Tuesday, February 21, 2012

David King on Alberta's Education Act Part II

This was written by David King who is a former Alberta Minister of Education. This is 2 of 2 posts on Alberta's new Education Act. This post first appeared on King's blog here.

by David King

The new Education Act suffers in comparison to all the announcements of its coming. Ministers and M.L.A.s talked about a “new paradigm”, framing the conditions for a system that would anticipate the future and nurse it to reality.

The new Act simply doesn’t deliver. Ordinarily, Albertans could overlook the hype and be glad to see an important piece of legislation “cleaned up”, “sharpened”… — choose your adjective for modest incremental improvement.

The problem is that the Government of Alberta itself – and insistently — raised the subject of the 21st century being radically different from the 20th. The Government of Alberta, through the Inspiring Education process, encouraged Albertans to think about education in new ways, and repeatedly assured us that startling insights could be harnessed. The new Act, we were told, could assuredly be – would be — quite different from the familiarSchool Act.

It is a mixed blessing that Albertans bought the government’s line. Albertans were persuaded to see that we can’t continue educating as we have done in the past. They were persuaded to imagine a variety of new, positive, and possible educational outcomes, as well as a variety of new ways of organizing to provide education. They were persuaded to believe that Alberta could be “first into the future”.

The new Education Act suggests that we are going to be “last out of the past”.

Having been awakened, by the government and others, to the virtual certainty of great change, Albertans are now frustrated by the government’s lack of imagination and lack of courage.

Have you read Sir Kenneth Robinson’s latest book on what is coming to education? (Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative)

Are you familiar with what is happening in Finland? (Pasi Sahlberg – Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

Have you watched Sebastian Thurn, on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkneoNrfadk&feature=player_embedded)?

There are three quick and effective measures of innovation in any piece of legislation.

First, does the legislation contain new words or phrases that are important enough to be defined for the purposes of the legislation. The proposed Education Act has two such words or phrases: “bullying”, and “non-school building” are not defined in the current School Act. Their context in the Act makes clear that they simply acknowledge longstanding practice: they are no springboard to the future of education.

Second, does the legislation have Parts and Divisions that suggest a new way of looking at the subject? The new Education Act has 2 new Parts (Opportunities for Learning; Responsibilities and Dispute Resolution), yet the sections contained within the Parts are lifted almost entirely from the existing School Act. Aside from legislating Bullying Awareness Week, and creating a Student Advisory Council, and implementing a Complex Education Needs Tribunal there is nothing new. Bullying Awareness Week can be celebrated without a legislative mandate, the previous Minister created a Student Advisory Council without the need of legislation, the Complex Education Needs Tribunal is an incremental improvement on a system already in place.

What is really interesting about Part 3, Division 1 (Responsibilities and Disputes Resolution: Responsibilities) is that the responsibilities of students, parents, boards, and trustees are specified (basically, these are consolidations of what is found in the current Act). The one critical actor left without specified responsibilities is the provincial government, notwithstanding the fact that for three years, throughout the Inspiring Education process, the government insisted that its role was “assurance”. The bullied might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility for assuring freedom from bullying, perhaps by assuring that gay-straight clubs could operate in any publicly funded school in the province. Parents might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility for assuring access to secular public education, on a timely basis, and in schools that are safe, healthful, and well-maintained. The parents of special needs students might be more comforted if the government accepted responsibility to assure funding for high cost special programs.

As a reader digs into the proposed new Education Act, are there any hidden gems?

Section 51(1) extends natural person powers to school boards. That is hardly an innovation, since municipal government has had the same benefit for more than 15 years. Nevertheless school boards have been lobbying for this: they should be grateful, shouldn’t they?

The problem is, the innovation is put forward in section 51(1) and rudely snatched away in section 51(2) “With respect to any right, power, or privilege exercisable by a board, the Minister may , by regulation, (a) prohibit or restrict the use of the right, power, or privilege; (b) provide that the right, power or privilege is to be exercised subject to any terms or conditions prescribed in the regulations.”

The Minister, without reference to the Legislative Assembly, can compromise the natural person powers of a school board, at any time, and in any way, and without any need to justify the compromise. Tomorrow, he could make it illegal for them to be doing something that is might be legal for them to do today.

The corresponding section in the Municipal Government Act says this: “6. A municipality has natural person powers, except to the extent that they are limited by this or any other enactment.”

The corresponding section of the Business Corporations Act says this: 16(1) A corporation has the capacity and, subject to this Act, the rights, powers and privileges of a natural person.

The introduction, in the new Education Act, of “natural person powers” for school boards is nothing but cynicism writ large. If the provincial government treated corporations the same way, the reaction would be immediate, immense, and unbearable for the provincial government.

The provincial government is not easily going to loosen its grip on school boards.

Yet, in the face of uncertainty, when the future cannot be known with confidence, experience and the natural sciences all confirm that the most intelligent way to confront the future is with diversity. As Willis Harmon once noted — in uncertain times, the best thing to do is decentralize (decision-making), disperse (resources), and diversify (responses). One only wants a highly centralized system when one is convinced that the central authority will be 100% correct, 100% of the time, about 100% of the issues. To put it another way, said Harmon, we don’t engineer survivability, in nature or in build systems, by making key components bigger. We introduce redundancy. Nature has not improved our eyesight by working on one better eye in the middle of our forehead: she has given us two eyes. NASA doesn’t improve the shuttle by concentrating on one computer: they connect redundant computers.

The proposed new Education Act should be rejected in principle. It embodies two principles, both of which are wrong. In principle it is mediocre, and we should expect better from our provincial government, especially when they themselves set a higher bar, especially when public conversation and evidence from other jurisdictions makes clear that we can do better. In principle, it faces us squarely into the past, rather than into the future. It is wrong that we should stifle our imagination and use our considerable resources to be the last out of the past, when we need to be – and can be – the first into the future.

1 comment:

  1. My name is Allison Cullars and I am in Edm 310 at the University of South Alabama. Your post is very interesting. I agree with your statement on how the act puts Alberta, Canada into the past rather than the future. The government should be supportive and want to push forward. The act seems to counteract itself. Each section to the act gives excellent ideas that are soon to come, but the next act limits the previous. We need to progress in how education is taught and how the school systems are controlled. Great way to voice your opinions and help others see the good and bad off the act.


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