The Secretary Reports

June 22, 2011 Gordon Thomas

The Evolution of Commitment: The Future of AISI

In late 1998, I took office as the Association’s associate executive secretary (AES) and Dr. Charles Hyman, who had served as AES for more than a decade, replaced Dr. Julius Buski as the ATA’s new executive secretary.

The new year had hardly begun when the Alberta government announced two remarkable and decidedly unhelpful initiatives. First, then minister of education Gary Mar introduced legislation to amend the School Act and do away with the board of reference, a neutral third party that reviewed (among other things) decisions by school boards to terminate the employment of teachers. Mar said that collective agreements would look after such details (of course, there were no provisions relating to termination of employment in collective agreements because it was covered in legislation). Second, in the spring 1999 provincial budget, then treasurer Stockwell Day announced the School Performance Incentive Program (SPIP), a program that would pay additional money to teachers and other school staff if students achieved certain test scores. With Hyman tending to the board of reference issue, I was assigned to take the lead for the Association in managing a scheme charitably described as “merit pay in drag.”

The Association was not the only group that proclaimed SPIP to have little value—it was the consensus of the education partners, with the notable exception of Alberta Education. Alberta School Boards Association president Lois Byers led efforts to convert SPIP to a program that school boards, teachers and others could accept (she once even evicted department staff from their own meeting room to initiate discussions about a program that would work!).

The alternative to SPIP came together quickly and was called the Alberta School Improvement Program (ASIP). Minister Mar refused to consider the alternative and refused to attend the ATA’s 1999 Annual Representative Assembly (ARA).

Immediately following ARA, then premier Ralph Klein shuffled cabinet and appointed Dr. Lyle Oberg as Alberta’s new minister of education. Oberg was surprised that a program designed to provide cash-starved schools with additional funding would receive such negative feedback. In the face of high resistance, the new minister, along with his new deputy, Maria David-Evans, announced that SPIP would not proceed and that education partners would be invited to plan an initiative that would work. In one of the finest efforts at true collaboration that I have seen in my entire career, a new initiative was born: the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement, or AISI. This was a dream: a true school-improvement initiative, from the ground up, available to all teachers. This could change lives!

The first cycle of funding was especially exciting, as school boards received funding for genuine school-improvement programs. School boards invited participation and screened prospective projects; the government did the same (one board sought to pave a school parking lot; otherwise, Cycle 1 played by the rules).

Over the past few cycles, teachers have commented that AISI has lost its lustre. Grassroots, bottom-up development of school-improvement initiatives has been replaced with programs driven by central office staff.  While some of these programs have merit, they are not school improvement initiatives. In addition, funding to deliver school improvement programs has been replaced with enhanced funding for central office staff and jurisdiction professional development priorities. This isn’t school improvement, either. I’m not saying that such initiatives are without merit—they may well be. They just don’t constitute school improvement.

We need to revisit and reapply the principles developed for AISI in 1999. There is much to gain from genuine school improvement for all parties. The initiative needs a relaunch, but one wedded to the old way of doing things. We need to work together, as a school community, to identify school improvement goals, building ground level support. We need to research options and implement what we learn. Ultimately, the process engages teachers and other school community members, heightens research, expands knowledge and improves student and teacher lives. Let’s take this opportunity to recommit to AISI—to re-engage in genuine school improvement to improve teaching and learning. We have a substantial record of success and a world that is watching—so let’s strengthen a world class initiative for the years ahead!

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