Education report draws fire from teachers’ union

The impending release of the curriculum change in Alberta brings with it some uncertainty, especially for teachers

The impending release of the curriculum change in Alberta brings with it some uncertainty, especially for teachers, and a new report makes bold recommendations on how that teaching will look. But not everybody likes what they see.

An appointed group called the Task Force for Teaching Excellence (TFTE) has spent months compiling surveys and research on how students can receive a better education. They provided recommendations to Alberta Education.

The document’s focus is on one goal: for every child, in every class, there is an excellent teacher.

The 228-page report provides detailed recommendations on teaching and teaching supports as the new Alberta school curriculum Inspiring Education starts to become a reality. Feedback from many organizations, including the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) and the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) was sought as well as public input from teachers, parents and other stakeholders.

Some of those recommendations have brought scathing criticism from the ATA, mostly over stricter recommendations for teachers. Mark Ramsaker, ATA president, stated in a press release that the task force lacked transparency and legitimacy.

“This seriously undermines teachers’ trust in (the) relationship with this Progressive Conservative government,” Ramsaker stressed.

ATA concerns:

The areas of most worry to the ATA relates to teacher recertification every five years, granting teaching certificates to individuals who do not have a teaching degree and suggestions that principals be separated from the ATA union. The ATA calls it an “attempt to extort compliance from the association by threatening to remove principals from membership and/or break it up.”

The press release claims that the Minister of Education Jeff Johnson and staffers have tried to direct the work of the task force.

Decisions behind the task force recommendations

Shelley Ralston is one of the 16 members on the task force. She is the chairperson of the Red Deer College Board of Governors and provided a response to the ATA’s statement.

“I think it’s disappointing that they have chosen to respond in a fashion that it is an attack or an alienation,” said Ralston.

She said students, and how they learn, were the priorities of this report and many of the recommendations are meant as a means to help teachers rather than hinder them.

Three thousand Albertans contributed to the report, explained Ralston, and many of them were teachers or parents or school administrators.

There were seven methods of consultation: online surveys, online bulletin boards, regional consultations, focused dialogues with key stakeholders, written submissions from organizations, one-on-one meetings and questions posed at an Inspiring Education symposium in February.

Biggest challenge to implementing the recommendations

“We’re not trying to fix something that is broken. We’re trying to take something that is good to great,” stated Ralston.

She suggests that 30 years from now, the education landscape is going to look different and Alberta needs to be ready for that. Where the task force had issues is there are pockets of educational advances in Alberta but no consistent provincial standard that guides teachers and school leaders.

“That’s not fair to every child in every classroom every day,” said Ralston.

She feels the biggest challenge will be in Alberta Education implementing only part of the recommendations from the task force. “If we unpack these and only do one thing, we will move the bar and it will be good, but it won’t be great,” she added.

Many of the recommendations are “interdependent” and one without the other may bring some benefits to Alberta’s education system but not to the whole.

Response from the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS)

Larry Jacobs is the president of CASS and the Wolf Creek Public Schools superintendent. He said that many superintendents are pleased with the report bringing clarity to teaching excellence and how it will look in the future.

“I think that’s going to benefit not only teachers but principals and central office people across the province,” said Jacobs.

He suggests that if society can agree on what teaching excellence should look like, then they can move forward with plans to provide it. “Now the principal knows the guidelines or the standards by which they can evaluate the teachers.”

Jacobs is pleased with provisions for teachers’ supports such as a paid practicum in their first year so they have a chance to experience teaching first hand. This puts the pressure on post-secondary schools to provide a more thorough program and evaluation.

“Looking back at my history, they (teaching courses) were very content-oriented. So universities spent a lot of time with the content of an area, not necessarily the structures around, ‘How does this get delivered in the most effective manner to the students?’” Jacobs stated.

Non-certified teachers allowed to teach

Among the issues posed by the ATA is the recommendation that non-certified individuals be allowed to teach in schools, yet teachers are required to provide certification before being allowed to step and teach children. Jacobs feels this gives students an opportunity to learn from experts in certain fields.

“We’ve got so many people, so highly skilled in different areas that could come and assist in terms of student learning,” said Jacobs.

Making this change is not going to be easy however, as the Education Act states a teacher must be certified. That would have to be changed before the recommendation would be allowed.

Ralston sees some cultural benefits to this recommendation. She suggested that since Ponoka is so close to Maskwacis, educational leaders in that community might be able to provide an alternative method of learning math. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an elder come in and help teach math skills about the fur trade?”

Recertification every five years for teachers

The ATA took serious issue over the task force’s recommendation that teachers be required to take a five-year recertification. Ralston suggests that most professional institutions require this of their staff.

“Many of our teachers do do that, but the system doesn’t ensure that they all have to do that,” explained Ralston.

She suggests the ATA sees this as a witch-hunt, but the goal is to ensure students are getting the best education from engaged teachers.

Jacobs agreed and used his 1970 graduation as an example: “I didn’t do this, but it’s very possible for me to still be teaching in the school system and never ever being forced to take one ounce of professional development and learning.”

An educator could still be using outdated teaching styles. “Without any gentle guiding to improve, I could just sit there,” added Jacobs.

Removing principals from the ATA

One recommendation takes principals out of the ATA. This means they would not be part of the collective ATA agreement and would be exempt from those discussions. The report states that these school leaders need to be empowered to uphold recommendations.

“In British Columbia they did that,” said Ralston.

She suggests there should be a distinction between teachers and school leaders but does not feel the ATA will work with them on this issue.

“I hope they will come in time to look at what they can do,” she added.

The first 65 pages of the agreement provide the 25 main recommendations from the task force and Albertans are encouraged to provide feedback on the report.

How to provide feedback

Albertans have 30 days from May 5 to provide input on an extensive document that will shape the way teachers provide education in the future, for the province.

Feedback can be provided in the form of an online survey at the Inspiring Education website at: inspiring.education.alberta.ca/initiative/task-force-for-teaching-excellence/ or through email at: EDC.TeachingExcellence@gov.ab.ca.

Also there is a discussion board on the Inspiring Education website.

Michael Doll, ATA representative for central south region Alberta did not reply to questions.