Can Government Innovate Education?

It was only recently that I started to ask myself … Can state-owned enterprises innovate? How realistic is the Alberta Education plan to overhaul an entire school system at once?

Until a few weeks ago I was optimistic about the future of Inspiring Education. This Alberta Government initiative made sense to me. Its premise – that schools are lagging behind the times, and need upgrading – seems obvious. And I liked how the ministry began the change process only after consulting the public. The first few steps Alberta Ed took seemed to be going in the right direction. Although the ministry-appointed task force for teaching excellence clearly missed the point with some of its recommendations, I didn’t think much of it. After all, the Ministry didn’t rush to adopt those recommendations. Instead, it sought feedback, which was in line with the collaborative approach used from day one. But little did I know… A storm was brewing.

On September 15th 2014, Alberta’s Minister of Education was changed. And news coverage of this event opened my eyes to the various criticism faced by Inspiring Education. As a result, my perspective changed. I realized that Inspiring Education aims to enact ideas which are too novel to work well at the large scale of a government-controlled school system. They are too bold and disruptive of the status quo to be embraced unreservedly by an entire province. And they invite changes that are too big to grasp and apply without self-regulatory power and careful planning in schools. No wonder that the health of Inspiring Education has been declining!

I see two sore points, which got only worse with time. One comes from people’s resistance to change. Why change something if it isn’t broken? goes the old argument, and it’s voiced vehemently by both parents and expert educators. The other point of contention stems from teachers’ lack of decision power and ownership of the change process. Inspiring Education initiatives are brought into schools and “expected to fly” without adequate preparation and support, sounds the concern. How can teachers implement successfully such massive changes given their limited time and resources? asks a representative from Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA). And as professionals, how can teachers accept the demeaning managerial model suggested by the task force for teaching excellence? asks another ATA member.

Although I do empathize with some of the concerns and I would dispute others, my goal here isn’t to support or rebuke the critics of Inspiring Education. Much more important to me is how this storm will affect the future of education in Alberta. What are we learning from it? How are we moving forward? Here are my thoughts:

  • A top-down approach for innovating education will not work. Changes like those envisioned by Inspiring Education should be tried out before applying them systemwide. They must be introduced in a bottom-up fashion, starting with a few schools. As in the example here, these schools would test a new education model, and would eventually work out a successful prototype to be adopted more widely.
  • An innovation process that teachers are given little control over will not work. As front line of education reform, teachers must have a say in how the process unfolds, what resources and how much time are needed, how to use feedback and work out problems. In other words, teachers must be trusted to work as partners, as in this teacher cooperative model.
  • An innovation process that doesn’t have a reliable method for measuring success will not work. Therefore, before anything else, we must develop and agree on a way to assess the quality of schooling. Whether it’s test scores, indicators of competence, job readiness, or a well-being index, using the right metrics will be crucial to school reform. To me, this is the key of all keys.

Now I know that it will take a long time, much longer than I’d thought, to bring Inspiring Education to life. And while the government must be credited for starting the process, its role will need to change. There is an arduous journey ahead of us before we can come out of the storm. But it will all be for a vital cause. And there is no going back anyway.

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