Responses to David Staples Candidate Survey

Questions for trustee candidates:

First of all, thank you for stepping up to run for school trustee. As a parent with children in the system, I appreciate your keen interest.

I write on education issues in my opinion column with the Edmonton Journal. There are numerous crucial issues around education and I will not dig into all of them right now. My own focus is on the academic side, on doing what we can to ensure that our excellent public school system remains academically healthy, competitive and strong. For this election, I will endorse a number of candidates in board races. I’d like to know where you stand on a number issues, so I have a few questions here for you. I will follow up with telephone interviews on Thursday if I’m unclear on your answer.

I will most likely be writing about this for this Friday’s paper, so if you can have your answers back to me by Thursday morning, that would be great (There is no need for your to write a lengthy answer to any question, just a few hundred words at the very most, though a sentence or two will do).

  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?

It is concerning to know that students in our province are not scoring as high on Math knowledge on the TIMSS as in past years.  I’m not sure that there is information on why this is the case.  Is it an actual slip in performance? Or are students in other countries making gains in math performance that Alberta students are not? I’m cautiously optimistic that the curriculum overhaul underway will help address any problems that have been identified by teaching and learning experts. At this point, I feel that I can only speak as a parent, and in this regard I’ve watched how teaching math concepts in a constructivist way can help my child understand math in a variety of ways, and that this has seemed to work best when combined with a strong foundation in basic numeracy skills. 

While the curriculum is in the hands of the province, I believe that school trustees can advance programs where an extra focus on basic numeracy skills is needed in the district, if there is evidence that this is required.

  1. 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 do think that provincial exams, combined with teacher feedback and assessments, can provide useful information to the ministry and school board, as well as schools, teachers and students.

  1. 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 think that this is again a provincial matter. If the province does need data on how well the curriculum is accomplishing its goals, it is likely possible to do testing with sample groups, and therefore not necessary to test every student across the province with a Grade 3 provincial achievement test.  From the information I have read, tests at this grade level are most useful when they are formative, and provide information to teachers about where a student is meeting knowledge standards, and which areas of knowledge are missing, so that classroom instruction can be tailored to the needs of individual students.

  1. 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 have not heard this as a major concern from parents or teachers but I have heard the curriculum rewrite being used as a political talking point, which I think is deeply unfortunate. At this point in the complex process, learning outcomes have not yet been developed and it is only possible to speculate on how the curriculum development process will unfold. I have heard concerns about declines in basic numeracy skills and I am optimistic that the team of educational experts developing the curriculum will take these concerns into account using current research, and make the best decisions possible.

  1. 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?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development attributes Canada’s success to the high degree of equity and fairness in education that we are able to achieve in our country and province, and I believe this also speaks to the professionalism and commitment of teachers in Alberta. When discussing these results, the OECD has pointed to the success of new Canadian children, compared to other countries with immigrant populations, as well as the small degree in performance accounted for by socio-economic difference, as compared to other countries. It’s heartening to see that our students are being afforded an equal chance to access our world-class education system. I do have concerns about equitable access to education for our First Nations, Metis and Inuit students, where success rates in the province are not where they should be and graduation rates in the district are still much lower than they should be. Further work is needed to ensure these students have equitable access to public education.

  1. 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?

I am in support of directing public funding towards public education because I’m concerned with both equity and accountability. I believe that due to additional tuition fees, private schools are beyond the reach of many families in this province, and that providing partial funding for private schools enables a two-tier education system. In contrast to private schools, public school boards are also accountable to a publicly elected board of trustees.

  1. 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?

The curriculum is within the purview of the province and is a provincial responsibility.  As a parent, I have not found my children’s social studies to be haphazard. They appear to be learning a wide breadth of information about history, our government and the broader world.

  1. 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?

In my understanding, the curriculum overhaul is being led by teachers and learning experts.

  1. 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 think that programs of choice within Edmonton Public School offer wonderful opportunities to students and families and I support these programs whole-heartedly.  I would love to see fee reductions for the alternative programs that charge additional fees so that the programs are even more accessible to all.