Alberta Teachers’ Association president Greg Jeffery has a positive feeling about the province’s new education minister Adriana LaGrange.
“I’ve already had a call from the new minister of education and the lines of communication are open,” Jeffery said, “but she’s going to need to hit the ground running. It’s helpful to have someone with experience in the education sector coming in as the new minister.”
LaGrange was sworn in on Tuesday, April 30 along with Premier Jason Kenney and the rest of his UCP cabinet. The first-time MLA for Red Deer North is one of seven women appointed to the 22-member cabinet and is Alberta’s first female education minister since 1986, when Nancy Betkowski held that office under the Don Getty government.
From 2007 to 2018, LaGrange served as a trustee for the Red Deer Catholic School Division. In 2015 she was elected president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association and in 2017 became vice-president of the Canadian Catholic School Trustees’ Association. She holds a diploma in rehabilitative studies and has been the owner/operator of Grangedale Farms in Red Deer for more than 35 years.
“Special interest group”
The ATA heavily criticized the UCP’s education platform during the election campaign. Following the swearing in ceremony, Kenney was asked what impact this criticism may have on his government’s future relationship with the Association.
“We are always willing to work with special interest groups,” Kenney said, “but for us, the most important stakeholders in education are students and parents.”
Kenney maintained that parents know better than politicians what’s in the best interest for their kids.
“That’s why one of the fundamental values of the United Conservative Party and this government will be our belief in school choice,” Says Kenney, “That is something the ATA has a long opposition to.”
“The Association has always supported choice; however, we don’t always support public funding for some choices. We believe in private schools, but we don’t believe in public funding for them.”
Jeffery added that the UCP’s plans to lift the cap on charter schools could also open the door for further privatization of Alberta’s education system.
Jeffery also took issue with the Association being labelled a special interest group.
“That is one of the first things I plan to address with Minister LaGrange. It’s a sensitive term for us because we are far, far more than what one would classify as a special interest group.”
Kenney also singled out math scores as a priority for his government, calling them “as close to an education emergency” as he could imagine. Kenney claims they are setting our future generations up for failure.
Jeffery, however, has faith in Alberta’s math scores.
“I was reading in the Ottawa Citizen how Alberta’s results are still the highest in the country,” Jeffery said. “Everyone still looks toward Alberta as a model for an education system.”
Jeffery conceded that some jurisdictions may have seen recent improvement but dismisses that as “teaching to the test” or the grooming of particular students to write the international standardized tests.
“I’m quite comfortable with the high standard that still exists in Alberta,” he said.
Kenney also vowed to return to the tried and true teaching methods that provide positive outcomes in math and reading.
“We will be moving very quickly to repeal the ministerial order which made discovery–inquiry learning the norm in the system,” he said.
Jeffery countered that teachers have always had the autonomy to use the best methods of instruction based on the student’s needs … and that is going to continue.
“Discovery math is not a curricular thing. It is a pedagogical thing. There may be instances where teachers will still use it but know that it’s not required. That just increases the concept of teacher autonomy, which we wholeheartedly support,” he said.
So how does the ATA president feel about the next four years?
“I think the statement I’ll make at this time is … so far, so good. Right now it certainly seems to be more positive than we had anticipated.”
The first sitting of the UCP government will take place on May 21. A provincial budget isn’t expected until early fall.
Following the swearing-in of his new cabinet, Kenney fielded a variety of media questions. Here are the two questions posed by the ATA News, along with Kenney’s complete answers.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has been critical of some aspects of the UCP’s education platform. Given this, to what extent are you willing to work with teachers to address their concerns?
“We are always willing to work with special interest groups, including the Alberta Teachers’ Association, but for us the most important stakeholders in education are students and parents.
As I’ve always said, we believe that parents know better than politicians what’s in the best interests of their kids and that’s why one of the fundamental values of the United Conservative Party and this government will be our belief in school choice. That is something that the ATA has a long history of opposition to and so on issues like school choice we will have to agree to disagree.
I respect our teachers enormously — my dad was a teacher, we have teachers in our caucus and we have a minister of education, Adriana LaGrange, who has served for several years as chair of a school board and as president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association, so we’re coming to that table with a minister who understands the challenges with real depth and with a platform that speaks to improving outcomes for Alberta students.
We already indicated during the election period that we’re willing to take a half-step back on a couple of our campaign proposals, including the 50–50 split on diploma exams and renewal on Grade 3 PAT tests. We heard expressions of concern from parents and teachers so I think we said that we’ll take a step back and consult. I think that’s an indication of good faith with which we will approach educational change.”
What is your top priority in education?
“Top priority is getting math scores turned around, stopping the rapid decline in math proficiency which is setting a lot of our young Albertans up for failure in the future. This is as close to an education emergency as anything that I could imagine, where you’ve had a waterfall in terms of Alberta students’ math proficiency in standardized tests.
So with respect to curriculum reform and everything … we will be moving very quickly to repeal the ministerial order which made
discovery-inquiry learning the norm in the system. We want to empower our schools to return to tried, true and tested teaching methods that get better outcomes in math and reading.” ❚