is what will occur. Major educational reform occurs only once in every generation. Lets hope Hancock rises to the challenge.

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