Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A tale of two schools

I want to tell you about two schools:
I won't pretend that the linked reports are unbiased comprehensive depictions of either school, but they paint an interesting picture of the type of education that occurs in each school. Please ensure you take a few moments to read each article.

Now, you might be surprised to hear that some have deemed Mormon Hills school to be the best school in BC, while claiming Athabasca Delta Community School is one of the worst schools in Alberta.

This little tale of two schools is indicative of the Fraser Institute's view on the function of education.

Without knowing too much about either school, it is reasonable to expect that the level of critical thinking being developed at Mormon Hills School would be low. After all, you would not want the 14-year old students/brides to be questioning authority or their pre-defined future careers in "cooking, cleaning and child-minding." But, who needs high levels of critical thinking skills in order to fill in the bubbles on multiple-choice tests?

On the other end, you have the high needs children of Athabasca Delta Community School, where students are starting out well behind in academic achievement and are further hindered by "numerous socioeconomic issues beyond their control and comprehension." The small miracles of the school are accomplished when the students can read the exams, let alone answer the questions.

On one hand we have a school that is doing everything it can to help students achieve to their fullest potential in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and on the other hand we have a school that is seemingly focused on ensuring that their students are best positioned to be subservient cogs in an oppressive regime.

And the Fraser Institute is saying that the one form of education has little value while the other one is commendable.

But, as I've written about at least twice before, this fits the world-view of neo-conservatives like the Fraser Institute. Their world-view is based on a father-knows-best morality and their vision of education is based on a system that develops good little worker cogs.

The alternative is a system based on nurturing talents and encouraging students to think critically and creatively over multiple domains, prepared to be confident open-minded citizens.

I know which education system I prefer.

This post was inspired by this article.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Your once-in-a-century chance is now!

In 2008, for Alberta's last election, only 40% of eligible voters decided to cast a ballot. Many people  cite cynicism, apathy or a lack of likable candidates as reasons to not vote. All of those reasons will disappear for the next election.

If you care about whether there will be an ambulance available when you need one, how long you have to wait for medical attention or the number of students that will be in your child's classroom then you should care about Alberta politics. If you care about the environment, the cost of college tuition, the price of gas, the state of highways, how our seniors are cared for, what our parks look like, whether we have clean water to drink, where electrical lines will run, what happens to children in abusive homes, whether we are selling our oil at a reasonable rate, what might happen with your job or how much taxes you pay then Alberta politics affects you. Heck, if you are concerned about having your streets plowed there is even an element of provincial governance affecting that.

So many of the decisions that affect your everyday life are determined by the Alberta legislature, and now you have a chance to affect those decisions unlike any other Albertan that came before in the province's 106 year history.

Currently, there are five provincial parties represented in the legislature and three of them are going through a competition to determine who their next leader will be. These parties represent a wide diverse set of values and there is no doubt that at least one of them would be reflective of your values.

At the ends of the political spectrum are the two parties with leaders in place, the Alberta New Democratic Party and the Wildrose Alliance Party. Check out their websites, if you like their policies you will like their leaders. Both Brian Mason and Danielle Smith are likable, effective advocates for their party members.

If you decide that those two parties are not for you, then I encourage you to look into the Alberta Party, the Alberta Liberal Party, or the Progressive Conservative Party. These three parties sit somewhere in between the NDP and the WAP. And they are all engaging in a leadership campaign over the next 9 months or so. There is likely going to be over a dozen people committed and courageous enough to put their names forward to become one of this province's next premiers.

With this range of choice and opportunity to influence, no-one should be left without a voice.

Take a look at the party policies and see which ones support your vision for Alberta.  At this point, you don't even have to commit to one party! The state of things today is very fluid and in any party there will be some policies you like and some you don't. Different leadership candidates will emphasize different priorities and members coming and leaving will have influence over the policies. Memberships cost between $5 and $10 for the year and will keep you up-to-date and provide you with a chance to select the leader.

Next, find out about the potential leadership candidates and get behind your favourite(s). The leader will have a lot of influence on the actual decisions of the party and which policy pieces will be prioritized. You can support your favourite candidate by voting for him or her, talking about him with your neighbours, volunteering for her campaign or making a donation.

As the leaders are selected and the state of flux starts to thicken we will be headed right into a general election where you can reassess which leader-party-candidate combination works best for you in your riding, then you can get involved in that campaign or simply vote.

With this state of affairs, cynicism is not an excuse, lack of candidates is not a reality and apathy will not be accepted. Get off the sidelines and get in the game - it is your responsibility as a citizen.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

How identity and leadership will factor on the future of Alberta politics

The two biggest factors that will determine the political future, coming out of this incredible state of flux, will be identity and leadership.

I have often said that Alberta politics is all about identity. More specifically, the common piece of identity related to being a conservative (or a Conservative). For many Albertans (in particular, those over 50), being Albertan meant being conservative. This has a lot to do with the political rhetoric coming out of the 70s and 80s where divisive politics pitted the Lougheed Conservatives in Alberta against the Trudeau Liberals federally on a number of issues, including the Charter, the NEP and multiculturalism. The story went that Liberals were infringing on provincial issues and that their policies were killing Alberta prosperity and the Alberta way of life. The Progressive Conservatives in Alberta were seen as the ones who would stand up for Alberta and protect our interests. Coming out of that era, Albertans have been inextricably identified as conservatives and that label has passed on to many younger people who hadn't even been born when the construct was created.

This identity has lead to the relative constant state of the Progressive Conservative party. The brand has been absolutely invulnerable and the party has been the destination for anyone who is seriously interested in participating in governing the province. Needless to say, the party includes a large number of people with significantly diverse political viewpoints who from time to time struggle over control of the party that controls the province. We saw it in 1992, we saw it in 2006 and we are seeing it now.

The interesting thing about identity is how hard it is to shake off. For many Albertans, they have identified as Progressive Conservative and won't turn their backs on the brand. The 2006 leadership campaign drove a deep wedge into the concept of PC brand identity. The camp became significantly divided between Morton supporters and Dinning supporters and eventually Stelmach was chosen in an effort to conserve the brand (identity).

PC supporters have been so entrenched that they had difficulty dropping their identity, even if they disagreed with some of the policies or some of the leaders. But, Stelmach has been unable to heal the rifts and a global recession pushed the divisive issues to the forefront. Danielle Smith, as leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party, has subsequently been effective enough to get people to reconsider their identity. Similarly, moves by the PC party to prevent leakage on the right has caused some on the left to reconsider their identity.

Much has been said that the label of "Liberal" is a political liability in Alberta. This concept has largely contributed to the rise of the Alberta Party. Many 'progressives' shy away from the Alberta Liberals because of the liability and where they once would have had a home in the PC party, they are now cautious of the increasing power of the right wing of that caucus.

So here's where we are at: the extremes of the political spectrum, represented by the NDP and WAP are solid on both identity and leadership factors. Most supporters of each camp are content and ready to fight the next election. The vast middle however features three parties that are all dealing with leadership questions, while the Albertans who support them are dealing with identity questions.

How strong is the PC identity today? Is it strong enough to keep the followers even if their choice for leader is not selected? Will those who identify as Liberals move to the Alberta or PC Party if the right leader is selected? Will they move if the wrong leader is selected - for either their party or the PC party? Will the Alberta Party be able to identify with progressives from both the PC party and the Liberal party? Will they be able to create an identity that is more than the new Liberal party? Which leader will help them to create that identity?

The Alberta political landscape is like an electric football table, where the ground is shaking and bodies are shifting around. Each person came in wearing a uniform, but that uniform may not determine which pile they will end up in. People in all three parties will watch and participate in the leadership votes, then determine whether the selected leaders will have enough impact to change their political identities.

We are in unprecedented times - the most volatile political environment Alberta has ever seen.