Monday, August 27, 2012

Andy Hargreaves on transforming education in Alberta

This was written by Andy Hargreaves who is Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education at Boston College and co-author of The Fourth Way. This was written as the forward for A Great School For All: Transforming Education in Alberta which is a research update by the Alberta Teachers' Association.

by Andy Hargreaves

For more than a decade, Alberta has been Canada’s highest-performing province and the highest performing English- and French-speaking jurisdiction in the world on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of student achievement. Despite its superior educational performance in Canada and beyond, Alberta has so far been largely overlooked by influential international policy analysts and, therefore, also by the global media; the plaudits have gone largely to Ontario instead. To make this observation is not to imply that Ontario’s hard-earned international prominence is undeserved but, rather, to wonder why Alberta’s impressive educational record is largely unknown, even among Albertans themselves. 

Strangely, one of Alberta’s greatest challenges in the years to come will be to acknowledge its own success. In a world where education is easily hijacked by governments pursuing strategies that will produce short-term solutions for which they will then take credit in the next election, most other nations and their leaders are inclined to impute failure to the educational systems they have inherited and to the people who work in them, so that the incumbent government can claim victory in righting the wrongs of its predecessors. Alberta, however, has achieved increasing and sustained success over several decades with the same government. Alberta’s challenge, therefore, is to acknowledge and celebrate its educational successes, and to find a way to articulate and explain them to its own citizens and then to the world. Alberta will then stand tall as a recognized world leader in education alongside other creators of educational excellence, in Finland, Ontario and Singapore.

Celebrating success brings risks as well as opportunities, however. This is a second educational challenge for Alberta. Celebration can court complacency. In the teaching profession, it can encourage a belief in the value of untrammelled autonomy among individual teachers who might want to claim that they can now be left alone to get on with the job. Among governments, it can induce business-as-usual approaches that fail to prepare them for the challenges of the future and that maintain long-standing policies that might be preventing even greater success. 

Convincing policy-makers and system leaders to take new approaches when they have experienced educational and political success with existing ones can be difficult, but it is before the peak of performance that decline is often already occurring, even though the decline might not be evident in performance results. A paradox of improvement is that you have to quit your existing strategy even when you look as though you are still ahead. 

Knowing that most innovations fail, leaders and voters are often reluctant to ditch tried-and-true methods in favour of a new approach. In Great by Choice (HarperCollins 2011), influential business writers Jim Collins and Morten Hansen argue that the answer to this dilemma is disciplined innovation that is delivered “with high reliability and great consistency.” According to them, “the great task is to blend creative intensity with relentless collective discipline so as to amplify the creativity rather than destroy it.” Discipline requires relentless perseverance and complete indefatigability to ensure that a good idea comes to fruition in practice and that innovation continues alongside improvement, not at the expense of it.

Innovation in the public sphere is important not for its own sake but because it helps citizens and governments deal with new challenges and opportunities. This is especially true in a province like Alberta, with its increasing population, prosperous but vulnerable energy-based economy, and growing awareness of the needs of indigenous communities and the importance of developing a balanced approach to new technologies that will embrace their creative advantages while offsetting the damage and distraction they can inflict on younger generations.

In 2004, innovation guru Charles Leadbeater argued that the answer to all of these issues was not for some central body to mastermind and implement innovations through pipelines of policy delivery, from the centre to the individual. Instead, he argued, at their most sophisticated, governments should establish platforms that enable users to organize their own lives and behaviours more effectively together. In public services, therefore, promoting innovation is not only a question of relaxing or releasing control and responsibility to others. It is about building platforms where people are increasingly able to design learning supports and solutions for themselves.

This analysis raises important questions for educators. For example, what platforms do governments need to create so that teachers can develop their own curriculum and assessments together, instead of delivering curriculum and testing designed by government? What systems can be created and how can resources be reallocated so that peer-to-peer networks of schools can raise achievement themselves instead of having expensive intervention teams impose policy from the top? What is the best way for teachers to pursue their own professional development to meet their own needs without this becoming fragmented and self-indulgent on the one hand and overly controlled by central priorities on the other?

We have some good ideas about how to mesh innovation and improvement, and about why we should. We need to innovate before our improvement efforts flatten out and before improved student achievement stops. We need to innovate to respond to the new challenges that any system faces. We need to innovate because even the best systems have elements in their policies that could impede success. Effective innovation is disciplined; it should complement improvement rather than challenge it. Finally, innovation in public services such as education is not about governments withdrawing from public life, but about shifting responsibility from driving and delivering services to creating ways for people to develop better supports themselves.

Alberta is extremely well placed to address these issues in its education strategies. It already has an astounding and sustained record of educational success that matches the best in the world. For more than a decade, in comparison to most of its Canadian peers, but in line with best practice across the world, it has supported educational innovation through the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement. Like other high performers, Alberta has begun to benchmark its strategies by starting to network with other high performers in Finland and elsewhere. Albertans are not impelled to change strategy from election to election, because the province has been characterized by a high level of political stability that is typical of most successful systems. Again, like other high-performing peers, Alberta enjoys strong support and participation in the public education system from almost all of the province’s parents. And Premier Alison Redford has indicated a bold preparedness to review those parts of the government’s existing strategy that may be detracting from even greater success, such as the provincial achievement tests, which can undermine commitments to deeper and more creative learning in schools.

One of Alberta’s greatest advantages is common to high performers—a strong and committed teaching profession. Unlike its neighbour to the south, Alberta does not cheapen or demean the teaching profession; it understands that the human capital of its students depends on investing in the professional capital of its highly qualified teachers. Alberta does not involve only teachers in delivering change; it also engages principals and superintendents. And it creates and maintains platforms where educators can advocate for further innovations and improvements to benefit students and strengthen the profession that works with those learners on the front line, every day. Albertans understand that the teaching profession is not an obstacle to transforming the province, but an essential and inalienable part of the solution.

A Great School for All—Transforming Education in Alberta is another example of the outstanding intellectual and strategic leadership of the province’s teachers. It is a document that recognizes the successes of the province that the members of the Alberta Teachers’ Association proudly serve; challenges the province’s leaders to be the best they can be in the circumstances they face in partnership with teachers; draws on research, inquiry and international benchmarking to identify the most promising practices; and sets out 12 clear directions to move the province and its children ahead.

Developed by the Association’s research staff, this comprehensive document seeks not just an end to standardized testing but more-sophisticated and more-demanding processes of assessment for learning. It takes a balanced rather than a bullish or obstructive approach to the role of new technologies in schools, calls for a more inclusive approach to special educational needs, and identifies the best supports and partnerships to bring that about. It reasserts the importance of professional autonomy for teachers but understands that this autonomy is collective, not individual. And it argues for a profession that should be given and that must take greater leadership—teachers and principals need to take greater collective responsibility for the quality of professional work. 

Alberta is already a world leader in educational achievement, but its high ranking is not yet matched by international recognition. What Alberta needs now is a clear statement identifying the reasons for its success, champions who can explain that success in inspiring ways to people in the province and across the world, and a platform from which it can launch the innovations that will lead to even greater success in the future. There is no better time for the government and the profession together to show the world what an outstanding system has achieved and can achieve, and to establish a platform that will make Alberta a world leader in educational innovation and transformation in the decade to come. Alberta has no need to rent improvement and reform models that have been built by other systems. On the contrary, it has the proven ability, creativity and professional quality to own the future that it creates for itself. This report can and should become a significant contribution to that quest.


  1. Joe, we are only well placed if we begin to move into the 21st Century. When our 'leaders' come out and talk about building and refurbishing schools, they are missing the point of re-imagining what school might be in the 21st Century. The more we change; the more things stay the same.

    An important in this rush to pat ourselves on the back is: "What about the 27% of children who do not succeed?"

    For a province with so much, we have done remarkably little for those who need the most and in really changing the landscape of education.

    Take care,


  2. Joe,

    I love Andy, but I wonder how he defines "student achievement." Is it possible to measure the success of real innovation by mapping it to traditional outcomes? Mustn't the outcomes change? The measures?

    Also, wondering what you think of what your neighbors to the west are doing around reform.

  3. Will, I admit that I don't know very much about what BC is doing; however, I do have a couple concerns.

    1. From the little I've seen, I'm a little concerned that BC may be chasing technology as a driver for education reform rather than pedagogy. Hyper-personalization via "any place, any pace, any time" is also problematic.

    2. Some teachers in BC have no Teachers' Association or Union to organize them so most of these reforms will be default be done to them rather than with them.

    3. Because the teachers and administrators do not belong to the same Association, there tends to be an adversarial relationship between the two.

    Student achievement tends to mean nothing more than test scores -- we are so dependent on these tests that I'm unsure how we are going to wean ourselves off. The only problem I have with standardized testing are the standards and the testing -- but how can we engage in this conversation with policy makers without coming across as heretics?


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