Perhaps no Alberta government minister has been more active in 2014 than Jeff Johnson at the helm of the education file.
He started the year with a flurry of new school and school modernization announcements — part of the largest capital endeavour in education in the province’s history — and then had to play some defence against grassroots criticisms around declining math scores and teaching methods.
Two weeks ago, the province’s largest teachers’ union issued a unanimous vote of non-confidence towards the minister in response to recommendations in a provincial task force that suggest greater oversight of teacher competency and conduct is necessary.
All the while, efforts has been ongoing to completely rework curricula for all subjects, to be rolled out en masse in 2016.
On Tuesday in Red Deer, Johnson told school board trustees from across the province that he would ensure they get more time to deal with the major changes set to come into their schools.
“We’re not going to rush this,” he said of the curriculum redesign process.
“Many school boards have expressed concern that there’s a lot of things on the go, there’s a lot of consultation, and we’re happy to slow these things down to make sure we get them right.”
Concerns about the process, which began in earnest this year, have centred around moves away from the learning of basic facts in mathematics in favour of experiential or “discovery” learning, and the involvement of corporations. Johnson said his objectives with the redesign work are to assure parents that basic knowledge is not being ignored while making sure kids are getting the “soft skills” that industry wants in future employees, and de-cluttering the curricula that teachers have to impart.
He told reporters he did not have a firm deadline for when the new programs of study would be implemented, but earlier at the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) spring general meeting deputy minister Greg Bass told trustees that the new rollout date would likely be 2020.
As part of its budget passed last week, Red Deer Public School District announced that six classroom teachers would be reassigned to jobs within the division helping to guide other teachers through shifting expectations in the lead-up to the rollout. Board chair Bev Manning said despite the delay, the division still needs to start preparing for what are expected to be fundamental shifts in content delivery and learner expectations.
“Curriculum redesign is going to take a few years, it’s not just snap your fingers and it’s done. I think it’s important that we support it from the ground level up and do it right. Our take on it is good at the moment, and if we need to rework that in the future we’ll look at it,” said Manning.
Something else that Johnson pushed back recently was the deadline for public input on the Task Force for Teaching Excellence, the product of an independent panel that features 25 recommendations dealing with the profession in Alberta. After the report was released last month, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) labelled it a “direct assault” on educators and directly criticized the minister at its own annual general meeting in May.
The deadline for input was originally today, but comments will now be accepted until June 15. On Tuesday, Johnson called the task force the “most important thing we’ll do in 20 years” and said the average teacher in Alberta is “very impressed” with the report.
“There are a couple pieces that concern them, but we’ve told the ATA, ‘Don’t get concerned about the recommendations, let’s try to look at the issues and work through the issues together to make the system better,’” said Johnson.
“People need to read the report, they need to be informed as to what is actually in it, and that’s the ask I would have of all teachers and all parents and people involved or interested in the education system.”
In a lunchtime question and answer session, Johnson told trustees who called for more funding that as long as school divisions have large operating reserve funds, the provincial Treasury Board is unlikely to free up more cash for boards. After having built up significant reserve accounts, many school divisions in the province have been drawing down their reserves in recent years to balance their budgets but warn that they will no longer be able to do so.