Playing well together — Alberta’s elusive opportunity
“We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our crime is abandoning the children … Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot.”
- Gabriela Mistral
A fundamental tenet of sound public policy in a vibrant democracy is that evidence-informed decision-making through open public deliberation trumps the parochial interests of any one group. Yet, as in other jurisdictions when it comes to education policy development, Alberta remains an evidence-free zone where public engagement remains episodic. For example, research has long demonstrated that participation in early learning programs is a more powerful predictor of readiness to learn compared to demographic variables such as income and family background and community characteristics. Yet, citing a lack of clear indisputable evidence, early learning has basically dropped off the Alberta government’s list of priorities.
On the reverse side, while there is little evidence that increased instructional time and more technology in schools yields improvements in student learning, the Alberta government continues to push longer school days and unproven initiatives such as “bring your own device” and blended learning as drivers of school improvement. In both cases, the populist refrain is that kids need to be in school to acquire the 21st century skills needed to compete in an increasingly competitive global economy.
Meanwhile, the Alberta government ignores the unsustainable and increasingly intensified 56-hour work week of teachers and the inability of schools to meet the growing complexity of student populations — while announcing this past month that it is unable and unwilling to provide funding for the 12,000 new students expected here this fall.
STUPID HURTS BUT SIMPLE WINS
Alberta’s inability to effectively mobilize educational research that informs public policy is not unique. When it comes to educational policy development and the role of research, “it is often the flashiness of the message rather than the soundness of the evidence that is heard and acted upon.” This was the key theme of an expert panel convened at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) — a gathering of 14,000 researchers from across the globe this past April.
In reviewing the state of education policy in the United States today, the panel offered prescient insights into the impacts of growing anti-intellectualism that is marginalizing educational research on two fronts: the growing tendency of policy-makers to wilfully ignore research and the unfortunate downstream results. While these two-fold challenges continue to play out in the United States, they certainly resonate with our predicament here in Alberta.
In her talk Stupid Kills, Catherine Lugg of Rutgers University recounted the direct and collateral damage of homophobia and bullying across her country. Looking back over her 30-year academic career, she said the most difficult lesson was recognizing that generations of researchers and policy-makers had deliberately failed to respond to the overwhelming evidence and impacts of this repression in the face of outright stupidity fed by public ignorance.
Stupidity, in Lugg’s view, is the wilful decision to ignore evidence and the consequences of doing so. From a personal and public policy perspective, the range of consequences of our individual and collective stupidity varies: from decisions to text while driving to the United States government’s continued refusal to adequately regulate known carcinogens or deal with the systemic poverty that is robbing a generation of the American dream.
Stupidity must be distinguished from ignorance, however. Ignorance is more complex, since it may involve either wanting to know better and/or simply not knowing. Examples of the boundlessness of ignorance in our individual lives and broader public policy contexts are both legion and tragic. The case of the well-intended doctor in the early 1960s who encouraged Lugg’s dying father to continue smoking to clear up his asthma (based on some of the best medical knowledge of the day), is a glaring example of a lack of knowledge — of not knowing.
Or consider Canadians today who spend 200 to 3,000 times more on bottled water than they do on tap water, believing it is safer, despite the evidence to the contrary (see the Council of Canadians: http://tinyurl.com/mkhjk8). Meanwhile, how many Canadians are aware that it takes three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled water? Or that making plastic bottles for the two billion litres of bottled water consumed annually in Canada consumes approximately three million barrels of oil in energy production and transportation? (See the Canadian Federation of Students: http://tinyurl.com/ng3b3bb.)
For James Popham of the University of California, Los Angeles, one of the biggest downfalls in education research and policy development this past generation has been the almost singular focus on test development without commensurate efforts to assess the impacts of large-scale testing on government decision-making and public engagement. Looking back on his career, Popham outlined the inability of the growing number of psychometricians — often supported by the lucrative test development industry — to thoughtfully consider the consequences of the rising “testocracy” in the United States, all focused on the naming and shaming of schools without commensurate resources to offer proven strategies for addressing the systemic barriers to learning.
Meanwhile, what is difficult to convey to the public — and many in the media — is that non-school characteristics (what children bring to school, not what they learn there) account for 70 to 80 per cent of what happens in the school. Furthermore, as was recently documented by Guiner (2015) the continued reliance on standardized tests to determine entrance to post-secondary education, despite their well-documented weak reliability as predictors of future performance, exacerbates the growing gender and race disparities in America.
FOCUSING ALBERTA’S FRAGMENTED RESEARCH COMMUNITY
Without a fundamental commitment to social justice and improving schools, we will not only fail students, Americans will fall short of the aspiration to create the civil society that the United States aspires to become. This moral imperative applies as much to the research communities in the U.S. as it does here in Alberta and Canada.
While it might be true that “stupid hurts but simple wins” — the panel offered two strategic interventions that might interrupt this pernicious cycle both in the U.S. and here at home. Firstly, “stupidity” can be countered with ongoing public engagement and secondly, “simple” does not have to mean “simplistic.”
Citing the fragmentation and proliferation of specializations in the educational research community at AERA, Popham reflected on what he witnessed as a graduate student in the mid-1970s. At that time, the event was a meeting of four divisions and no special interest groups. It has since morphed into a conference representing 12 divisions of broad research areas and 175 interest groups. While all of these specializations have a purpose, the downside is the challenge of applying and mobilizing this alchemy of educational research in the public interest to achieve the key goal of improving America’s schools.
Here, too, in Alberta and Canada, faculties of education have legitimately supported the growth of multiple research paradigms and approaches to research — yet there has not been an equivalent effort to mobilize and share research activity focused in a co-ordinated way to support the work of school improvement. One poignant example in Alberta occurred from 2005 to 2008, when there were six studies on cyber-bullying underway — mostly operating independently and with no awareness of each other — funded by several levels of governments and foundations. While all contributed to our understanding of awareness of the issues, few of these studies had articulated strategies to collaborate with other researchers and public institutions.
Providing clear and accessible scholarship that engages all members of the educational sector in identifying and making sound, evidence-based, and socially just decisions for policy and practice ought to be a renewed focus for the education research community here in Alberta. This work could include bringing together researchers, public leaders and the media to identify strategies for making the results of educational research more accessible and relevant to addressing the systemic challenges of addressing social justice, the growing disparity of opportunity and outcomes in schools.
One first step in this work would be the establishment of a working group of high-level key partners to help set the direction for the multiple fronts that will inevitably characterize the work ahead: curriculum renewal, high school redesign, school, district and system performance reporting. This research partnership would bring together the various research communities in the province to connect research to policy and practice, which would serve the government well.
For example, both the Ontario Education Research Exchange and the Ontario Research Panel exist to facilitate discussion and collaboration among Ontario’s school boards, faculties of education, researchers, professional organizations, community agencies and ministries. This discussion and collaboration relate to research priorities for Ontario education, the state of knowledge in specific areas, opportunities for and impediments to the advancement of research and the potential for future partnerships.
A similar Alberta educational research partnership was conceived three years ago, but work on this initiative was halted shortly after the cancellation of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement in 2013. This was followed by three successive changes in ministers of education and continued instability in the department of education. Meanwhile, the research capacity of Alberta’s many faculties of education continues to be stretched by declining funding and staff reductions.
To fully capitalize on the opportunities facing Albertans, and to engage the public in broader conversations about the kind of Alberta we want to become, has been a strategic goal of the Alberta Teachers’ Association for a number of years. Parallel examples of this kind of strategic foresight work are well-documented in Finland, one of the countries the Association has partnered with in the past few years.
For some time the Finns have recognized the need to draw on cross-ministry planning and research, in contrast to Alberta, where fragmentation and a lack of integration characterizes innovation, research and knowledge (Woiceshyn and Eriksson 2014).
Through a variety of public engagement strategies, including publications such as Changing Landscapes — Alberta 2015 to 2035 (Alberta Teachers’ Association 2015) the Association continues to urge the government of Alberta to work with education partners to help develop an educational research strategy informed by a commitment to achieving excellence through a focus on equity. This program is outlined in detail in A Great School for All — Transforming Education in Alberta Schools (Alberta Teachers’ Association 2012). A key dimension of this document has been an invitation to help support and co-ordinate research efforts in the province.
The Association sees many opportunities to ensure the success of educational development in the province: from curriculum renewal to enhanced assessment practices and exemplary teaching practices. Through our ongoing research efforts and strategic partnerships supporting coherent policies and practices, we continue to hope to work with government and other education partners on the road ahead.
But, of course, Alberta students deserve and need more than hope. They need informed, concerted and focused action by a wide range of groups to generate and advocate for high-priority specific proposals for the changes that would make the biggest difference.
The obvious place to start is by bringing together those groups and organizations that understand and support the need for this new educational research strategy rooted in both excellence and equity. They would design the proposals and develop advocacy strategies to foster the political will and support that are necessary.
Alberta’s PC government based its 2015 general election campaign on the theme “Choose Alberta’s Future.” We need to work together in effective ways to help the next government make informed choices and take advantage of the opportunities in this vital area.
Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). 2012. A Great School for All — Transforming Education in Alberta’s Schools. Edmonton, Alta: ATA.
Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). 2015. Changing Landscapes — Alberta 2015–2035. Edmonton, Alta: ATA.
Guinier, L. 2015. The Tyranny of Meritocracy — Democratizing Higher Education in America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Woiceshyn, J. and P. Eriksson. 2014. “How Innovation Systems in Finland and Alberta Work: Lessons for Policy and Practice.” Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice 16, no 1: 19–31.
J-C Couture is the associate co-ordinator of research for the Alberta Teachers’ Association.