Opportunities Lost ... Opportunities Seized - AISI’s dividends outstrip investment

June 22, 2011 Larry Beauchamp

A number of years ago, I spoke to educators about opportunities lost and opportunities seized, as they applied to education in Alberta. It should be no surprise that the “opportunity seized” at the top of my list was the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI).

I would like to begin by providing a little background concerning my involvement with AISI. On December 15, 1999, I received an e-mail officially announcing AISI and the names of its six educational partners: Alberta Learning, the Alberta Home and School Councils’ Association, the Alberta School Boards Association, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the Association of School Business Officials of Alberta and the College of Alberta School Superintendents. I contacted the deputy minister of education and pointed out that the province’s faculties of education were excluded from the new initiative. Consequently, I was invited to represent the deans of education at the next AISI meeting, where I outlined the important role for the faculties of education and, as a result, the faculties of education became the seventh partner.

I represented the deans of education at all AISI meetings for the first five years of the program. I have had a continuing interest, following AISI closely and taking pride in its many successes over the years. AISI became so much more than a funding envelope. It is truly unprecedented across this country and internationally. It is an amazing alliance of varied educational partners. AISI partners can take great pride in the common commitment they have custom made to improve school performance by fostering important initiatives that reflect the unique circumstances confronted by different school jurisdictions.

AISI was a bold opportunity that was seized and developed to the fullest. It is one of Alberta’s greatest education success stories. AISI is an example of how strong partnerships can serve as catalysts and bring about meaningful educational change. AISI has resulted in a culture of continuous change in Alberta schools. This in turn has developed meaningful collaboration and engagement between administrators, teachers, students, parents and AISI partners. As difficult as it was initially to wrestle with the fact that evidence-based practice was to be an integral and foundational part of AISI, it was wise to hold firm to this principle, because reflection and inquiry became a crucial part of every AISI project. Strategies that worked were built upon; strategies that were less than successful provided valuable lessons for future directions. Important and solid research carried out by school administrators and teachers became commonplace and well accepted. A single research methodology did not rule the day; rather, a variety of research methodologies that provided meaningful answers to important questions were accepted. The thousands of research studies carried on by school teams focusing on AISI initiatives have contributed much to the body of knowledge about teaching, learning and school improvement. Equally important, AISI shares this knowledge widely through regular conferences, the AISI Clearinghouse and various networks, such as the AISI Lateral Learning Networks Workshop.

An abundance of networking has been developed around AISI. Much information is exchanged digitally—locally, provincially, nationally and internationally. AISI is synonymous with professional development. In a recent study in which I was involved, teachers credited AISI with creating school-based, job-embedded learning structures. These structures allow teachers to engage in ongoing PD that, in turn, creates collaborative communities of practice in their schools.

What is there not to like about AISI?

The possibilities inherent in AISI are limitless. It has developed levels of trust among diverse educational partners that, in my opinion, cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It has breathed excitement and life into the lives of teachers and schools. It has validated the importance and power of partnerships.  It has made average schools good and good schools great. It has stood the test of time. It has met unique needs and circumstances in varying school jurisdictions. It has helped schools develop sound research bases that boast solid project planning, data collection, data analysis and dissemination of findings in public ways. Most important, it has made a difference in student lives by improving student learning and performance.

I hope I have made it clear where I stand on AISI. Unfortunately, this opportunity found is in danger of becoming an opportunity lost. Why? Presently, Alberta is having a difficult time differentiating between education as a cost and education as an investment. AISI has reverted to being considered a cost rather than an investment. In my opinion, AISI has always been a wise investment. AISI has delivered! With proper financing, it can continue to deliver enormous dividends to Alberta’s most valuable resource—its children. To date, there is no doubt that AISI dividends, by all measures, have far outstripped the annual investment.

AISI is facing a crisis. John F. Kennedy once stated: “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters—one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” How appropriate for what has been done to AISI by halving its budget. We can and must do better.


Larry Beauchamp, a former dean of education, is a professor in the faculty of education, University of Alberta.

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