Sunday, October 2, 2011

Alison Redford wins but will education?

Photograph by: Dan Riedlhuber, Reuters

Alison Redford is the new Premier of Alberta.

Here are some initial thoughts on how Redford's victory might affect education in Alberta.

$100 Million Injection

In the immediate, Redford's victory is a victory for education in Alberta because of her promise to reverse $100 million in education cuts within 10 days.

Grades 3 and 6 Provincial Achievement Tests Axed

Redford's plans K-12 include regular but sensitive measurements of academic performance and expected outcomes. While this statement might be interpreted in many different ways, Redford's plans for the grade 3 and 6 Provincial Achievement Tests are not up for interpretation:
An end to provincial achievement tests for Grades 3 and 6, as these are too stressful for students and do not impart the information we need to measure performance.
This move will allow Alberta schools to focus on real learning which is infinitely more productive than consuming our already limited time, effort and resources on constructing, proctoring, grading these stressful and costly exams.

No More Hancock

After hearing Redford speak at the Alberta Teachers' Association Banff Summer Conference PC Leadership Debate, I got the feeling that she would not bring Dave Hancock back as Education Minister. While she praised Hancock's work with engaging Albertans in a province-wide dialogue with Inspiring Action, she made it clear that it's time to move from talk to action. This might leave Redford with the opportunity of naming someone like Doug Griffiths, who was eliminated in the first leadesrhip ballot, as Hancock's replacement.

Social Promotion & No Fail Policy

Redford has made it clear that she believes Alberta has an unofficial policy of promoting struggling students to the next grade level in a vain attempt to keep pace with their peers.

Redford doesn't suggest how to fix this, but I see two likely game plans. One is to engage in failing and retaining children and the other is to engage in early intervention when children experience difficulties. The former would lead to a nightmare, the latter to a better place.

While a case can certainly be made that some students in Alberta are not getting the education they need to succeed in today's rapidly changing world, there is also a solid case against failing or retaining children in a grade. Research over the last 100 years shows that grade retention does not benefit students having academic or social adjustment difficulties compared to similar students who are not held back to repeat a grade. In fact, grade retention has consistently been associated with negative outcomes.

My hope is that Redford's stance against "No Fail Policies" and social promotion translates into a similar solution the Finnish have endorsed which focuses on reducing poverty, increasing equity, improving access to early childhood education & wrap around services and empowering & supporting teachers to engage in life-long professional development.  Sam Abrams notes that, "Since 1991, Finland has rejected the practice of holding back underachievers, concluding that the consequences of grade repetition were too stigmatizing to be effective and that students would be better off being tutored by learning specialists in areas of academic weakness." You can read more about how Finland educates all of their students while not failing or retaining students here.

The Choice Myth

Redford points out that she ultimately wants to place decision-making power where it belongs - in parents' hands. She wants to open up choice to parents by allowing new schools to open in areas where their operation was previously uneconomical.

There are different kinds of choice - one kind of choice is from the US Republican/Democratic and Wild Rose playbook where choice is nothing more than an assault on public education -- this kind of choice is about union busting and privatization via throwing education to the free market. There is a very good reason why this kind of choice has been challenged by some of our most intelligent leaders, including Franklin Roosevelt who said, "The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize."

This is why I grow very uneasy when I see Redford state that Alberta should heighten competitiveness by allowing schools which share catchment areas to compete for students and funding. This line of reasoning is entirely contradicts the collaborative environment that is required for a system to work. Pitting one government ministry against another ministry, one school against another school or a child against another child are all equally morally bankrupt and intellectually indefensible.

However, if by choice Redford means that the public system needs to focus on a heightened level of collaboration between the Alberta Government, the Alberta Teachers' Association and the Alberta School Board Association then this makes sense. The best leaders and best educators both know that collaboration always trumps competition. I am really, really hopeful that this is what Alison Redford means when she promotes more choice and parental control.

Sustainable Funding

Redford talks about the need for sustainable funding. Alberta's dependency on oil revenues has lead us to normalize a volatile economy which leaves us victims of uncertain budgets and futures. I don't know how she's going to address this, but she says she's going to.


With an emphasis on collaboration (rather than competition) between all stakeholders, including the Alberta Teachers' Association and the Alberta School Board Association, I'm optimistic that Alison Redford's victory will be a victory for education in Alberta.


  1. When I spoke with Redford last week, I asked her about sustainable funding since to me it is becoming white noise. I wonder if any of the candidates knew what they meant when they said it. Here's hoping Redford sticks to her word and is not marred down by the political machine.

  2. Hi Joe,

    I stumbled across your blog on Twitter today. I'm so relieved by your refreshing point of view on education here in Alberta. As a pre-service teacher, I'm already disenchanted with many aspects of AB's education system such as the overloaded POS and standardized testing. It's heartening to see teachers advocating for a better way, given the amount of indoctrination in my classes from profs and colleagues alike about the AB way being the best/only way to teach and assess.

    Thanks so much for the read!

    Education AD (secondary science), University of Alberta

  3. Mrs. Redford is also for putting an actual grade on the report cards, which is great news for Alberta parents! More and more schools are opting to remove grades from report cards, focusing instead on enhanced comments. This runs counter to accountability and runs counter to how our post-secondary institutions accept new student applicants! I am all for enhanced comments, but parents deserve a grade as well to get a full picture of how their students are doing! Congratulations Mrs. Redford!

  4. Anon,
    I am not sure why a parent of younger kids deserve a grade. If one believes like most parents that kids go to school to get good grades, rather than being engaged in thinking, deeper understanding, asking questions, exploring , constructing knowledge etc as a parent I would expect teachers not to give a meaningless grade but actually give examples of kid's engagement in learning and show parents that school learning can be of intrinsic value. Accountability means different things to different people - to politicians, administrators and the DI crowd , high test scores on (bad) tests . For others, it is not getting a high grade on a reading test, but becoming a kid who loves to read and share his learning with others . As a kid once said - I don't need tests , I can give a talk about what I am learning and share the knowledge I construct. We need to be accountable to kids , those whose education matters most to them. If kids see school as a waste of time , boring, unengaging, irrelevant and at most just a stepping stone - get the grades even by cheating to get into a university - then we have failed them. I don't expect reform and change to happen overnight , but at least let us give grade 10 and below an education.

    By the way University pedagogy is far worse than schools and the cause of student lack of interest. - universities especially undergrad, large student numbers , lecturing and direct instruction, students preferring not to attend lectures , get notes from others , focus on getting the degree , grade –grubbing, cutting corners , credential orientations makes Direct instruction as opposed to constructivist teaching an easy option, worse than high school when it comes to student engagement, self determination. The so called progressive universities with a constructivist pedagogy have students who respond in a different way

  5. Joe,
    My impression from hearing Alison Redford speak is that she didn't really know what she was talking about. I remember in the very early days of the campaign when she put forward the "no social promotion" policy. I know the person who expressed extreme dismay at this stance, and it was quickly changed. But a premier doesn't need to know everything about every ministry in order to be a good leader.

    Ms. Redford is a very smart woman. As long as she has strong, smart people around her, giving her credible advice on education issues, I have high hopes for public education in Alberta. A lot depends on who she chooses as education minister.

  6. Most of the research for having no grades comes from American researchers. It's pretty clear how the US is doing in education (i.e. not very good!) and we need to avoid that at all costs! If we must look to other models for guidance, the very least we should do is look to school systems that are ahead of us in the rankings - and they use grades and are firm believers in accountability!

    Grades is a huge part of accountability, especially for parents. Teachers must account for how much the student has learned at the end of the class/course/grade. Whether that is a percentage or a grade system such as A, B, C, D, etc - it must be given! I am all for detailed comments, but a big part of the accountability factor is the grade as well - so give both at the bare minimum. If there can only be one, give the grade!

    Alison Redford will bring accountability back to education, and it's about time! Alberta's education scores have been dropping since 2007 - which is around the time this whole no zero policy and no grade movement began!

    Accountability must be brought back to our education system in order to help our kids participate in the competitive success driven global economy.

  7. @Anonymous - While it is true that some of the research that opposes the use of grading comes from the United States, their market-based, test & punish education reform agenda certainly does not subscribe to this research. In fact, quite the contrary -- the reform agenda in the United States does exactly what you describe as what we should do, while simultaneously admitting that we would be wise NOT to follow the ill-advised reforms that they are using to cripple their public education.

    The culture of public education is still very much steeped in testsandgrades. Some people call for a return to the "good ol' days" when grades "meant something", but the truth is we've never left. Grades are as meaningless today as they were 50 years ago. Real accountability is about transparency -- that is providing the public and parents with the information they need to know about their children's learning and school. Learning is messy, real learning is incredibly messy and yet grades are if nothing else very neat, tidy and simple. See the problem? When you reduce something as magnificently messy as learning to a mere number we conceal far more than we reveal.

    While I agree with you that the US should be our anti-model, I disagree that grading and accountability will be our salvation. In this case, Finland is the model we should pursue which includes replacing the word accountabiity with responsibility. Replace control (which is what testsandgrades are all about) with trust. Replace standardization (which again is what testsandgrades enforce) with personalization.

    While I agree that school's have a responsibility to inform parent's about their children's learning, testsandgrades are really not the solution - in fact, they are a part of the larger problem.

  8. Beautifully said Joe - I'm so glad I found your blog yesterday. I've been looking for an Alberta based perspective on education for quite a while!

  9. Joe, who could argue with "transparency, real learning, accountability and responsibility, trust and personalization". Those are great words but exactly what is your plan? As a high school teacher and parent I want the teachers spending their time planning and giving feedback to the students (verbal or written). I don't want them creating codes and making up formative assignments to record for the parents. Let them teach and give marks and comments. Marks are important and do motivate kids, especially the high end ones that we forget aout with the no zeros, etc.

  10. The bottom line is that it is not about grades or no grades, it is about learning environments that encourage learners to 'think about thinking' as Alfie Khon argues, and that foment creative problem solving with a focus on global citizenship. It should also be about informed, accountable, and transparent education leadership at all levels - from the premier's office to the pre-school teacher - and not about control. How will Redford or the minister of education interpret change and accountability remains to be seen.


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