Inspiring Education came out with its long anticipated report yesterday and the initial response is quite positive. The primary vision is reflected in the three-Es for an educated Albertan: Engaged Thinker, Ethical Citizen and Entrepreneurial Spirit. But a number of themes quickly emerge as being dominant in the report:
- a shift in student outcomes from content to competencies;
- a shift in the role of teachers from knowledge authority to architect of learning;
- changes to the roles, responsibilities and makeup of governance teams;
- moves away from testing students as a form of accountability;
- education that is focussed on the needs of individual learners.
Taken at face value for the relatively vague statements they are, these are all great moves for our education system and will be beneficial for our students.
Generally speaking it is a great report and it is, more than anything else, inspirational. But there are a lot of pitfalls hidden between the lines of the 52 page document.
The first and by far biggest issue for Education Minister Dave Hancock will be managing the expectations of the over 4000 voices who participated in the process and the many stakeholders in the education system. There are a lot of generalisations and ambiguities contained within the report, most of which are positive and easy for people to rally around. This of course means that anyone can take their individual vision, bias or agenda and tuck it into this safe little wrapper called Inspiring Education. Consequently, there will be a lot of people ticked off because their vision – which they believe was included in Inspiring Education – is not being realised.
The second big issue for Hancock is essentially part of the first issue and that is funding. The document contains some pretty big ideas and monumental shifts in direction for the large ship that is Alberta’s Education system. Like changing the course of any big ship, achieving these changes is going to take a whole lot of fuel and a whole lot of time. Government cannot continue to underfund education while purporting to follow a vision for an innovative, responsive, learner-centred public education system. This is simply something that the citizens of Alberta must hold the government to account on. It is an ambitious vision, but education is worth every penny that we invest on it and the government needs to be willing to spend that money regardless of the price of oil.
There are a lot of issues encapsulated in this idea of a learner centred education system, even though there is little doubt that it is the ideal system. The reason we have a factory model of education currently in place is because it’s cheap. When teachers talk about the need to reduce class size, it is because they know they can do much more for each child if they only had more time to spend with each individual. If the entire system is going to be based on individualised instruction and individual needs we are going to need a whole lot more teachers. An associated risk is the notion that technology will be some silver bullet that can be used to fix everything. Teachers will tell you that technology takes time – there is time associated with learning the technology, there is time associated with assessing its validity and usefulness and there is time associated with implementing it. And yet, technology will not be able to replicate the role of teachers as architects of learning. Teachers will still need to spend time with students, assessing their needs, determining outcomes and strategies for learning and assessing that learning. Similarly, teachers will still need to spend time away from students focussing on planning, marking and professional development. Added time means the need for more teachers and that will cost money.
The final big risk is related to this idea of governance. I wholeheartedly agree that the governance model needs to be strongly reconsidered. Community is the reason for public education and the community needs to play a larger role in the governance of their schools. My sense is, this needs to happen at the local level as close to the classrooms as possible. The recent angst in Edmonton over school closures is a prime illustration of why we need to change the system of governance. One of the biggest reasons that Edmonton ended up in this situation is because of a disconnect between the decisions made (albeit decades ago) in urban planning by city hall and the ones made in school placement by education governors. In Finland, the schools are governed by the town councils – I’m not suggesting that is the model that should be used here, but it has a number of advantages that should be taken into consideration. The risk here is that people already perceive this to be an attack on school boards and on local elections. That should not be a concern. What needs to be created is a new model where schools are given more autonomy to make decisions, based on the needs of the students in the school, in consultation with the local community – and the governance model should facilitate that.
I want to end by reiterating my statements at the beginning of this post. Inspiring Education is a good document evolving from some very valuable and authentic work. There are risks that need to be managed, but that is not necessarily a criticism of the report or the process. To borrow some language from the Minister, we are all looking forward to some transformational change that is focussed on the best interests of students. In the end a strong effective public education system is the best investment we can make for the province of Alberta.