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Nov 13

Chris Smeaton

Reducing failure

Last week, we hosted our first transformation conversation with parents, teachers, leaders, post-secondary faculty, Alberta Education personnel and trustees. It was a gathering of approximately 50 participants who by in large have had successful experiences in either their own schooling or their children’s schooling. Later this week, I will provide the feedback from the evening and my own commentary. However, today, I want to speak about what I believe is at the heart of the transformation journey or Alberta Education’s- Action on Inclusion, namely reducing failure!

Since the beginning of October, I have been able to meet with 9 of our 13 school staffs and visit every classroom in those schools. The visits allow me to provide an update on the work of the division, information on the transformation agenda and to start the most important conversation that I believe is facing us in education today, “How do we reduce failure in schools?”  Let me be crystal clear, this is not an attack on our staff as we continually achieve from good to excellent results as communicated by the current standard of measurement from the government, the Accountability Pillar. In fact, the Alberta Education System overall is a world class leader. But still, one in four students in Alberta does not complete high school in the “normal” three year period.

I believe the approaches we’ve begun in Holy Spirit are a start toward reducing failure. The first, an emphasis on early learning has been well established for last number of years. Our Early Learning team provides tremendous support with our Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten programs. We’ve also been able to develop critical partnerships that offer before and after school programming to assist parents in supporting their needs. The concentrated efforts of establishing strong early learning programming in a play environment is further supported by Alberta Education’s document, “Let’s Talk About the Early Years.” While I believe that local divisions have the best ability to meet those needs, I would suggest that the government can assist by the following:  (1) Ensure flexibility of funding from early ages to grade 3 to meet the diverse needs of all  learners; (2) Eliminate barriers between ministries in order to support the diverse needs of all learners; and (3) Develop an integrated curriculum that focuses on the needs of the early learners to grade 3.

Our second approach that is assisting to reduce failure is not well established but has seen some great growth these last two years. Although many of our staff have participated in Pyramid Response to Intervention training, it is not the “program” that makes the difference. What is reducing failure is making time flexible and learning the constant. I have stated previously that although we innately believe as educators that all students are unique, we still (by and large) require them to finish the same work in the same amount of time. The adoption of intervention blocks in K-9 and flex blocks in high school are creating additional time for students. Offering a continuum of support, student learning needs are being better addressed in multiple groupings. There is no doubt that  timetabling these intervention periods is an art and so I applaud our school administrators for their work in creating this time. I am cautious with what I would suggest should be the government’s response to support this endeavour. It would be easy to suggest that the government automatically open its purse strings and allocate more money to divisions. And while I would never say no to additional funding, I think it is fair to also remember that more is not necessarily better in many cases. Adequate, sustainable and predictable funding will allow school divisions to meet local needs.   

Finally, I share with you an additional requirement to help reduce failure. Simply, we cannot continue to do the same things we have always done and expect different results. The workload in education has become virtually impossible to manage. We cannot ask anybody in education to work harder! But we can ask and probably should insist that we find ways to work smarter. This may be our toughest challenge in education! We have done what we have done in the system for so long and our results have consistently been good, if not excellent. There is a sense of stability when we maintain what we have always done. Yet, I continually see dedicated educators becoming more tired as their load increases. The concept of  balance between work and home is slowly disappearing and that is not good for educators or our students. We need to find ways that we can continue to improve and reduce failure without burning out and giving in! This change requires all of us to look at what we do, evaluate what is most important, create a don’t do list, share responsiblities and in the end work smarter!

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