Alberta school reform requires courage
Alberta’s education system is generally regarded as amongst the best in the English speaking world, at least using international assessment measures. While there are significant challenges — equity for First Nations, the challenge of inclusion, funding, securing and retaining teachers — the baseline from which the province starts is strong and sound.
This is about to be eroded. The government of Alberta, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) and the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) are engaged in bargaining to secure four years of labour peace to build on the five years of peace that ended in August.
The hope has been that a framework agreement would be reached provincially that all could agree to, within which local bargaining on implementation could take place. These talks started under two previous ministers (Dave Hancock and Thomas Lukaszuk) and are due to be concluded under Education Minister Jeff Johnson by today. It’s not likely to happen.
The ATA offer with respect to pay is zero per cent (2012-13), zero per cent (2013-14), one per cent (2014-15) and two per cent (2015-16). Given that inflation is running at approximately two per cent in 2012 (and assuming no change over the life of the deal, even though inflationary pressures are high, especially with respect to energy costs), then teachers are being offered an effective reduction in the buying power of their pay of around five per cent over four years. The offer will also enable the government to budget predictably.
You would think the ASBA and the government would be leaping tall buildings and popping champagne, but they are not.
The sticking point is not salary, but what is referred to as “the conditions of practice,” or hours and nature of the work.
The ATA has used a demographer, Linda Duxbury from Queens University, to look at the work-life balance of teachers. It is not a pretty sight. Teachers are working on the basis of 1.5 times their contracted hours or more (up to 62 hours a week) to support the learning needs of students and the administrative needs of the system. This is leading to faster departures from teaching as a profession and the more rapid transfer within the system of teachers — all of which is a significant real cost to the system, both financial and emotional. It is more difficult to recruit, retain, develop and sustain a teacher and to enable their appropriate role as professionals in the system.
The response of the government is cynical. More money will be spent on health care over the next four years since it is politically unacceptable to cut health care. Yet most health care costs are sunk costs, with the exception of costs associated with effective prevention. Educational expenditures are investments in the future of the province.
I don’t see courage, leadership or imagination in what is happening now.
So, some free advice:
• Madam Premier: Do what your predecessor did and “make it so.” Show courageous leadership and real foresight and agree to the ATA proposal. Simply tell the ASBA (which actually doesn’t represent all school boards and is simply a sample of opinion) that the future is about transformation and that teachers need the quality time they are asking for.
• Minister Johnson: Reduce the number of school boards in Alberta through amalgamation (force the issue) and reduce the size of the Department of Education so as to enable transformation to take place nearer to the student. Accelerate the path for curriculum reform to begin in 2013-14 school year. Abolish immediately all aspects of Grade 3 provincial achievement testing. Use new revenues (see below) to fund a major change in the conditions of practice. Show courage.
• Minister Horner: Raise provincial taxes. There are a variety of ways of doing this, but it must be obvious to you that you have both a revenue problem (not enough to cope with balancing health care cost growth versus the needs in Alberta for other services) and a cost management problem (profligacy and bureaucracy). Deal with both. But it is not just about costs. The current results based management approach, while the right thinking, is poorly executed. Keep at this approach, but do it more rigorously and liberate substantial sums from the process. Everyone knows this is about reallocation. Take up the suggestion of halting any more expenditure on CO2 capture and storage and use this to fund the teacher deal. Show courage.
• The Alberta Teachers Association: Engage the people in Alberta in understanding the opportunity that is being missed because of current conditions of practice. Champion the idea that liberating teachers from the drudgery of administrivia and restoring balance to their professional work will have benefits for students, community, employers and Alberta. Don’t focus on the stress for teachers of the current situation and don’t get sucked into the cost argument. Focus on what Alberta is missing by its current practices. Show courage.
• Members of the ASBA: Tell your representatives to do an analysis of the costs of recruitment of teachers, attrition, stress and health related costs and the impact of demographic changes within and on the profession (including length of stay in the profession) over the next 25 years. Suggest to your colleagues that these costs far outweigh the costs of the change in conditions of practice now proposed by the ATA, both in terms of money, time and impact on quality of learning experiences and learning outcomes. It’s time for trustees to be champions for teaching and teachers, not their adversaries — without high quality and focused teachers, we will have no world-class education system at all. Show courage.
Transforming our schools is mission critical for Alberta. Without enabled and empowered teachers we will not make it. Show courage and make it so.
Stephen Murgatroyd is a Troy Media columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com or by visiting www.troymedia.com.