Monday, December 10, 2012

The Missing in Action Premier Redford

While it is early in her mandate, Premier Alison Redford is clearly one of the most promising premiers we have had. Accomplished human rights lawyer, well travelled and articulate and well able to understand a complex file and get to the “heart of the matter” quickly.

But she is not emerging as a leader who can command respect and enforce discipline in her caucus. By all accounts, caucus is fractious, having never really warmed to the Premier -many of the “old guard” having backed others for the leadership. Promises made at the election are not being kept and decision-making is both slow and cumbersome. Leadership, de facto, is coming from the Provincial Treasurer, who himself has leadership ambitions. From the outside looking in, this does not look like a healthy or smart government that is willing to think and act strategically and reach out to the progressive constituencies that supported her initial vision for courage and change.

This is a shame, since it showed a great deal of promise – talented new members of cabinet, new Deputy Ministers and new approaches to “old problems”.  But the Government keeps losing the plot.

Take one file: the negotiations for a new teachers contract. These began under Dave Hancock, moved to Thomas Lukaszuk and then to Jeff Johnson. No wonder the Alberta Teachers’ Association is frustrated. The disagreement between the Government, School Boards and the ATA is focused not on pay but on the conditions of teaching practice which are students’ learning environments.

The ATA want a limit on the number of hours teachers work and for this time to be spent largely on either developing lesson plans and curriculum for students or in teaching and assessment activities – not on administrivia (or ministrivia, which it largely is). The School Boards have been whipped up to fear this reasonable ask on the grounds of unreasonable costs (meaning money, not health costs, social costs or lost learning opportunities). They suggest that they have been told that the ask will bankrupt many smaller jurisdictions, leading to Board amalgamations.

Prodded on by the a few well-positioned trustees and so-called ‘special advisers’ the Government has filtered this reasonable ask in terms of: (a) “teachers will not engage in curriculum reform unless they get paid for it”; and (b) teachers want to teach in exactly the same way for the same time every where, no matter what the location conditions are – no flexibility.

This tells us that listening is a real challenge for Government and the School Boards. What the ATA is saying is very simple. It is normal for a contract of employment to make clear how much time a person is expected to work in exchange for pay. True, some contracts have the phrase “no fixed hours of work” in them (my last contract did), but there was also a clause that said “normally”, a professional staff member was expected to work  42 hours a week. What is unreasonable about this? Nothing. What teachers are saying is that job expectation creep has been occurring to the point at which the average now working 56 hours a week, over a third of this time devoted to extraneous tasks such a supervision, ‘ministrivia’ and other distractions. They want this nonsense to stop. Fair enough.
The second thing the ATA is saying is also very simple. If we are moving from a curriculum which specifies some 1,326 objectives to be achieved in around 185 days of school time for Grade 7 to a situation in which the Grade 7 curriculum will have, for the sake of argument, 50 objectives, but that the teacher is tasked with taking these are making them meaningful with local content and context and school based curriculum, then they need time to prepare and develop this content and teaching resources.  If they are also expected to develop the assessment for learning rubrics for this new work, this too takes time and this all should be part of their work time (who develops assessment rubrics as a hobby?).  Sound reasonable? I think so.

If there are 42 hours of available teacher time, then perhaps 30% of this should be spent preparing and 60% engaging directly with students and 10% on administrivia. The trouble is that this will require boards to look at their staffing models and probably hire more teachers. It would also require trustees to account for where provincial funds targeted for classrooms are actually going. Some reports suggest that as much as 20% of high school funding is being clawed back to be administered by ever-growing  school district bureaucracies.

And then we have Doug Horner saying that we can’t afford the resources needed to truly address the education challenges we face in Alberta. Rather than a bold vision and courage we get pat phrases like “ this is a time of austerity the money running out” and “we need to borrow money.” And so on.

What he is not saying is that we should rethink our whole approach to Provincial finance and recognize that we have a revenue problem as well as an inability to control spending. This is the tale told to doctors, teachers and anyone other than MLA’s who are looking for reasonable conditions of practice.

After twenty months, the teachers were the first to give up on the Provincial talks and return to local bargaining in the sixty two school boards where the contractual authority actually rests. They did ask the Premier to get engaged and settle this, but she distracted by her own issues and thinks that her Ministers can get the job done, which they cant.

So, as we say, we have an “en passé”.  What is at stake is the ability of teachers to act professionally to transform education and to do so with dignity and support. That is the ATA view.

The Governments view is different. They see the stakes in terms of power and control. If they accede to the ATA position, they are recognizing that teachers are the most important ingredient in the education system, not the Department or the Minister.  Its about power and control – who makes decisions about how students should be taught and when.

The Premier was elected, in part at least, because of commitments she made about education and the future of schooling. She was going to be an education Premier. So much for that. She will be known as the “no show” Premier – leaving Ministers to both create a mess and dig themselves deeper into it, all encouraged by short sighted fiscal policies which impair Alberta’s opportunities to continue to lead the world in education.

In Canada, it is a basic lesson of public policy 101 that real reform key in health care and education has only succeeded when provincial premiers set the agenda and engage citizens in a bold vision. In Alberta, what we have now is a new Minister doing his best but surrounded by a small band of advisers who seem willing to lead him over the precipice with Alberta teachers. On the health care file, Alberta doctors are already at the edge of a similar fiscally induced cliff.

We know what needs to be done. Key education partners, increasingly pushed to the side,  have provided some bold new ideas. (see here for guidance). It’s just that the Government doesn’t want change – rather they need to feel in control. It is their control needs and failure to listen that is getting in the way of a just settlement. It is sad to see. It will also do serious damage to a Premier that has great promise but will now be in great peril if she fails to personally engage education and health care as her legacy. After all, its what Albertan’s care most about.


Anonymous said...

Again Dr. Murgatroyd you have provided the exacting analysis that is often unspoken due to fear in our education system. This is truly the case and is being compounded by frequent talk of a coup d'état over Redford by the old guard. It has to make you wonder if Education Minister Jeff Johnson is working behind the scenes to undermine his own Premier by scuttling an unbelievable deal for the government that provided cost certainty in the education sector. The other unspoken reality is the Minister and his 'special advisers' from Calgary plotting to revolutionize education with untested technology interventions that undermine teachers, administrators and parents decision making. Just as you said in this post, it is about recognizing the real change in education happens in the school community, not in the Minister's office or in the vast halls of the large bureaucracy of 700 Alberta Education staff working in Edmonton. I am starting to become a believer that this government has truly lost the plot. It is also losing the doctors and the teachers support on a daily basis. The bleeding is unlikely to stop.

Joe Bower said...

I too am disappointed with the leadership of Redford and Johnson. I, like many progressive Albertans, were optimistic that Redford's leadership would bring something different.

I was hopeful that Jeff Johnson's involvement in Inspiring Education would lead to... well... something, but it hasn't. He could have made good on Redford's promise to abolish grade 3 and 6 Provincial Achievement Tests... but he didn't. Very little will improve in Alberta schools until there is a political will to move beyond command and control curricula and standardized tests. Redford and Johnson are exhibiting zero political will. There is nothing inspiring about how they are riding Inspiring Education into the ground.

Anonymous said...

Inspiring Education is done. Not even worth talking about, not that it was in our staff meetings anyway. Government will just use this document as a voice of the people to try and impose their will further into the classrooms. Reform talk with the language of entreprenuerial spirit existed before the Inspiring Ed public consultations had even started. Watch for the next announcement to be related to some technology and assessment that will revolutionize learning.