Back to school on reform

No program is more fundamental to society’s progress — and few are more contentious — than education.

No program is more fundamental to society’s progress — and few are more contentious — than education.

In Alberta, it is fundamental enough that Premier Alison Redford restored $107 million in funding (just shy of $7 million for Central Alberta school boards) shortly after taking the reins of the Progressive Conservative Party. She has also pledged to drive education reform in Alberta. (Is it coincidental that she is the first Alberta premier to hold a university degree since Don Getty left politics almost 20 years ago?)

Where the funding comes from and how it is sustained has yet to be determined.

Education is also contentious enough, even in a province with a strong track record of success, that there are serious doubts being expressed about whether public education is becoming too selective, and so determined to cater to niche markets that it has neglected the common good.

Some observers are asking whether streaming children — into arts programs, sports academies, science-heavy schools or religious-based schools within the public system — in fact excludes many students from opportunities they need and deserve. And whether such programs also prevent the average child from discovering and enjoying all the variety of stimulus that education should offer. In short, does specialization deny both opportunity and potential, and ultimately foster elitism?

Education is so contentious that something as seemingly straightfoward as a report on stellar test results for Alberta students sparks debate and unease.

The latest national report card on Canada’s schools, by the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, puts Alberta among the leaders in all critical categories: reading, science and math. However, the survey, conducted in 2010, also shows that Canadian girls now outpace boys in all categories except math, where they are tied.

And that means that some school systems in Alberta and elsewhere have begun to talk about — or gone so far as to establish programs — segregating students by sex, in order to deliver education according to learning-style models more in tune with boys or girls.

What social nuances will be lost to students in those settings is hard to evaluate, but it seems likely that serious questions will arise about the potential harm to gender equality, among other things that will follow segregated education.

The conversation about the essence of education has even been confronted by the notion that testing itself is flawed — or even unnecessary.

Questions are being asked about whether Alberta’s standards are so rigorous as to exclude some students from the best post-secondary opportunities.

A new University of Saskatchewan study suggests that Alberta students cope best in the transition to post-secondary school.

A study of 12,000 first-year students found that the marks of students from Alberta dropped just 6.4 percentage points from their Grade 12 marks, while students from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Ontario dropped by as much as 19.6 percentage points. That’s the good news.

The bad news? That other provinces are less rigorous in their teaching, and their standards, but their students appear, on paper, to be better equipped than those from Alberta. So Alberta students, having been judged to a higher standard, have lower entry-level scores and so are less likely to earn university entrance.

And what if standardized tests at any level, starting at Grade 3 and running through Grades 6, 9 and 12, are both too judgmental and too arbitrary in a system that should be about embracing and instructing every student as an individual? And how will that get you into a post-secondary institution?

Examining and realigning public education is no simple task, particularly if it is done in an inclusive and thorough fashion.

Alberta Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk has launched a broad public consultation process in order to replace the School Act by next spring.

It is an ambitious project. More than a little creativity and diplomacy will be required to fashion legislation that serves us well now and into the future. It is a project that runs to the very core of Alberta’s future.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.