Thursday, March 20, 2014

Mind the Gap - Alberta Politics Post Redford and the Future of the Progressive Conservative Party

Premier Redford’s decision to resign showed common sense. There was no way should survive the coming onslaught from the Progressive Conservative Party’s own leadership – the rank and file and the constituency associations. The Presidents of these associations were about to meet as she resigned to ask her to do just that.

While she was a flawed leader (see here for why), the real issue facing the Progressive Conservative party is not leadership, but purpose. Why do they exist and why should they expect the people of Alberta to continue to support them after forty three years in power?

The Premier gave emphasis to the word “progressive” in her resignation speech. She did so for a reason. Alberta is a very liberal and progressive Province and becoming more so. It values equality of opportunity, fairness, transparency and outcome based investment by government. It does not value elites, favouritism, privilege and policies which ensure that the rich get richer, the middle class get poorer and the poor remain poor. If anything, Alberta is the engine of progressive thinking in Canada, despite the views of the young Trudeau.

A true progressive conservative party would now increase taxes and revenues to pay for better education, better health care, more support for those in need. It would systematically attack poverty, homelessness and growing youth unemployment. It would focus on enhancing access to skills development and opportunities for lifelong learning and would invest in the infrastructure of the Province. If this takes managed debt, so be it. If this takes increase royalty payments from oil and gas, so be it. Changing the mind set about taxes so as to achieve social benefits which increase the opportunities for wealth creation should be the cornerstone of progressive politics.

Another critical component of such a progressive approach would be to seek genuine and meaningful partnership with those who can make public services work and perform – public servants, doctors, nurses, teachers, teaching assistants, social workers. The present government has systematically and deliberately alienated exactly these workers – the very people who ensured their election two years ago. They have attacked them, their rights and their pensions. Its time to stop and to look for a re-engagement of civic leadership and public sector employers in the work of building the Alberta the world needs to see.

I know that this sounds like a liberal agenda, but few in Alberta will vote Liberal while Raj Sherman is leading. Even fewer will vote NDP while Brian Mason leads – his “use by” date is long past. Sadly, the Alberta Party is yet to make headway, though if ever there were a time for it to start to step up to the plate it is now.

What happens next for the PC Party will tell us everything we need to know. Clearly there will be some interim arrangements while the party discovers its next leader. Pay some but not much attention to this. If all of the leadership candidates are from the existing front bench then the party is dead at the next election. What it truly needs is a fresh leadership face – someone who will be a “game changer”.  Anyone within the cabinet ranks right now has too many bodies buried and too many debts to pay. A new broom can truly sweep clean.

Stephen Mandel, former Mayor of Edmonton, is the kind of person we may need. Some tell me he is a liberal – so was Ralph Klein. Some tell me he is too old. He is younger than Ronald Reagan was when he won the Presidency of the United States. He is a skilled, collaborative politician with a record of getting things done.  He knows how to engage and broker alliances and he has the patience to see the long-game – just look at the Rogers Arena.

Rona Ambrose, Federal Minister of Health and Vice Chair of Treasury Board and MP for Edmonton-Spruce Grove, is another possibility. True, she is a tried and tested and familiar politician. But she would be a fresh face to Alberta Provincial politics and brings a wealth of experience to local politics from surviving goodness knows how many shuffles, debacles and midnight coups in the federal domain. A smart, articulate and skilled politician, she would bring new blood to the game.

The last person the party needs is one of the current front bench. The leadership of the party should be systematically looking outside the party elite to change the game and wrong-foot the Wildrose Party.  They should rethink their policy position and not fall back on mantra’s that were appropriate for the 80’s and 90’s of the last century. A 21st Century Progressive Conservative Party with new leadership and fresh thinking could do very well.

Lets just take a small bet: none of what needs to happen will happen. We will get more of the same and have a wild ride election sooner rather than later.

Welcome to the red zone and “mind the gap”, as they say on the London underground.

There is  gaping hole – the PC Party could leap across and show its imaginative side or could ensure that the hole becomes a sink hole.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Premier on Probation: Premier Alison Redford and the Future of Alberta

Let us begin by acknowledging that Premier Alison Redford is a very intelligent woman. She is able to understand complex issues and simplify them; she is able to analyze a lot of information and ask appropriate and insightful questions; she can develop and sustain a complex argument as befits a lawyer; she can examine and challenge evidence; she can lay out a “model, frame or theory” and defend it. These are fine qualities very much needed in a leader.

She has also managed a very successful career – a solid legal reputation in the field of human rights, policy advisor and think-tank contributor in Canada and abroad and a true professional. She also respects professionals as her peers – something at least two previous Premiers of Alberta did not.

But these qualities are not enough to lead a Province through a time of rapid growth and the rethinking of its social institutions. What is missing is an ability to relate and connect to people as well as to ideas; an ability to build trust and an acceptance of the foibles of others; an ability to accept that others will not share her view or idea sand that this is not only acceptable, but also to be welcomed. She needs to connect, engage, develop trust and inspire confidence. She does none of these things.

She also needs to communicate with the people in Alberta in a way that does not leave them seeing her as arrogant, imperious and “entitled”. This is how many see her now.  She is so distanced from the Albertans she is so fond of referring to that they no longer regard her as one of their own.

She needs to inspire confidence and show passion for a vision of Alberta and be able to lead a team of competent people who can demonstrate their effective ability to deliver and execute change related to this vision. She does not inspire confidence, has not communicated a vision, is too abstract to show passion and conviction and has not surrounded herself with people who appear skilled and confident. Witness the hapless Minister of Education reeling at criticisms of needed changes to the Alberta school curriculum or the dazed Minister of Health or…we could go on.

She has been accused of being a bully and of being subject to temper tantrums. More than one person has shared this view of her and it is such a common a story across Ministers and senior public servants, as well as amongst her security detail, that the evidence appears strong (but circumstantial) to be true. One former colleague of the laywer Redford told me “she has always been a screamer!”. Not good.

It has been suggested by eminent Progressive Conservative veterans that the party cannot possibly win the next election with Premier Redford as its leader. This seems to me, on the basis of polling data and known disaffection amongst rank and file party organizers (as well as being reflected in falling donations to the party), to be a correct analysis at this time. As Harold Wilson, onetime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, “a week is a long time in politics” and there is some time to go before the next Alberta election. But the signs are not good.

Given all this, it is therefore very surprising that the PC executive put the Premier on probation at a meeting over this last weekend rather than asking her to resign. She is to be given “a work plan” and she has agreed in principle to follow it. 

Imagine the Primer Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, the German Chancellor, the President of the United States or the Governor of Massachusetts being “on probation”?  Difficult isn’t it. In fact it makes no sense. Alsion Redford is now and will in the future be the Alison Redford we can see and have experience of. She will not change. As a psychologist, such change requires significant intervention by effective psychologists and experts in organizational change. No one in the inner circle has these skills. What we see is what we will get.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta is in denial. It will lose the next election unless significant change occurs. This change requires: (a) a clear and compelling vision for what Alberta needs to become; (b) a clear plan of action for the next Alberta; (c) a genuine attempt to engage and involve Albertans in the work of building the next Alberta; and (d) new leadership and several new faces in that leadership, including a new Premier. It’s a big task. But if it doesn’t start now, the Wildrose Party – Alberta’s official opposition – will deliver on all of these things.

Part of the problem within the progressive conservative party is the absence of a clear new leader and appropriate team to support that person within it. The view is that there is no “obvious” candidate. While there are various umours of interest from Jim Dinning (not yesterdays man, but last decades man) and Gary Mar (clearly disengaged), neither of these “fit the bill” for a new face for the Party. Indeed, it would be Mr. Dressup for the Party – more of the same, just dressed differently.

Two other people could do exactly what is required – Stephen Mandel  (former Mayor of Edmonton) or Rona Ambrose  (an Edmonton MP and very successful federal cabinet MP) – but the party would have to be ready for change and energetic in recruiting one of these individuals. The sad fact, as demonstrated by the actions taking by the executive of the party this last week-end, is that they are not. In these circumstances, no one in their right mind would step forward and offer an agenda for change and the future at the present time.

Over the week-end I suggested that what happened to the PC’s could be compared to someone diagnosed with cancer who seeks a back rub or homeopathic remedy when we know that the treatment needs to an aggressive strategy to replace the cancer cells with new cells which are healthy. Homeopathy doesn’t work. Neither will putting the Premier on Probation.

The consequences for Alberta are serious. Senior government officials know that they are working in an atmosphere of high uncertainty which could change at any moment and that their political masters are often distracted and disengaged from the real work of Government - governing. They also know that some of the decisions that are being made are about positioning for the future ambitions of their Minister. Decisions have been slow in any case under this administration – they are slower now.

They also know that we are effectively in a permanent “red zone”, where controversial decisions which need to be made will not be. The general advice is to “keep your head down”, otherwise you will see the consequences. This is all made worse by an unwarranted attack on public sector employees in various Bills introduced in 2013 and on public sector pensions. Some of our most talented public servants are looking to leave or have left. Alberta needs high quality, independent thinking public servants who are respected across government and by the public who give independent advice to Ministers. We are gradually losing our independent public service.

Alberta cannot tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty within its Government. It leads to poor decisions, delay and compromise. If ever there was a time for bold, inspiring action it is now. A Premier on Probation will not deliver this.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Changing What and How We Teach Needs Time

Alberta is engaged in a major curriculum reform – the cornerstone of its strategy to ensure its sustains its position as a global leader in education. At the heart of these reforms are these shifts:

  1. A strong focus on the student and the process of learning – increasing the sense of ownership, involvement and engagement in learning – making learning more focused on the way in which the learner learns.
  2.  Less focused on content and more focused on competency – students will still study subjects like science, arts, maths but will do so with the intention of developing skills, knowledge, understanding and the attitudes and methods required by those subjects to achieve outcomes. Some have suggested that this is all about discovery and projects – and these will be a significant part of how students learn at some stages for some subjects – but there will be a strong focus on competencies and outcomes.
  3. From a prescribed study schedule and curriculum to greater flexibility – professional teachers will be able to make many more decisions about how best to achieve the competency expectations for their students through locally relevant, meaningful work and activities. All students in Alberta at each grade will still be expected to have mastery of the competencies associated with that grade – how they achieve this will largely be determined locally.
  4. A focus on assessment for learning  - students will be assessed, but the focus for this assessment will be on the question “what else does this student have to do to master these competencies?”. There will still be Provincial assessments, but the focus for these will change.
  5.  Less print, more varied forms of learning materials – so much quality learning resources are available online, in print and through simulations, interactive learning resources and through global collaborative projects. Teachers and learners will have more choice over what to use to support their learning.
  6. Less development of curriculum by Alberta Education and more development through the engagement of local stakeholders (e.g. teachers, employers, post-secondary institutions,  First Nations and Metis communities, nonprofit organizations and community organizations, students) so that what is taught and being studied by students reflects the needs, resources and skills in the community in which the student lives and works.

These changes are significant and substantial, but reflect not only what is needed in Alberta but also what many other jurisdictions around the world are doing. The intention is to ensure that students leaving school  are able to:

  •          Know how to learn
  •         Think critically
  •         Identify and solve problems
  •          Manage information
  •         Innovate
  •         Create opportunities
  •          Apply multiple literacies
  •         Communicate well and cooperate with others
  •        Demonstrate global and cultural understanding
  •         Identify and apply career and Lifeskills

To put it succinctly: we are looking for our school system to enable our young people to be engaged thinkers, ethical citizens and entrepreneurial. This requires changes to what we teach, how we teach and how we assess what has been learned. The Government of Alberta committed to these changes in a series of actions and decisions making clear the direction our education system would take (see here for a short video about curriculum change and here for the Ministerial commitment to these changes). 

These are not the only changes taking place in our school system – there are changes which enable students to take college or university credit while at high school, for more flexibility in high school programs, changes to Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s) and Diploma Exams, encouraging locally developed courses and investing in the use of technology for learning. But changing what students do every day – the curriculum – and how we assess them are key to delivering on the promise of Inspiring Education.

These changes are causing concern. One parent, concerned about declining performance in mathematics in Alberta, has started a “back to basics” in maths petition which has already been signed by over 10,000 persons. The Wildrose Part – Alberta’s official opposition – appears opposed to these curriculum changes.  Others have expressed concerns that some of those engaged in the process of curriculum change are major oil and gas companies (as well as several other businesses, nonprofits, First Nations groups and other stakeholders). All appear concerned about the speed at which these changes are intended to be made – completed within two years.

At the heart of these conversations are some interesting questions:

  1. Who should set curriculum?  The teaching profession, government, communities? In theory, the Province sets curriculum guidelines which teachers than adapt to local circumstance. For a major overhaul, should we not all be involved, with the final decisions in the hands of professional educators?
  2.  What should be the focus of assessment? The strategy is to shift to a competency based assessment coupled with an assessment of learning outcomes. In math, this would mean “can a student successful perform the following calculations and get the right answer” (competency) as well as “does the student understand the basis of these calculations” (learning process and outcome).
  3. What should drive change? The focus on the new math is interesting – the suggestion is that students can no longer perform basic math and this is because some “eductrats” adopted a “fad” known as “discovery math. Our Math curriculum, despite what “traditionalists” might say, is extremely strong. It is based on solid research on child development, and was developed not by a couple of bureaucrats sitting in an office, but rather through the exhaustive input and review of 43 Math teachers, professors, and consultants from four provinces and the then two territories, and when revised in 2006 had input from an additional 24 consultants from four provinces and all three territories (for more information, see here).  Further, our PISA results in Math are impressive. Alberta’s scored  51-  only two points behind Finland, one of the leading educational systems in the world Given our (both at the Canadian level, and specifically Alberta) diverse and very heterogeneous population, our country’s Math teachers must be doing something right. Ahead of us are places like Liechtenstein (population of 36,000), Macau, Shanghai – in fact just a 2 per cent reduction in our raw score on math over a period of three years has led to ministerial handwringing, parents initiating petitions, newspaper columnists launching crusades and CEOs descending from on high to chastise teachers. Should PISA envy be the driver of curriculum change?

Public support for education is always complicated. It is clear that much more could have been done much sooner to engage parents, employers, First Nations, communities and teachers in the work of curriculum change. It is also clear that change is needed. Lets take the time it takes to do it well.

(This post first appeared at the Innovation Expedition

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The New Science Deniers

John Kerry, the US Secretary of State denies science. He claims that the many current extreme weather events – droughts in California, snow in the North Eastern US, flooding in southern England – are all evidence of “the compelling and undeniable scientific case of this growing challenge that is pushing the planet towards a tipping point of no return”. Ed Miliband, who is the current leader of the British Labour Party, also denies science. He says that “Britain is sleepwalking towards disaster because of a failure to recognize that climate change is causing the extreme weather that has blighted the country". The UK Green Party leader Natalie Bennett also denies science, but goes further. She wants to police science and remove anyone from policy advice to government who denies the scientific consensus. She wants a new thought police (see here – see point 3). 

A real scientist, as opposed to a political science denier, has intervened to make clear what the science actually tells us at this time. One of the Met Office’s most senior experts yesterday made an intervention in the climate change debate by insisting there is no link between the storms that have battered Britain and global warming. Mat Collins, a Professor in climate systems at Exeter University, said the storms have been driven by the jet stream – the high-speed current of air that girdles the globe – which has been ‘stuck’ further south than usual. Professor Collins said: ‘There is no evidence that global warming can cause the jet stream to get stuck in the way it has this winter. If this is due to climate change, it is outside our knowledge.’ (here).

Roger Pielke Jnr, a real scientist whose life’s work has been to study extreme weather events, rejects the politicization of climate science. He observes that incidence of drought has not really changed for sixty years (here) and that "droughts have, for the most part, become shorter, less frequent and cover a smaller portion of the US over the last century" according to a scientific report issued by the US Government (here). The IPCC also made clear that there was a low probability of climate change being linked to extreme weather (here). Indeed, there review of the science in 2012 concluded:

“There is not enough evidence at present to suggest high confidence in observed trends in dryness due to lack of direct observations, some geographical inconsistencies in the trends, and some dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice. There is medium confidence that since the 1950s some regions of the world have experienced more intense and longer droughts (e.g., southern Europe, west Africa) but also opposite trends exist in other regions (e.g., central North America, northwestern Australia).”

Deaths due to extreme weather are radically declining, global tropical cyclone activity is near historic lows, the frequency of major U.S. hurricanes has declined, tornados have dramatically declined since the 1950s, droughts are not historically unusual nor caused by mankind, there is no evidence we are currently having unusual weather.

The science of extreme weather is not at all well understood – and we are becoming less confident that we fully understand the dynamics of climate and climate change. The long pause in warming – which began in 1998 or 2000, depending on which scientists we depend on for analysis (the UK Met Office accepts both, but makes clear that the 1998 and 1999 years are complicated by El Nino and La Nina events (here) – defies all of the climate models on which most of the current understanding of climate change are built (here). The link between CO2 and surface temperature cannot be as strong as many have suggested – as CO2 continues to rise, but the surface temperature remains steadfast.

As I suggested in an earlier post (here), its time to get back to theory development driven by data from actual observations – the models are basically not giving us a picture which resembles the evidence. As Wesley Pruden writes in the Washington Times (here), “science at its best is skeptical, a community of doubters and agnostics. At its worst, it’s a community of theologians, out to protect its scams of preconceived “truth.” Garbage in, garbage out, none of it hot”. What has happened now is that the politicians have become the acolytes for the theology.

It is politically expedient for politicians to focus on climate change since they see this as a “vote button” attractive to certain voters. It also distracts from the failure of their public policies on infrastructure investments, water management, flood prevention and so on. It provides context for their desire to tax CO2 and provide new sources of revenue – taxes which will not have any impact on climate. President Obama wants a $1 billion “resilience” fund – something normally called an economic stimulus package focused on flood defenses, sea wall strengthening and improved hurricane protection measures (here). Cloaking this stimulus package with the hyperbole of climate change just might get this spending through Congress. But it is a masque – a cloak, not science.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Climate, Science and Evidence

“Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled” Ms Christine Legarde, Managing Director IMF

Science proceeds cautiously. A hypothesis is in favour and dominates thinking for a period of time until evidence from the natural world suggests that the hypothesis needs correction or a fundamentally different hypothesis replaces the original one. When we modify and adjust a hypothesis we refer to this as a “refinement”; when we replace it is called a paradigm shift.

Part of the problem with climate science is that many of its proponents gave up on actual evidence some time ago and instead prefer to spend their time looking at the output from a range of computer models which, though they utilize some actual evidence, do so within a range of pre-programmed assumptions. The IPCC, for example, develops scenarios based on these models and most predictions we see from climate scientists also have their origins in these models.

Science is also about exceptions – an event or series of events which challenge the dominant hypothesis. For example, unusual occurrences in a chemistry experiment sometime send chemists in new directions, just as lab mistakes have created new substances (e.g. aspartame).  So when a pattern changes, we take note.

The dominant hypothesis of the current favoured climate science has these components:

1.       Human activity science 1945 is causing a significant increase in CO2 emissions.
2.       CO2 emissions accumulate in the atmosphere together with other greenhouse gasses and add to naturally occurring CO2.
3.       CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere have an impact on climate, acting as a “greenhouse” especially when coupled with assumed climate forcing elements.
4.       The net impact of the greenhouse effect and climate forcing is warming.
5.       Warming as measured by the global mean surface temperature will cause erosion of the ice at both poles of the earth, which in turn will have an impact on ocean sea levels.
6.       Warming will also have an impact on weather events, biodiversity and human activity.

So the core hypothesis is this: “Increasing anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide have a significant warming effect on global climate”.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 39/1,000ths of one percent. Ninety-five percent of the greenhouse effect is water vapor, and the level of water vapor in the atmosphere is not changing. The total change in atmospheric composition since 1945, when CO2 levels began to increase, is one 9/1,000ths of one percent. The climate models all assume that this is significant and will have a significant impact. They are wrong.

Indeed, the models used to predict climate are “out” by 10C – more than the climate has changed since the dire warnings from some climate scientists began. We have now had 15 years without any significant warming, even though CO2 emissions have risen significantly. Fears of a 10C increase in global surface temperature per decade – the worst case scenario – appear to be unfounded.

Part of the argument favouring the dominant hypothesis is that a large number of scientists are aligned with it. There are claims, for example, that 97% of climate scientists agree with the hypothesis. This is not at all the case. a Canada-based group calling itself Friends of Science has just completed a review of the four main studies used to document the alleged consensus and found that only 1 - 3% of respondents "explicitly stated agreement with the IPCC declarations on global warming," and that there was "no agreement with a catastrophic view."  The hypothesis as stated above remains dominant, but there are growing scientific concerns that the hypothesis is flawed. Some 32,000 American scientists have made clear that they disagree with the hypothesis.

Currently we can summarize evidence related to the hypothesis as follows:
·         Warming: Analyses of data from a number of sources indicate that (i) there was a gradual increase in global atmospheric CO2 concentration from about 1860 to 1945, (ii) there has been a much more rapid rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration from 1945 to the present, (iii) the most recent trend of global surface air temperature during this period of rapid CO2increase has been downwards, which is in contradiction to the predictions of the most sophisticated general circulational models of the atmosphere in use today, (iv) this downward trend in surface air temperature has been most pronounced in northern latitudes, which is also in contrast to the model predictions, and (v) the downward temperature trend has been greater in summer than in winter, which is again in contradiction to the models.
·         Extreme Weather: Despite frequent political claims to the contrary, there is no established relationship between climate and extreme weather events. Indeed, the IPCC came to the conclusion that “there is not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall) since the middle of the 20th century” and  “current datasets indicate no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century … no robust trends in annual numbers of tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes counts have been identified over the past 100 years in the North Atlantic basin” and  “there continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale”
·         Sea Level Rise: Records and research show that sea level has been steadily rising at a rate of 1 to 2.5 millimeters (0.04 to 0.1 inches) per year since 1900. This rate may be increasing. Since 1992, new methods of satellite altimetry (the measurement of elevation or altitude) indicate a rate of rise of 3 millimeters (0.12 inches) per year. Although fast, the observed rise still is (just) within the ‘natural range’.
·         Arctic and Antarctic Ice: It is clear from the various data sets, terrestrial and satellite, that both the Arctic sea ice extent and multi-year ice volume are reducing. Sea ice extent recovered slightly during the Arctic winters of 2008-09, but the full extent of annual ice reduction or gain is seen in September of each year, at the end of the Arctic summer. The volume of multi-year ice has not recovered at all, and is showing a steeply negative trend. In the Antarctic things are different. Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey say that the melting of the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf in Antarctica has suddenly slowed right down in the last few years, confirming earlier research which suggested that the shelf's melt does not result from human-driven global warming.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us as scientists with a view that the core dominant hypothesis is failing to explain the complexity of the evidence we are seeing from actual measurements of what is happening in the atmosphere, oceans, on the ice and on the ground. While some have suggested that all is consistent with the dominant hypothesis, there is a growing sense that the hypothesis is weak and needs refinement or replacement.

Some have suggested that there is a range of natural variability which is not accounted for in current models and analysis (see here and here). Others have suggested that the influence of the sun is poorly accounted for in the current understanding of climate (see here).

It is time to stop focusing on the who is right and who is wrong battle (warmists versus skeptics) and instead focus on the evidence on our inability to adequately explain it.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Whatever Happened to Transforming Education in Alberta?

A colleague and friend from the United States asked me yesterday a simple question: “what happened to the momentum for equity, transformation and change in Alberta education?”.  Made me think. Here is my response.

First, we lost an important champion. Hon Dave Hancock was the Minister of Education (now Deputy Premier and Minister for Innovation and Advanced Education) who engendered trust and spurred innovation and collaboration. Its his style. He sought labour peace, developed a process to listen and understand the need for change and set an agenda for change which teachers, principals and superintendents could buy into. He was replaced by a Minister – Hon Thomas (“hit me”) Lucasuk – who made no attempt to understand the opportunity left by his predecessor, alienated teachers and school administrators and was generally a poor substitute for leadership. Realizing this, the Premier moved him to the role of Deputy Premier without portfolio as part of her “keep you enemies close” strategy. He is now Minister for Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour. He was replaced by Hon. Jeff Johnson, a former sales person for Xerox. He too has alienated teachers and school administrators and is widely seen as a proponent of market based tools and instruments for schooling.

These changes are more than symbolic – an activist Minister like Johnson can do a great deal of harm to an emerging movement in a very short period of time.  It is widely understood that this Government wishes to split the Alberta Teachers Association by separating its negotiation/union function from its professional support and development function. It is also rumoured that the Minister wants to remove those with managerial roles (Principals and Superintendents) from the union. Also under attack are public sector pensions, as can be seen from recent announcement from the Minister of Finance, Hon Doug Horner (see here).

Transformative change depends on trust and collaboration. Two successive Ministers appear not to understand this and have either deliberately or unintentionally set out to damage trust between those who will enable transformation (teachers) and those who will support transformation (school and Board administrators) and those who will guide transformation (the leadership of the ATA and the Government of Alberta and Superintendents). Until trust is returned, transformation will be piecemeal, fraught and stalled.

Second, the key to turning ideas into action is to create the right conditions of practice for teachers – class size, time for professional development, engagement in curriculum change, the right kind of preparation for teaching, support for the inclusion of those with special needs. Almost all of these conditions are in poor shape. Classes in many schools are large because Alberta is growing faster than investment in physical capacity and teachers permits.  In Calgary, classes average 30 when the Province recommends 27 (see here) – the highest they have ever been in modern times. Some have classes of 38-40 with 3-4 special needs students included.  School Boards have requested portable buildings to accommodate growth in student numbers, but the Government cannot meet these demands (here).

School budgets are tight – with teachers being laid off (here) or not hired, even though demand is growing. The forthcoming Provincial budget will, it is rumoured, add to the austerity context in which schools are operating. Some school Boards have to consider reducing the school week (here) so as to balance budgets. Requests for replacement technology, for professional development or funds for innovation are becoming less likely to be approved, especially now that a major engine for innovation in schools – The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement – has been abolished (here).

In these circumstances, the conditions of practice are threatened not supported. But wait, it gets worse. The Hon Jeff Johnson initiated a review of teacher excellence in 2013, which is due to report shortly. The Task Force he established did not include any serving teachers (no wonder there are trust issues) and its processes were very questionable. Hon. Jeff Johnson has several times suggested that there should be merit pay for teachers – this despite compelling evidence that this has no impact on the learning experiences of learners or learning outcomes: it may work in Xerox, but not in schools (for a review of the argument see here, for evidence of consequence see  hereherehere, and here).

Third, the transformation journey remains unfocused. This may be about to change. The Hon Jeff Johnson is about to announce some curriculum prototyping work across Alberta which will “be the engine of transformation”. Without revealing too much, the change in schools will be driven by changes to curriculum. In particular, a shift from “content and process” based learning to “competencies” and a focus on Provincial frameworks for competency with teachers having much more freedom, in partnership with others, to create appropriate learning for these competencies will be a major change.  Teachers are nervous about these developments for several reasons. First, there are the conditions of practice issues and investment issues just mentioned. Second, parents have not been engaged in the conversation about these changes since the broad consultations associated with Inspiring Education, which took place in 2008-2010 and even then only a small number were involved. Third, investments have not been made in appropriate professional development to enable the transition to competencies by school systems (see here). The prototyping work will “surface” many of these issues, but they will also be challenging politically at a time when austerity is about to become more severe.

Finally, there is a strong sense that the present Government may not be the next government. Amongst the literati and politerati the conversation is not whether or not the Redford government will win the next election, but rather what kind of Government will be in place after the next election, due in 2016. It is clear that the Alberta Liberal Party and the NDP are both unlikely to form the Government or a coalition. It is also clear that the fledgling Alberta Party has yet to find the right kind of leadership to position themselves as serious players in the 2016 election. The choice is between the Wild Rose, led by Danielle Smith, or the current government either led by Alison (“in wonderland”) Redford or someone else. Two scenarios are emerging as bar talk favourites. A modest win for the Wild Rose or a minority government continuing the current party in power.

Whichever scenario turns out to be the case – and a week, never mind eighteen to twenty months is a long time in politics – it is leading to the current government seeking to demonstrate its right wing credentials. Hence its systematic pursuit of austerity and “no new taxes and no increase in taxes”, despite a deficit. Hence its systematic persecution of public sector unions through Bill 45 (bans public sector workers from striking, despite this being a labour right) and Bill 46 (muzzles freedom of speech) and an assault on pensions (see here). Hence its unfettered support for employers, despite growing concerns over cumulative environmental impacts of their activities.  Hence the growing right wing nature of many of the actions we currently see and anticipate, such as a pending assault on the Alberta Teachers’ Association. What is happening is Alison Redford’s party is trying to occupy the space they think the Wildrose Party occupies.

But all this misses the point: no one trusts Alison Redford to do what she said she would do or her government to behave in a way that engenders community support. She and her colleagues no longer have the trust of the electorate. When this occurs, political parties become increasingly desperate to “win back” the voter. The problem for teachers and educators is that so few Albertan’s vote - 1,290,218  from a potential pool of 2,265,169 (57%), and so few vote for the party that wins. These facts lead the parties to work to attract small sub-sets of the electorate by appealing to what they suspect will appeal to them – no tax increases, take on these “fat cat” public sector people and punish those who challenge the status quo. The irony is that many teachers voted for this government so as to keep out the Wildrose. It is very doubtful that they will do this in 2016.

What might be a surprise in 2016 is that we could get a very high turnout – say 80-85% - who want to see an end to this government. In 1935 some 82 per cent of eligible voters turned out and the electorate turfed the United Farmers of Alberta from power in favour of Social Credit.

Transformation  is not dead in Alberta education. It will occur one school at a time because courageous teachers, Principals and community leaders working together will make it so. But the overarching conditions are not in place for a system wide or Province wide transformation.  It is a real shame: they were, and not that long ago either.