Globe and Mail

Why Johnny can read

Alberta's schoolkids earned high scores in international ratings. Why? The inspiration came from the bottom up, says SEAN FINE

Thursday, December 6, 2001 – Print Edition, Page A23
The Globe and Mail

I was moved to tears in an Alberta classroom. A school I visited last year had discovered the secret of engagement, and the results were astonishing. In retrospect, it's no surprise that Alberta's pupils should be at the top of the heap in Canada, and in the world's upper echelon, in reading, science and math scores made public by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development this week. The province has found a way to do the impossible: innovate without alienating.

The school was Glendale Elementary in Calgary. The local board considers it an inner-city school, though its population is stable, and most of its 270 children live in small bungalows, rather than, say, public-housing towers. But the children are certainly not affluent.

The school takes part in a program called the Galileo Educational Network, which uses computers to encourage self-directed learning. But never mind the substance of the project. Projects come and projects go. The key is engaging children.

These children were riveted. I don't mean just a few bright ones. I mean every last child, in a fair-sized class of 24 pupils. No one was looking out the window, or staring off into some personal abyss. The children were bunched so closely together by the blackboard they were virtually in one another's laps, a camaraderie I've found is engendered by the best teaching.

The class project, which they'd been going at enthusiastically for a month, involved making their own cold-pressed soap, and then marketing the product. When I entered the class, they were trying to calculate how much money to charge to cover their costs and, I believe, to make a profit. (What, you expected a non-profit corporation from Calgary?)

As someone began to explain to me that Calgary considers itself to be in a renaissance -- a notion that if even whispered in Toronto would provoke the most cynical laughter -- the teacher, Susan Marinucci, asked if I would like to hear a 14th-century Renaissance song the class had memorized.

Suddenly, without preparation or the passing out of song sheets, Ms. Marinucci pointed at a boy, and he sang out a question, and then the rest of the class boomed out a reply. And then Ms. Marinucci pointed at someone else, a question, a reply; it was as if I had wandered into a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This was not a music class or an arts school, it was an ordinary downtown Grade 5 class that produced, spontaneously and from everyone, a magnificent song. Who wouldn't have been moved?

Alberta has hardly been the world's biggest cheerleader for public schools. In the 1990s, the Ralph Klein government squeezed the public schools hard, even yanking all funds from kindergarten (half-day funding was restored last year). It also began doling out its scarce education dollars to private schools, and permitted parents to form charter schools with taxpayer money. Parents in Calgary had to pay up-front for a list of school basics, including boxes of tissue. Not only were children sharing textbooks; they shared photocopies of textbooks.

More recently, as the economy boomed -- Calgary had a national-low unemployment rate of 4.1 per cent when I visited -- the Klein government began to put money back. One way it did so was by creating a multimillion-dollar fund to encourage innovation. School boards originate the ideas and ask for money. The Calgary board, for instance, made more than 40 proposals. The work that goes into each one is huge: A typical proposal is roughly three inches thick, which suggests local people have given a fair bit of thought to local conditions.

Nothing is approved unless it includes a way to objectively measure its effects -- for instance, on provincial test scores. (Galileo, with $600,000 in provincial funding and matching funds from industry, runs in 10 schools for three years.)

The ideas, in other words, are coming from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. The province sets the framework, and doles out the money; but when the projects are set in motion, it's not a struggle to get everyone onside.

Just as important is how the ideas are implemented. Schools are famously stodgy places; budging the status quo isn't easy. But in these Alberta programs, the people who train the teachers come right into the classroom for on-the-job instruction. It's a much smarter approach than simply shipping teachers off for lessons that may not apply to their own situation. They can ask questions as they go along.

The teachers are also given time away from their classrooms for instruction, with a trainer available to take their class. And each week those teachers in the program meet to hear speakers, discuss strong and weak points, refinements and so on. The principal, the key figure in any school, is involved from the start. The entire school has an impressive focus and energy.

Compare that to Ontario, whose 15-year-olds achieved mediocre results on the OECD test scores. A cynic might say Ontario has been alienating without innovating. In fact, the province has had some good ideas (toughening up its curriculum, creating province-wide tests). It should also be noted that the school system in Toronto, which has lost roughly 15 per cent of its $2-billion-plus annual budget in five years, still has things Alberta's public schools do not, such as free supervised-lunch programs, on-site daycare, and a deep roster of extracurricular activities.

But in making the curriculum both more complex, and more packed with material, Ontario created a teaching challenge it failed to address with relevant training. It would have been enough to focus the system's effort on making this major change work; but at the same time the province gave the teachers more classes to teach, and cut their professional activity days to four from nine. Worse than simply being unprepared, Ontario teachers were also needlessly antagonized.

No wonder Ontario children are struggling. Failure rates under the new Grade 9 curriculum are up sharply. Thirty-two per cent of Grade 10 students failed a basic literacy test last year. Only half of Grade 3 and 6 pupils reach the province's acceptable standard on annual reading and writing tests.

The secret of engagement? It can't be unlocked by magic or by directive from a central authority. Like a song, it involves a rhythm and unity that can hardly be expressed in words. But you know it when you've got it.

Sean Fine is a member of The Globe and Mail's editorial board.

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.