My Point of View

David Staples, columnist with the Edmonton Journal asked all school board trustees the following questions. Here are my answers:

Very briefly, can you summarize relevant personal and professional experience for job of trustee.

I have been a journalist for 17 years reporting, editing and hosting for CBC and freelancing for various publications. I currently host a podcast about women in politics called The Broadcast. I spent a year working as a trainer for Journalists for Human Rights in West Africa. I volunteer at my children’s school, in my community and have volunteered with literacy organizations and the Edmonton Humane Society.

1. In 1995, nine per cent of Grade Four students in Alberta ranked at the top level for math, meaning they could apply math to relatively complex problems and explain their reasoning. But just 2.4 per cent students hit that mark on the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Even more ominously, our number has exploded in the category of students who lack even a basic knowledge of math. It went from six per cent of Grade 4 students in 2011 to 13.2 per cent in 2015. In the 2015 general election, Rachel Notley of the NDP expressed concern about Alberta’s slipping math scores on international tests. “It’s really surprising me when I see how little basic math capacity otherwise highly-educated young people have. It is strange.” Do you share Notley’s concern? If so, what should be done to fix our math education? What can a school trustee do?

Yes, I share the Premier’s concern. A strong public school board trustee can and should be advocating that the current math curriculum redesign, and in fact the entire curriculum rewrite, stay on track. As a parent of a child in grade 4, I support a back-to-basics math approach whereby students are encouraged to memorize multiplication tables, for example. I also support teachers and value their expertise when it comes to the best way a child in their class can learn math. Additionally, I would like to see a renewed focus on closing the gender gap that exists between boys and girls on math tests.

2. Education Minister David Eggen has expressed support of Provincial Exams, saying “They are very necessary. One of the key responsibilities I have here is to assess our level of success, especially with a new curriculum. We definitely need to have a sort of mirror that we can cast back on all of our activities in education.” Do you agree with Eggen that provincial exams are very necessary? If so, why? If not, why?

I agree with Minister Eggen that provincial exams are an important standard by which to test our students and also a way to rank our province compared to the rest of the country. We must have a way to measure our successes and our failures if we are to improve our curriculum and overall high school graduation rates, in particular the graduation rates of our First Nations, Metis, Inuit students.

3. The Progressive Conservative government axed the Grade 3 Provincial Exam. It was replaced by the SLA, which was only used by 20% of schools in 2016 and will now be done only on a voluntary basis. Will you commit to fight to bring back the Grade 3 provincial exam. If so, why? If not, why?

I believe we should bring back the grade 3 provincial exam. Regular standardized tests – Provincial Achievement Tests in grades 3 and 6, and Diploma Exams in grade 12 – are important metrics to determine students’ progress and identify areas where improvement is needed. I believe we shouldn’t be offering the tests on a voluntary basis as by definition that would mean the data collected is incomplete. Furthermore, standardized testing should be just that — standard — not an option for some to skip.

4. There is some concern that the new curriculum rewrite in Alberta will move in the direction of more discovery/inquiry learning, with a focus on teachers acting as guides or facilitators, not instructors. They will work with students in group and project work, as the students work at their own pace. There will be less focus on the intensive and explicit teaching of knowledge. As UCP candidate Jason Kenney recently said: “I think parents have had enough of pedagogical fads… The focus should be on teaching knowledge and relevant skills with measurable outcomes in literacy and numeracy.” Do you share this concern? If so why? If not, why?

I am greatly concerned that the current curriculum redesign will become increasingly political. I think Mr. Kenney is prejudging the outcome of the review and the curriculum redesign. He is unnecessarily and unfairly putting teachers, students and parents in the middle of a political fight. As a parent I completed the curriculum redesign survey and I found that it did focus on teaching knowledge and the relevant skills necessary to improve student success in literacy and numeracy. As for the concern about teachers as facilitators rather than instructors, I think the answer is to take a balanced approach. Certainly teachers must continue to play an instructor role, but their profession is evolving just like any other and the needs of students who do not learn well from a strictly instructive approach must be taken into account.

5. In December 2016, results came out from the world’s biggest educational assessment – the 2015 results in science, reading and math from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation  and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). They showed Alberta students ranked first in Canada and second out of 72 countries or economies in the world, behind only Singapore, in science. Albertans ranked third in the world in reading, behind only British Columbia and Singapore. To what do you attribute Alberta’s success in this regard in these subjects?

I think this success can be attributed to the hard work and dedication of teachers, administrators, parents and students working together. It indicates an education system that is working properly in some areas, which offers opportunities for internal learning within Edmonton Public. This success creates a solid foundation of educational content and approach that our updated curriculum can build upon.

6. The Alberta Teachers’ Association and 13 other groups including Public Interest Alberta and the Public School Boards Association of Alberta say they no longer want the provincial government to pay for the basic education of one particular group of Alberta students, the 20,000-plus who attend private schools. The province has always paid 100 per cent of the cost for every student attending a public school. But since 1998, for all those parents who have decided that the public system isn’t for their children and have sent them to a private school, the government has still made a sizable contribution. It pays private schools about $5,200 per year per student, the ATA said. This is 60-to-70 per cent of the amount that goes to fund each child in a public school. Do you agree with the ATA’s suggestion to defund these students? If so, why? If not, why?

As a strong advocate for public education I believe taxpayer dollars or public money belongs in public classrooms, on public teachers and for the students who attend public schools in the province. Alberta’s current funding model supporting private schools is the highest in the country. I support a parent’s choice to enrol their child in a private school and pay the associated tuition costs. If elected I will advocate for a gradual reduction of public funding for private schools over the next five years with a goal of completely defunding private schools by 2022. Parents whose children attend private schools will still have a choice — pay the higher tuition fee, enrol your child in a public school or find another option. Public money belongs in public education.

7. Social studies teachers say that the comprehensive teaching of world history was abandoned during the last curriculum rewrite from 2006 to 2010. In its place is a haphazard focus on social issues. The curriculum moved away from any kind of comprehensive study and analysis of history to narrowly focus on motherhood issues like embracing diversity and environmental stewardship, critics charge. Do you agree with this critique? If so, why? If not, why?

Let me begin by saying that *some social studies teachers believe world history was abandoned in the last curriculum rewrite. The other day I met a social studies teacher on the doorstep who does not share this view, and who is concerned about the tone and negative attacks on the current curriculum as well as assumptions being made about what will be in the next social studies curriculum. A trustee should represent the views of all her constituents as frequently as possible, and this issue is not simply black and white. I also take umbrage with calling diversity and environmental stewardship “motherhood” issues – as if these issues are somehow softer, more feminine and, by implication, less worthy of serious discussion in classrooms. This is a gendered critique and one that I strongly disagree with. LGBTQ issues, climate change and the history of residential schools are all topics either absent or sorely underrepresented in the current curriculum. Social studies curriculum needs to have a strong focus on world history, but if it is to be truly comprehensive it should include the history that underlies social issues like ethnic and gender diversity, environmental stewardship, climate change, etc.

8. The New Democrats refuse to release the names of the leading professors and consultants doing the current curriculum rewrite. There is a concern that top subject experts in math, science and the humanities will be frozen out of the curriculum writing process and it will be dominated by like-minded professors and consultants who favour inquiry/discovery learning and/or are guided by a pronounced and uniform socio-political agenda. Patricia McCormack, professor emeritus at the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta doesn’t buy that the lead curriculum writers should be kept secret, even if some of them worry about harsh criticism: “If they’re university professors and they’re not willing to stand behind what they do, then you have to wonder how firm their ground is.” McCormack is worried about the accuracy and quality of work being done: “I am not optimistic about the ability of people in the education system to develop good curriculum unless they work with content specialists.” Do you share Prof. McCormack’s concerns? If so, why? If not, why?

I’ve given this question a lot of thought and have spoken to many people about the pros and cons of releasing the names of those working on the curriculum review. I believe the names of the reviewers should be made public. Transparency and accountability are required from those who are working on an important document that will change what is taught to future generations of students. I believe the people working on the review should be proud of their work and stand behind their decisions. I do not accept the suggestion that those selected to conduct the review must be operating with a political agenda. The curriculum review is too important and long overdue, and any government would be subject to accusations of political interference — such is the nature of party politics. In my opinion the suggestion that the review is being hijacked to serve political purposes is ridiculous and not helpful in achieving the goal of having a new, robust, historically and scientifically accurate curriculum. I’m not hearing this concern on the doorstep, either.

9. More than 26,000 Edmonton public students – and thousands more in the Catholic system – attend alternative school programs for language, the arts, sports and academics. These alternative programs have been available for more than four decades. They are a defining feature of Edmonton Public Schools and people are rightly proud of a system that strains to foster the talents and interests of tens of thousands of students. But not everyone is happy with the success. In fact, an influential Alberta education lobby group, Support Our Students Alberta (SOS), sees such school choice in the darkest terms. It links alternative schools to neo-Nazism. In the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., SOS published the following message on its Facebook page. “Yesterday’s tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, reemphasize for us why we cannot afford to segregate our children. Not by class, not by race, not by culture, religion, not by ability.” SOS then listed a number of alternative programs which they say represent “segregation disguised as choice.” Such “segregated” schools include sports, ballet and hockey programs, French, Chinese, Arabic, Ukrainian, Spanish, Hebrew and German bilingual programs, Cogito, Montessori, international baccalaureate, Nellie McClung and Caraway academic programs, Logos and Christian schools, the Victoria performing arts school, and a number of alternative and private schools in Calgary. Barbara Silva, SOS communication director said: “We’re saying those (Charlottesville) events are a demonstration of intolerance and of a lack of exposure to diversity. So when we have schools in the public system based on lines of religions … we’re dividing kids based on religion. So we’re not providing those children opportunities to interact and that provides an opportunity for intolerance to grow … We believe they’re creating divisions.” What about the academic, sports and arts schools? How do they create an atmosphere of intolerance? “I don’t know they can necessarily help create an atmosphere. What they do is they don’t allow for these children to interact.” Silva wants a school system where children don’t have to choose between a strong music, language or physical education programs, but where all children can access a rich curriculum in all public schools. Do you agree with Silva’s critique? Should Edmonton school systems move away from open boundaries and programs of choice? If so, why? If not, why?

I believe one of the strengths of Edmonton Public schools is the wide variety of choice. I support a parent’s decision to drive their child across the city to attend a program of choice or to pursue the individual interests of a child. That being said, I am a strong advocate of strengthening our local, community schools and giving parents and students a well-resourced, viable option close to their home. Our neighbourhoods are stronger when the local community school is well attended and supported by families, neighbours and parents who believe the local option is the best option. So no, I don’t think Edmonton Public should move away from open boundaries and programs of choice, but I do think strong local schools are essential. In order to strike the right balance and address what is ultimately a resourcing issue I would note once again that public money belongs in public education. People who vote for me should expect me to represent their interests with this in mind.