Monday, January 05, 2015

"And They are Off!" - The UK Election Race is Officially On!!

In just under 120 days there will be a general election in Great Britain. It will be a cliff hanger and the race to replace the current coalition government is on. It will get nasty, it will become bitter and it will be a spectacle to watch.

The key problem the electorate faces is that there are genuine choices. They can vote Conservative and get an uncertain future, but it is clear that that future involves austerity, privatization and the rich getting richer and more evenings watching the smug David Cameron getting smugger. They can vote Labour and for the least effective Labour leader since Michael Foot and get austerity, more commitment to public spending and confusion. They can vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and get the pub landlord Nigel Farage, a get tough on immigration and out of Europe policy and very little else. They can vote Liberal and support the ineffectual Nick Clegg and get confusion, sidestepping and populism but little substance. Or they can chose one of the other myriad of options – Green, Monster Raving Looney and, in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (and Plaid Cymru in Wales).

What will happen is that no one will win. It is likely that UKIP and/or the Scottish Nationalist Party will hold the balance of power in the Commons. There could either be a minority Government (probably conservative) or a coalition – David Cameron has refused to rule out another Liberal coalition or a coalition with UKIP.

If the Conservatives do retain control of the government agenda, then we can expect the more rapid privatization of schools, an in/out vote on Europe (“Should Britain stay as a full member of the European Union?” – Yes or No) and further austerity.

The battle lines will focus on the economy, the National Health Service, immigration and EU. While there will be lot of noise about other issues – climate change, roads and infrastructure, social security, debt, labour and the nanny state – the economy will drive this election.

The pollsters will have a tough time. Voting intentions will shift a lot during the next 120 days and the predictions will be off by 5% or more, which is the difference between the parties.

A lot will come down to personality. None are especially appealing – they are all career politicians except Nigel Farage, who doubles as an advert for British beer. The standard view is “none of the above, but if pushed…”. Milliband has not connected with voters, Cameron is a smooth talking toff supported by Osborne (another toff), Nick Clegg is a wimpish, skittish, untrustworthy toff and Nigel Farage is Enoch Powell reincarnated without the intellectual skills and vocabulary. Its not pretty. But it will be fascinating. Trust me.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

COP20 in Lima -- All Over Except for the Shouting

As predicted, COP20 – the climate change talks in Lima, Peru – ended with an agreement which is both a “breakthrough” and which everyone dislikes. It asks UN member nations to volunteer information about their strategic intentions with respect to emissions reductions and encourages “rich” member nations to contribute to a fund to help alleviated the impacts of climate change in developing nations.

Here are the key elements of the “deal”:

  • Nations may disclose and declare their intentions with respect to emissions reductions or may chose not to. It is entirely voluntary. The thinking is that the political pressure will be such that nations will feel obliged to declare their intention – this despite a survey showing that, in almost every country, climate change is not a major issue for voters. There is also no guarantee that the aggregate of these “intentions” (not commitments) will “save” the planet from warming above 2C (3.6F) from pre-industrial levels.
  • Developed nations are encouraged to contribute to the UN Green Climate Fund established to help developing nations either reduce emissions, adapt to climate change or deal with “loss and damage”. Previously (in 2010 in Cancun at COP16), a commitment had been made to offer $100 billion annually by 2020. But this has gone nowhere (there is $10 billion in the fund, but some of it is multiyear funding). There is an understanding that there will be work done between now and the Paris talks in December 2015 on how the previous pledge can be “honoured”. But this is most problematic. For example, Japan committed and then spent $1 billion, but this was the costs of them building coal fired power plants in Indonesia. Coal fired power plants are significant CO2 emitters, even when the plants have “clean coal” technology.

This is the achievement after two weeks, many hours of negotiations and discussion with close to 10,000 attending. Included among these are close to 4,000 government officials, a small group of whom negotiate the text of a deal.  What they ended up doing was kicking the ball down the road to May 2015 in preliminary work for the COP21 in Paris. There are some key issues left to deal with:

  • The legal status of any commitments made in Paris – the Paris deal will replace Kyoto, which was legally binding for those who signed up (not that this had any significance). 
  • The analysis and aggregation of targets set by nations within a “global budget for CO2” to ensure that the targets will not lead to CO2 enabling warming above 2C.
  • The mechanism or mechanisms for funding developing nations through the Green Climate Fund and the size of the contribution of each of the contributing nations.

 That is, all the things they tried to settle in COP1-20 but didn’t. Gone is talk of the world not using fossil fuels after 2050. Gone is talk of legally binding agreements. Gone is talk of global governance mechanisms (including a Court of Justice for Reparations). Gone is talk of a global tax on carbon and market mechanisms for carbon offsets. Gone is, well most of the things which many have said are needed to respond to the climate change narrative.

Should we be concerned at the “smoke and mirrors” of these COP events? If you believe the climate change = man made disaster narrative, you might want to think about how this narrative is working for you. If you believe, as a growing number of climate scientists actually do, that almost all of the changes in climate we can now see are within the realm of natural variation, with man’s contribution being low to next to nothing, then we should be focused not on emissions reduction (which are a good thing), but on adaptation.

To suggest, as most developing nations do, that extreme weather events are a result of “man made climate change” and therefore “reparations” must be made by those who emit CO2 (the industrialized nations), is a claim that is not well supported in science. It’s the narrative some like to use, but it is not that scientific. The incidence and severity of extreme weather has not increased. There is little evidence that dangerous weather-related events will occur more often in the future. The U.N.’s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its Special Report on Extreme Weather (2012) that there is “an absence of an attributable climate change signal” in trends in extreme weather losses to date.  Such events do occur and have consequences, so nations need to prepare for them. But I am not sure why floods in Pakistan or Philippines require “reparations” when in fact what they require is “preparations”.

The fundamental challenge for negotiators is to face up to some hard truths and not to select some science which supports some ideological position. The science is much more uncertain and evolving than Ban Ki Moon, Al Gore or David Suzuki would have you believe. Even the much touted 2C threshold is problematic. Writing about this, Professor Judith Curry (a highly respected and credible climate scientist) suggests that the emphasis on the 2C constitutes “oversimplification of both the problem and solution in context of a consensus to power approach, plus failure to actually clarify the meaning of ‘dangerous climate change.”  She is building on an important contribution to this debate by Oliver Geden. Geden points out that this 2C is not a “set in stone” scientific threshold – it is not a scientific imperative. But it has become one. This is what happens to science – it becomes part of a narrative that cannot then be revised (too many reputations are built around the narrative), even though it was never intended to be used in such a “touchstone” and imperious way. So the idea that we base a “new world order” on science is not in fact what is happening here: the proposal is to base a new global agreement on a story, some of which has some connection (but weak) to science…that may shed a different light on all the talk at COP20 and all the talk to come between now and COP21.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Alberta is Lima Bound: Let's Talk Climate Change at COP20

As the Alberta delegations joins other Canadians at the annual green festival of talk known as the Conference of the Parties (COP) – this time in Lima, Peru – they arrive just in time to watch the talks fall apart. China has rejected some of the language and the terms of the draft agreement as has India. The less developed countries are upset at the focus on mitigation and the lack of a binding agreement. All are upset with Canada just for producing oil from the oil sands. It will not be a pretty sight.

The Alberta Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Hon. Kyle Fawcett, has much he can talk about. Alberta has CO2 regulations and taxes – at $15 a ton for high polluters, Alberta’s CO2 emissions tax is more than twice as high as the current European Trading Scheme price of around $6.83 (the recent high). Alberta’s regional land use planning is based on some of the most progressive land use legislation in the world and Alberta’s forest industry is amongst the most green third party certified forest stewards in the world. None of this will matter to the serious green lobby. They are not interest in evidence, only in stopping oil sands production.

That they are no interested in evidence is clear from the lack of attention to actual data about warming (it isn’t and hasn’t for 18 years and 2 months according to satellite data), about sea level rise (it isn’t), extreme weather events (not connected to climate change according to the UN’s own climate change experts) or other factors at play in determining climate variability (they only look at CO2). The delegates have adopted a narrative which is now independent of the evidence available and does not change, whatever the evidence says. This is one reason the talks are bound to fail. They are driven by a “story” not by science and that “story” is becoming incredible (more accurately UN-credible).

The second reason the talks will fail – remember this is the 20th attempt to reach agreement – is that the 190+ national negotiators are trading commitments from a base of different expectations and interests. India and China both want and need to sustain high levels of economic growth which require energy. The “green talkers” want this energy to be largely renewable, but this is light years away from being a viable option, except for nuclear (which most greens reject).  China and India want others to cut emissions but want to increase theirs.

The developing nations want compensation for the impact of climate change “caused by CO2”. This should be easy, since there is very little compelling evidence that the world is warming or that the cause ongoing climate change can be attributed solely to CO2. But this is not the narrative any of the green talkers accept. They are looking for big money - $100 billion. Occasionally, nations pledge their contributions but they rarely actually make the funds available. For example, at the recent meeting in Europe, $9 billion was pledged. This upsets the green talkers who want all of the funds available now.

Everyone seems to expect a voluntary agreement (as opposed to a legally binding agreement) to fail. This despite the fact that Kyoto – a legally binding agreement – also failed to cut emissions. The “best” the green talkers can expect is a voluntary, non-binding agreement  which some nations will not sign up to.  By the end of March next year, all countries are expected to announce the level of their efforts to cut carbon as part of the expected deal to be concluded in Paris in 2015. But there is no agreement on what should be included or excluded from these statements.

What will happen between now and Friday is that delegates will settle on a document which is really a hollow shell of a deal – everyone will walk away with different interpretations of what the document means and everyone will say it was a great success. Ban Ki Moon, Secretary General of the UN and UN climate chief Christiana Figueres will declare the document a “breakthrough” heralding a deal to be concluded in Paris and all will go home and celebrate Christmas or their appropriate holiday. Nothing of substance will then happen for some time.

In Paris, some kind of deal will be hobbled together. No one will be happy with it. The green talkers will say that it does little to “save the planet”, the skeptics on climate change and CO2 will say it does too much and governments will use it in whatever way suits their current, short term political purpose. Its all a lot of effort for very little discernible outcome. But then, this is really all politics and talk…its not about the climate or the environment or hasn't been for some time. Its talk-talk.

Monday, December 01, 2014

A Jamboree in Lima - Climate Change GabFest Number 20

They are at it again. Around 10,000 public servants, climate activists and hangers on are in Lima for the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) engaged in the UN’s doomed climate change agenda. The aim: to develop the draft of an agreement which will be signed off at COP21 in Paris next year.

There is a feeling among some that the game has changed. China and the US reached a climate change agreement in November which many are hailing as a “landmark” deal. In fact, it simply reiterates commitments previously made by both parties and changes nothing.

This agreement commits China to capping emissions in 2030 after it has deployed all of its planned coal fired power plants and when demographers predict China’s population growth will flatten or fall. The US promise is to cut emissions by 26% of 2005 levels by 2025 – long after Obama is gone from the Whitehouse and in a nation where Republican’s reject this deal. To cap it all (no pun intended), the deal between the US and China is not legally binding or enshrined in any treaty. It’s a political commitment – like closing Guantanamo or liberalizing Chinas film industry. Neither China or the US plans to tax carbon, but to take direct action – in China’s case, building nuclear power plants and in the US phasing out coal and replacing coal fired power plants with shale gas.

Aren’t we forgetting India in all of this? India’s population is set to outgrow that of China at some point around 2025. India is also seeking to move more and more of its population out of poverty and into the fast growing blue collar and middle class. To do so it needs economic growth of some 7-9% annually and to achieve this, it needs energy. Prime Minister Modi has made clear that he is no fan of emissions controls and carbon tax. Instead, he has reached agreements on nuclear power with the US and sees this as a renewable energy which will help reduce the reliance on fossil fuel power. India will pursue energy efficiency and seek to integrate renewables on the national energy grid.

The key challenge for COP20 is the lack of compelling data that demonstrate that the predictions made from the 70+ climate models are correct. While the talking-points emphasis has shifted from CO2 and warming to extreme weather events, even this is far fetched given the compelling scientific evidence that there is no established connection between such events and climate change (at least according the UN’s own scientific body, the IPCC). But we gave up on real science some time ago and started this COP process as a proxy for “serious” (sic) conversation.

There will be lots of hot air, with wind blowing in the sails of climate fearmongering and extreme scientific claims. But little else will be achieved. Remember COP15 in Copenhagen when we had “just days to save the planet”? Will this is largely the same group of people having the same conversation for no apparent reason. It needs to stop.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Troubled Water: Homeopathy, Ebola and the Oceans

Two incidents in the last ten days draw attention to the real problems with homeopathy.

The first is the claim by some that homeopathy can cure Ebola. Really.  It is claimed that, just as homeopathy can reverse HIV-AIDS, so it can be mobilized to find a cure for Ebola.  The Amma Resonance Healing Foundation in Ethiopia, established in the Netherlands, is run by the British homeopath Peter Chappell. He and his colleague Harry van der Zee claim their homeopathic remedy can reverse Aids and they are part of a group of homeopaths who seek to cure Ebola:

“The good news is that a small international team of experienced and heroic homeopaths have arrived in West Africa, and are currently on the ground working hard to examine patients, work out the “genus epidemicus,” and initiate clinical trials. This work is being done alongside the current conventional supportive measures and treatments already in place. “

This follows other claims about the power of homeopathy in offering cures for malaria, diphtheria, cholera and hepatitis as well as other diseases.  Homeopaths without Borders are on the ground and working – best of luck with this effort!

High-quality scientific studies show that homeopathy does not work for any particular medical condition. This position is even held by the National Center of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organization that has been given substantial criticism for being too friendly to quack treatments. Not only that, homeopathy is incompatible with core principles of chemistry and biology: the preparations are diluted to such a degree that there are, statistically speaking, no active molecule of the diluted substance whatsoever. In other words, treating Ebola virus disease with homeopathy is equivalent to treating it with water or sugar pills.

The second incident was the call to action by one of the leading homeopaths in the world to cure the ills of the oceans.  British homeopath Grace DaSilva-Hill has written to appeal to other homeopaths to drop some homeopathic remedies into the sea. She tells homeopaths that those not close to the sea can instead drop their remedies into a river. If even this is too challenging, then Grace advises homeopaths that they can flush their homeopathic remedies down the toilet. The remedy that is to be used today is called Leuticum – a homeopathic preparation of the syphilis bacterium. The aim of this exercise: to heal the oceans.

If these two examples do not demonstrate that homeopaths are not only very odd but dangerous, then I do not know what it will take to convince you that they are. There is overwhelming evidence that homeopathy is quackery. Why do we license it in Canada?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Redefining High School Success- Alberta School Trustees Get it Right

School Boards across Alberta have made it clear that they want change. Their first ask, by means of a resolution passed by the Alberta School Boards Association,  is for a change in the weighting of the High School Diploma exam so that teacher assessments count for 70% of the exam with the “standard” Provincial component being just 30%. Right now, it is 50%.

For some time, teacher assessments from Alberta schools have been used by a great many universities and colleges across Canada as the basis for offers of admission. This reflects the growing recognition that teacher assessments are far more reflective of what students know and can do than many standardized, high stakes tests. It also reflects the recognition of teachers as professionals.

Changing the weighting without changing the nature of the exam itself makes little sense. The next step in this conversation is to imagine a different way of formal assessment through the Provincial examination component. When was the last time you saw a multiple choice test truly assess knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities? Would you graduate a doctor who had completed a multiple choice test rather than being examined for their real-life skills, knowledge and understanding? Why would we do this for the equally important high school graduate?

All of this is a small, but important step, assuming that Minister Dirks agrees with the School Boards. Next we need a conversation about the assessment of the non-academic but equally important learning that students in higher schools have experienced. Their creativity, resilience, compassion, persistence, emotional intelligence are s important to their development, employability and long-term contribution to society as their academic results.

What is perhaps most interesting about this strong position from the School Boards is that they are directly engaged in the question: what should become of our schools and how do we rebuild trust in our teachers ? After the debacle of Jeff Johnson’s tenure as Minister of Education – the first Minister in the history of Alberta education to receive a vote of no confidence from the profession – the school boards seem to be reclaiming their role as stewards of their schools and shapers of educational policy.

This is a start of a longer, deeper conversation about public assurance and assessment. We have a choice to make between what might be thought of as a spider or a starfish approach to this issue. The spider approach sees schools trapped in a web of accountability set by a government agency (often in partnership with private interests, as is the case with Alberta’s decision to make extensive use of a student engagement instrument) so that schools report up and are eaten up by the reporting of their work. In contrast, the starfish approach sees schools and school districts as responsible for their own forms of public assurance, which best reflects local conditions, local resources and school development plans. Rather than reporting up, assurance becomes a focal point for innovation, improvement and change. Spiders webs are what we have, starfish is what we need to become.

The Government should pay attention – decisions made nearer to the student and by those with the responsibility for the schools in their jurisdictions are likely to better reflect reality than decisions made by one of the 650+ people working in the Ministry. Decisions about public assurance, assessment and accountability need to reflect not just the outputs of a school, but the social circumstances in which the school operates, its own adaptive processes and capacities and its outcomes. Rich assurance versus standardized accounting is what we need to ensure that Alberta’s education system remains one of the best in the world.

A teacher asked me recently why it was that teachers were being encouraged to individualize learning, to be responsive and imaginative teachers with highly engaged learners but were subject to standardized testing? It is as if the government is saying “lets be flexible, creative and responsive, but not so much!”

The Alberta School Boards are suggesting we recognize the professionalism and responsibility of teachers. So we should. We should also encourage innovation, imagination and creativity not just in how we teach and how students learn, but how we account for that learning. The changing of the weighting of the Diploma examination is a small step towards a more engaged school system.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

School Accountability in Alberta - Fit for Purpose or in Need of Change

When Premier Redford committed to ending Provincial Achievement Testing and moving instead to a system of assessments for learning – assessments aimed at helping students, parents and teachers better understand where students were in their learning journey – no one other than the Fraser Institute appeared concerned. There were issues about how student learning assessments (SLA’s) would be undertaken, but these were seen as logistical and tactical rather than strategic. Later some, notably David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, suggested that the SLA’s were just another example of “fuzzy” education-think and not in the interests of the system – but this was after he had drummed up anxiety about Alberta’s maths education and the performance of our students on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Jeff Johnson, sometime Minister of Education, managed to find a way of converting SLA’s into something they were never intended to be: a key part of the accountability system for Alberta. Rather than focusing on assessments for learning,  Alberta Education will use data from these assessments to develop assessments of learning as part of the emerging “new” accountability regime. Think carefully: something intended to primarily help teachers better understand where each child is in their learning journey has been hijacked to become something it was not intended to be: part of the accountability pillar.

Accountability is a contested space – just look at the issue in the United States or England. Governments seem to think that testing students often improves accountability, yet the compelling evidence suggests that all this does is weaken the focus on learning and drive education more and more to a focus on getting students to jump through hurdles which have no real subsequent value or meaning to them in terms of social wellbeing, career or a life-long commitment to learning.

Perhaps the strongest example of what testing does to “screw up” education and learning can be seen in China. Yong Zhao provides a compelling and masterful account of education in China in his book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World He describes how China manipulates assessment activities and how such activities are embedded in the system of rote learning that dominates the elite education system, which is all that PISA assessed.  He also notes that China has “a well-designed and continuously perfected machine that effectively and efficiently transmits a narrow band of predetermined content and cultivates prescribed skills…. and, because it is the only path to social mobility, people follow it eagerly”. Diane Ravitch reviews this book extensively in the New York Review of Books and compares developments in China to those in the US – developments that should worry is all.

Trying to rethink accountability is a tough challenge. Marc Tucker of the US National Centre for Education and the Economy has outlined an approach to accountability which he thinks is new, at least for the US. He is seeking fewer, better quality testing moments in a student career (down from 12 to 3) and better use of big data and analytics to look at these data; a stronger focus on professional development and support for teachers with less time spent on administration and more on collaboration; and finally, a stronger focus on peer to peer accountability than top-down accountability.

In the UK, the role of OFSTED (school inspectors) is now being challenged by head teachers and others. Indeed, there is a recent call to scrap the “Spanish inquisition-like” inspections. Others have suggested that the focus for such inspections needs to change. In the UK such inspections together with assessments of learning form the basis of the accountability regime. So called “failing schools” – schools which do not meet inspection standards and where test results show persistently poor outcomes – can  be subject to “special measures” which can include the replacement of the management team, scrutiny of teaching, restructuring of the teaching team, change of status of the school and the replacement of governors.  

Here in Alberta a loose coalition is working on this same challenge – how can we shift our understanding of “accountability” away from testing so that the focus is more on improving student learning, school and professional development and community engagement? How can we develop a stronger sense of “assurance” for those who have students in school or are concerned about school performance that their schools are world-class and that students have strong skills in maths, literacy, science as well as a strong base in 21st century skills? How can we ensure that teachers are able to assess students in such a way as to ensure that their teaching and learning strategies meet the learning needs of all students, not just some ? How can we develop a collaborative, reflective and strong professional commitment within each school so that all students attend a great school? These are the questions being explored. This loose network is known as the Forum for Public Assurance.

To help with this work, Dr Sam Sellar from the University of Queensland, will speak in Calgary and Edmonton on the 12th and 13th of November (Faculty Club at 5.30pm) about how we can make visible the work that schools do. Given our context and our challenges, this is both timely and opportune. Sam is an excellent speaker – he was here earlier in 2014 sharing his critique of PISA – and will raise challenging issues for us all to grapple with. You can register here for the Calgary event and here for the Edmonton event. Be there – it will be worth it.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

An Open Letter to Premier (To Be) Prentice

Dear Premier (To Be) Prentice

Congratulations on securing such a convincing victory in the race to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Now it is time for you to show leadership, courage and focus.

This letter focusing your attention on what you need to do to repair the relationship between your Government and all who care passionately about the future of our school system. You will hear that former Minister Jeff Johnson was “trying to do the right things” but “perhaps went about it the wrong way”. You will hear that your predecessor Alison Redford, “cut a deal with the ATA which came back to haunt her”. I suggest you put all this nonsense to one side and focus on what you need to do rather than what others did, should have done or could have done.

First, you need not have an agenda for education other than to sustain and develop Alberta’s leading education system. Do not get sucked in to issues about assessment, accountability, teacher unions and professionalism, class size and all of the items on everyone’s list. Focus on the big outcome: Alberta continuing to be amongst the best systems in the world. Avoid, at least for now, issuing a Government strategy, position paper or policy paper.

Second, your most critical task is to restore trust between all who work to make such a system possible. Two Ministers in a row eroded and then broke that trust. Teachers do not trust Government; many School Boards do not trust government; parents are suspicious of government (especially in relation to curriculum reform); there is mistrust within the Department; there is certainly a lack of trust between the profession and government. It doesn’t matter why these situations exist – they do.

To remedy this I suggest:

First: You need to appoint a senior, competent and trusted Minister to this portfolio with a mandate letter which says: (a) restore trust; (b) secure alignment between teachers, school boards, superintendents and parent representatives about the 2-3 key things that need to happen in the next 24 months to get everyone back on track; (c) deal with the special needs file and the poor system of support for such students; (d) deal with the conditions of practice which teachers find themselves in so that there is a real chance we can deliver on the promise of Inspiring Education and a Great School for All.

Second, hold a summit of the key leaders of the PSBA, ATA, CASS and Parents with you in the Chair and the President of the ATA as the co-chair with 25-30 invited individuals to help the new Minister focus on the 2-3 key issues for the next 24 months. This would be a demonstration of trust, would signal a recognition of the importance of the profession and would be a watershed moment for education in Alberta.

Third, ask an expert advisory team to take a cold hard look at Alberta’s K-12 system and ask them in particular to look at pedagogy, curriculum, inclusion, assessment and accountability. My recommendation would be that you ask Harvard Professor and world-class educator Pasi Sahlberg and Professor Andy Hargreaves of Boston College to select a team of three others to work with them to undertake this work. Sahlberg and Hargreaves know Alberta well, know schools, Superintendents and teachers well and have their trust.

Fourth, halt work on curriculum prototyping and refocus this work on the need to strengthen knowledge, skills and understanding at the elementary school level. Trying to change the K-12 curriculum in a short period of time with little or no real involvement of teachers is and was always a mistake. While some really valuable work has been done (and is not lost), there is no urgency about the changes and no appetite for such a massive change to be imposed on the system. Once the system review has been done, then we can see what (if anything) needs to be done.

Fifth, refocus on what (if anything) needs to happen to the early period of pre-school and kindergarten schooling to strengthen the base knowledge, understanding and skills students have as a foundation for all subsequent learning. This may require some new investment and thinking in pre-school and early childhood education.

Finally, rethink the approach your Government has taken and continues to take on public assurance and accountability. In particular, encourage your Minister and your caucus to stop relying on simplistic and relatively poor evaluative instruments (PAT’s and PISA, for example), and start to move towards a strategy for engaging communities (especially parents) in a focused approach to assurance based on school development plans.

Your really tough task is to make clear that schools are about more than serving the short to medium term economic needs of Alberta. They are also about our democracy, the character of our society, the nature of our public institutions and about how we interact and engage with each other in a fast growing and increasingly diverse society. If you give undue emphasis to competencies and skills needed by the Alberta economy – not unimportant but also not the raison d’aitre for schools – you will be sending the signal that many of the things schools are intended to do around creativity, the arts, citizenship, nurturing civil society and democracy, encouraging and enabling innovation and imaginative entrepreneurship are not important to you or to our communities.

You also need to stop using schools as a backcloth for politics. Minister Johnson and Premier Redford liked to use schools as the canvas for political announcements. If you or your Ministers visit schools it should be to encouraging reading, science, discourse, entrepreneurship, imagination, music, art, laughter and fun. Help kids read, do not use them to make political points.

I know that, in your family, education is important. Make it the key to your legacy as Premier, however much time you have in this role. You can make a real difference, but only if you begin by rebuilding trust and seeking focused alignment from those who actually make things happen.

Good luck in making your party progressive again. Alberta needs to be and be seen to be progressive.

Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBsS FRSA

Educator, entrepreneur, writer and imaginer and a friend of learners everywhere.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Future of Schooling in Canada

When we look at the future of schooling in Canada what do we see?

First we see a willingness to challenge teacher professionalism, in part on the basis of outcome data which is questionable. While PISA provides benchmark “snapshots” on a limited range of measures for school systems (Alberta vs Ontario, Canada versus Finland, for example) these data points do not reflect the broad purpose of schooling. Schooling is about much more than maths, science and language arts (though these are important) – schools are also about learning to learn, social skills and civic responsibility. They are also are about arts, laughter, music, creativity and imagination. While PISA may expand to measure soft skills and other features of learning, as it plans to do, it will never capture what schools are actually all about.

The challenge to the professionalism of teachers is in part about whether or not they are achieving the outcomes their students are capable of, but it is also directly related to a bigger question about the role of professionals in our globalized economy. Should professions like doctors, teachers, lawyers determine what should happen in key institutions (like hospitals, schools and courts) or should others (politicians, consultants, corporations) make these determinations on behalf of society? While some acknowledge the expertise of teachers as teachers, they do not feel they have the monopoly of understanding about schooling, learning and education.  The democratic control of schools is said to be the key here – but in fact few are engaged in the genuine debate about the future of schools, which is increasingly controlled by corporate interests and a select group of influencers.

Collaborative professional autonomy is essential if schools are not to be “lost” to the forces of capitalism and corporatism, already demanding that technologies for learning and standardized curriculum together with seeing schools as “business” (which they are not) should provide the operational basis for educational reform and development. Teachers need to “take back” their schools, supported by mindful school leaders, if they are not to become the new laboratories for corporate greed.

Second, we see attempts to shift curriculum (what, how and when students learn) from a broad based, socially oriented and conceptual understanding focused curriculum to one more directly related to the needs of the global economy. Shifting from “learning outcomes” to “skills” and “competencies”, from broad objectives to narrow skills signals a departure from a world in which the economy served society to one in which society now serves the economy.  It is a positive thing that the curriculum does not stay still – society changes all the time – it is unfortunate that current changes (so called 21st century skills) are actually leading to the atomisation of learning and the reduction of breadth and choice. As someone has observed, capitalism has defeated communism and is now well on the way to defeating democracy – in this case, through making it less likely that critical understanding, analysis and thinking will occur – there are just too many atomised “buts of pieces” of competency to master to permit creative time for such work.  Humpty Dumpty seems to be in charge of curriculum development in many parts of the world.

Third, we see a demand that technology find a stronger place in the daily lives of teachers and students. If there was ever an example of how corporations are influencing education it is in the pressure students, teachers, school leaders, Superintendents and educational policy makers are under to buy and use technology, whether it is iPads (or tablets), internet based learning resources, analytics, reporting systems or some other device or solution. Technology companies have encouraged the adoption of the phrase “learning anytime, anywhere” – a phrase which turns out to have no meaning or substance for most school aged learners. They have also encouraged the adoption of “bring your own device” (BYOD) so that they can compete for the $$ students and their parents are willing to spend on such pieces of kit. They are encouraging “technology for everything and anywhere” in the school – despite the compelling evidence that this actually hinders learning and genuine understanding and interaction.

A long time ago I used to say “if technology is the answer, we are obviously asking the wrong question!”. Now I say “technology is part of the problem as well as part of the solution – the trouble is, its getting to be a bigger part of the problem and is less likely to be a solution to anything”.  Education is about finding the talents, interests and passions of a person and then enabling them to flourish. This demands creative and imaginative inquiry by teachers and their students (technology can be a valuable tool here), but not standardization and compartmentalization, not rigid assessments and analytics but genuine evaluations and assessments for learning. Technology is currently too primitive to support many of the things we are trying to do in K-12 school systems (though is getting better).

The reality for many teachers is that no real and meaningful investment has been made in equipping them to leverage technologies for learning, creativity and explorative education. They have simply been given a minimal exposure to some low level capabilities of devices, systems and services and have then been expected “in their own time” to become Masters of technology. It would be rather like giving a medical team an MRI system with an instruction book and120 minutes of training and expecting them to accurately and reliable use the MRI for medical diagnosis. Sound silly? Not all teachers have had the luxiry of 120 minutes of effective training.

Technology has considerable promise, but it is no where near as transformative in schools as technofanatics suggest. I am a strong supporter of open schools, open education resources, online learning but I am also a realist. Most teachers can pass through initial training as a teacher with little or no substantial exposure to the utility and value of technology. Without investment in professional development it will continue to be a distraction rather than a substantial opportunity.

Fourth, we can see the bureaucratization of schools. In the UK the Health and Safety executive have made such things as school trips and excursions a nightmare – risk assessments, consents, security and background checks all make going somewhere interesting close to impossible. Reports, reviews, assessments, accountability statements, plans, and documented student reviews are all massively time-consuming and often add little value to the work of teachers, students and schools. They do keep central administration and school staff busy- often in distracted ways.

Some of this work is helpful – tracking attendance, reviewing student progress, case work teams for learners with special needs. But a lot of this work is CYA (cover your ass) work or done in the name of the accountability regime (about which more in a moment).  Any conversations with imaginative and mindful school leaders (of which they are many), usually involves a review of the “silly things I have had to do this week”.

Which leads us to a confusion about public accountability and assurance.  I have the good fortune to live and work in Alberta – one of the best educational jurisdictions in the English speaking world. Whether we look at PISA or TIMMS data, Alberta does very well. While we acknowledge we have a great many challenges, we are responding to these challenges from a position of strength. One challenge we have is to find a meaningful, imaginative and productive way of holding our schools accountable for the work that they do.

Misguidingly, this has been interpreted to be about testing. If we test students at key stages in their progress through school then we can see “how well students are doing”, especially when we can compare one school against another. Indeed, the Fraser Institute thinks this is marvellous, and they produce an analysis each year on the best and worst schools in Alberta – all of which disregards a whole range of challenges and issues. For example, the nature of the student population, the extent to which parents are involved in the education of their sons and daughters, the level of poverty, the nature of employment, the degree of social cohesion in the community and so on. Further, we measure so few things that we send a signal that what matters most is the few things the Province measures as opposed to what matters most is the educational agenda and learning agenda for each child. We distort the system so as it can be accountable in the simplest possible measure. We do this because others do, because its easy and because it sells to “politicians” and a select few constituents who show an interest in schools.

An alternative is to do what happens in the corporate world. Individual schools produce school development plans which commit each school to a strategy for continuous improvement on key measures which matter to that school. Such plans reflect the unique characteristics of that school, its students, its community and its parents. While some elements in every school could be the same, each school would focus on what it is seeking to achieve. We would then use simple indicators for each of the  accountabilities the school has chosen to focus on to hold the school account. No two schools are the same, no two schools have the same student body, the same conditions of practice or the same resource base. It is the same for companies competing in the same market in a similar product space. Yet somehow we want to reduce complex systems (hospitals and schools, for example) to crude and distorting measurement which tells us little if anything about how schools are doing. For hospitals it is wait times (a very poor and distorting measure) while in schools it is results on crude tests. Time to get serious about public assurance.

The final challenge relates to the conditions of practice which teachers and school leaders face. There is a growing distortion around the importance of class size and composition – classes of 30-35 with up to six students with special needs are seen as “manageable” (they are not) with a single teacher and little if any access to other supports. Custodial services are seen as being only required before and after school – not during the school day, leaving teachers to clean up after sick children or some accident in the chemistry lab. We are neglecting the basic conditions in the name of economy. Attempts to challenge the creeping Fordism which such class sizes force on school systems are seen as “teacher whining”, yet parents and citizens should be appalled at some of the conditions under which we are asking teachers to produce the next generation of imagineers, artists, scientists, engineers and trades persons.

There are other issues, but it is clear that we are not working in any conscious, systematic and purposeful way towards a great school for all. Instead, we are creating a competitive and bureaucratic system which gets in the way of genuine learning and equitable society.

Education is a key battleground for this century. It is the new space for the exercise of the shock doctrine, a new space for capitalism and a new space for neo-liberal ideology. If we value the future, we need to take back our schools in the name of equality, democracy and our social values.