A colleague and friend from the United States asked me yesterday a simple question: “what happened to the momentum for equity, transformation and change in Alberta education?”. Made me think. Here is my response.
First, we lost an important champion. Hon Dave Hancock was the Minister of Education (now Deputy Premier and Minister for Innovation and Advanced Education) who engendered trust and spurred innovation and collaboration. Its his style. He sought labour peace, developed a process to listen and understand the need for change and set an agenda for change which teachers, principals and superintendents could buy into. He was replaced by a Minister – Hon Thomas (“hit me”) Lucasuk – who made no attempt to understand the opportunity left by his predecessor, alienated teachers and school administrators and was generally a poor substitute for leadership. Realizing this, the Premier moved him to the role of Deputy Premier without portfolio as part of her “keep you enemies close” strategy. He is now Minister for Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour. He was replaced by Hon. Jeff Johnson, a former sales person for Xerox. He too has alienated teachers and school administrators and is widely seen as a proponent of market based tools and instruments for schooling.
These changes are more than symbolic – an activist Minister like Johnson can do a great deal of harm to an emerging movement in a very short period of time. It is widely understood that this Government wishes to split the Alberta Teachers Association by separating its negotiation/union function from its professional support and development function. It is also rumoured that the Minister wants to remove those with managerial roles (Principals and Superintendents) from the union. Also under attack are public sector pensions, as can be seen from recent announcement from the Minister of Finance, Hon Doug Horner (see here).
Transformative change depends on trust and collaboration. Two successive Ministers appear not to understand this and have either deliberately or unintentionally set out to damage trust between those who will enable transformation (teachers) and those who will support transformation (school and Board administrators) and those who will guide transformation (the leadership of the ATA and the Government of Alberta and Superintendents). Until trust is returned, transformation will be piecemeal, fraught and stalled.
Second, the key to turning ideas into action is to create the right conditions of practice for teachers – class size, time for professional development, engagement in curriculum change, the right kind of preparation for teaching, support for the inclusion of those with special needs. Almost all of these conditions are in poor shape. Classes in many schools are large because Alberta is growing faster than investment in physical capacity and teachers permits. In Calgary, classes average 30 when the Province recommends 27 (see here) – the highest they have ever been in modern times. Some have classes of 38-40 with 3-4 special needs students included. School Boards have requested portable buildings to accommodate growth in student numbers, but the Government cannot meet these demands (here).
School budgets are tight – with teachers being laid off (here) or not hired, even though demand is growing. The forthcoming Provincial budget will, it is rumoured, add to the austerity context in which schools are operating. Some school Boards have to consider reducing the school week (here) so as to balance budgets. Requests for replacement technology, for professional development or funds for innovation are becoming less likely to be approved, especially now that a major engine for innovation in schools – The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement – has been abolished (here).
In these circumstances, the conditions of practice are threatened not supported. But wait, it gets worse. The Hon Jeff Johnson initiated a review of teacher excellence in 2013, which is due to report shortly. The Task Force he established did not include any serving teachers (no wonder there are trust issues) and its processes were very questionable. Hon. Jeff Johnson has several times suggested that there should be merit pay for teachers – this despite compelling evidence that this has no impact on the learning experiences of learners or learning outcomes: it may work in Xerox, but not in schools (for a review of the argument see here, for evidence of consequence see here, here, here, and here).
Third, the transformation journey remains unfocused. This may be about to change. The Hon Jeff Johnson is about to announce some curriculum prototyping work across Alberta which will “be the engine of transformation”. Without revealing too much, the change in schools will be driven by changes to curriculum. In particular, a shift from “content and process” based learning to “competencies” and a focus on Provincial frameworks for competency with teachers having much more freedom, in partnership with others, to create appropriate learning for these competencies will be a major change. Teachers are nervous about these developments for several reasons. First, there are the conditions of practice issues and investment issues just mentioned. Second, parents have not been engaged in the conversation about these changes since the broad consultations associated with Inspiring Education, which took place in 2008-2010 and even then only a small number were involved. Third, investments have not been made in appropriate professional development to enable the transition to competencies by school systems (see here). The prototyping work will “surface” many of these issues, but they will also be challenging politically at a time when austerity is about to become more severe.
Finally, there is a strong sense that the present Government may not be the next government. Amongst the literati and politerati the conversation is not whether or not the Redford government will win the next election, but rather what kind of Government will be in place after the next election, due in 2016. It is clear that the Alberta Liberal Party and the NDP are both unlikely to form the Government or a coalition. It is also clear that the fledgling Alberta Party has yet to find the right kind of leadership to position themselves as serious players in the 2016 election. The choice is between the Wild Rose, led by Danielle Smith, or the current government either led by Alison (“in wonderland”) Redford or someone else. Two scenarios are emerging as bar talk favourites. A modest win for the Wild Rose or a minority government continuing the current party in power.
Whichever scenario turns out to be the case – and a week, never mind eighteen to twenty months is a long time in politics – it is leading to the current government seeking to demonstrate its right wing credentials. Hence its systematic pursuit of austerity and “no new taxes and no increase in taxes”, despite a deficit. Hence its systematic persecution of public sector unions through Bill 45 (bans public sector workers from striking, despite this being a labour right) and Bill 46 (muzzles freedom of speech) and an assault on pensions (see here). Hence its unfettered support for employers, despite growing concerns over cumulative environmental impacts of their activities. Hence the growing right wing nature of many of the actions we currently see and anticipate, such as a pending assault on the Alberta Teachers’ Association. What is happening is Alison Redford’s party is trying to occupy the space they think the Wildrose Party occupies.
But all this misses the point: no one trusts Alison Redford to do what she said she would do or her government to behave in a way that engenders community support. She and her colleagues no longer have the trust of the electorate. When this occurs, political parties become increasingly desperate to “win back” the voter. The problem for teachers and educators is that so few Albertan’s vote - 1,290,218 from a potential pool of 2,265,169 (57%), and so few vote for the party that wins. These facts lead the parties to work to attract small sub-sets of the electorate by appealing to what they suspect will appeal to them – no tax increases, take on these “fat cat” public sector people and punish those who challenge the status quo. The irony is that many teachers voted for this government so as to keep out the Wildrose. It is very doubtful that they will do this in 2016.
What might be a surprise in 2016 is that we could get a very high turnout – say 80-85% - who want to see an end to this government. In 1935 some 82 per cent of eligible voters turned out and the electorate turfed the United Farmers of Alberta from power in favour of Social Credit.
Transformation is not dead in Alberta education. It will occur one school at a time because courageous teachers, Principals and community leaders working together will make it so. But the overarching conditions are not in place for a system wide or Province wide transformation. It is a real shame: they were, and not that long ago either.