Overworked teachers and principals don’t need another initiative to implement
Another school year is well underway and the buzz of startup activity has given way to the hum of teachers and students settling into the work of teaching and learning. Alongside the promise that a new school year always brings, there is hope at the system level that the new Prentice government will bring coherence and focus to what has been a broken front of educational reform.
The previous Redford government’s efforts to leverage school improvement focused on “game changers” cobbled together by the former minister’s self-styled “key advisers.” Whether “excellence in teaching,” curriculum redesign or a new provincial assessment program, will the “everything-must-change” narrative of the former government be continued in the year ahead?
How can we move forward to avoid the broken front of fragmented and disconnected initiatives that have largely placed the teaching profession at the periphery of school improvement efforts? For example, this past August, there was considerable enthusiasm created around the work of John Hattie, who was invited by the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS), the Alberta Regional Professional Development Consortia (ARPDC) and Alberta Education to conduct workshops across Alberta. As promotional material for the sessions reads, these sessions would bring “the research behind Visible Learning to life, and apply[ing] strategies for how to use data and evidence to create innovation and change in your learning environment.”
While limitations of space preclude a detailed analysis and critique of the Visible Learning movement, the rush by some district leaders to subscribe to commercialized programs, including “Visible Learning Plus,” without careful examination and consultation with the profession is disturbing.
For example, consider the use of data analytics to track teachers’ instructional techniques and classroom movements in order to compare these with their students’ achievement. Further, consider the selective reading of Hattie’s work by some of his less critical supporters – that class size is a relatively insignificant factor in student learning or that performance pay is a proven improvement strategy.
While Hattie provides some important insights into teaching and learning, there is significant risk that his work will be aggressively marketed and laid upon other strategies that ignore the underlying systemic obstacles to learning in Alberta classrooms, including the sustainability of multiple initiatives.
Further, internationally recognized experts, including David Berliner, raise important cautions. When consulted by Association research staff, Berliner observed, “I have nothing but respect for Dr. Hattie, admire his research, and cite it often, but he and I differ on what it takes to have high-achieving classes and schools.”
Citing the growing body of evidence that underscores the obstacles related by poverty and other outside-the-school characteristics, Berliner goes on to conclude, “Too many uninformed proponents of Hattie’s work believe efforts to change teachers and instruction will have large effects on the outcomes used to measure instruction in Alberta. I think he is wrong – I predict that his ideas will only have small effects on student outcomes though they could certainly improve instruction in Alberta’s classrooms.”
Aside from the obvious methodological questions raised about the scalability and efficacy of Hattie’s work, ultimately the issue is the need for system leaders to recognize the intended and unintended consequences of introducing initiatives without regard for sustainability and the impacts on teachers’ workload.
For example, the first administration of the Grade 3 Student Learner Assessments (SLAs) later this month will see an effort to replace the previous provincial achievement tests with beginning-of-the-year assessments that will require the active involvement of teachers. This move by government and other system improvement efforts, including curriculum prototyping and high school redesign, are just some of the multiple initiatives underway in schools.
Currently, Alberta teachers work an average of 56.5 hours per week. The 2013 Teaching and Learning International Survey conducted by the OECD places Alberta teachers second only to their colleagues in Japan in terms of amount of hours worked per week. Further, given the average work week of 58 to 60 hours for principals, and the growing demands on their work, adopting yet one more initiative needs to be critically assessed.
As ATA President Mark Ramsankar observes, “Schools cannot be expected to sustain multiple initiatives, including Visible Learning, while school jurisdictions continue to struggle with inadequate resources, a lack of a coherent plan for system improvement, and the failure of government to address the systemic barriers to student success such as poverty and a lack of a fully funded early learning strategy – all far more important priorities.” ❚