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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Dumont

The Future of Education in Alberta

Full Disclosure

My name is Joe Dumont and I started teaching in 2000 in north Edmonton. I have served the education sector as a teacher, school counsellor, curriculum consultant, field experience associate for preservice teachers at the University of Alberta, a manager at Alberta Education, an assistant principal, and I am currently a principal of a Sherwood Park area high school. I have lived in Alberta all of my life, and I think it is a great place to be. As a citizen and property owner, I hope that Alberta will have a strong, diversified economy and an equally strong public sector that serves the most vulnerable population. I am a proud member of my local Catholic parish and strive to contribute to a number of organizations that support those less fortunate. I recognize how blessed I am to live here in Alberta, and to work for an outstanding school district, serving the students and their families in my community.

The Education Budget of 2019

The UCP budget was presented to Alberta on October 24, 2019 and since then school boards across the province have been working to determine its impact on school boards and on students, both this year and moving forward. As it has been shared numerous times in the media, many school boards are facing cuts that need to be made this current school year to mitigate running deficits. The funding was in total less than was expected by most boards and each district is attempting to figure out how to best manage this mid year surprise in less funding. Although a number of specific grants were eliminated, the government committed to maintaining education spending, which means that they will spend 8.2 billion annually (the same amount spent in 2018-19) for each of the next 4 years, even though Alberta annually has approximately 15000 new students enter the system each year. The increase in students and the freeze in spending will create challenges in the years ahead for school boards, in addition to the challenges presented this year. One letter sent out to parents by an Edmonton area Superintendent lays things out pretty plainly:

“You will likely see increased class sizes at all levels, a reduction in course options, and increased fees. Both supports and opportunities for students will decrease.” - St. Albert schools superintendent Krimsen Sumners

I work for a school district (Elk Island Catholic) who presented a very lean budget last spring, as we cautiously predicted a decrease in funding for this school year. At my high school of 1400 students, that meant fewer teachers and support staff, and less time for services to students. But this past November, my school was asked to find savings once again. This second set of school based reductions is extra challenging because we are in the middle of our school year and we wanted to limit the impact to our students. To manage this second round of reductions, I have reduced our overall spending on PD, supplies and requirement, let go a part time mental health therapist, and we are internally covering one of our teachers who is on maternity leave - assigning her courses to other staff who have space in their schedules. In addition, a few of our classes will be adjusted for the upcoming semester, changing student’s timetables as we manage the loss of one full time teacher and do our best to be increasingly fiscally prudent. Budgeting is always challenging, but doing this mid-year was particularly difficult.

Edmonton Area School District Budget Impact Announcements in 2019:

Budgeting a School

I am in the middle of my seventh year as a principal and in my third school. I have been the principal of a small elementary school in Vegreville and an even smaller Pre-K - 8 school in Ardrossan. I have had the challenge in each of the past seven years to build a budget to offer students the best learning opportunities possible in a variety of contexts. Budgeting at any school is challenging, because the task is essentially trying to meet the needs of students and staff with a limited amount of resources. I have never budgeted my school feeling like I had more money than I needed, and I also recognize the need to plan for the unexpected - which usually happened in one way or another. Building a school budget requires a shared vision as developed by school leadership, staff, students and parent input. It involves goal setting and planning to set in motion strategies to meet those goals by the end of the year.

Principals are often pitted against two approaches with regards to deciding how to distribute their funding: 1) offer students additional supports (educational assistants, counselling services, academic supports) to serve the most vulnerable students by creating larger classes, or 2) limit supports in favour of smaller classes where teachers can best meet the needs of their students. I have found that in a small school it is even more challenging to budget because the choice is often to combine grades, ensuring there is the funding for critical supports for students who have unique needs. This is often unpopular with parents, and increases the workload or teachers, even though combined classes can still be excellent experiences for students. The smaller the school, the less options are available because there is less opportunity to group students (three grades in a single classroom for example would not be appealing to students, parents or the teacher). In some cases, school leaders limit PD funding for staff, cut supplies, cap the amount of photocopying, and cut spending on any technology or extra resources - but those budget lines are generally small potatoes. The real money in a school is in its staff (generally close to 90% of a school’s budget is spent on people.) Through my seven years as a principal, I have had to be creative to manage the tension between resources and needs. In fact, I had to rely on extra funding from my district in my very small school (of 165 students) to help ensure my students received the same quality education students would in a larger schools (such as junior high options). At the end of the day, school leaders do their best to ensure student learning needs are best met considering each school ’s unique context of grade levels, student needs, staff skills and experience, and community. It is a complex puzzle!!

Knowing that there will be less money available to each school in Alberta morning forward, I am genuinely concerned with the challenges ahead in budgeting for the educational needs of students - and I am not the only one who is worried. Our schools will be asked to make some difficult decisions in how to best meet the needs of our students. As we ring in the new decade of the 2020’s, a number of school districts around Alberta will be announcing staff layoffs and increased fees to parents, if they haven’t already done so, and there will undoubtably be more announcements for the new school year in September. The Alberta Teachers Association predicts that the 2020-21 school year will see more staff layoffs resulting in larger and more complex classrooms across Alberta as a result of the education funding freeze. What will this mean for students and teachers in the classroom?

High Quality Education

What does excellent education look like? Well, in my 20 years now working in education in Alberta, I can confidently say that excellent educators are highly engaging and design lessons and experiences for their students that are authentic and relevant, that challenge their thinking and help them acquire new knowledge, skills, and deepen their understanding of key concepts. This is done by supporting the variety of learning needs of a diverse group of students - students with language barriers, behavioural challenges, learning needs, social and emotional needs, some of whom may struggle with motivation, friendships or their own sense of self. An excellent educator will support their students' unique needs and offer dynamic lessons that meet the curriculum outcomes in ways that ensure students learn the lesson objectives and are prepared for the next step in their educational journey. Teachers do this all the time across Alberta through hard work, dedication, countless hours of planning and preparation, participating in professional development and collegial collaboration, and reflecting on their practices in their professional practice. It isn’t magic, but when you see an amazing teacher work with their students (I get to do this all the time when I visit classrooms in my school), it actually looks magical!

Over the past twenty years, professional development for teachers in Alberta has been focused on engaging students, because we know they learn more and learn more deeply by “doing” instead of just listening. The variety of professional development providers in Alberta have all been supporting this goal of helping teachers to create amazing lessons that get students working - collaborating, critically and creatively thinking, problem solving, communicating, assessing, and developing their understanding of critical concepts. I have yet to meet a student (or a parent of a student) who does not want this type of education. It is how the best teachers help ensure their students learn the most they can in the school year, maximizing the time in the classroom. Alberta Education, school districts, universities, and the other agencies that work with teachers have all been supporting the goal of developing teachers who can offer this type of education and limit the amount of time a teacher simply presents information and then assesses students with multiple choice tests. Although this happens still in education, it is a small part of the totality that makes up an amazing learning experience. But there are two major barriers for teachers to create this type of educational experience for their students, even if they have the skills and knowledge to do so - the class composition, and the curriculum.

Class Composition

Class composition is not just the size of a class, but the group of students and their needs that make up class composition. As a principal, when I have assigned a teacher a dynamic class with many student needs, I recognize the challenges that will be presented to that teacher to ensure all the students are successful. In order to help the teacher serve their students, I may assign them EA supports for certain parts of the day and/or offer the teacher some PD in a certain area to help them develop strategies to work with students. But as class sizes get bigger and the group of students become more complex, what would my response be if there isn’t enough funding for additional supports or professional development? My worry here is that as the budget for schools gets tighter, teachers will just need to make due with their students without the supports, and they will likely modify their teaching style. Through my experience as an educator, I know that as a group of students becomes more complex, the teacher needs to modify their approach to lessons. I believe that as classes get bigger, more complex with less supports, the results will be less student engagement. The quality of education will not be the same and as a principal, I am worried about that becoming our new reality.

The research around class size and composition would concur with my observations, and it is part of why Alberta had a commission on class size back in the early 2000s and collected data to report to the public how class sizes were trending in Alberta. The research on class size is clear that students are more engaged in smaller classes, learn more and those students who are more vulnerable are particularly better served in smaller class sizes as they receive more support than their peers in larger classes.

But if you don’t believe the research, believe the government of Alberta. Here is a quote from the Alberta Education website as of today:

“Small class size, excellent teachers, a high-quality curriculum and parent involvement all contribute to Alberta being one of the best learning systems in the world.”

Curriculum Update Please

The other major challenge to creating highly engaging lessons for students facing educators isn’t anything new, in fact it is old…. really old - it is the curriculum!!! For years, teachers have been struggling to manage “content heavy” curriculum as they prepare their students for the next grade level or provincial achievement exam. This becomes evident especially in high school, where students in grade 12 prepare for diploma exams. Teachers across grades 10-12 have the mandate to help make sure their students are ready for their diploma exams, and when they often have large classes to begin with, the most common teaching style is often direct teaching - it is the most efficient way to help students manage lots of content, especially in large classes.

The former PC government in Alberta went through a province wide Alberta engagement called Inspiring Education in the late 2000’s and then developed a new vision and then accompanying new curriculum that was scheduled for implementation in 2016. I was very excited as an educator for this opportunity to work with new curriculum and as a principal, I was working with my teachers, preparing them for what never came. In 2015 the NDP won the provincial election and the new curriculum was put on hold while the new government reviewed it and made some changes. It was scheduled for piloting in September of 2019. Now the UCP are the governing party and the new curriculum has once again been put on hold.

Would the UCP consider launching a new curriculum that is based on concepts and skill development while in the middle of financial restraint in the education system? I would think that if the education ministry was going to launch new curriculum, they would need to pilot it, offer PD to everyone involved and ramp up spending, so that this curriculum launch has the best chance to be successful. In times of austerity, the government may just hang tight without making any change. Elementary and junior high science teachers will keep teaching outcomes that were developed between the late 1990's to the mid 2000's. Social teachers will keep pushing though curricular objectives that feel never ending!! The good news is that at least teachers will have their unit plans, lesson plans, resources and assessment all prepared and ready to go, which is important when it is likely their classes will get bigger and more complex anyway. The downside, of course, is that many education systems across the globe have moved into concept-based curriculum already and are offering their student’s a curriculum that is designed to help them compete in a global, digital and constantly changing economy, while Albertan students will be taught by dedicated teachers who will try to squeeze some of that in, while teaching outdated curriculum that was scheduled to be shelved a few years ago.

If we desire a future for Alberta that has a competitive, global economy, then the education of our students must be a priority - and they should believe an education that is designed for the future. That was the entire premise for the Inspiring Education document - students who enter the education system in kindergarten in 2016 will receive an education that will prepare them to complete in the global economy of 2030 when they graduate high school. Well, those students are in grade 3 now, but they still haven’t been offered that cutting edge curriculum yet. Although Inspiring Education has challenged the status quo in some areas of our education system, there is still so much to do.

Hope for 2020

I hope that as the new year and a new decade begin, that our government takes the opportunity to review the tremendous work that has been been done by its teachers in the classroom and with the new curriculum and decides to reinvest in our students sooner rather than later. I am hopeful that as school districts share with the province what the proposed budget will mean in our schools, that we find ways to help make sure that our students continue to receive a high quality, global and dynamic eduction that prepares them for the future. Alberta has been able to boast that we have the best education system in the country and one of the best in the world. I hope to be able to maintain that fact in the future. I know my teachers and staff are willing to do their part, but it will be tremendously challenging to accomplish that with diminishing resources.

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