Sunday, July 05, 2015

A David Dodge for Education in Alberta?

Premier Notley is making some smart moves. One of them was to ask former Governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, to work with her on a financial strategy, especially given the challenging infrastructure needs of a fast growing Province.

Dodge, together with others, did something similar for Ontario some time ago. He proposed sound fiscal management through outcome based budgets and real investments in infrastructure.

More recently, he was a member of Premier Stelmach’s Council on Economic Strategy which produced a bold, creative and inspiring blueprint for the economic future of Alberta – still available here for those wishing to understand what opportunities have been missed over the last few years.

More recently, he has been clear: austerity is not a way to solve deficits, growth is – do what you can to stimulate economic activity by developing infrastructure (especially given that the costs of capital borrowing are so low), raising minimum wage and stimulating economic growth. Jobs create wealth through tax revenue and wealth creates opportunity. Expanding those on a living, paying which stimulates spending.

The idea of having such expert advice is sound and reflects a maturity in Government. The question I have is who will provide this for our education system?

In an open letter to the Minister of Education I released on the day of his appointment (here), I suggested that there were some key challenges that needed to be addressed, the most important of which was trust. So far, the Minister has done what the NDP said they would do – restore funding for growth, invest in new schools and enable School Boards to plan 2015/16 on a sound footing. But that is all.

Worrying, the Government is going ahead with the ill-fated Grade 3 Learning Assessments but has decided to make them worse by making them mandatory for all students and insisting that they be digital in form.While teachers have been given more time to mark these, it is not clear that any real improvements are being made to their design. It is also unclear just how these are intended to help learning, especially given how vague the Government continues to be on the use of the resultant data for accountability. All in all, a bad move that has removed teachers’ professional judgement from what could have been a very good program to support students.

Before making other similar bad moves, the Minister needs his equivalent of David Dodge to take a cold, hard look at where we are and what matters most. This person needs to look at assessment, accountability, curriculum, conditions of practice and identify pathways for the future. They should not be asked to specify the curriculum or the measures we can use to shift from accountability to public assurance – just the routes to these solutions. Just as David Dodge will not specify which roads need to be widened, where traffic lights should be and what should happen to Calgary’s Cancer hospital dilemma, so our education advisor should describe strategy and journey, not detail.

I have suggested Andy Hargreaves (Boston College) or Pasi Sahlberg (Harvard) or Dennis Shirley (Boston College) or Simon Breakspear (Australia) – all of whom have undertaken significant work in Alberta, know the players and are respected for their contribution. They have also undertaken this kind of advising before for the OECD and / or for specific Governments.

Now is the exact time for the Minister to make the call to one of these individuals and say “I want to our system to continue to be amongst the leading systems in the world and I need your advise before I really start to act in my capacity as Minister”. Do it now,  Minister. Make the call.

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