In Alberta, our UCP ideologically driven government has appointed a panel of people who have not been inside a classroom in this millennium to review the proposed school curriculum over the next twelve to sixteen weeks. Not one current classroom teacher, student, specialist in students with disabilities, unemployed graduate of media studies, LGTBQ2+ advocate, entrepreneur, expert in literacy, champion of non-profits or person with experience of online learning is on the panel. Naturally, many teachers and school-based administrators are upset.
We should not expect any better from the UCP. This is their modus operandi – create a panel or task force to provide cover for what they are going to do anyway. Their theory of change is that anything started by the UCP is a mistake that needs to be revised and corrected and that they need “cover to do it”.
But this misunderstands this curriculum change journey. In 2009 the former conservative government engaged a very significant number of Albertan’s in a conversation about schools and curriculum – the largest ever public consultation about education in the province’s history. This led to the publication of Inspiring Education, championed by then Minister of Education Dave Hancock (later Premier) and widely welcomed by teachers, educators and industry. One outcome of this work was the recognition that the province needed a major investment in curriculum redesign.
Former conservative Minister of Education, Jeff Johnson, signed a Ministerial order on 6th May 2013 which essentially set the curriculum change journey in motion. The next step in 2014 was a series of competitive bids by school jurisdictions to prototype the curriculum indicated explicitly in this Ministerial order. Significant funds were allocated to teams across Alberta to prototype the curriculum and to engage with industry and community partners in doing so. Amongst those asked to be involved in this work were Syncrude, Suncor, Cenovus, Microsoft, Apple, PCL, Safeway and Stantec (some later withdrew after a public uproar over their involvement).
Materials were developed, tested and shared. It is important to note that it was not just teachers engaged in this work – it involved significant consultation. The 203-15 process was estimated to have cost $30 million.
Prototyping took time, but substantial resources were collaboratively developed. And shared Meantime, a change of government occurred but the curriculum work continued. In 2017 the Guiding Framework for Curriculum Redesign K-12 was published and made widely available (drafts of this were circulated to stakeholders throughout 2016). This followed significant new consultation with the public – part of the 2016 announcement of the $64 million, six-year curriculum change journey. An additional $4 million was provided for consultation and engagement with indigenous people focused on ensuring that indigenous ways of knowing and truth and reconciliation were represented across the curriculum in appropriate ways.
In 2016 a major survey focused on specifics of curriculum redesign was launched by the Ministry of Education. 32,391 people answered this – 47% parents, 10% general public, 31% teachers, 9% K-12 students and 3% post-secondary students. The results are available for all to see.
The new NDP government announced in 2016 a six-year time-table for curriculum development and engaged in an active partnership with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the professional body for teachers, and seconded a great many teachers to work on the new curriculum building on past work (including the prototyping). This is how curriculum is normally developed around the world: professionals design, test and deploy.
As a result of PISA 2015, some parents expressed concern about mathematics education and began a campaign, supported by some in the media, to “return to basics” in mathematics. The argument is basically this: (a) students are not doing as well on tests of mathematics such as the provincial achievement tests (PATs) or PISA – app. one third of students failed Grade 9 PAT’s in 2018; (b) many students cannot complete simple mathematical problems. This is the “crisis”. To blame, according to the critics, is the mathematics curriculum which gives emphasis to mathematical ways of thinking and problem solving rather than memorizing times-tables and learning math routines. It is worth noting that, on PISA 2015, Alberta scored 511 in mathematics – the OECD average was 490 and the Canadian average 516.
In both Ontario and Alberta, conservative politicians have vowed to “fix math” by returning to “common sense” and basic math education. Yet many countries who practice this kind of mathematics learning do worse than Alberta on PISA. Part of the concern of the new UCP government in Alberta is to live-up to its election promises with respect to this particular issue.
The pause in implementing the curriculum change – the K-4 new curriculum was to be field tested in the 2019-2020 school year (which starts in September) – is not necessarily a bad thing. Teachers need professional development and support to launch a new program of study and the time between now and the 2020-2021 new school year could be wisely used to support this work if it becomes clear just what the curriculum might be. But after announcing the pause and the flawed review panel, Minister of Education Adriana LeGrange cannot be certain either what the curriculum will be or when it will be available. Given that there is no budget for the education system until October, school boards also have no idea what resources will be available for professional development and needed materials to support the “new” “new” curriculum.
One beam of light came out of Ontario, which did something similar. Premier Ford huffed and puffed about the Health and Physical Education curriculum for elementary students. Ford paused the curriculum change because of its “ideological” bias from the former Liberal government, especially as it related to sex ed. The curriculum then in use was written in 1998 before changes in our understanding and acceptance of gender identity, LGBTQ2+ and sexual orientation. Ford’s team spent over $1 million on consultation and released the new, revised curriculum this week which is largely unchanged from that developed by the Liberal government. While Ford claims that the ability of parents to remove their children from sex ed classes is new, in fact this has been the practice in a great many school boards in Ontario for some time.
Maybe patience is the lesson here. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.