Originally written in September, 2006. But still very relevant:
Recently, I was reading The Economist, and to my surprise, there was an article on Alberta Schools (https://www.economist.com/the-americas/2006/09/21/clever-red-necks). According to Statistics Canada, Alberta ranks tops in education, not only across the country, but also in the world. Specifically, the article mentions Edmonton as an innovative education system stressing choice, accountability and competition, stating that each school controls its own budget, spending money on its own educational priorities.
I was eager to read the article, as I was a teacher in the Edmonton area for a few years. In fact, I really did enjoy teaching there. Every school I taught at had a specialty, striving to be different: the gifted school, the sports school, the girls school. I had a lot of freedom in my teaching, but at the same time, had to follow the curriculum, and many times, was expected to go above and beyond the basics. The testing was rigorous and published every year for everybody to see. Teachers were judged on their students results. In one school, my job security (in my first year of teaching there) was based on the provincial test results.
I started to think why the educational system in Alberta is so good. Why does it work better than other systems? Since Statistics Canada gives overall results, the awesome results must have something to do with the overall system (not that of a particular group of students, or particular teachers). There are great teachers everywhere, but in Alberta, under that particular environment, the teachers and students can excel more than elsewhere. So, what are the constants all throughout the system? What are these differences in the Alberta Education system from other provinces and other countries?
First of all there is the ridged provincial testing. Also there is the matter of funding individual schools based on enrollment, and allowing these schools do as they please with the money. It possible that Alberta has a better curriculum than the rest of the world, organized in a more logical manner. Also it might be that teachers in Alberta are better prepared through a superior university education degree. There are probably many more factors involved, such as funding, teacher salaries, time spent on a subject etc., but since I don’t know the exact statistics (for example how much money is spent per student in Alberta versus other provinces, or teacher salaries in Alberta) I won’t get into these topics. I will however, try to talk about my experience teaching in Alberta.
Every school I taught at in Alberta had a specialty, striving to be different: the gifted school, the sports school, the girls’ school. This is how the schools attracted their prospective students. Since students didn’t need to go to their community school, having the option of any school in the city, attracting attention was an important part of the school. During open houses, I felt as if I was selling the school. During staff meetings, enrollment was often discussed. Science Fair and Science Olympics were great ways of advertising the school. Test results were another way to show off the greatness of the school. All this seems very commercial, but striving for high test results, or taking part in Science Fair/Science Olympics are positive for the students.
I had a lot of freedom in my teaching, but at the same time, I had to follow the Alberta curriculum, and many times, was expected to go above and beyond the basics. The testing was rigorous and published every year for everybody to see. Teachers were judged on their students’ results. In one school, my job security (in my first year of teaching) was based on the provincial test results. This was stressful, but it forced me to push my students (and myself) to the extremes. I didn’t really teach to the test, but I did focus on the whole curriculum, even the parts I disliked (these parts I’m sure I would have avoided, if there was no province wide testing involved).
There is much debate in the education field about standardized testing, and I really can’t decide. In this case, however, I think Alberta seems to have used the standardized testing well, and to the advantage of the overall student population.