Thursday, September 24, 2009

Perfecting Alberta, Part 2: Primary and Secondary Education

Nation, I want to thank everyone for their contributions so far. This is a critically important time in our province's history, and these kinds of discussions need to be had in the public sphere for Albertans of ALL walks of life to read and contribute.

The fact that new posts are going up in this series should not stop you from continuing the conversations in previous posts. By all means, keep the conversation going!

The next stop on the "Perfecting Alberta Whistlestop Tour" is education, from Kindergarten up to an including Grade 12.

Albertan students routinely perform at or near the top in national examinations... so, by the most basic of measures, the argument can be made that our education system ain't broke - so why are we trying to fix it?

The reality is that this is the 2nd largest consumer of public funds in the province, after health care. There are places we should be spending more, there are doubtless places we should be spending less, and as far as test results go, I'm reminded of the old adage "Good enough, never is". The fact that we're above average shouldn't stop us from trying to do even better. Why settle for a B when hard work could get you the A?

From class sizes to pre-school, from charter schools to curriculum to splitting the ATA into 2 separate entities (union/certification body), from collective bargaining to results-based-pay, there's a lot to talk about when it comes to possible changes to our education system. One thing, though, is indisputable: Our educational system in this province is absolutely tied to our future as a place of economic and cultural and scientific strength. The lessons that our children learn in these classrooms determines the future for ALL of us who will live here in the future.

We can't afford to screw things up, making change for change's sake.

So, Nation, I put it to you: How would YOU shape our educational system for the next generation?

All legal options can be considered. (The constitution requires the maintaining of a Catholic school system, funded by the province, separate from the public system. Before anyone goes there.)

Fire away.


Denny said...

I just have a couple comments at this point, rather than getting into suggestions:

The ATA doesn't certify teachers. Certification is done by Alberta Education itself. However the ATA does still deal with member discipline once a teacher is certified. I don't see a problem with spinning discipline off into some sort of Teacher's College (like in some other provinces or what medical doctors have) and perhaps transferring certification to a new Teachers College rather than having Alberta Education do it.

As for the separate schools being constitutionally entrenched thing. Contrary to popular belief, the constitution can be amended without the approval of the majority of provinces etc as is the normal case, if the change only effects one province. For example the constitution was amended in 1998 to allow Newfoundland to eliminate it's Catholic schools. So while it's not likely Alberta would eliminate the Catholic school system, it is possible.

Anonymous said...

ES... my wife is a teacher, so this is a very serious subject to me. I agree that it is the most important aspect of our society. However, our fine government often refuses to see it this way and prefers to look at ways to cut costs rather than improve the system.

Man, I can't wait for the next generation of MLA's to come through the ranks...I think this is the only way we will see any real changes down the line.

Anonymous said...

I think most teachers do a good job; some do a great job, some do a bad job; and some just do enough to get through the day.

I would like to see merit pay, where the real good teachers could get something for the extra effort.

I think there also needs to be some penalties for being bad; now, a bad teacher just gets moved to another area, for a fresh start.

I would like to see the management (principles) be in another union. There is something of a conflict when the boss is still part of the same union. Just because the ATA doesn't have union in their name doesn't mean its not a union.

Anonymous said...

How is it that Calgaryrants feels that this government does not see education as an important aspect of society? Seriously, I would like details and examples if they could be provided as to what is felt those next generation of MLAs will provide that anybody in the current lot cannot (we have a lot of teachers/educators on both sides of the aisle).

I have teachers in the family and they have related that Alberta students rank above other Provinces and, indeed, in international comparisons.

As one who hires both secondary and post-secondary graduates, I do have a pet peeve evident in graduates from a number of jurisdications. The grammar (both written and spoken) and spelling for a large number is poor.

As well, I do believe that a good grounding in history, both of the world and most importantly of Canada is a building block in understanding this complex society that we have in this country and this province. I don't see that in the current curriculum.

Lastly, let's put some physical activity back into education. It doesn't have to be organized team sports or competitive in nature, but I do think that a healthy body does feed a healthy mind.

Derrick Jacobson said...

I really dislike social promotion and would like to see it eliminated. Moving children up just to keep them with their peers is irresponsible and damages our childrens education. If they need another year or two to make the grade so be it.
In the real world they will not move up in the ranks simply because their peers do, so why teach them this way?

Ian said...

My issues:
1. Repeal Bill 44. Ignorance is not a right.
2. Stop funding private charter schools upwards of 70% of their budget and re-invest that money in the public system.

Anonymous said...

I just read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and he makes a compelling case to increase the length of the school year. Japan has approx 240 days while Canada I think is approx 190. Maybe we could split the difference.

Also, when it comes to the international testing that Canada does well on, it is very misleading. The rankings seem to embrace mediocrity and not true excellence. There are some excellent articles on this on the Macleans website. I dont K-12 is doing a very good job at preparing students for higher education.

Anonymous said...

A list of suggestions:

split physical education for girls and boys

split up social studies into geography and history

classes for excellence in mathematics and english

Denny said...

In regards to what Anonymous @ 12:35 said, I haven't read the Macleans articles, but there is something to be said about problems with the rankings. One of the reasons Alberta may score so high on these tests is that students who show any sort of problems in a given subject area are filtered out into lower stream classes by the end of junior high. Those left writing the tests are the students in the higher streamed classes.

Anonymous @12:39
I can't say I'd agree with you on the splitting up of physical education. Doing that can cause a scheduling nightmare for schools, particularly smaller schools that only have one gym. I think it's better for a school to be able to offer a particular gym class several times a year, and have it open to all students, than to have it only open to one gender. That could lead to even more situations where students cannot take all the courses they require due to scheduling conflicts, than what already occurs.

Anonymous said...

Two things have given me strong confidence in this government's education policy. One, mthe funding of private schools provides more school choice.

But most of all, Bill 44 is a big step forward. It's about parental ohoice and there's not one good argument I've ever heard against Bill 44.

Unknown said...

As a teacher-in-training, this is definitely something that is important to me.

Standardized testing tests how well students can take tests, but may not reflect how well they actually know things. I have a friend who wasn't strong in Math, got a friend to teach her how to do the questions (still didn't understand the math) and aced her SATs for entrance to the Master's program at a Boston university.

Many schools also "bump up" their numbers by hand-picking students who do well. Do their teachers deserve more merit-based pay? For teaching the kids who would probably do well in any situation? Or does the teacher who takes on a much more challenging demographic, fully knowing that she probably can't achieve the same test scores, merit more? How would you determine this?

I like merit-based pay... but can't think of a fair way to assess it.

And that brings me to assessment. I graded a math quiz yesterday. Half the students got less than 50% on the quiz, but when looking at their work, they all knew exactly how to do the operation that was being tested (they made mistakes on previous knowledge and conversion). In a multiple choice test, they can't get marks for that work, which shows they understand and can apply the concept being tested. One would assume they had trouble with the current concept. And now all Math/Science diplomas are pure multiple choice.

As with Health Care, I think only public institutions should be publicly funded. If a school has the right to pick and choose their students, they can skew test results in their favor. Those wishing to send their children to private institutions, I'm not opposed to: but have them foot the entire bill. Leaving the money saved by the province for that student to improve public education for the rest.

Enlightened Savage said...

Christopher: Thank-you for your excellent points.

Not to throw a monkey wrench into things, but if I take your last statement - about reserving public funding for those schools that can't pick-and-choose who gets to attend - then, to take the conversation a bit outside the scope of the title, what about universities? You can't get a whole lot more exclusive than being an institution with an office whose sole job is to send letters out to applicants telling them whether or not they've been accepted...

(Not that I'm advocating pulling gov't funding from Universities - far from it. Just trying to figure out why one is okay and the other isn't)

Unknown said...

A reasonable question. Our government is mandated to provide education to children, and those children are in turn required by law to attend school until the age of 15.

The expectation of a free education until Grade 12 is one that most of us agree is a reasonable one. (Of course, free isn't really free, but is government provided.)

Upon reaching University age, the students themselves (rather than their parents) have the mobility and opportunity to choose where they wish to go to school. They make a direct investment in that education by paying tuition, and have loans and other grants that may enable them to go to a prestigious school through their own merit, rather than the richness of their parents.

Generally, a poor family won't have the resources to send their child to a private grade-school. They can't take out student loans or apply for government grants and scholarships to make up the difference. So they must use the public system. Therefore it's the government's responsibility to ensure that the public system is as good as possible.

Of course, this argument relies on my assumption and opinion that a society in which there is a minimum of class separation is a better society. And on the biblical notions of equality and fraternity of all men.

Unknown said...

Hmm... merit-based pay is an interesting idea. I'm trying to think of ways of determining the merit of a teacher - but there are so many external factors that doing so is extremely difficult.

For instance, if we were to base 'merit' on how much improvement the students show over the previous year (and I can't think of any other way that would not punish a teacher who had a low-performing group of students) - this would negatively affect teachers who teach years of more difficult curriculum, and reward those that taught in easier years. (Maybe the merit scale would have to compare teachers only across certain grades.) And of course, standardized testing would be the only way to determine this. But the standardized test that measures improvement achieved by a teacher is a test of the teacher, and should not be used to also assess the students. (You can't easily test two uncontrolled variables at once.)

Also, if 'improvement' were rated, this would be relative to how good the teacher for a previous year. A phenomenal teacher in Gr. 2, for example, might have students testing very high, then with just an above-average Gr. 3 teacher they might not improve as much as students who went from a dismal teacher to a below-average one.
You'd almost have to have the teachers pre-ranked, to know that the slight decrease from phenomenal is still a good result, while the slight increase from dismal may still be a bad result.

Rudiger said...

re: Merit based compensation

Why not base it on a combination of formalized annual performance reviews + student/parent year-end evaluations?

Jason said...

I am late getting to this, but what to do about the problem of under-represented groups in PSE - the disabled and aboriginals. Both of these groups experience many barriers PSE from acceptance to graduation and there is little done to improve this.

Enlightened Savage said...

Jason - the Calgary-area high school I have a relationship with has specialized classes for the developmentally delayed, as well as an entire program for aboriginal students - should they choose to participate, rather than being integrated.

Would you suggest something different? Is it better to integrate these students, segregate them to better suit their specific needs and situations, or a combination thereof?

Anonymous said...

"formalized annual performance reviews + student/parent year-end evaluations"


Having worked with teachers who were effective and caring, but who annoyed the "mean girl moms" or the "mean girl" principal, I worry about this. I think this could be a slippery slope. Personality conflicts DO happen, and groups can be extremely vicious. Unless the information was identifiable, by who was providing specific information, it could contravene ATA rules regarding how teachers are to be approached regarding issues in the classroom.

But- if it is successfully implemented- maybe we could do it for doctors and nurses and social workers, too....

And Enlightened Savage- read Setting the Direction. Some school boards are interpreting this document as a directive to get rid of special programs and their supports and include ALLLLLLLL children in the regular classroom with minimal supervision from an aide. The teacher is fully responsible for programming for each child in the classroom. It is pretty interesting.