Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Real Leadership Race In B.C.

Far too often, leadership races serve as beauty contests, where parties look at rather vague concepts such as "electability" instead of having a real debate about issues and values.

For my part, I've always agreed with something Paul Wells wrote after Stock Day's spectacular crash 'n' burn 'n' jet ski as Canadian Alliance leader. Wells reviewed a whole score of past columns predicting a return of Trudeaumania with a neocon twist, including his own, and then suggested a good lesson to be learned.

The column ended with a warning that there is no magical quality called "electability" that could be separated from wisdom, judgement, intellect or ability to govern well. It was a sensible warning to political parties from a journalist whose first rule of politics....that when everyone in Ottawa knows something, it is invariably wrong....has been vindicated again and again.

That's why it is a good thing, for their members, that the B.C. Liberals are using their leadership race to have a debate on ideas which, whatever one's view, deserve a full debate. It may also be a good thing for voters to see something party discipline tends to obscure, which is that members of the same government can still have very real debates internally.

It was the former health minister Kevin Falcon who first launched the debate on merit pay for teachers, linking their salaries to standardized tests. Two former education ministers running, Christy Clark and George Abbott, have suggested that this is a solution that will drain more goodwill through a fight with teachers that it will benefit kids. (And, indeed, B.C. already has world class test scores)

As a former education minister myself, I tend to agree with the Harvard professor who calls for governments to work with teachers unions on a common framework for professional development and giving to teachers the resources to lift their school up, saying....

That’s because merit pay is too one-dimensional a solution to have an effect on student performance, said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and a merit pay researcher.

“It’s an odd thing, because individual merit pay comes up with political campaigns. It seems so simple and gets a lot of play,” Prof. Johnson said. But when teachers don’t succeed, “it’s for a lot of complex reasons – the most important being that they probably don’t know how to do any better than they’re doing.”

In fact, in New Brunswick, even though it wasn't a sexy sort of announcement, the Liberal government increased teacher training budgets by over $4million and gave innovation grants to be spent on classroom resources by leading teachers...the result was the biggest jump in literacy scores ever. Sadly, teacher professional development was the first thing cut by the new government, and the results will soon be seen.

But the important thing is that B.C. Liberals are actually having a real debate on ideas. While they are one of the biggest tents out there (the "Liberal" label is an accident of history, that having simply been the party that served as a vehicle for the broad, anti-NDP coalition of the old Social Credit Party), their ability to allow members to debate and even disagree publicly is a model that the rest of the country should watch.

link here.

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