Listening to Alberta Minister of Education Jeff Johnson, one would think that he was a modern visionary in education. His vision, however, as he has himself acknowledged, is half-baked: “There is a vision developing,” he’s been quoted to say in the context of changing Alberta’s school testing system. Johnson’s yet-to-be-developped vision in education is driven by political calculation and considerations. On testing, it has little to do with education and rather serves a political agenda propelled by teachers’ unions and the NDP. It is the politicization of education at its crudest level, angling for votes or avoiding the loss of them.
Now, Alison Redford promised to get rid of all standardized testing while campaigning, but having lately burned her political capital at an alarming rate in so many different policy sectors, her government is left to tinker with the tests in light of strong opposition to scrapping them from Alberta parents. Whatever the many reasons cited, ranging from an emotivist and misplaced desire to protect children from stress (Johnson’s only formal training is a BA in Psychology!) to the dubious argument promoting child creativity, the bottom line is that teacher unions hate testing because it makes teachers accountable. Standard tests measure levels of effectiveness of individual and group achievement, and allows for cross comparisons between schools, school boards and the jurisdictional lines between private, public and confessional schools and the rest, and between and among provinces. Such comparisons provide accountability. But wherever there is strong resistance from parents to see the tests scrapped, teacher unions are resorting to tinkering with the tests (modernizing them, they say) to impair the comparability of test results across jurisdictions. n short, they want to undermine accountability. Once widely and warmly expected to become BC’s next premier, NDP leader Adrian Dix had promised to replace standard testing with random tests within a year of his imagined victory, a measure that Alison Redford had also contemplated earlier along with NDP officials in Manitoba. Such promises have been made to obtain the political support of teacher unions during elections. Removing comparability will prevent independent organizations and think tanks such as the Fraser Institute, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy to continue to provide the public with meaningful evaluations of school performance. What Johnson sees in his half-concocted vision as the “modernization” of testing is little more than the promotion of a political agenda serving a narrow labour sector who find testing makes things stressful for them. The learn-as-you-go experiment is a leap backward risks making a political marionette of the minister. The minister’s policy vision is clearly in dire need of more sound development. In fairness, there is nothing inherently wrong with a person realising that his plans are not fully formed. However, given that the minister’s actions and decisions have great impact on Alberta’s children, the minister may want to refrain from sweeping policy changes until such time as his vision is fully developed. Alberta children deserve no less than comprehensive foresight in education policy.