I have a difficult time bringing up the future of music education in Alberta in a public venue such as a blog. The reason is rather simple; when I bring up issues affecting music education, I am almost always given a cold shoulder or, even worse, vehemently and violently opposed.
Yes, it’s true, some music teachers don’t want me around. In Alberta music education, particularly instrumental music education, you don’t talk about things that can be spun to suggest that we take away from concert bands.
I’m spurred onward by a reminder of what it means to demand the best of your profession. That reminder came in the form of a friend, Joe Bower, who worked tirelessly for a better education system in Alberta. He passed away at the beginning of this year, and left many inspired individuals wanting to carry on his torch. I can only hope to carry on his torch with the same efficacy he had, but I’d rather not do it alone. I know a great many teachers who will continue to advocate as he had in their fields of expertise. Mine is music education.
So give me a cold shoulder if you must. But know that music education in Alberta is not yet complete, and with three decades of status quo, perhaps it’s time to address it.
It has been proven time and time again that musical activity and understanding is a uniquely human attribute. Daniel Levitin in his book “This is your Brain on Music” discusses in one chapter the direct links neurologically between music and emotion, a uniquely human attribute. Sociologically, Carljohnson Anacin has discussed how each society has created for itself an artistic rhythm, a specific pulse developed in every human based on their cultural upbringing. Philosophers point out rightly that only humans can truly experience music’s purpose (although they don’t always agree what that purpose is), and that as a result music is essential to our humanness.
Here’s the deal; politics has decided what subjects are core and what are not. Music is not a core subject in Alberta. Only recently (as in during the last 4 weeks) did the United States finally agree that music should be considered a core subject. But these are political entities that decide what is most valid in the development of human beings, regardless of what attributes actually constitute humanity.
It’s not dissimilar to climate change deniers in political office; they can deny it all they want, but the fact is it exists. Politicians can avoid making music core, but it doesn’t change the fact that music is a unique part of our humanness.
Just as easily as Donald Trump can offer a policy based on the idea that Muslims are bereft of humanity, policy can be implemented that suggests music is not an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. In both cases, the political entities would be dead wrong.
Humans communicate with depth and creativity, conceptualize numbers and values, develop social norms, explore and innovate, stand on two feet and have opposable thumbs, and are omnivorous as products of evolution. As a result, the political entity that is our education system places language, math, social studies, science, and physical well-being as core elements of developing our young humans.
For the political entity that is the Alberta Education system to not situate music as core to the development of our young humans is to deny them that aspect of their humanity.
The implication of course then is that if music is essential to our humanness and therefore should be core to the education of our young humans, it should be instructed to all our young humans in such a way as to develop the musical aspect of their humanity. Not only that, but it should be instructed by people trained to teach it, just as language, math, social, science and physical education is. To be clear, there is a pointed difference between a musician and a music educator; you can be both, but it is faulty logic to assume that any musician can teach it.
These assertions have major implications for music education in Alberta. First of all, only 10% of high school students participate in instrumental music programs, and even less in choral programs. What about our music education system prevents students from exploring this uniquely human attribute? Are there systemic issues that negate participation, either explicitly or accidentally? The answer of course is yes.
Another major implication is that music cannot be taught by generalists who have not been instructed on how to teach music, much less generalists who have no musical training of their own. That is a call to our post-secondary institutions to ensure generalists know how to teach music, and to our education system to ensure that every school has a music specialist on staff.
But the problem is nobody is talking about the fact that Alberta’s music education system has a race problem, a relevancy problem, a funding problem, and a professionalism problem. In fact, to suggest so is to label oneself as “against concert bands” (this is what a fellow music teacher accused me of being recently). The rationale for that label is for another blog, as is a deeper explanation of those problems.
I’m not against concert band in Alberta’s schools. I like concert bands, and I’d rather have band available at every school where concert band is considered a relevant part of the community. I’m not against music in any shape or form in our schools; rather I want more music in Alberta’s schools. I’m merely against teaching one type of music in schools, much as I’m against teaching students there is only one way to solve a math problem.
Alberta Education’s music curricula is approaching 30 years of implementation. I have no intention of idly watching music education stagnate and whither in a system that was built for a very different culture than exists in Alberta today. It is time to look at our school music programs and really question how well they help our young humans develop their ability to music. Is their in-school musical learning disconnected from what happens after the bell rings, or after they receive their diplomas?
Or are they developing into lifelong musickers?
As humans, it should be the latter.
Some other Education Blog Posts
Why I will never be an award-winning band director
The Arts: Good for the economy ... Banks on it
Just let me teach
Parents should be freaking out right now - Tatlo
Sources used in the writing of this blog
Anacin, C. G. (2014). Syncretism in rituals and performance in a culturally pluralistic society in the Philippines. The Social Science Journal. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2014.08.005
Blacking, J. (1973). How musical is man? Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
de Quadros, A. (2012). Music is essential to our humanness. (Y. O. Communications, Interviewer) Retrieved July 27, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7c1_LkJ0I4
Levitin, Daniel (2007). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York, New York: Penguin Publishing Group.
Myers, D. E. (2008). Freeing music education from schooling: Toward a lifespan perspective on music learning and teaching. International Journal of Community Music, 1(1), 49-61. doi:10.1386/ijcm.1.1.49/1
National Association for Music Education. (2015, December 9). More than 140,000 music educators and music supporters celebrate the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, elevating music as a stand-alone subject. Retrieved January 7, 2016, from National Association for Music Education: http://www.nafme.org/more-than-140000-music-educators-and-music-supporters-celebrate-the-passage-of-the-every-student-succeeds-act-elevating-music-as-a-stand-alone-subject/
Paynter, J. (2002). Music in the school curriculum: Why bother? British Journal of Music Education, 19(3), 215-226.
Regelski, T. A. (2012, March). Musicianism and the ethics of school music. Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education, 11(1), 7-42. Retrieved from http://act.maydaygroup.org/articles/Regelski11_1.pdf
Wasiak, E. B. (2013). Teaching Instrumental Music in Canadian Schools. Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press.
Some other articles on Music Education Philosophy
Alperson, P. (1991, Autumn). What should one expect from a philosophy of music education? Journal of Aesthetic Education, 25(3), 215-242.
Elliott, D. J. (2009). Praxial music education: Reflections and dialogues. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195385076.001.0001
Goehr, L. (1989, Winter). Being true to the work. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 47(1), 55-67.
Koza, J. E. (1994, Fall). Aesthetic music education revisited: Discourses of exclusion and oppression. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 2(2), 75-91. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40327074
McCarthy, M., & Goble, J. (2002, September). Music education philosophy: Changing times. Music Educators Journal, 89(1), 19-26.
Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Hanover: University Press of New England.
Last week the Okotoks Town Council began the process of acquiring the Wedderburn land on the north end of town across from Holy Trinity Academy and the St. James Catholic Church. They want this to be an educational, recreational and cultural facility for the community.
Council has made it easy on the NDP in Alberta. In particular one man, David Eggen.
Eggen is the Minister of Education as well as the Minister of Culture and Tourism. In one decision, Council set the scene for Eggen to make his mark in our region.
10 days ago I sat in an audience listening to Eggen speak to a conference of teachers who all gave up their summer time for the teaching profession. At that conference, Eggen told us that he had “found” funding for all 232 school infrastructure projects the former PC Government had announced.
Two things on that; first I must never forget that the PCs were in the habit of announcing and never providing all in an effort to save their own political skin. The former Education Minister is a perfect example of that.
Second, missing from Eggen’s announcement was how much he was banking on future generations to pay for it. He did say that the NDP were not borrowing for operations, but 232 infrastructure projects aren’t operational projects, they’re capital projects.
So I pulled him aside afterward (he was in a major rush to move on, but to be clear it was obvious he’d rather stay and have a depth of discussion). We had 60 seconds, but in that 60 seconds we covered a swath. The first thing he said to me was that he had to borrow through the nose to get that money.
That made the fiscal conservative in me cringe. I asked him if he really was willing to fund 232 projects that might not fit his philosophy. That peaked his attention.
“Mr. Eggen, there are school projects approved to be built outside of the communities, sometimes as far as 10 minutes outside of communities. And you just funded them.”
At that he asked for an example, and I gave him the planned school near Aldersyde which is to serve Okotoks students. I told him it is in an industrial area, it has inadequate infrastructure for traffic, which will also impact the 10-minute response time the closest firehall will have. He balked at the idea, and asked me to contact him with more details. That was the first 40 seconds. The last 20 are for another blog.
So here are the details. Okotoks has no water. It can’t get a commitment on water. As a result it can’t develop, and that includes schools. Yet its 26,000 residents keep having babies. So the Foothills School Division starts looking. It finds space in the open arms of the M.D. of Foothills by the Legacy Fieldhouse.
This would be the third school project designed to be built outside the Okotoks community. Davisburg has two schools, one in each school division, and while it could be argued that they serve a different community, that is prime agricultural land that has been eroded to form dots of acreages all over the countryside. Further, is some instances busses are covering or expected to cover areas on the outskirts of Okotoks. Much like a crosswalk, the lines separating Okotoks from M.D. do not stop cars, and those people are just as much Okotokians as on the other side of the road.
One outlier is an anomaly. Two raises an eyebrow. Three is a trend. The trend to break up communities is beginning to show. This is a trend toward shipping students out of a community, and away from the concept of schools as community hubs. It's a trend to put so much space between neighbours that they no longer need to talk to each other. So Minister Eggen needs to either agree with this trend the PCs set for him, or stamp it out. But if he stamped it out, where would this new school go?
Here comes the Okotoks Town Council to save the day!
Not only did they find a site, but they seem to be appealing to both Eggen’s portfolios. As Minister of Education, he should be thrilled there is now a site that would be basically inside town (remember, those town borders do not a blockade make). He should further be thrilled with the idea of a cultural space adjacent to it. It meets the philosophy of kids staying in the community they live in, and studying in a place that is a community hub.
So what’s the problem? One minor hurdle is that the M.D. needs to agree. That should be a minor issue, but there are some political issues at play that make it a slight challenge. Another is our Wildrose MLA; will he be more interested in the fact that money is being borrowed to build this school, something that is completely anti-Wildrose, or will he see the necessity of having kids go to school in town and give Eggen a thumbs-up? My feel of the current Wildrose opposition is it’s the same as the old one; opposition for opposition’s sake.
Those aren’t the deciding issues, though. Its whether or not Eggen has the political will to stop something he’s already funded. Its whether or not Eggen is just trying to tie up the PCs loose ends, or if he intends on righting the ship. Its whether or not Eggen is willing to stand for something. Its whether or not Eggen is willing to make a stand now, because the Foothills School Division cannot wait for a school for five years. They need it now.
I’d like to think he is. But the ball isn’t in my court, it’s in his.
Your Alberta Party representative in Highwood wants students to go to school in their communities, and not be bussed out. Your Alberta Party representative in Highwood wants schools to be community hubs. Your Alberta Party representative is giving the Okotoks Town Council a big fist pump.
So I call on the Alberta NDP Government, namely Minister Eggen, to endorse this shift to a school community hub, and to help Okotoks get the land to make it happen and quickly. After that, perhaps Minister Eggen should review all the school projects he just funded, and where construction or the tendering process hasn’t already commenced, review if they meet his philosophy of what schools should be. I’d suspect that he might find more than one that doesn’t meet his standards.
While he does, he should tell us how much we’re paying for it. Or rather, tell us how much the next generations will be paying for it. I won’t necessarily be opposing, but I want to hear the NDP plan for making it easier for the next generations to cover the tab. So far I haven’t heard it.
Oh, and I hope that while Eggen is talking about the need for this school that he also talks about why this issue came up in the first place, and help Okotoks get a commitment for the Water For Life program.
Kudos to the Okotoks Town Council for their progressive thinking. It’s time for everyone to get back to building community.
This weekend I was in Didsbury helping move picnic tables, water tanks buildings, fences, flags and signs from one side of a quarter section to another to set up a park. This park will be a beautiful place for an Arts Festival in just over a month.
When it came to the fence posts and wire, my wife and I would load them into the back of the truck, drive them to the destination, and unload them where they needed to be. Then the fence was installed immediately. Likewise with the picnic tables and water tanks, they were delivered to their destination.
What we didn’t do was load the picnic tables, unload them at a neighbour’s place for storage, reload them later in the month using a different truck, and deliver them later. We got it all done at once.
Why on earth would we do that? Unless we were watching the companies building school portables, we would never even consider that strategy.
Not even a half mile away from that park site we were setting up is an industrial park where at least 30 school portables are sitting. They aren’t being built on that site, just stored. In fact, they were built in a facility outside Crossfield. That facility also has a large cache of school portables. Stored.
Also, if you look in the back field of Notre Dame Collegiate in High River, it seems as though that is now a storage facility for school portables as well. And at Senator Riley school in High River two portables remain unused, and have been unused and ready for transport for nearly 18 months. Stored.
They are not attached to schools, who reopen to students for another school year in under four weeks. By my simpleton calculations, in order for each of these portables to be delivered and installed in time, Alberta Education would have to install 5 portables each day with no weekends off. Somehow, I doubt that, but anything is possible.
Meanwhile, school portables are being stored, and not always appropriately. The company storing portables at the Didsbury site are not meeting their development permit obligations. It looks like a dump. And I can’t imagine Alberta Education wants empty school portables with wires, nails and other dangerous materials stored in the back field of an existing populated school, either.
ABOVE LEFT: The first lot outside of Didsbury jam packed with school portables. They have so many stored there they needed another lot.
ABOVE RIGHT: The second lot outside of Didsbury. Note the perfectly good truck for transporting portables that sits unloaded, the landscape feature that is supposed to provide a screen, and the missing 12-metre abuttment from the edge of the property.
UPDATE: As this blog was being written, portables were loaded onto a truck, moved to a different part of the property, and dropped there instead.
But here’s the kicker; according to WREM ICI Ltd., one of the companies building the modulars, those portables have to be stored until someone else picks them up (see page 10). They have their own trucks to move the buildings around, but apparently those trucks are not good enough to actually deliver the portables to the schools themselves. School boards are contracting other companies to deliver the buildings.
So even though the buildings are already on a truck, that truck will not be delivering the buildings to the schools. Schools will remain crowded. And when the school board can finally get the building delivered, students will already be in session, so the school site also becomes an active construction site. From experience I can tell you that is not a wise idea, just considering the safety of the kids.
Almost a year ago it was reported that modulars were not being delivered as a result of delays in getting permits, but nobody was willing to accept the responsibility for it.
Well, it’s time for someone to take responsibility. And now the responsibility falls to the Alberta NDP Government. One great way to ensure Albertans are not concerned about how the NDP is spending money is to make sure we don’t when we don’t need to. Offloading a school portable from one truck to another is one way to make sure we spend money when we don’t need to. And for a party who suggests they value education to the extent they do, they sure are putting a few things at risk.
School portables should not be dumped at storage sites. They should be installed, ready to house the future.
Yesterday, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta's leader, our unelected Premier, announced a plan to invest $2 billion in school construction projects over the next ten years.
If we ignore the fact that many of the projects announced were already announced once, in some cases twice, I mean thrice, and cancelled or postponed at least as many times, then this is good news.
If we don't ignore that fact, then it's still just wind on a brick wall. The PC's may huff and puff, but in the end, there wasn't a school to blow down.
But let's look positively at this announcement for a second. Finally, there is a plan to construct the space that we need for our growing population. Hopefully each school is going where 10-years-in-the-future Alberta needs it.
But there is something missing in the announcement; the explanation that the PCs are actually using binary math to calculate the real cost.
You see, $2 billion actually equals $10 billion.
(For those who don't understand binary, check my addendum at the bottom for an explanation)
Let me explain why $10 billion in particular, though.
You see, the $2 billion simply announces the construction of 230 empty buildings/modernizations. It costs a great deal more to actual turn those buildings into service centres of education. It takes lots of people (teachers and support staff), resources (textbooks, computers, etc.) and services (electricity, heating, internet, etc.) to operate them.
Alberta's operating budget for Education in 2014 is approximately $6.75 billion. If the province is building an additional 230 schools, that means they'll be adding approximately 10.5% of the current number of schools. Logic then dictates that it would require an additional 10.5% of the current operating budget to make these schools work. That would be an additional $710 million required in the operating budget.
Don't forget, the plan is to take place over the next ten years. That's $7.1 billion extra not currently included in the budget. Account for inflation, and suddenly that $2 billion promise ends up adding to over $10 billion.
Would the expected increase in population by 1 million help take care of that burden? Perhaps. Is the above example a little simplistic? Perhaps. However, it makes clear that simply building schools requires far more commitment than the PCs have undertaken.
You see, each Albertan would have to pay more taxes to cover that commitment. In order to fund healthcare and other social services to similar levels and similar growth while covering this commitment, the PCs would have to increase taxes by about 2%. That doesn't sound like much, until you hear that such an increase would be the difference between an average of about $10,000 being increased to $11,000. For those on a living wage, $1,000 is a lot of money.
Keep in mind, those simplistic calculations are only representative if every Albertan pays taxes. Don't forget, our kids don't really pay taxes, so the taxes have to be distributed over fewer Albertans.
But such an increase wasn't included in the announcement. Nor was discussion on changing how we collect royalty income from primary resources. Nor was there any announcement of some new magical income source for the province (mind you, we are in a by-election, and the PCs love announcements, it could come any day now).
So even if I am optimistic, and truly believe the schools would be built under a PC government, I have no clue how they plan on paying for the buildings and the stuff to go in them.
Thank goodness I'm optimistic about something else; an Alberta Government operated by someone other than the PCs.
Which leads me to the Wildrose Party, as they are the heavy favourites to form the next government. I am reminded of an announcement they made recently about Education. Actually, come to think of it, it was less than a week before the PC's announcement. It's value ... $2 billion dollars. Announced during a by-election.
Is there an echo in here?
As for the costing of this brilliant plan (I say brilliant, because it really is a good idea to inject that money into Education, regardless of who has the idea), again we are lacking in details. The timeline is more aggressive than the PC timeline, going for four years instead of ten. That means their $2 billion announcement becomes only a $5 billion commitment with the operating costs included.
But in four years, we aren't expected to have 1 million new Albertans. We're expected to have more around 400,000 new Albertans. That means more of a burden would be downloaded to Albertan taxpayers. Except that the Wildrose are adamant that taxes not be changed, so they have to find the money elsewhere. I'm not the first to realize this, Luke Fevin pointed it out clearly after the Wildrose release.
I think putting $2 billion into building schools is brilliant, regardless of who actually enacts it, and especially if they are placed in such a way as to encourage the development of communities. I think the commitment to operating these empty buildings should be expressed, and so far it hasn't.
So now I must express my optimistic frustration. I know a party who not only has a plan to fix the infrastructure crisis in Education, but has that plan costed, as well. However, that party hasn't had the opportunity to have that plan brought forth to their membership, and so hasn't been able to publicize it the way they want, which is hard for me as someone who has worked on it. So I have to rely on "just trust me, they have a plan, and it includes how to pay for it." Knowing that plan exists has me very optimistic, but knowing how hard it is for people to trust politicians, especially those who just say "just trust me", has me very frustrated.
So let me put it this way. You know what you'll get from the PCs. The Wildrose have explained their position as well, yet it still lacks the detail necessary to trust it.
You might not know Greg Clark or the Alberta Party yet. But at the very least, I hope you're optimistic.
BINARY EXPLANATION: By referencing binary, I probably just geeked myself out a bit. Computers, who work in binary, only work with OFFs or ONs, Trues or Falses, represented as zeros and ones. In order to represent something else, you have to combine zeros and ones, so binary systems use 10 to represent the number two)
I spoke to a former PC supporter recently who voted for the new Premier. I've also read a blog by a PC supporter as well. Both indicated that the new Premier has given them hope that the PC party can lead the province again. These responses, only two weeks into Jim Prentice's Premiership, lead me to ask the question;
Do you like fishing with knots and kinks in your line?
Me, I'd prefer to fish with a good straight line. I have a better chance of getting the job done without the line breaking ... again.
Make no mistake, anyone who believes in the PC party's ability to govern is fishing with knots in their line. And there are a lot of knots.
Prentice was silent in his first week as Premier. He spent that entire week loosening knots so that he could unravel them in public in his second week, as a way of saying "look, I'm fixing things!"
But a trust is broken. The line is kinked. That makes the line weak. And Alberta is a big fish.
Not only that, but he has ignored some fairly significant knots that remain, and have no glimmer of hope that they be untied.
The Disaster Recovery Program, or DRP (which in flood-affected communities is now a three-letter swear word) is not even on Prentice's radar. He mentioned nothing of it to Diana McQueen, who is now the fourth minister in 14 months to be in charge of the program. The program is in shambles, and hundreds of people still remain displaced from their homes.
It was one place former Premier Alison Redford tried to keep the line straight, by telling flood victims that they would be helped to full recovery. Then other ministers like Doug Griffiths, Ken Hughes, and lastly Greg Weadick tied it into the DRP knot. And this isn't just some shoe-tying knot, this is a Gordian knot, and Prentice is no Alexander the Great.
Another knot made bigger since the 2012 election was patronage appointments. Starting with Evan Berger, who was ousted in the last election but given a sweet management position in the Agriculture Ministry, this knot was made bigger by the appointments of Stephen Mandel in Health and Gordon Dirks in Education. Nothing suggests that Mandel and Dirks can't do a good job, it's just that no Albertan chose them. Prentice might be able to untie the patronage knot, but that kink will always be in the PC line, making voters wonder if they just can't see the trough for the pigs.
A kink sits where the government aircraft knot once sat. Just because government officials can't take advantage of planes anymore doesn't mean there aren't other ways. That kink can still knot up again, but it might not be airplanes doing it.
The entire Education portfolio is tied up in knot after knot. Former Education Minister Jeff Johnson started by bargaining in bad faith (knot 1), compromising teachers' private emails (knot 2), legislating instead of negotiating (knot 3), trumpeting an uninformed taskforce on teaching excellence (knot 4), usurping teacher conduct review unnecessarily (knot 5), and attempting to force Boards to provide information that had no chance of being compiled properly (knot 6).
Prentice had a chance to start loosening these knots back in August at a gathering of some of the most influential teachers in the province. He skipped it. Instead, he appointed someone nobody had the opportunity to speak to about Education. To teachers, that equates to appointing someone with no intention of listening. Teachers will say they hope that's not the case, but they have no proof. Not only that, but Jeff Johnson was given another portfolio, but rather than the defenceless youth, now he's in charge of the defenceless seniors.
Prentice also made an attempt at untying a knot when he announced the opening of four starter schools in Calgary. But have you ever tried to untie a knot using mittens? That is in effect what he's doing when he builds makeshift schools with no gyms, libraries, music rooms or other specialty spaces. Taxpayer dollars will be spent on sub-par temporary buildings that will direct resources away from the permanent facilities that are meant to replace them. That's like using 4-pound test line to fish for tuna ... after dark.
Am I taking the metaphor too far when I say schools of fish will never be caught with this tangled line?Albertans need a hook. Albertans need a straight line. And Albertans need a strong angler to reel us in.
The PCs have no hook. Their line is so kinked and knotted it looks like it's been braided by a four-year-old. And Prentice is no fisherman.
If you haven't read it, read my first blog on the topic for some back story.
Teachers are influential people. Just ask Ric McIver.
After an impromptu twitter campaign to blast Ric McIver and Jim Prentice for not showing up to the Alberta Teachers' Association Summer Conference for a PC Leadership Forum, McIver caved in. That's the best way I can describe it.
Prentice didn't. He held strong in his unspoken position that he doesn't value education. With Jeff Johnson in his court, the writing was already on the wall.
On the last possible day of the best opportunity to engage with teachers, McIver snuck out to have breakfast. Great timing, you know, because then teachers have their mouths full and can't berate him for not showing up.
Now context is important here. The forum on the Monday night was attended by every teacher at the Summer Conference. Every. Teacher. These are the most influential teachers in the profession, the hyper-engaged, the extremely well-informed, the movers and shakers.
The Friday morning breakfast was held in the on-campus restaurant. 8 people at a time, and only if they stayed on campus.
Unless of course you're ridiculously hyper-engaged like me, and even if you stay off campus and stay up enjoying life with teachers until 2 AM, you still come in to eat the $20 breakfast just to see what this McIver fellow has to offer.
I inserted myself into the first table McIver was at in the morning. McIver got to 4 tables.
For those of you who are good at the basics, 8 people per table, times 4 tables, less the seat taken by your staffer at each table ...
Yup, less than 10% of the teachers there who were ready to be engaged. 10% of the most influential of the most influential in Alberta Education. That's not even 1/1000th of the teachers in Alberta.
And he didn't even have a good showing. He didn't even offer platitudes. He made himself look like he was listening, using the Stephen Covey "seek to understand before being understood" approach, but he never approached depth of discussion. Not once.
A friend asked if I'd live-tweet the conversation. I tried, I really did, but in order to tweet effectively, one must have some substance, some form of content, to tweet.
And the iPad in one's hands as opposed to a fork and knife.
There was, however, a pretty telling moment in the conversation. Another new friend of mine who I sat with numerous times throughout the week asked a lovely question, "what is your take on curriculum changes in Alberta".
Ric McIver's response: "Well, I'll to you what, I'm not going to tell you how to teach, and that is what the taskforce got wrong ..."
Lost? So was I, although I could have been confused for having just taken a bite of particularly grissly sausage.
It was like he didn't know what talking points to use.
Mr. McIver, first of all, curriculum has nothing to do with how to teach. Read my blog on that.
Secondly, the Taskforce on Teaching Excellence had nothing to do with either item. To learn more about the taskforce, read my blog on that.
I know he won't read them. He admitted to us at the table that he doesn't read everything that he should with regards to education.
Again, the second largest, and arguably the most tumultuous, portfolio in the Alberta Government is the one he doesn't care about.
Education is not an afterthought. It is the cornerstone of our future.
And if Ric McIver thinks that coffee is going to cut it, he's dead wrong. As for not making promises one can't keep, that does not justify making no promises at all.
I had the pleasure of watching a forum on education last night.
Scratch that. There was no forum. There was a discussion. Punctuated with humour.
We had to laugh. It was the only way to look passed the fact that two potential Premiers of Alberta skipped it.
Thomas Lukaszuk, Ric McIver and Jim Prentice are all running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, and therefore our next Premier.
But Lukaszuk was the only one who showed up for a forum focussing on education at the Alberta Teachers' Association Summer Conference.
Prentice and McIver were given the opportunity to come long in advance. They were given significant encouragements to come. But they didn't.
You see, they don't care about education. Not that they don't care about teachers ... they don't care about education.
You know, the second largest, and arguably the most tumultuous, portfolio in the Alberta Government? Yeah, that one. They don't care about it.
So Prentice and McIver chose to let preconceptions about their positions speak for them. So Prentice is seen as a Jeff Johnson supporter, which is not a friendly position for education. McIver is seen as a tiny Wildroser in training, with a policy on education that is very similar to theirs.
These preconceptions could be totally wrong. But we have no way of knowing.
Lukaszuk was up front and honest with me after the forum; he pandered to his audience. He mentioned how he would have preferred to have been held more to account for what he was saying (moderator Ken Chapman did a great job trying to do that, but he was a moderator, and so couldn't firmly hold his feet to the fire). A good public forum would have done that.
That being said, if he felt like he had to pander to teachers, good. Because obviously Prentice and McIver provide no hope for Alberta Education's future whatsoever.
He didn't pander enough. He didn't lay all concerns about the Taskforce on Education to rest. He didn't commit fully to public education above all else. He didn't provide actionable ways of improving revenues for the province. So while he pandered well with what his platform and party would allow, he didn't pander well enough to convince me to lend even a single red cent to his party.
Thankfully the Alberta Teachers' Association, in the absence of the other PC leadership candidates, were able to bump the opposition Education critics in their place. Kent Hehr (Liberals), Bruce McAllister (Wildrose) and Deron Bilous (NDP) all were going to come on Tuesday, but came on Monday instead. It was truly an incredible opportunity for delegates to get a clearer understanding of the differences between the parties.
Well, at least the elected ones.
If we are having so many problems with the elected parties, then we should be made aware of actionable policies of other, not-yet-elected parties. I would have liked to have seen the Alberta Party and Green Party leaders have an opportunity to share their policies.
Nonetheless, we heard from four oppositions last night. Yes, Lukaszuk is in opposition. With two PC leadership contenders who do not value education, Lukaszuk is in the minority.
When are we going to hear from a government?
To see the live tweeting from the forum at the ATA Summer Conference, check out the hashtag #atasc on Monday, August 11, 2014.
It is becoming obvious we have an Education Minister that is running amock. Parents should be freaking out right about now; any and all conversation about their child's education has come to a screeching halt.
Just over a week ago, Jeff Johnson, our self-righteous Education Minister, ordered all 62 school boards in our province to send him details about teachers whose discipline didn't make it to the Alberta Teachers' Association.
Parents should be freaking out right about now - May 28, 2014
In a nutshell, he's asked for any complaint registered against any teacher, and every action taken afterward, over the past 10 years.
And he gave school boards 2 weeks to get it done. Just as many staff members take an earned summer break, and all remaining are busy trying to compile final examination and enrolment data.
If I had to cook supper in 5 minutes, unless I have leftovers, I wouldn't do it. I'd go get fast food instead, regardless of its diminished nutritional value.
So, Minister Johnson, if you're really wanting a decent amount of data to chew on, are you going to settle for leftovers, or be okay with fast food?
No? Then why are you giving your chefs such a short timeline to cook something up?
When it comes to fast food, I have no idea what goes into it. Does my hot dog include bone dust swept up off the factory floor? How much sugar is in my ketchup? How much of that seasoning is MSG and how much of it is salt? Did someone spit in my burger for making such a ridiculous request?
How much irrelevant yet personal and private employment data is going to get swept up off the factory floor and mixed into this hot dog of a report that Johnson is supposed to get? Oh, and he's supposed to eat, then digest, 62 hot dogs. Something's going to get regurgitated that shouldn't be.
This is a most valid concern, considering the Privacy Commissioner just laid the smack down on Johnson for doing exactly that; regurgitating something he was not even supposed to have access to; teachers' private emails. Johnson's complete lack of an apology, rationalized by saying "next time I'll get permission", shows to the ATA there is no intention of ever protecting their private information. So it makes sense that the ATA has again asked the Privacy Commissioner to get involved and tell Johnson to back down on this most recent order.
These concerns were echoed by the Alberta School Boards Association, so when you have multiple Educational partners expressing concern, shouldn't that give the Minister pause?
The other concern that the ATA has expressed is that none of the hot dog is Jeff Johnson's to demand, bone dust and all. School boards employ teachers, not the Minister. His response is somewhat troublesome;
"School boards serve at the pleasure of the minister and the minister can dissolve a school board."
So now the school boards, whether they agree with him or not, know what the expectation is in the future. Give Johnson your homework, or he'll smack you around.
By the way, did you know most schools have an anti-bullying policy of some sort?
Funny thing is, Johnson is suggesting the ATA told him to get this information, when in fact, the ATA said in effect "not you, anybody but you". What the ATA said was that stories Johnson has heard about teachers not getting disciplined were unsubstantiated, and that evidence was needed, but that Johnson should remain impartial and not be in charge of it himself.
He should have listened to them. What he has now done by ordering the boards to get this information for him is tacitly suggested that his baby, the Taskforce on Teaching Excellence, didn't do their research. If they had, he wouldn't need to ask for this information, he'd already have it.
So why laud the Taskforce so much when he was just going to debunk it by his own actions anyway? Because it's never actually been about Education, it's been about Jeff Johnson.
He has now ... tacitly suggested that his baby, the Taskforce on Teaching Excellence, didn't do their research.
Three episodes ago I was asked in comments what I thought the end game for Johnson was. Why would he do all this?
Firstly, it's very possible that the process for intervention in teacher conduct or practice could be tweaked to make the system even better. In my discussions recently with a school division leader, I would say there is an appetite for an improvement to the process.
But the end does not justify the means. You cannot justify making an adversary out of the ATA by saying "it's just to improve process". In discussions with ATA spokespeople, I'd say the ATA would have been open to improving process, had they just been included in it.
Besides that, the ATA aren't the only teachers in the province (despite their best efforts). So where is Johnson's efforts to measure process in charter or private schools?
No, this is not why Johnson is doing all this. Johnson is looking out for numero uno. And to be clear, the students have not been numero uno from the start.
It only makes sense that Johnson was, at one time, hoping his gall would land him a high-ranking spot under the next leadership. It's obvious that Johnson thinks that will be under Jim Prentice's leadership. That's why even after Prentice rebuked Johnson, Johnson stuck to flying the Prentice banner. He's hoping there's another portfolio of equal or greater importance waiting for his heavy-hand. And with current Premier David Hancock doing nothing to stop the bleeding, Johnson is getting tacit approval, if not encouragement.
And what if Prentice doesn't reward Johnson for his bull-headed approach? Well there is always another party flag to wave, instead. So what party would sympathize with such anti-union activities?
Danielle Smith and I crossed paths at Canada Day celebrations once again. She asked me the exact same question; why would Johnson do all this. After going through option 1 as I already have here, I suggested that he's prepping himself to cross the floor. "To who?" she asked.
My smirk was my response. She laughed, and her aide told me that my "outside view" was bizarre. I asked why it was so bizarre when their colleague Rob Anderson has already endorsed Johnson publicly. Smith was surprised, almost to the point of disbelief, until I told her I could forward her the link. She shrugged, and conceded the fact that Anderson and Johnson were "friends" at one point in time.
It would be a significant surprise if Johnson hasn't at least looked up the Wildrose Party's Member Approved Policy. He has been posturing himself perfectly to support it's Education Policy (Section III, Subsection B, Clause 6). Interestingly, this clause shows just as much research into teacher accountability as the Taskforce on Teaching Excellence - you know, the one Johnson himself just debunked.
It's clear Johnson is setting himself up to go to wherever the winning party is. And right now, students aren't it.
What's worse, is that while we have 2 more months of waiting to find out what the new PC leader will do, that party has already had a chance to muzzle it's dog. Even if the PC party were to get someone more amicable and constructive in the Education Ministry, it'll take them at least 2 years to dig themselves out of this mess. And then we'll be into a provincial election. Students will have not been the focal point for this government's entire term.
Yup, parents should be freaking out right about now. Until there is a party with a strong Education Policy, supported by consultation with the public, backed by research, that will work with all stakeholders as opposed to against, with their primary focus on students, governing our province, parents should continue to be freaking out.
For those of you who don't know, "tatlo" is the number 3 in Tagalog.
Parents should be freaking out right about now. Even though we’ve had issues including Jeff Johnson’s insertion into Alberta Education, and the calculated release of the grossly uninformed Task Force on Teacher Excellence, the reason parents should have first started freaking out was introduced to us even earlier. As one very prolific Edmonton Journal columnist calls it, this reason is/was the “Great Canadian Math Debate”.
Since Ralph Klein was Premier, every four years Education, and particularly Teachers, get attacked. Interestingly enough, it always happens to land at exactly the halfway point between elections. Two years after the 2008 election, teachers were in a battle to get the raise they were guaranteed in a province-wide agreement led by the Premier Ed Stelmach. Then as they approached election season, the government offered some concessions to Teachers in hopes that they have a short memory. Unfortunately, Teachers do. Two years after the 2012 election, again Teachers are in a battle against the government, and now the battle even includes the Official Opposition. What concessions should we expect from the government during the 2016 election that they won’t claw back in 2018? Is the Wildrose, widely viewed as the next government, any different when they have joined in the attack themselves?
The Great Math "Debate"
First, Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies expressed a concern in a poorly-worded change.org petition (I originally dismissed it based on this very issue). It was rooted in the idea that Alberta students perform poorly on international tests in mathematics. It got a little attention. Then the Wildrose adopted it for talking points, Dr. Tran-Davies got an editor to correct (although not completely) the petition, and it developed into a “debate” pressed by the Official Opposition and a couple of very outspoken media personalities. The points of the "debate"; that the Alberta Government is trying to shift all of Education to an unproven “discovery” approach and is forcing instruction to ignore “basics” in math.
"Discovery" and "debate" are in quotation marks, because in actual fact both terms are misleading. The term "discovery" means to learn something for the first time. At which point, all learning is "discovery" learning. The term we should be using is "inquiry", which is more about investigating for understanding. The term "debate" connotes dialogue. There isn't much of that happening, mostly it's just a bunch of announcements of opinions. I should note that this blog does not constitute a dialogue, and therefore doesn't contribute much to the idea of "debate" either, but when in Rome...
The myths involved in this “debate” are plentiful. The problem is, nobody is debunking them completely (although some have approached it). So here is my attempt, finally, at doing just that.
The title of “Dr.” means that you are an expert in everything.
Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies is up-front about pointing out that she is no mathematician nor teacher. I give her kudos for that. However, other mathematics professors who have joined the “debate” seem to have forgotten that they profess (which largely means research) advanced math, and are not trained in Education. That unfortunately limits the value of their input (but to be clear, does not discount their concerns). Such individuals who can be considered experts of both math and education, such as Dr. Craig Loewen of the University of Lethbridge, have had constructive input into the curriculum.
Curriculum determines the approach used to instruct math concepts.
Teachers determine the approach used to instruct math concepts. Teachers are expected to use methods that are best for the students. There is no one-size-fits-all method to teaching math, but mastery is still expected nonetheless. Curriculum only informs what is to be taught.
Teachers are being forced to ignore "the basics".
Teachers are autonomous professionals. If a teacher feels as though they are not permitted to teach the basics, they should take their issue up with Member Services at the Alberta Teachers' Association. It is up to teachers how they feel it is best to deliver the curriculum to their unique and varied students, and oftentimes this requires a differentiated approach. To say that teachers are being force to ignore the "basics" is to say teachers are not autonomous professionals. If you fear that teachers are not given that autonomy, take your issue up with the Education Minister.
PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), carried out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, is a reliable measurement tool for the efficacy of a region’s math instruction.
Firstly, the OECD is for Economic, not Educational Cooperation and Development. This should be our first indicator that something is rotten in the state of ... well in this case, France.
Secondly, PISA is a measurement tool that uses data from different tests in different countries, and different countries report their results differently, almost in a self-selected manner. Certainly they’ll tell you it’s all the same test, but what they don’t advertise is that regions can also pick and choose various questions to be included in the test. If a country wants to improve their PISA scores, they simply need to make their math tests easier, or only have the best regions of their country participate. In Alberta’s case, our PISA score can drop simply because of the increase in our expectations of our math students, or because other countries pick only their best jurisdictions to report. Using PISA as a standardized test has the same problem as using Provincial Achievement Tests; a standardized test can't work if there are too many variables making each test subject different before you even test them. China reports only a few jurisdictions, Alberta reports the whole province. A student who grew up learning Isa, Dalawa, Tatlo writes the same Provincial Achievement Test as a student who grew up learning One, Two, Three. See the problem here?
Teachers have had meaningful input into the curriculum redesign process.
Even though the world’s leading regions in education (such as Finland) ask the Alberta Teachers Association for advice, curriculum redesign has kept the ATA at arm’s length. It hasn’t been until just a few months ago (years after curriculum redevelopment started) that Minister Jeff Johnson has started listening to the ATA and considerably relaxed his deadlines and expectations for the completion of the curriculum redesign and its implementation. Had teachers had meaningful input into the curriculum redesign process, you would have seen a much larger emphasis on professional development to prepare teachers for the new curriculum.
The Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) predetermines the direction education will take, so consultation with the public is merely a smoke screen.
The WCNP is simply an organization of collaboration, not of predetermination. For that matter, if the WNCP were in fact predetermining education, then we should also see scores from the Yukon, NWT, Saskatchewan and Manitoba plunge, and that is not the case. There is ample evidence showing that results from public consultations have been considered in the curriculum redesign process.
With the introduction of Student Learning Assessments (SLAs), grades will disappear, and so will accountability.
SLAs are completed at the beginning of the year. They are to be used by teachers to guide their instruction. Grading strategies for the remainder of the year are determined by the School Board, various curricular departments within the board, School Administration and finally teachers, in that order. If a school chooses not to use grades, it is not because it is mandated as such from the government. Furthermore, any assessment strategy employed by a teacher should show that each student matches the SLA at the beginning of the year, and show a trend for the student of either maintaining or improving their understanding of the curricular concepts. Any student who shows evidence of a reduction in performance should also have documentation to indicate what strategies were used to address that reduction, and should also show evidence of subsequent improvement following those strategies. All this documentation exists, teachers are required to do it. Accountability is not a concern here.
David Staples provides no useful feedback.
David Staples shows a bias because that is his job. He is very good at his job, somehow finding justification for writing 42 columns on this supposed “debate”. In fact, many people across Canada are now equating his name with this whole "debate". This is the time of stardom a columnist dreams of, so to maintain this high-profile status that sells his column, he must write prolifically. And write he does. His viewpoints are based on the idea that “basic math” is needed for every child.
Personal anecdote; when I was learning math, I didn’t not learn it because I could memorize things. My father, in fact, taught me math using a very “discovery”, or rather an "inquiry" approach. This was 20 years ago. So to go back to “the way we used to do it” might just mean going back to “discovery” ... *ahem* ... "inquiry".
Nonetheless, Mr. Staples does provide an insight that allows us to identify issues that require rectifying. Taken with a grain of salt, it can be very useful. But make sure you take it with a grain of salt, because much like the first myth debunked, a columnist does not a journalist make; see Joe Bower for more discussion on this thought.
The Wildrose are representing the concerns of all Albertans in this "debate".
The Wildrose, rather than representing concerns, are telling Albertans what to be concerned about. In a telephone town hall that I can only describe as a “push poll”, the majority of individuals whose questions were aired were those that were speaking against teachers, math instruction, or curriculum redesign. Of 15 questioners that I noted, 1 educational aide got through long enough to praise teachers on their balanced instruction, 1 parent got through to do the same, and no teachers were aired. When I pressed them about how they chose which questions got through, it became evident that their town hall had not only self-selected data, but also inaccurate data. They couldn’t even find the question I had asked.
That question was “Danielle, when a parent comes to you expressing concern, do you ask first if they have approached their child’s teacher, and if they haven’t, do you direct them there?” I have never received a follow-up as they promised in the teletownpushpollhall.
You know what seems odd to me? Numbers that aren't divisible by two.
Being an Education Critic makes you an Education Expert.
The Wildrose are seemingly unware of the fact that they are arguing about one thing when the issue is something completely different; similar to arguing about how clouds are formed when the discussion is actually about acid rain. The Wildrose are caught in a problem in that they confuse the “what” of teaching with the “how” of teaching. For example, if you need to transport oil, there are many ways you can do it. You can pipe it, drive it, put it on a train, break it down into other products that are easier to consume like gasoline and ethanol, etc. So if you don’t want the oil on a train, what should you do?
By Wildrose logic, don’t use oil, use canola instead.
Certainly that would change the transport options, and moving to “greener” solutions is a noble goal, but we would lose all the value that exists in oil.
Curriculum defines “what” teachers are expected to impart to students, not “how”. Certainly “how” to teach something depends on what is being taught, but if parents are displeased with “how” teachers teach, asking them to try a different “how” makes far more sense than trying a different “what”.
In a meeting with Wildrose Education Critic Bruce McAllister and Leader Danielle Smith, I was told that they believe strongly in a “return to teaching the basics.” At first that sounds like a “what” item. But when they explain what they think the basics are, they suggest things like memorizing times tables, methods of long division, vertical addition and formula memorization. These are not the “what”, but rather the “how”. As I’ve learned, there are more than a few ways to skin a fish.
When I asked them how they know what the basics were, the response from Ms. Smith was “the easiest way for a student to learn.” Again, a “how”. My response and question was “what if the easiest way for a student to learn divisibility by 9 is by summing up the digits, not memorizing the times table?”
The two seconds of stunned silence was telling. So was the response from Mr. McAllister when it finally came; “we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this.”
So we did.
I’m not saying don’t change curriculum, because in many cases a good curriculum update and overhaul is well overdue. I’m saying if you want to change the “how”, go to the person who actually make those decisions; go to the teacher.
However, who would want to go to a teacher now to discuss their child’s successes in school? After all, we are self-serving people who care more about our own then your children. But don’t worry, government has your back. They will ensure, from their offices in downtown Edmonton, that your child’s classroom is perfectly managed, and that teachers have so much oversight as to not have to think for themselves, or for your child, anymore. The government knows best.
And just in case you thought that was only a PC government, allow me to correct that misconception. Jeff Johnson believes the ATA cannot manage their own, which is why he has claimed himself savior of our discipline process. However, the Wildrose’s Rob Anderson jumped on the Johnson bandwagon. So, if the political pundits are correct and the blue and orange banners are replaced with green and pink ones in 2016, don’t expect any change to how they approach Education.
The only way to avoid that is to have an alternative. Kent Hehr had a dream of being a teacher cut short, but his passion cannot be ignored. Deron Bilous has been a teacher, so understands the profession. The Alberta Party is currently working on its Education Policy among other policies, soliciting input from all stakeholders. Ask each of these people about the Great Math "Debate", you will find a hugely different response than the one in the media.
Parents should be freaking out right about now. Regardless of which of the conservative parties take power in 2016, it won’t be professional educators making decisions about Education. It will be some elected official whose only adult experience in our schools was either delivering a Xerox machine, broadcasting a special interest segment on a morning news show, or spending 10 months bickering instead of running a school board.
According to Random House, a “task force” is a group or committee, usually of experts or specialists, formed for analyzing, investigating, or solving a specific problem.
It’s no wonder the public thinks there’s an excellence-deficit in teaching in Alberta. There’s a task force on it, so it must be a problem! Again, parents should be freaking out right about now.
But that’s not what Minister of Education Jeff Johnson says. When asked why he made the task force at all, he explains that we don’t have an excellence-deficit in teaching. He says the task force was to come up with recommendations to keep it that way.
So he put together a panel he calls experts in Education. Strange, then, that the organization considered a global leader in Educational Policy and Research, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, was not included in this panel. You know, that organization that Ministers of Education and Presidents of the world’s leading countries in Education like Finland, Singapore and more come to for advice? Yeah, that group.
When asked about this, he balks at the suggestion he didn’t include teachers on the panel, and reaffirms his belief that the panel is a “blue ribbon” expert panel.
Alright, let’s go with that. Of the people on the committee, it can be said that each one of them clearly value Education, but are they experts?
Four of them are MLAs, but simply being elected does not an expert make. Three people from post-secondary institutions, including the Chair of the Task Force, are experts, but not in K-12 Education (one of them not even in Education at all, but rather in Forestry). Only one post-secondary representative can be considered an expert in Education. One individual on the committee has a deep history rooted in Xerox Canada, just as the Minister of Education has, but sneaks onto the panel because she’s involved in a post-secondary institution. One person on the panel is a human resources expert. One person on the panel is a student, and while a great representative, not an expert in Education (the “I’m an expert because I’ve gone through school” argument doesn’t work). One is a past school board trustee and Alberta School Boards’ Association President, but again simply being elected does not an expert make. Rounding off the panel are two very passionate Principals, and certainly Educational leaders, but do they accurately represent all teachers in Alberta when they both come from the same school division, and were not elected nor appointed by elected members of the profession?
So of the members of this task force, only one is an expert in Educational research, and the rest, well, even one of the appointments smacks of cronyism.
It makes you wonder again why some of these people, including a Forestry expert’s and Xerox manager’s participation precluded inviting any of the ATA’s experts who are recognized around the world as leaders in Education and Educational research. Is it because forestry produces pulpwood, used to produce textbooks, possibly through Xerox machines?
So let’s go back to the concept of the excellence-deficit. What is “excellence”? Let’s go to the “Task Force’s” report.
We don’t know. But whatever it is, we want it in front of every student.
How can Johnson's Task Force provide recommendations on excellence if it doesn't even know what it looks like? That would be like me offering advice on how to rebuild a 1985 Pontiac Bonneville; just because I've driven one doesn't mean I know a thing about making it better.
In my teaching preparation program at the University of Lethbridge, this was one of the first discussions we would have in our Curriculum and Instruction class; what does an excellent teacher look like? Through a standard Think-Pair-Share activity, we discovered that everyone’s view of an excellent teacher depended upon our own individual needs, and yet a teacher had to try to meet every one of them. I recall my professor telling me “it’s hard, but if you’re passionate about it, you’ll make it happen.”
Now that we've decoded what constitutes a "blue-ribbon" panel according to Jeff Johnson, as well as what "excellence" is, let’s have a look at these recommendations. Some of the recommendations are awesome, but the fact that they show up in this report is redundant; they are the same things the ATA has been asking for years. Some of the recommendations are great considerations, poorly executed. Some of the recommendations undermine not only the profession, but the entire system of Education. It should be noted that I have summarized recommendations significantly, so to read the exact language, I recommend actually reading the report.
Let’s start with recommendations 1 and 6, which basically ask us to align everything with Inspiring Education. This makes sense, however when we get to the point where government tells post-secondary institutions how to prepare teachers, we might be looking at trouble.
Now to recommendations 2, 3, 22, 23 and 24 which all discuss the roles of school leaders, namely Principals. They also discuss the standards to which these school leaders should be held. This is dangerous territory, discussing holding school leaders to different standards than other teachers. The Task Force even states that teachers are all expected to share their expertise, regardless of any leadership designation. So if that is their belief, should they not all be held to the same gold standard? Any suggestion to hold Principals to a different standard suggests that Principals should not be considered teachers, but rather business managers. The truth is, in Alberta, Principals are teachers, they are roles that cannot be separated.
Now to recommendations 4, 11, 12, 18, 22 and 23, all of which have to do with practice review and teacher/school leader competency. First and foremost, teachers are not afraid of regular review. If anything, they should be pleased with the idea, so long as there are supports to enable professional development, and that the review process helps them advance their abilities in their profession, and advance the quality of education students receive. The problems come with the lack of research the Task Force seems to have actually undertaken, making recommendations on things they know little about. For example, they suggested that standards should receive regular review when they already do. They also suggest that teachers professional growth plans are whimsical documents with no relevance, when they produced no research to back that assertion up. They suggested that encouraging teachers through a sort of merit system would help, when research has shown time and time again that it doesn’t because education works best under a professional model, not an industrial model. They suggest a return to cyclical evaluations, a system we moved away from almost two decades ago, and a system that Ontario tried and failed at, showing how ineffective such a system would be in actually improving or assurance excellence in education. Frankly, I say bring on practice review, but in collaboration with the professional body. Teachers would love to become better at their job, if nothing else but to advance the profession and education on the whole. But doing it in such a way that undermines professional courtesy will also undermine the profession, and so you should not be surprised when teachers get defensive. My recommendation; start from scratch on practice review, involve the teachers, and you’ll get an even better system that is more accountable but still honours the profession. The fact that six of the report’s recommendations are built upon faulty, incomplete information, and attempt to make changes to teachers, not with teachers, should give people pause about the entire report.
Recommendation 5 gets a paragraph to itself. This recommendation asks teacher prep programs to look not only at marks, but other attributes of potential teachers. Does this mean universities will then be afforded the opportunity to refuse admission to a potential teacher because their Facebook profile happens to include a photo of their rendition of "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy"? Or their race, sexual orientation, etc.? Hopefully that wasn’t the recommendation’s intent, but poor wording leaves open the opportunity.
Recommendation 7 also gets its own paragraph, but it gets its own title, too. I dub this recommendation the “Anybody Can Teach” recommendation. Basically, you don’t have to be trained in Education to become a teacher. This is hugely problematic. This could suggest that a busker could simply get a letter of authority and start teaching choir. They have no training in classroom management, assessment, instructional pedagogy, and in some cases don't even have the theoretical knowledge to properly support student learning. I didn't go to university for 6 years just to have a busker take my job.
Recommendations 8, 9, 10, 16 and 17 are among my favourite recommendations. They aren’t new, various organizations have been recommending it for years. Basically it amounts to mentorship. Give student teachers more experience time. Give first-year and struggling teachers mentorship opportunities. Give school leaders mentorship as well. I love these recommendations if implemented properly. Mentorship is useless without appropriate supports. If asked to mentor, a teacher or school leader needs to be afforded the time to be able to appropriately support their mentee. The mentee must also have the time available to interact with their mentor. There is a cost factor with this, but in my opinion, the quality of teaching that would result would far outweigh the costs of implementing. I’m worried, however, about Recommendation 9 which discusses part-time paid internships for first-year teachers, which would see tonnes of part-time positions, but no full-time positions, and this could be a killer for any profession; just look at the Nurses of Alberta for evidence on that.
Recommendations 13 and 14 are two more of my favourites, but again they are nothing new. Basically it suggests giving teachers the professional supports they need to get their jobs done spectacularly. If this means giving every teacher the professional development they need to operate current technology to its most efficient usage, I’m in. If this means giving every teacher some extra training on supporting the various special needs in the school, I’m in. If this means reducing the red tape to getting a student the support they need, I’m in (I have a student who might just be gifted, but because she moved to Canada after she turned 14, she is not “eligible” for the appropriate assessments to give her a gifted designation … so we limit her potential). If it means giving teachers time to collaborate and find best practices in delivering Education, then I’m in. However, this is not simply going to happen by batting our eyes at the issues; we must fund these solutions. While this recommendation is a great one, it misses addressing some far more significant issues, including ensuring excessive class size, poverty, foster care, or hunger aren’t the reasons why we need extra supports.
A slight concern about a framework for choosing school leaders in recommendation 15. At the outset this sounds like a good idea, but then we forget about the diversity of schools in the province. We have schools with 30 students, and other schools with 3000. Being an educational leader in Oyen is far different than being an educational leader in Edmonton. I suggest dropping this recommendation in favor of giving school boards the autonomy to make their own decisions to fill their own needs.
Recommendations 19 and 20 show to me one more time how little research the Task Force completed, or rather how much it ignored. First, the term “conduct” and “practice review” (a synonym in this case for measuring competence) are used interchangeably by the Task Force, yet are significantly different. They said separate the conduct and practice review systems, even though they are already separated. Secondly, the recommendations kill the Board of Reference, which basically would result in the ability for an employer to remove any teacher in any capacity without cause. I’m a squeaky wheel in my school because I value the education my students receive and expect my school to meet the highest educational standards; if I get too squeaky, will I get fired? There would be no protection for me, so I would be better off simply becoming a drone. This does not protect teachers, and holds students’ education at ransom. These are by far the worst recommendations in the Task Force’s report, but to be fair the confusion surrounding “conduct” and “practice review” is definitely worth clarifying.
Recommendation 21 rubbed me the wrong way, but not because of the idea of review or recertification, although I disagree with it, too (recertification wouldn’t be necessary with a strengthened practice review process as discussed before). As I said before, teachers should not be afraid of practice review, and strengthening the process should not be an idea demonized. However, to suggest the current system is flatly ineffective because the ATA “gets in the way” is a gross mischaracterization. Firstly, the preamble to this recommendation was far too emotional for my taste; it is the only section where the Task Force intentionally inserted emphasis by boldfacing “no” when describing how many teachers have had their certificate removed for incompetence in the past 10 years. The Task Force ignored the fact that the ATA has only had control of the review for 5 of those years, and can’t do anything unless a superintendent sends a particular case their way. This is because teachers’ competency is under a system of supervision called the Teacher Growth, Supervision and Evaluation Policy, another fact ignored by the Task Force. This policy ensures that only the teachers who are found through the regular supervision of their school leadership are not meeting the Teaching Quality Standards are either supported or removed, and the Task Force patently wrote it off as ineffective without explanation but then later asked us to follow it. The Task Force further erred by not including the fact that the ATA, in the past 3 years, has counselled over 200 teachers out of the profession because they shouldn’t be there (I know one of them); a fact the Task Force couldn’t possibly have known because they never consulted with the ATA. Now the ATA suggests that if there are bad teachers still out there, its superintendents’ fault for not reporting them to the ATA, however I’d rather suggest that superintendents must be doing a great job of finding those poor teachers and getting them the help they need to become better teachers without having to escalate to the ATA. The fact that “the Task Force found this statistic (no teachers losing their certificate for incompetence) almost inconceivable” makes sense, they didn’t even conceive of how practice review was happening in the first place. As for recertification, the Task Force reported other jurisdictions doing it already, but many of those jurisdictions are not considered among the best in the world for Education, as Alberta is. It makes little sense to model teacher certification after systems with lower results when a system already works here in a jurisdiction that has an enviable education system. Should practice review happen? Absolutely, and it’s a good thing too, because it already does. The Task Force’s only problem is that the review happens under a professional model, not under an industrial model.
Last but not least, the proverbial gun-to-the-head, recommendation 25. Basically it says “change everything, and if you can’t, split the ATA”. The idea that an organization cannot separate its self-interest (union) and public interest (professional) roles is ludicrous. Many organizations in Alberta do this already. More importantly, the self-interest teachers have is the public interest; we aren’t asking for huge lumps of money, we’re asking for better classroom conditions; we aren’t asking for diamond-studded pensions, we’re asking for supports so that we can do our job. The insinuation that teachers would not work to better the education system, but only to make our lives easier, is insulting. If we were interested in making our lives easier, we wouldn’t be teachers.
So let’s put this in context. Your child’s education is under the charge of professionals known as teachers. When those professionals are not given the supports they need to do their job well, it’s your child’s education that suffers. When those professionals are not given the autonomy they require to improve themselves, and by extension their schools and the education system, it’s your child’s education that suffers. When changes to an education system are dictated by a poorly informed, heavily biased task force without regard for the professional body of educators, it’s your child’s education that suffers.
When you take your Lamborghini in for maintenance, you take it into a Lamborghini-certified mechanic. Imagine if the mechanic hasn’t had any training for the past 5 years, so doesn’t really understand the latest technological developments. Imagine they have to try and maintain your car’s computer system with software that is obsolete. Imagine that mechanic being given only 2 hours to do a complete inspection of this high-performance vehicle. Imagine that mechanic doesn’t even get the opportunity to consult with other mechanics on how to better do his/her job. Imagine instead they have to complete evaluation after evaluation with no time or money afforded to them to develop their skills. Do you really think your mechanic has been valued? Wouldn’t you want your mechanic to have the tools and resources needed to maintain and improve your amazing little Aventador?
Assuming your answer is yes, why would we discuss measuring the excellence of the mechanic when the mechanic doesn’t even have the resources to do their job?
By the way, I’m not suggesting a Lamborghini is as valuable as your child, because it certainly isn’t, but it’s among the closest representations I could get.
So once again, parents should be freaking out right about now. If Jeff Johnson’s attack on teachers doesn’t freak you out, the devaluing of the people who spend hours with your kids every day should.
A reminder, the deadline for submitting your feedback on the recommendations is June 15, 2014. Alberta needs you to respond, please take the time to do so.