Neo-conservatism Education Reform in Alberta


Neo-conservatismEducation Reform in Alberta


Canada,like many other developed and developing nations has on an educationreform path. These reforms allow individual provinces to enactspecific education policies to guide institutions within theirjurisdiction. In the case of Alberta Province, several policies havebeen enacted to drive change consistent with neoconservative views ofeducation which largely promote the importance of government controlto create order and consistency. Again, neo-conservatism does notcontest the increased influence of the market economy in shapingeducation policies as promoted by liberals but rather calls ofpriorities and perceived needs of the marketplace and a globalizedeconomy to shape education in a standardized approach. It is on thisapproach that Alberta Province has enacted several policies toachieve the desired change in education. This paper thus exploresthese policy changes seeking to develop a more neo-conservativeapproach in Alberta Province in Canada.

Understandingneo conservatism

Neo-conservatismaccording to Apple (2006) pushes for a return to a mythic andromantic past in education. Pinto (2012), in discussing educationreform in Ontario and Alberta recognizes neo-conservatism as movementthat seeks to restore education to previous standards where bothmarket theory and government influence play a key role in shapingeducation. This has been named as return to core knowledge. Pinto(2012, p. 24) clearly states that neo-conservatism “prioritizes themarket and individual liberty as secondary to restoring traditionconstructed around themes such as nationalism.” This can only beachieved through a centralized control of curriculum content,standardized testing and back to basic schooling. In areas whereneo-conservatism reforms are implemented, it is driven by the need topreserve national pride and oppose the homogenizing effect ofeducation created by a market economy. Neo-conservatism thusdistrusts the ideas of multiculturalism, multilingualism andcultural/ethnic heterogeneity.

Consequently,the approach has been criticized for institutionalizing racisms anddiscrimination in the education sector. Pinto says clearly thatneo-conservatism “seeks to preserve white advantage through denialof race difference” (2012, p. 35) which is a pretty heavyaccusation. She justifies her argument to say that any denial racialdifferences in the education sector in Alberta, it implies that theculture specific or race specific issues facing some Albertans areirrelevant to the government or the education ministry. This is avery sensitive issue given that the country at large is still in theprocess of handling its native people issues. Neegan (2005) however,writes that the continued pursuit of education framed on a westernworldview actively discriminates against the Native Canadians whohave been ignored from history. To him therefore., education shouldnot be structured in a manner that respects people culture andacknowledges the multiplicity of ethnicities and cultures either fromnative Canadians or from immigrant populations existing in Alberta.

Historyof education Reforms in Alberta

TheAlberta Ministry of education has implemented several educationalreforms over the years. The changes have varied widely in scope anddepth. However, neo-conservatism reforms can be traced back to the1980’s at a time when the world experienced a wave educationalreform. The first major change that Alberta instituted pertained tostandardized tests. This was accomplished in 1981 with standardizedtests in English, math, science and social studies were introducedfor grades 3, 6, 9 and 12. This is in line with the neo-conservativeview of education reform that calls for increased standardization anda return to core knowledge. The exams were administered on a rotatingbasis. By 1983, the Ministry made the grade 12 exams compulsory andcontributed 50% towards student’s final grades. Given that thesereforms were largely a trial and error approach, the Albertaeducation ministry sought to carry out province-wide studiesinvolving parents, teachers and students to inform reforms.

Around1985, the federal government released reports that would furtherdrive education reforms in Alberta. In this year, Statistics Canadareleased a report that showed rising cases of violence against womenall over the country. This increased a desire in the public to shapemorals and cultural perspectives of children to respect women. Publicopinion argued that teachers have a role to instill social disciplinein learners as they spent most time with teachers in school. Thisprompted additional reforms in education that saw introduction ofcompulsory courses in careers, personal finance and life managementskills. Other inputs were suggested by industry players more so majoremployers who were eager to have courses and education reformed in anindustry-informed manner.

However,the greatest reforms in education happened in the 1990’s decadehighlighted by the Klein Revolution. The Klein revolution was namedafter Ralph Klein became the premier of Alberta through the AlbertaProgressive Conservative Party. Having inherited a broke provincialgovernment, Klein embarked on a massive government restructuring thatsaw public expenditure drastically reduced. Education was one of theareas that suffered from these cutbacks. Again, administration andmanagement of schools and education was radically changed with schoolboards reduced from 140 to only 60 in a move that would makemanagement of schools more centralized in line with neo-conservatism.Additionally, teachers were also required to take a 5% pay cut in thepromise that the issue of class sizes would be addressed. The law oncharter schools was also activated.

Nonetheless,there reforms did not go on uncontested. An Angus Reid Pollinvolving 800 Albertans showed that about two thirds of them wereuncomfortable with the drastic changes n education and that suchdrastic change will have an overall negative effect on education. Inresponse, the government offered welfare recipients one way ticketsout of Alberta. Catholic managed schools boards were allowed towithdraw from the centralized provincial education fund withoutfinancial repercussions. Public opinion in the media criticized Kleinreforms as they led to massive job losses, eroded consumer confidenceand a reduced education budget did not boost confidence at all(Logan, 2014).

Theidea of class size as contested by teachers as aforementioned hasbeen a key issue in education reforms in Alberta. Previous studies inTennesse US by Hedges (2000) showed that reduction of class size from24 to 15 produces modest but lasting increase in academicachievement. Informed by such findings and driven by teacher complainover increased workload resulting from larger classes has seen theAlberta Learning pursue to maintain a modest class size fromkindergarten to higher education with a desire to increase academicachievement and impart core knowledge (Alberta education 2015).

Highereducation policy reforms

In2005, Alberta reviewed its higher education policy and issued a20-year strategic plan a year later. The plan strategically sought toaddress three main areas: making education affordable, enhancinghigher education access for marginalized communities (aboriginals andimmigrant communities), improving literacy and numeracy and buildingthe province’s research and innovation capacity. The governmentfollowed up on majority of the recommendations of the report. Mostnotably tuition fees for higher education were reduced back to the2004-05 levels and future increments were tied to increases inconsumer price index (CPI) which basically captures economicperformance of the province and the residents (Alberta education2015).

Additionally,the government recognized the access limitations that were facingmany students mostly aboriginals and immigrants. Borrowing limitswere increased and the strict eligibility and repayments rulesrelaxed. Interest rates on students’ loans were also reviseddownwards to increase access. For aboriginal students and studentswith disabilities, education income tax credit was increased whichalso targeted students with dependants and part time students(Alberta education 2015).

AlbertaInitiative for School Improvement (AISI)

Thisis an initiative launched by Alberta Learning 1999 and wasimplemented up to 2013. The program sought to provide additionalfunds and resources to improve student learning and engagement. Theprogram developed strategies that were classified into threecategories of schools: (a) public, separate, charter and francophoneschools (b) private schools and (c) private ECS operators. Theprogram was also implemented in five cycles addressing differentzones (AISI 2015).

Thefirst category involving public, separate, charter and francophoneschools develop unique strategies suited to individual divisionsaccording to their needs. For instance, the Fort Vermilion SchoolDivision has a unique program targeting grades K to 12 whichpertained to improving reading skills by expanding literacy plans inscope and depth through greater student involvement, technologydeployment, pyramid reading for struggling readers and differentiatedinstructions. Private schools were targeted individually and thenumber of involved students was relatively smaller. For instance,Airdrie Koinonia Christian School Society was assigned a strategythat sought to enhance character development and reduce incidences ofstudent behavior. This was to be achieved through utilization ofdigital media and use of lead teacher model. This initiativespecifically targeted this school informed by the needs observed.Such a specific strategies for divisions and specific schools wereachieved through in depth research and surveys seeking to identifystudent needs and also indications provided by standardized tests(AISI 2015).


Neo-conservatismrecognizes the important role played by parents in education throughengagement. Parent engagement as strategy in education looks atparents as a homogenous entity as opposed to the individuals parentsof respective students. This assumes that majority of parents haveclosely similar expectations of learning for their children except inspecial cases where parents views may be trained towards individualsstudents with special needs. On the overall, parent engagement thusfocuses on creating a shared connection where educators and parentsshare power and authority and the agenda of learning n developed withthe input of both parties usually reached though open two-waycommunication between adults (AISI 2015).

Parentengagement differs greatly from parent involvement. AISI views parentengagement as active participation and involvement in a child’slearning and even in design of involvement projects with thecommunity. The process of engagement is well planned ad thought outby school administrators based on community needs, local culture andthe community’s experiences with education. This makes parentengagement as a deeper form of parent involvement. Involvementpertains to simple situations such as involving parents indiscussions on assessments, sharing ideas through parents’ schoolmeetings and surveys. By parent engagement, the AISI understands thatparents have a central role to play in the achievement of educationgoals for their children. The benefits not only goes to children asteachers are more responsive to community and cultural needs that canbe identified through parents and also help to shape theirinstructions methods in recognition of the detected needs (AISI2015).

Forthis reason, AISI has implemented strategies that actively seek toengage parents especially those in kindergarten and elementary schoolin their children earning. Parents are involved basically on twolevels: as stakeholders and members of the community in which theseschools are located and as parents of children attending theseschools. Various simple projects launched by AISI in pilot projectshave clearly demonstrated a strong relationship between parents andcommunity engagement in success of students. Specific resultsinclude: (i) improved student learning and attendance, (ii)increased parents support of students at home (iii) increasecommunication with parents (iv) parents provide a useful resource insharing expertise, knowledge, talents and gifts with the schoolcommunity (v) parents participate more in parent education events,(vi) advance understandings, values, cultures and languages (vii)increased volunteering at school events and understanding of studentlearning and (viii) improved parent-student-teacher partnerships(AISI 2015).

Provincewide surveys and school specific focus groups have been a mainstay ofparent and community and engagement in education reform in Alberta.Only recently, survey by OCED revealed that academic performanceamong Canadians dropped in maths and science. This has triggered aflurry of petitions by parents seeking for a return to basic maths inelementary school. In January 2014, a petition in Alberta involvingparents and the community had garnered over 3700 signatures callingfor reforms in teaching mathematics. The core issue raised as areturn to conventional teaching of mathematics involving verticaladditions and subtractions and long divisions. True to the issue ofengagement, the petition was received by the ministry with a promiseto look at the issue (AISI 2015).

Otherminor projects of the AISI program have been implemented with theinput of all stakeholders especially parents. For instance, theimplementation of differentiated instructions programs was employedtogether with the parent integration programs. Surveys and focusgroups meetings involving 25 individual schools and school divisionsmade of various stakeholders were held to deliberate on the best wayto approach differentiated instruction. This is a teaching andlearning planning method which is part and parcel of the educationreforms under the AISI program (McQuarrie, McRae &amp Stack-Cutler,2008).


DifferentiatedInstruction also marks an important area in education reform inAlberta under the AISI program. This approach was first testedthrough pilot schools in the province between 2003 and 2006. Theapproach seeks to develop a way of thinking and approach in educationwhich plans and implements curriculum instruction in a manner thataccommodates student diversity in needs. The aim is to maximizeleaning and potential for success for all students regardless oftheir ethnicity, special needs and background. This approach waslauded as a positive move that embraced the concept of inclusion inlearning (AISI2015).


Curriculumdesign and methods of instructions are two unique and important areasof education and leading. In the case of Alberta, the province’scurriculum has undergone numerous changes and modifications over thelast few decades to factor changes informed by research. For thisreason, both the ministry of education in Alberta and the AlbertaTeachers Association have linked with Alberta universities and thenational educational research community to develop evidence-informedcurriculum policies that enhance learning and teaching with a focusto a return to core knowledge teaching and even differentiatedinstructions (Glanfield et al, 2013).

Currently,there is an ongoing debate about the pending curriculum redesignproposed by the ministry. A number of issues have been raised andpublic opinion over the redesign has been widely circulated in themedia expressing varying views. The current curriculum redesigntargets programs of study, assessments, and learning and teachingresources, and the processes for developing these componentsof&nbspcurriculum. Specific changes include a more student-focusedapproach that sheds system-focused approach. Again, the new approachwill focus more on competencies as advised by differentiatedinstructions as opposed to content. Other changes targeted by the newcurriculum which is still under testing and will be implemented in apilot project in April 2015 include: more flexibility to accommodateopportunities for local decision making and greater depth of study,leveling of formative and summative assessment, moving to a digitalplatform (online) and synchronous as opposed to sequentialdevelopment. There has been much hype and optimism towards the newapproach though there several issues that have been raised (Albertaeducation 2015).


Nonetheless,Alberta has been a pace setter in education research and development.Other Provinces and countries around the world have looked up toAlberta to make new strides into the future of education. Thediscussion above captures some of the critical reforms that theprovince has made. However, given that much of the data andinformation provided is ongoing, static data over the same is hard tocome by. What this implies to future research in education reforms isthat the results of changes may take time before the training ofteachers and proper employment of the new approaches. Therefore, itis important to allow longer periods of time to assess the impact ofnew education approaches an also understand that some of theseeffects may overlap thus denying research a clear picture of theimpact of a single approach independent of other influences.


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