There are places where the Alberta way of doing things has fans; they’re just not always in Canada.
Take the province’s approach to education. School officials in Oakland, Calif., have admired it so much, they’ve tried copying it there. Management texts have been written about it. They’ve praised it in New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, New York City and Chicago. And now, the U.K.’s Education secretary, Michael Gove, is hailing the Alberta education model as the prescription to fix his country’s ailing state school system.
“In … Alberta, schools have been liberated, given the autonomy enjoyed by charter schools in the U.S.,” Mr. Gove said last summer. “Headteachers control their own budgets, set their own ethos and shape their own environments. And the result: Alberta now has the best-performing state schools of any English speaking regions.”
With that record, it’s little wonder the province has been noticed by international educators. What is curious is that, here at home, other provinces seem largely uninterested in learning at Alberta’s knee.
Mr. Gove is eager to, all the way over in Britain, where his Conservative government has vowed to improve the strugglingpublicly funded state school system.
U.K. students ranked 25th among the countries ranked by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) when it came to reading, math and science skills, according to its most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, in 2009.
British Prime Minister David Cameron told an interviewer last year he was “terrified” to send his kids to the state secondary school in central London. In many places in Britain, he said, “there isn’t a choice of good schools.”
Canada, meantime, ranked sixth overall in the 2009 PISA report, behind Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. But Alberta students did most of the heavy lifting: In the past three PISA reports, Alberta has handily beaten every other Englishspeaking region in the world.
“Alberta has been the No. 1 province nine or 10 times out of 12” assessments, says Peter Cowley, education researcher at the Fraser Institute.
“Why don’t the provinces doing poorly just emulate Alberta, why don’t they buy the Alberta curriculum?”
He suspects it is because with education being an area of provincial responsibility, each one thinks they can do it better than the rest, even if results suggest otherwise.
It’s true that Alberta’s educational achievement was not an overnight success: It began as far back as the mid-1970s, says Angus McBeath, a former Edmonton public school board superintendent, when parents pushed for standardized testing, creating a culture of accountability that culminated, over the years, in the downloading of increased responsibilities for results from government to schools.
In Edmonton, principals have autonomy to choose which services they want to buy from the board — be it a new boiler or a new teacher — and roughly 90¢ of every education dollar flows directly to the school level. And schools can turn themselves into specialty shops: Edmonton’s public Vimy Ridge Academy offers professional-level ballet training and a military cadet school under the same roof.
Schools are free to educate in whatever way they like, as long as they keep turning out students who demolish provincial tests.
“There is a debate in most jurisdictions that low-income and Aboriginal children can’t be expected to measure up in terms of succeeding in school,” Mr. McBeath says.
“In Alberta, we took the position … that we could not write them off. So there was a lot more drive in Alberta to get performance out of students and teachers and principals.”
That students take a wad of government dough to whatever school they choose has made Alberta a robust market where public schools try besting their charter and private competitors, he says. It’s precisely that competition for excellence that Mr. Gove says he expects will revitalize the U.K.’s moribund state system.
Strangely, though, while Alberta’s experiment with competitive, decentralized education has been hailed a smashing success, other provinces seem set in forging their own path, occasionally with lacklustre results: In the PISA report, Prince Edward Island scores below the OECD average and Manitoba just makes it.
Often they will claim that Alberta’s wealth is its advantage, says Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. That’s partly true, but the province spends less than 5% more on education per capita than Ontario. “It’s an easy, understandable, sound-bite explanation to say ‘Alberta spends more money than the rest of us, and we don’t have that money,’ ” Mr.
Cirtwill says. “Once you’ve said that, you don’t have to say anything more.”