Monday, June 16, 2014

Teachers can lead government renewal

This was written by David King who is a former Alberta Minister of Education. This post first appeared on the Alberta Teachers' Association website.

by David King

The report of the Task Force for Teaching Excellence exemplifies the malaise in Alberta’s government today. Reading it saddens me. At the same time, it suggests the urgent need for the Alberta Teachers’ Association (and others) to undertake new and important projects.

The report raises issues basic to the long-term well-being of Alberta.

First, Alberta’s recent education policy and program initiatives (the work of the Inspiring Education process, the minister’s mandate letter from the former premier, the “new” Education Act, recent provincial budgets, curriculum initiatives) are not forward-looking, notwithstanding the willingness of education partners to put the best possible face on the government’s intentions. The conceptualization of education in all of this is outmoded, including the role of the teacher; the nature of transformative pedagogy; student needs in the middle of the 21st century; the balance between personal/private and social/public interests and needs; and the relationship of the economic model to public education.

The government is engaged in ad hoc decision making that appears to reflect ideology more than wisdom.

Second, these initiatives are not grounded in democracy: they are grounded in the idea that decisions should be made as close to the grassroots as possible, but that it should be the person at the pinnacle who makes the final choice about who gets to make decisions. Democracy holds that the citizens—the grassroots—should make that choice.

Even without a commitment to democracy, self-organizing systems and variable accountability models are emerging everywhere people work together, powerfully suggesting that hierarchical command-and-control models are obsolete. Yet the government continues to promote them. The biases of the government (presumably imposed on the task force) run counter to widespread positive experience about collaboration, decision making and implementation in these times.

The authors of the report know that the government is working the wrong side of the street, so the terminology of the report suggests that “Alberta’s education system is to become truly collaborative and inclusive” (p. 75 and elsewhere). How does this happen when the Alberta Teachers’ Association (as well as CASS, the ASBA and others) are effectively excluded and when “collaboration” is organized on a patronizing model? We need to remember that the creation of the task force, the terms of reference, and the structure for appointments, as well as the appointments themselves, were all vetted by a committee of caucus, if not the whole of caucus, and by Cabinet.

The tone of the report favours further centralization in the hands of the provincial government, and further marginalization of key actors—not only teachers, but also school boards, superintendents, principals and parents. To support its bias for centralization, the task force has wilfully neglected some important information about current practices and cherry-picked research.

In addition to any of the specific concerns that arise from such recommendations, the more dangerous result is that such centralization is contra-indicated in times of turmoil and uncertainty. The wise course of action is greater autonomy within broad parameters of accountability. For example, recommendation No. 1 is “That the Teaching Quality Standard be revised to align with Inspiring Education.” As someone who believes that much of what is in Inspiring Education is mediocre, alignment is not something I look forward to.

The task force might have done better work if it had been allowed (and encouraged) to express ideals, instead of being limited by the pragmatic restraints of a tired and unimaginative government. For example, could the task force have been free to recommend that “the Ministry introduce [instead of ‘consider the introduction of’] a mandatory one-year paid internship/articling program for all beginning teachers”? As it happens, I know something about internship: Alberta inaugurated one during my time as minister, suggested by good research. The Initiation to Teaching Project was suspended after one year because of financial considerations. But the experience did not compromise the ideal, and the research results are even stronger now. An internship is not simply desirable: it is also affordable, if we take the long view. Why didn't the task force have the courage to be forthright about this or other changes that would be demonstrably helpful?

In a similar vein, the task force makes no assessment of whether inadequate resources and/or inappropriate or excessive prescriptiveness in the past 10–40 years have contributed to the system’s challenges. Nor does the task force assess the financial investment necessary to implement its recommendations, or assert any claim that the government has a moral obligation to fund appropriately.

With this overview, a very careful analysis of the entire body of work—research as well as recommendations—of the task force is required.

Ultimately, however, teachers and all other Albertans must acknowledge that the government is working inside a broken model. The insiders are not prepared to abandon the model or change it as much as it needs to be changed. A change of leadership, or a change of party, is not going to make a difference. It falls to the ATA and others to begin the work of creating a new model of engagement and decision making, for better education and better life in Alberta.

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