A Time for Choosing in Alberta Education

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

The public education system in Alberta has long been the envy of the country. Students in this province regularly outperform students from other provinces on national and international standardized achievement tests: Alberta students have some of the best results in the world.

Their impressive achievement does not happen by chance. Alberta has consciously chosen to implement education policies that focus on results. A case in point is the standardized tests that students write in grades 3, 6, 9, and 12. The grade 3 tests evaluate literacy and numeracy skills, the grades 6 and 9 tests focus on the four core subjects (math, science, language arts, and social studies), while the grade 12 diploma exams evaluate the skills of students in a variety of subjects.

Alberta has the most comprehensive standardized testing program in the country and these tests play a key role in measuring student achievement and identifying areas where improvement is needed. Without standardized testing, it is almost impossible for policy makers to evaluate accurately the achievement of students across the province and to identify areas that may need improvement.

Another area in which Alberta leads the way is school choice. In 1994, the Government of Alberta allowed the creation of charter schools and today there are 13 of these schools in existence, representing approximately one percent of Alberta students. Charter schools are publicly funded but operate autonomously from school boards. Some charter schools, most notably Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary, are highly successful and have long waiting lists of prospective students to prove it.

The Edmonton Public School Board has made choice the foundation of its approach to education. Its open boundary system makes it possible for students to attend schools outside of their traditional neighbourhood catchment areas. Within the public school system, students have the option of attending schools that specialize in areas such as the arts, sports, and aboriginal culture. Even faith-based schools exist within the public system. Making wider choices available to families strengthens the public education system.

During the current election campaign, voters are faced with a stark choice when it comes to education policy. Under the leadership of Premier Alison Redford, the Alberta PCs are geared to undo much of what has made Alberta’s education system so successful. As a case in point, shortly before winning the PC leadership, Redford promised to abolish standardized testing in grades 3 and 6. Although she has not yet acted on this pledge, it is almost certain to happen if her government wins re-election.

Redford’s campaign promises also reveal a top-down approach to public education that undermines local input. Since the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) played a key role in helping her win the PC leadership race last year, it will continue to have disproportionate influence over her administration. Her recent pledge to spend $2.4 billion constructing 50 new schools and renovating an additional 70 schools further removes decision-making from the local level.

While the PC election platform contains platitudes about empowering parents, there are no concrete pledges to expand school choice in Alberta or even to preserve the choices currently available. This lack of commitment to an important part of Alberta’s education system is reason for concern.

In contrast, the Wildrose has a much stronger emphasis on local autonomy and school choice. Its platform explicitly promises to uphold educational choice in Alberta and to give greater decision-making powers to local schools. Its pledge to de-politicize the construction of new schools with a public and objective funding formula stands in stark contrast to the top-down and seemingly arbitrary approach of the current government.

As for standardized testing, Wildrose promises to replace the Provincial Achievement Tests with a new standardized assessment model. While this pledge needs to be fleshed out, the party’s firm commitment to release achievement data to the public means any new model cannot be radically different from existing standardized tests. Most notably, Wildrose has not made any foolish pledges to scrap standardized testing at some grade levels.

Alberta voters should make education a top priority when they go to the polls on April 23rd. The choice is stark: the continued success of Alberta’s school system and the future of Alberta’s children may depend on the outcome.