Research Roundup

October 1, 2010 J-C Couture

“Extreme Makeover”: The Design Challenge for Alberta Schools

The core task of organizational design is to disclose new worlds.
—Gilles Paquet (2009, 119)

Each week, viewers who tune into the hit TV series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition embrace one common overriding virtue: hope.

Devoted to rebuilding the homes of families challenged by personal hardship, the program draws 10 million viewers per episode. Yet critics of this popular series argue that we should doubt the hollow promises that everything that needs fixing can be instantly transformed through the magical intervention of outsiders—ignoring the material cost and the vigorous patience of the craft skill needed to create something new, enduring and sustainable.[1]

Some argue that Alberta’s K–12 education system’s extreme makeover is long overdue after years of rollercoaster education budgets and a preoccupation with short-term gains in student achievement determined by external and inappropriate indicators of performance. The time has come, as Andy Hargreaves urges, for Albertans “to own a vision rather than renting one.”[2] In this respect, the leadership shown by Education Minister David Hancock through Inspiring Education, Setting the Direction and Speak Out, and Inspiring Action cannot be squandered in the months ahead by a blind faith in the divine philanthropy of a TV network or white knight that will intervene on our behalf. Like it or not, Albertans will own the transformation of the education system in the years ahead. 

Bringing together the structures, moral purposes and identities of education partners in new ways to improve student learning will be challenging, especially when chewing at the edges of transformation are commercial interests focused on privatizing curriculum development and assessment practices, not to mention a myriad of technology vendors who continue to offer so-called technology solutions that drain scarce resources from classrooms. A recent study of digital reporting tools and software packages used across Alberta found many issues expressed by teachers with little effort to determine the efficacy of the millions of dollars committed to these software providers.[3] 

As we move into Inspiring Action, ATA research initiatives reinforce the conclusion that success hinges on the ability of education partners, including the government, to agree that they actually trust in the integrity of communities to take ownership and responsibility for the transformation of their schools and to support teachers.

Structural changes will be as important as transforming the ways that information is exchanged in Alberta’s K–12 system. This is a major finding drawn from the work of Gilles Paquet, author of publications on governance and professor emeritus with the Centre on Governance and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

In his latest book, Scheming Virtuously: The Road to Collaborative Governance, Paquet illustrates how, when faced with changing bureaucracies, the natural inclination of reformers is to focus on tweaking bureaucratic structures and formal role descriptions; yet, equally important is transforming how information flows in the system (Paquet 2009, xix). Management guru Peter Senge (2008) noted that a distinguishing feature of highly effective organizations is that the leaders celebrate success while being careful not to insulate themselves from the ‘bad news.’ Where structure and information meet is where complex organizations find their truth.

What is the connection to research undertaken by the ATA and its partners? First, the focus of structural changes within Alberta’s education ministry will likely have only marginal benefits toward achieving the transformational change that Albertans seek. As the education minister seeks opportunities to transform education, the paradox is that there is little evidence from the international literature on school development that a complicated array of system level reforms will have any significant influence in already high-performing jurisdictions like Alberta (Sahlberg 2009). As illustrated in the ATA’s research update, The Courage to Choose—Emerging Trends and Strategic Possibilities for Informed Transformation in Alberta Schools 2010–2011, “we must move past taken-for-granted assumptions about school improvement and the tendency to expect far too much from system-level or structural changes” (36). This echoes a sentiment expressed more than a decade ago that “the epidemic of policy reform” (Levin 1998) has historically been a barrier to sustained and authentic transformation in schools.  

In terms of Alberta’s extreme makeover, we need the courage to redesign what really matters rather than tinkering on the edges of what matters. Informed transformation will happen only through fundamental design changes in how the curriculum is designed; how student and school performance is determined and by whom; the nature of the school day; and how decisions are made about resource priorities, including emerging technologies. For example, Alberta teachers continue to provide instruction to students 40 per cent more hours per year than their counterparts in other countries (such as Finland) with no evidence this leads to improved student learning. Further, as policy analysts Stephen Murgatroyd and Pasi Sahlberg (in press, 2010) have noted, the primary locus of control and influence for enhancing learning is the school, not the government.

Hargreaves and Shirley (2009), who also were advisors to the ATA in developing its Framework for Informed Transformation,[4]caution against the three most common distractions plaguing reform efforts: autocracy (governance through forced compliance); technocracy (excessive surveillance through growing bureaucracies and standardization); and effervescence (an obsession with achieving narrow, short-term and unsustainable targets).

The trap ahead for Albertans is that we cobble together a patchwork of irreconcilable policies and approaches to information exchanges in the K–12 system. One current example of the challenge ahead for Albertans might be seen in New Brunswick, which is already implementing many of the transformational changes being proposed here in Alberta.[5] Sprinkled throughout the New Brunswick policy documents are references to “personalized learning” and “adapting assessment models to measuring 21st Century competencies and skills” (p. 6).[6] Along with the promise to purchase a laptop for every one of the province’s  8, 000 teachers, the New Brunswick planning document goes on to suggest  support for an wide array of assessment strategies “which could include computerized adaptive testing, e-portfolios and/or performance- based assessment” all supported through an “online professional development model with districts to support classroom teachers in improving assessment practice specifically related to formative and authentic assessment.” 

What is truly fascinating about the New Brunswick report is its attempt to mediate the often contradictory impulses to continue to draw on externally determined performance targets, (for example, “ranking in the top three in Canada on PISA scores,” with locally determined measures (p. 29) such as reaching the goal that “90% of high school graduates report that they intend to vote in the first election for which they are eligible (federal, provincial, municipal) (p. 31). 

The rollercoaster ride in education policy development, funding and collective bargaining processes will hopefully become a distant memory in Alberta. While Alberta has a world-class K–12 education system, the collateral damage of the past years cannot be denied: less than 50 per cent of a cohort of 135 first-year teachers tracked since 2008 have been successful in obtaining continuing contracts;[7] less than 50 per cent of Alberta teachers will be in the same school in five years’ time; class sizes in junior and senior high school have continued to rise since 2008; meanwhile, support for students with special needs dropped dramatically over the past three years.[8]

Public policy in democratic societies inevitably remains a contest between “cognitive despotism” and authentic public deliberation (Crozier 1970).The challenge is to design a K–12 system based on courageous policy decisions that originate with Alberta’s school-communities rather than imposed policy distractions that remain ill-defined and offer license to continue to ignore the substantial material challenges Alberta schools continue to face.


Alberta Education. 2010a. Inspiring Education: A Dialogue with Albertans. Steering Committee Report. Edmonton, Alta: Alberta Education. Also available at Default.aspx (accessed September 3, 2010).

———. 2010b. Inspiring Action on Education. A Discussion Paper. Edmonton, Alta: Alberta Education. Also available at ca/uploads/1006/20100621inspiringact86934.pdf (accessed September 3, 2010).

Crozier, M. 1970. La Société Bloquée. Paris, France: Les éditions du Seuil.

Hargreaves, A. and D. Shirley. 2009. The Fourth Way. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin.

Levin, B. 1998. “An Epidemic of Education Policy: (What) Can We Learn from Each Other?

Comparative Education 34, no. 2: 131–141.

Murgatroyd, S. and P. Sahlberg. 2010 (in press). Accountability, Learning and the School—Pilot Project Report. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Paquet, G. 2009 Scheming Virtuously: The Road to Collaborative Governance. Ottawa: Invenire Books.

Senge, P. 2008. The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. New York: Doubleday.


J-C Couture is an ATA Executive Staff Officer in the Government program area.

[1]For a critique of the TV series, see Patricia Nickel and Angela M. Eikenberry in “The Discourse of Marketized Philanthropy in Fast Capitalism” ( The erasure of craft knowledge all too common in the world of “fast capitalism” is also evocatively described in the work of Michael Crawford, Shop Class as Soul Craft. 2009. New York: Penguin.

[2] Presentation to Finnish-Canadian Education Forum, Helsinki May 20, 2010.

[3] A provincial study of the use of digital tools to report student progress was undertaken in May and June 2010. The research team, which included the University of Alberta, the Alberta Assessment Consortium and the Alberta Teachers’ Association, found significant issues with both the design and uses of these reporting tools.

[4] Included in the publication, The Courage to Choose—Emerging Trends and Strategic Possibilities for Informed Transformation in Alberta Schools 2010–2011, Alberta Teachers’ Association. 2010.

[5] The New Brunswick ministry visioning document (NB3-21C: Creating a 21st Century Learning Model of Public Education Three-Year Plan 2010-2013) and video podcast echo many of the same directions being proposed here in Inspiring Action.

[6] The problematic of “personalized learning” has been a long-standing discussion in the literature and is taken up in Phil McRae’s article in this theme issue.

[7] Findings are part of a five-year longitudinal study initiated by the ATA in 2008. Information on the study is available from ATA staff.

[8] For a review of teaching and learning conditions in Alberta schools over the past five years, see The Courage to Choose—Emerging Trends and Strategic Possibilities for Informed Transformation in Alberta Schools 2010–2011. Alberta Teachers’ Association. 2010.



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