As a pollster, it has long been my view that if you want to know what people are thinking, you should do a poll. If you want to know why people are thinking what they’re thinking, you should do focus groups. And the best research projects are usually a combination of both polling and focus groups.
I had the opportunity to do a poll for the Alberta Teachers’ Association in August that explored what Albertans think about public education. In September, I had the opportunity to follow this up with a set of focus groups and one-on-one interviews to find out why they feel the way they do.
One of the most interesting things we discovered through the polling was that the strongest predictors of a person’s overall impressions of public education is how well they think public education is doing at
- preparing students to be successful in life,
- providing students with a nurturing and supportive environment,
- attracting and retaining high-quality teachers,
- providing diverse program opportunities, and
- ensuring students in rural areas have access to high-quality education.
We used the focus groups and interviews to further explore what these statements mean, and why they are so important to Albertans.
Preparing students to be successful in life
Research participants had a broad definition of what constitutes a successful life. They mentioned the importance of preparing students to be able to contribute to society, achieve personal goals (both in terms of further education and employment), support oneself and one’s family, and be happy. When asked to dig into how public schools can achieve these goals, participants mentioned having a curriculum that emphasizes life skills (such as financial literacy, problem solving and conflict resolution), offering a range of programs (including both practical and creative courses), and ensuring students have access to up-to-date technology. Participants also stressed the importance of the complementary roles that teachers and parents play in ensuring students are prepared for life after graduation.
Providing students with a nurturing and supportive environment
For many, there is a delicate balance between being supportive of students, but not coddling them. This involves allowing students to face real-world issues, while still ensuring they have the tools to overcome failure and other life challenges. Key to feeling supported at school are students feeling safe (both emotionally and physically); having engaged teachers; having a pleasant atmosphere in the classroom; having adequate resources (such as textbooks and computers); having individualized attention; and having good communications between teachers, students and parents.
Attracting and retaining high-quality teachers
When asked to identify the attributes of a high-quality teacher, research participants mentioned passion, empathy, intuition and good training. When asked to identify the main challenges that are undermining the teaching profession and driving good teachers away, participants mentioned large class sizes, challenging parents, the inability to effectively discipline students, extracurricular responsibilities (such as coaching and field trips) and government interference in the development of the curriculum. The keys to attracting and retaining teachers were believed to be adequate compensation and benefits, work–life balance, respect and autonomy in the classroom.
Providing diverse program opportunities
Diverse program opportunities were defined by participants as programs that cater to a variety of interests, address different learning styles, foster character development and broaden the horizons of students. They expressed the belief that students need to be exposed to a variety of programs so they can discover their own interests and potential career paths. Many recognized that students have varied learning styles (and in some cases, specific learning disabilities) and the need for specialized programs to help students reach their potential. And beyond the standard school curriculum, participants see value in the benefits that can be gained through extracurricular activities.
Ensuring students in rural areas have access to high-quality education
One of the focus group sessions conducted was composed of Albertans who live in small towns and rural areas. This group, in particular, stressed the importance of ensuring that all Alberta students receive a high-quality education, regardless of where they live in the province. But they also acknowledged the unique challenges of providing a high-quality education in a rural setting, where student enrolment numbers are low and the distances students travel to attend school are far. They stressed that the province should set a minimum standard for education, and ensure every student—in every region of the province—has access to this standard. ❚
Pollster and political commentator