Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Katz and Copps: Why Edmonton should be concerned.

Darryl Katz looking to take over the lease on Copps Coliseum says something incredibly important about his plans for Edmonton's Arena District, but not in the way that most are speculating. A fair amount of speculation on the matter relates to how the Katz group may be using this as a veiled threat to help secure support for the Oilers new arena.

I'm a little less skeptical.

I'm more of the mindset that Daryl Katz is an incredibly smart businessman and he legitimately sees value in operating sports and entertainment venues. The Katz Group, in connection with the Edmonton Oilers organization, has been incredibly successful at building both the Oilers and Rexall brands. Rexall Place is well regarded as one of the most successful concert venues in North America. There is no doubt that they would do well to expand such a successful entertainment operation (and Rexall pharmacies brand no doubt) into a new market.

So what should these mean to Edmontonians and the quest for the Edmonton Arena District?

It means that operating an arena is a valuable business venture and a smart financial investment. Katz is moving to purchase Copps and other venues in Hamilton because he believes he can make money there.

I tend to agree. Entertainment is a solid market and running a sports entertainment complex is a viable business. It is a good investment that will pay off for the investor.

Which is precisely why I am opposed to using public funds for the project.

Public money is collected for a reason, to provide programs and services for the collective good of society and to meet public needs. It is not a pot to help private investments become more profitable. Katz will do very well to create a Canadian corporation similar to AEG and he will make a lot of money off of it - he doesn't need our help doing it.

I am all in favour of the Edmonton Arena District, its ability to improve downtown and the positive impact it will have on the city. But let's get it done without public investment.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Fraser Institute is Flat Wrong

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Manning Centre for Democracy’s conference on Alberta’s future. What I didn’t discuss in that post was how I spent an hour in the afternoon in the foyer outside the conference room talking about education with Fraser Institute economist Peter Cowley. Cowley is the author of the Fraser report cards on education and is trotted about as their educational expert, although he has no credentials in the field. The useless and over-normalised ranking of Alberta's high schools appeared in the Calgary Herald last weekend. Along with an exceptionally well-written and referenced (especially given the rotten assignment) article from Sarah McGinnis, the feature included a fallacious and ignorant editorial from Cowley.
Most of the fallacies in his argument can be accounted by the fact that he is an economist from BC and not an educator in Alberta. What is most reprehensible is that I pointed out these fallacies to him in January and he chose to ignore them and propogate the myths.

Fallacy Number One: "there is no provision for the routine expansion of successful operations." For 10 years, educational partners in Alberta have been engaged in a process specifically designed to expand successful operations called the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. It is a highly successful model that is based on collaboration between a number of stakeholder organisations, including the ATA. It is the exact opposite of competition and it is having profound impacts on learning in Alberta that would not be possible under Fraser's preferred models for education.

Fallacy Two: "professional autonomy in the classroom inhibits the adoption of more effective teaching practice." Once again, this is completely opposite from the truth. As a teacher I had many strategies for delivering curriculum. Some of them were safe, tried and true. Others were innovative, off-the-wall and risky. Some of the practices I tried worked and others did not, but it was because of professional autonomy that I felt I could try them out, evaluate their effectiveness and adjust my practice accordingly. Without autonomy, I would have continued to deliver the safe, tried and true methods day-in and day-out.

Fallacy Three: "professional autonomy limits the principal's role as head teacher and mentor, making classroom level improvements more difficult to establish." Autonomy means that I, as an educated professional, can choose which practices I will use in my classroom. If my principal wants me to use a different strategy he would need to make the case for it. He needs to convince me of its merits and we would have to engage in academic discourse over its pedagogical value. As a result of this collegial environment, we have better educational outcomes for students. The alternative is that the principal comes in and dictates practice without discussion and without debate over what is best for the individual students in the individual classrooms (this is mentorship?).

Fallacy Number Four: "limitations on hours of work make it difficult for individual schools to extend the school timetable." Interestingly, in Alberta, the school jurisdictions with the most flexible timetables are the same jurisdictions that have hours of work clauses in their collective agreements. These agreements simply mean that the boards must achieve such changes in consultation with teachers. In many cases, the flexibility that allows for these innovations is because of these clauses. By spelling out the number of hours of assignable and instructional time for a teacher, it becomes easier to allocate those hours outside of the traditional teaching day.

Fallacy Number Five: there is "no evidence that any BC teacher had ever lost his right to teach due to incompetence." I don't have expertise in the BC education system and so will not comment on that aspect, but this is not the case in Alberta. Until last year teacher competency was enforced by the Council on Alberta Teaching Standards, who have removed certificates from teachers deemed to be not competent. Alberta's teachers are committed to upholding the honour and integrity of the profession, they have enforced professional conduct for decades and last year took over the role of policing competency as well.

Simply put, Cowley is an economist from British Columbia who has made no significant efforts to truly understand the education system in Alberta. He is advocating a tired mantra of privatisation and using falsehoods and data manipulation to advance his cause. I'm less dissapointed in him than I am in the Calgary Herald for publishing the tripe.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Inspiring Education report comes with risks

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.