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A classroom with arrows for distancing.
A circus of political theatre shouldn’t determine what children learn at school. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Alberta curriculum: End the failed partisan politics over what kids should learn

The COVID-19 pandemic has given many Canadians a crash course on how governments make decisions about public health and educational policy, among other areas of responsibility. We should take advantage of this time and consider the ways we might improve how such decisions are made.

With regards to education, what kids should formally learn in schools via a provincial curriculum is a perennial political football and is often used to avoid other classroom concerns such as class size and inequitable access to enrichment activities.

Alberta has recently provided a textbook example of curriculum change as political theatre. Albertans learned last week that the Ministry of Education has hired two more out-of-province advisers to review the curriculum the former NDP government created: That’s now 19 advisers hired by the current United Conservative Party government at a cost of more than $100,000.

This news follows public backlash and criticism last fall after people learned of leaked draft school curricula that would see students learn Bible verses as poetry.

Lost decade of reform proposals

But curriculum debates have been ongoing in the province. The promise to Albertans 10 years ago to “transform” education turned into a patchwork of incoherent proposals and polarizing rhetoric papering over a decade of expensive whimsical partisan system leadership. This should stop.

Read more: Welcome to the latest wave of 'modernizing,' 'progressive' school reforms in Ontario

Between 2009 and 2019, as a professor who researches curriculum, I served as a university education faculty representative on the Alberta Teachers’ Association provincial curriculum committee. This committee interfaces with the Education Ministry about current and proposed changes to provincial kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum and assessment.

Dave Hancock.
Former Alberta Premier Dave Hancock, shown here in August 2014, earlier served as education minister in Ed Stelmach’s government after the 2008 election. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Based on what I learned on this committee, and my knowledge of why quality curriculum urgently matters in education, I propose a resolution: “Be it resolved that no Alberta Minister of Education henceforth have responsibility for the contents of K-12 curricula, their renewal, revision or change. Ministers retain all other currently legislated responsibilities.”

I believe this is a helpful suggestion for several reasons. Over the years, this committee heard from bureaucratic representatives of five different education ministers from the three different provincial parties that formed government.

What we watched unfold was a lost decade of expensive failed attempts to renew curricula, starting with Education Minister Dave Hancock’s 2010 report “Inspiring Education” under Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative government. This report promised to “transform” Alberta’s K-12 programs around competencies. After the next two ministers, and still waiting to be transformed, we then heard from another government who wanted to “innovate” programs around concepts.

Research-informed decisions

In contrast, Canadians for the most part have been well served with dispassionate professional judgements about matters of public interest: for instance, the appointments of Supreme Court judges or expanding Alberta pharmacists’ professional scopes of practice during the pandemic.

Such trust in the research-informed decisions in legal and medical matters stand in stark contrast to successive Alberta government’s marginalization of the teaching profession and the faculties of education in the renewal of Alberta’s programs of study. When the province has included the profession in curriculum reform, that role was only to provide feedback via prescribed ways to achieve end goals already decided.

Adriana LaGrange
Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange faced criticism in the fall after the public saw leaked curriculum. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The toxicity of using education as a wedge issue is not unique to Alberta, and we should learn from what does not serve the interests of students.

The state of Michigan, starting in 2013, for example, conducted a broad professional and public consultation about proposed social studies standards. Three respected education scholars wrote that the consultation went well until “the process became politicized in 2017,” when politicians introduced “partisan perspectives that not only insert politics into education, but interfere with and undermine the efforts of educators who know students [and] classrooms.” These politicians sought to remove any content that might challenge their partisan goals.

Committing to change

All curricula reflect a world view, as do recommendations for Canada’s Food Guide or views about who should be appointed as judges. It would be naive to claim that we can remove politics from curriculum, when deciding what children learn is part of larger public policy.

We can, however, reduce hyper-partisanship and name-calling that disrupt professionally informed long-term study, action and care to get back to the basics: research-informed consultations and decisions. What’s at stake is the kind of human beings we hope education might support children to become.

Read more: Leaked Alberta school curriculum in urgent need of guidance from Indigenous wisdom teachings

As with any harmful pattern of behaviour, we must first recognize the problems with how provinces seek to change curriculum. Let’s get inspired to reflect about how we adults might do better for our youth.

As detailed in ample research that explores effective ways of producing curriculum, we could begin to imagine, for example, a joint curriculum council. A joint provincial council could consist of subject matter experts put forth from universities, practising teachers, representatives from parent councils and the professional teacher associations all supported by subject-based program managers in ministries.

Avoid more of the same

Regardless of what models are adopted for curriculum change, we know successful curriculum reform requires a system-wide commitment to social equity, government supported high quality university-based teacher education and local school flexibility to meet curricular objectives.

Any talk of curriculum innovation that ignores these basics is just more of the same partisan political theatre Albertans have already endured for far too long.

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