The Many Pasts, Presents and Possible Futures for AISI
A cursory review of the research on school development illustrates how remarkable it is that the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) program has survived since its inception in 1999. Recent cuts to AISI funding may mark the beginning of the end of an era—clearly the most serious blow to this internationally recognized school development program. In this context, educational research helps to answer the following question: How did a school development initiative focused on locally determined priorities survive in an education system shaped by competition between school authorities, rigid bureaucratic accountability measures and a centralized governance model?
Perhaps the answer lies in thinking about AISI not as one single educational program.1 Indeed, it might be best to think of AISI not as a noun but as a verb—as a series of actions undertaken across Alberta by teachers who are trying to enhance their professional practices in an education system struggling to provide good schools for all students. In this regard, Pasi Sahlberg (2011) sees one of the greatest impediments to school development efforts embodied in what he calls the “global educational reform movement” or GERM. This neoliberal movement, driven by a small group of elite policymakers and corporate interests, continues to advance an agenda that is all too familiar to Albertans; namely, the adoption of a narrow curricular focus on basic knowledge and competencies in so-called core subjects, the implementation of universal common standards for teaching practice and school leaders, and a fixation on emerging technologies to improve schools. GERM, fuelled by powerful organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), promotes competition between schools and nations, often discouraging them from networking and learning from one another.
Despite AISI’s shortcomings and the complex variations in which it has operated across Alberta, it continues to represent a powerful counterforce to GERM. For example, one cornerstone of AISI’s success was the commitment of education partners to build collaborative relationships based on trust and shared commitments (Alberta Education 2006, p. 1). Yet Alberta has the dubious reputation as one of the most robust examples of a command-and-control approach to educational accountability in Canada (Lessard and Brassard 2005). Fortunately, AISI has tended to remain outside of Alberta’s Accountability Pillar (the government’s reporting regime that assesses school jurisdiction performance).
Early on, AISI education partners recognized the problem of relying on common-average-based surveillance models of accountability and instead developed a model whereby 60 per cent of measures were determined locally. This acceptance of locally defined measures represented a dramatic departure from the government’s educational accountability agenda that had previously all but excluded teacher-determined assessments in reporting on school performance.
Nevertheless, risk taking and innovation, the cultural hallmarks of AISI, are significantly affected by the current accountability regime in Alberta. David King, the recently retired executive director of the Public School Boards Association of Alberta and a former education minister in the Peter Lougheed government (1979–86), believes that the government’s centralized control will seriously affect AISI’s long-term ability to improve.
When I consider AISI, I conclude that it has fostered experimentation (try something new for a short period of time), but it has stifled innovation (draw new ideas and practices into the very fabric of the way we do things). The reason for the failure is simple; local school boards don’t have the resources or encouragement or autonomy to embed AISI in day-to-day school activity. (King 2008, p. 40)
During his term as education minister, King reintroduced the provincial testing programs that now dominate the government’s accountability regime. He continues to be concerned about the proliferation of these examinations and how they are inappropriately used to hold school boards accountable to the provincial government rather than to the electors who vote trustees into office. King’s overriding worry is that although initiatives such as AISI foster innovation, the reality is that under the “emerging system of accountability that is conceptualized for the purpose of spending scarce resources … I do not see a system of accountability that is conceptualized on the basis of investment, of moral responsibility to the community and to the individual, as represented by the child” (2008, p. 41).
Educators and community leaders increasingly recognize how this narrowing of teaching and learning contributes to Alberta’s low rates of high school completion, which are among the worst in Canada (Murgatroyd 2007). The emphasis on narrow performance indicators to track achievement is evident in the Pan-Canadian Education Indicators Program and similar initiatives throughout the country and internationally through the work of the OECD. Across Canada, as provincial governments assume more control over education governance and finance, the powers of school boards and local authorities have declined as has their ability to respond to local community priorities and learning needs.
As with other emerging accountability regimes across North America, the unintended and collateral effect of the Alberta government’s current approach to reporting does not build trust or enhance fidelity to the system. Indeed, in a province where one out of every 12 children lives in poverty,2 by failing to address fundamental social and economic inequalities, we risk allowing school jurisdiction reporting of student progress, which relies solely on provincial tests, to perpetuate systemic social, economic and racial inequalities. In fact, Darling-Hammond (2007) recently challenged the assumption of current accountability movements that focus on extracting more from local authorities while failing to address endemic inequalities: “Will standards and tests built upon a foundation of continued inequality simply certify student failure more visibly and reduce access to future education and employment?” (p. 79).
Since its inception, AISI has attempted to adapt to two visions of educational development: one dominated by a bureaucratic accountability model and the other focused on lateral capacity and support between schools and jurisdictions. It is important to recall the cultural shift that made AISI a possibility. The 1999 provincial budget introduced the School Performance Incentive Program (SPIP), which was a plan to reinvest $66 million into Alberta’s cash-strapped schools through bonuses paid to teachers on the basis of standardized test scores. This “merit pay in-drag scheme”3 was criticized by every provincial education partner and organization. Following the cancellation of SPIP by then education minister Lyle Oberg, AISI was developed in 1999 through the formation of a collaborative partnership of the following provincial education partners: the Alberta Home and School Councils’ Association, the Alberta School Boards Association, the Association of School Business Officials of Alberta, the ATA, the College of Alberta Superintendents, the faculties of education and the education ministry.
Since the initial breakthrough, with a focus on partnerships and collaboration to achieve innovation and system improvement, research has been undertaken on the strategic importance of trust building in the private and public sectors (Reina and Reina 2005). Their research efforts are paralleled in Sergiovanni (2004), who argued that a climate of trust fundamental to creating schools where covenants bring together principals, teachers, parents and students to honour shared values, goals and beliefs.
AISI has demonstrated that it is the school, not the system, that is the locus of control and capacity—a point reinforced by Murgatroyd (2010). What is needed in the coming years is a commitment to extend and expand the culture of ingenuity that AISI has fostered. Ultimately, AISI has succeeded when it has created conditions of practice in which teachers are supported as researchers and “imagineers” who have a central role to play in redesigning teaching and learning.
Given the growing pressures of GERM, Alberta schools will continue to fall under the sway of test-based accountability systems monitored by bureaucrats and policymakers. Despite this climate, AISI could play a strategic role supporting a more sophisticated approach to curriculum design that engages students in “wicked problems” that pique their curiosity and passion for lifelong learning (Murgatroyd 2010; Murgatroyd and Couture 2010). This work would require freeing schools and school authorities from the yoke of overly prescriptive curriculum and other legislative and regulatory requirements. Just how this restructuring might be undertaken is outlined by John Seddon, Ray Ison4 and Giles Paquet,5 who argue that transforming complex public services, such as health and education, can’t happen without radically rethinking governance.
Future policy analysts might look back at decisions made about AISI in the coming cycle five as a turning point in the history of the province’s educational sector. AISI could well become the canary in the mine of Alberta’ educational future—its survival as a force for school development will be a powerful testimony to the quality and resilience of educational leadership in this province.
Alberta Education. 2006. AISI handbook for cycle 3. http://ednet.edc.gov.ab.ca/k_12/special/aisi/pdfs/Handbook_for_Cycle3.pdf (accessed May 5, 2011).
Darling-Hammond, L. 2007. “Standards, accountability and school reform.” In C. Sleeter, ed. Facing accountability in education: Democracy and equity at risk, ed. C. Sleeter, 178-226. New York: Teachers College Press.
King, D. 2008. “Looking Ahead.” ATA Magazine 88, no. 4: 39–41. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Lessard, C., and A. Brassard. 2005. “Educational governance in Canada: Trends and significance.” Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Qc.
Murgatroyd, S. 2007. Accountability project framework—Developing school based accountability. Unpublished Report. Edmonton, Alta.: the Innovation Expedition.
------. 2010. “‘Wicked Problems’ and the Work of the School.” European Journal of
Education 45, no. 2: 259–79.
Murgatroyd, S., and J-C Couture. 2010. Using Technology to Support Real Learning First in
Alberta Schools. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Teachers’ Association. Also available at
www.teachers.ab.ca/Publications/Other%20 Publications/ (accessed July 22, 2010).
Reina, D., and M.L. Reina. 2005. Trust and betrayal in the workplace: Building effective relationships in your organization. San Francisco, Calif.: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Sahlberg, P. Forthcoming. Finnish Lessons—What the World Can Learn from Educational Change in Finland. New York, NY.: Teachers College Press.
Sergiovanni, T. 2004. “Collaborative cultures and communities of practice.” Principal Leadership 5, no. 1, 48–52.
J-C Couture is a member of the Association’s executive staff and coordinates its research initiatives.
Stephen Murgatroyd is a consultant and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) (U.K.).
1 For a detailed analysis of the turbulent years surrounding the deployment of AISI and in the years that followed, see “An ATA History of Challenges and Change,” a theme issue of the ATA Magazine, Summer 2008. Available at www.teachers.ab.ca/Quick+Links/Publications/Magazine/Volume+88/Number+4/Articles/Index
2 Changing Landscapes of the Next Alberta, Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2009.
3 A colourful description offered by one of the Association’s local presidents.
4 Ray Ison, “Governance That Works” at http://morethanluck.cpd.org.au/more-than-luck/governance-that-works.
5 In Scheming Virtuously: The Road to Collaborative Governance, Paquet illustrates how most reformers, faced with short timelines, tend to tweak bureaucratic structures and tinker with formal role descriptions rather than implement meaningful changes. They also fail to address the need to transform how information (including “bad news”) flows in the system (Paquet 2009, xix).