ALBERTA'S SCHOOL SYSTEM REMAINS STRONG, BUT EXPECTATIONS ARE HIGH
The best public school system in Canada? It's still probably Alberta.
That's the opinion of Paul Bennett, the country's leading and most pointed critic of public education and the author of the new book The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada's Schools.
But there's one caveat, Bennett said. “Overall, it's still probably Alberta. It's just not living up to expectations.”
Alberta moved away from its pursuit of excellence for a time and slipped in math achievement, he said, although the Alberta system seems to be rediscovering its commitment to student achievement.
Bennett has spent 40 years as a history teacher, department chair, academic director and school head in three provinces, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. He is now lead researcher at the Schoolhouse Institute and national co-ordinator for researched, the U.k.-based organization committed to advancing evidence-based policy and practice.
In a recent webinar, he listed some of the strengths of Alberta's system, saying: “I've been an advocate for looking at Alberta in all kinds of ways, the amount of choice in the Alberta system, the options given to parents. And I'm glad to see that Alberta has rediscovered its commitment to educational excellence because that was really wobbly. When I started doing my research in the 1980s Alberta was in the forefront of education, no question about it. I think Alberta deserves far more credit.”
Bennett said Alberta's clear lead in education lasted until about a decade ago, about the time its students started to fade in international math tests, while still remaining strong in language and science.
Alberta doesn't get the credit it deserves because many of the architects of the Ontario school system are also prominent when it comes to evaluating public education in Canada and around the world and they tend to promote their own work, Bennett said.
In the past, the Alberta Teachers' Association has brought in Ontario education experts like Andy Hargreaves to give advice on Alberta schools, but that makes no sense, Bennett said. “Ontario educators like Andy Hargreaves come in and they presume to speak about the need to reform the Alberta school system. That was unbelievable. I was thinking, `Why would you ever listen to Hargreaves?'”
Bennett gives credit to a handful of individuals for driving Alberta's excellence, starting with Edmonton public school superintendents Rolland Jones and Michael Strembitsky and planner Alan Parry. In the early 1970s, they dismantled the inefficient and overly-centralized way of running Edmonton Public Schools in favour of a system giving local schools control of their own budgets.
The Edmonton public system also opened up school boundaries, so students didn't have to attend their neighbourhood school if it wasn't working out for them, and it also brought in programs of choice, alternative programs in language, sports, education philosophy and religion.
Edmonton's “school-based budgeting” was tried in other Canadian jurisdictions, but was beaten back by powerful administrators, Bennett said, who disliked the idea of giving up their authority to local control.
Indeed, the unfortunate recent history of Canadian schools has been the triumph of a “bureaucratic education state,” as Bennett puts it.
He thinks power should be taken away from the education bureaucrats and consultants and given back to teachers, principals and, crucially, parents. “It's really the bureaucracy that needs to be held to account. That's the issue — the administrative buildup.”
Indeed, it's not a university education professor or outside educational guru who deserves great credit for Alberta's strong system. It's an Alberta parent, Bennett said, who did much to push ahead Alberta schools.
Dr. Joe Freedman, a Red Deer radiologist and father of two girls had travelled extensively and knew about education systems around the world.
In the late 1980s when he decided to dig into Alberta's math and science curriculum, he found that the expectations were far lower here than what was seen in Europe and Asia, Bennett said.
Freedman worked with then-education minister Jim Dinning to correct this and for years championed high standards in Alberta schools.
When it comes to fixing math education, Alberta can now learn a lot from the Singapore model of teaching math, Bennett said, since that country has not only led the way in student achievement, it continues to improve. We also need to pay more attention to cognitive scientists who are studying how students learn math and have found that best practice is a structured approach that teaches foundational skills.
Can Alberta again become the clear and unchallenged leader of education in Canada? If we follow the example Freedman set, we've got that chance.