If Alberta’s Education System Isn’t Broken, Don’t Fix It

Alberta, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Alberta’s Minister of Education, Dave Hancock, is planning the first major overhaul of the School Act in over twenty years. In a recent interview with CTV, the minister indicated his proposed changes are designed to reshape the education system to reflect the increased importance of technology to students.

Hancock noted students no longer acquire knowledge from teachers and textbooks but instead access information from the internet. He added that teachers must “give up being the sage on the stage to become the guide on the side.” As a result, he envisions this overhaul will see schools make a greater effort to tap into the ways students currently communicate in order to capture their attention.

Alberta currently outperforms all other provinces on international standardized achievement tests, so to hear its education minister disparage the importance of content in the curriculum is deeply concerning. As someone who works in education in another province (Manitoba), Albertans should be made aware that the last thing Alberta needs is to follow other provinces and mistakenly focus on the so-called “process” of learning rather than actual content.

The reality is that curriculum content does matter and it is more than reasonable to expect teachers to be knowledgeable in the subject matters they teach. If students do not look to teachers as a source of information, that’s a problem to be corrected—not a trend to be encouraged from Edmonton. In fact, it is incredibly short-sighted to assume that schools must be a reflection of the preferred communication methods used by twenty-first century teenagers.

In actual fact, there is little evidence that a greater emphasis on technology in the classroom actually will improve student learning. In my 2008 study which reviewed the research data on computers and student achievement in classroom, I found there is no evidence that increased access to computers has a positive correlation with student academic achievement.

Actually, students with the most frequent access to computers at home and at school had lower achievement scores than students with a more moderate level of access. Too much computer access harms—rather than helps, student learning.

Considering these results, it is disappointing to see school boards continue to pour ever-increasing sums of cash into the technology money pit. These funds could be better spent on things that actually improve student test scores and learning; think “old” technology such as textbooks and better curricular support.

Since when does it make sense to require schools to fit within the world students live in? Educators and provincial education ministers do students no favours when schools are remodelled in their image. Schools should challenge students to improve themselves, not cater to their desire to text and Twitter all day long.

On that note, one area to be especially vigilant about is the preservation of the provincial standards tests written by all students in grades three, six and nine, and twelve. Alberta’s School Act specifically mandates these tests; predictably, the Alberta Teachers’ Association makes no secret of its disagreement with the use of these tests.

But the ATA is as wrong on tests as the Minister is on making schools too reflective of outside-school hours student behaviour. Standards tests are a critical way to ensure students learn the core curriculum. Obviously, it is sensible to balance teacher-created assessments, which often vary from teacher to teacher, with standardized assessments, which do not vary by class or by school. In that world, teachers can account for local conditions while standardized can ensure core academic content and skills have been taught; it’s not an either-or proposition.

Other provinces have already caved into pressure from their teacher unions on this issue and Alberta could be next if the government isn’t careful. As a case in point, Manitoba had a similar standardized testing regime to Alberta’s in the 1990’s but later abolished all provincial standards tests with the exception of those administered to grade 12 students. In their place, teachers now fill out provincial “assessments” that are so subjective as to be virtually useless in measuring student achievement.

Albertans would be would be wise to carefully consider what type of changes they will allow in Alberta’s public schools. The last thing Albertans need is for their schools join many others in this country in a race to the bottom.