Minister willing to trust local boards?

Alberta’s new minister of education Jeff Johnson must have said the right things in his address last weekend to the spring assembly of school boards in Red Deer. There was a round of applause when he questioned why final exams were only scheduled for a single day of the year for each course, for instance.

Alberta’s new minister of education Jeff Johnson must have said the right things in his address last weekend to the spring assembly of school boards in Red Deer. There was a round of applause when he questioned why final exams were only scheduled for a single day of the year for each course, for instance.

His speech was about “putting students first,” instead of putting the system first — as if this represented some new kind of policy. We weren’t aware of a time when any public school official or government spokesperson had been saying otherwise. But judging from the noted applause, obviously the elected school board members felt they recognized a change.

But if this is a genuine shift, it needs to be translated into words other than those the minister used, because there was next to nothing new in the jargon that got reported.

Here’s one hopeful interpretation, though anyone who feels we’ve missed the mark here is invited to write us and set the record straight.

There is a bit of a split in Alberta society between what school board members, teachers and school administrators (let’s call them the “experts”) expect to happen in a good education, and what many members of the public expect when they hear the same term. Government members — the elected minister among them — are often caught in the middle.

Whose priorities is a governor supposed to serve?

The was a national tempest recently when 35-year teaching veteran Lynden Dorval at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton was suspended for giving students a zero grade on class assignments that were not handed in.

That tempest still rages, and comments from readers include extreme measures to be taken against lazy, stupid, arrogant, unmotivated, overly-entitled, spoiled brats who don’t do their homework. Some claim to be business owners bemoaning the poor state of literacy and numeracy of their young hires.

When you consider that Canada has the highest workforce participation of people aged 13-18 in the G8 group of nations indicates that either the complainants are wrong in this assessment, or that they’re making a whole lot of incompetent hiring decisions.

Just the same, the group that believes we should simply fail students who don’t hand in their term papers, thus teaching them a valuable lesson about personal responsibility, happens to pay taxes and vote. Are the government and elected school boards obligated to represent that view in their policies? Or are they bound to rely on the best practices determined by people who dedicate their working lives to making education work?

The comments of the minister last weekend appear to lean more to the view of the experts, than the group that wants to put the classroom hammer down.

This much would be good news.

When there’s a range of opinion — even among people who can claim expertise — somebody has to make a decision. The hopeful interpretation of our minister’s mindset is that he’s willing to trust the decisions of local boards in making policy.

Now that you think of it, that is a change. Years ago, the province removed the taxation powers of school districts to raise money for their schools. The province also stripped school districts of the power to negotiate teachers’ salaries within their own borders. There was a time when people legitimately asked what the point was in electing school boards, since curriculum, taxation and payment-of-staff powers had been taken away.

None of this was addressed by the minister, by the way.

But we’ll take it as a hopeful sign that the current minister seems more willing to act as a partner in delivering a good public education to our students, than as a taskmaster.

That would deserve some applause.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor