We live in a time of climate crisis, rising nationalism, and uncertainty about the future. Taking on and making sense of these challenges requires students who are taught how to think freely and critically, to build empathy and understand that they are part of this world and have the power to make it a better place. Teachers need the curricular tools to help students make sense of the most pressing issues our world faces while at the same time providing the opportunity for all students to see themselves in their learning.
Unfortunately, the recommendations released last week by the United Conservative Party’s Curriculum Advisory Panel provide no guidance on a curricular framework that can address these issues for students. Instead, much of the panel’s report and most of its 26 recommendations simply outline the party’s overwhelming predisposition toward a more high stakes and market-based vision of education and curriculum.
Much of the document is a regurgitation of curriculum reports and frameworks produced by Alberta Education over the last ten years. Many elements of the PC’s Inspiring Education initiative, as well as the Guiding Framework for Curriculum Development produced under the NDP, are referenced throughout the recommendations. What is concerning, however, are the new elements inserted into these recommendations that should be very alarming for Alberta teachers, students, and parents.
I am a teacher with over ten years of classroom experience who spent the 2016/2017 school year seconded to Alberta Education as a social studies curriculum manager. The main focus of this position was working with teachers from across the province to develop the new kindergarten to grade twelve social studies curriculum. We built off previous work and had many challenging and difficult discussions around the vision, purpose, and content of a social studies curriculum. The process was not always easy, and moving this work forward presented many challenges. The concern now, however, is that any remaining hope for a new curriculum that could benefit teachers and students is probably over.
U of A Education professor, Dr. Carla Peck, recently wrote a detailed analysis of the proposed recommendations and highlighted that these recommendations would not only curtail curricular progress in Alberta, they would also drastically shape and compound inequities within our already stressed education system. As a classroom teacher, there are three recommendations that I find most concerning because of how they would impact teaching and learning in Alberta. These are listed and explained below.
Recommendation 11. Create opportunities to bring the needs of Alberta’s employers into the curriculum development process
Former Progressive Conservative education minister Jeff Johnson had a desire to bring in corporate leaders to help direct curriculum. Although it may sound reasonable for employers to have a say in the skills and competencies they’ll be looking for in future hiring, they should in no way be at the table for developing curriculum. When we reduce education to simply meeting the needs and interests of capital we rob our children of a well-rounded and meaningful education. The arts, music, and humanities are often either pushed aside or reframed to be more favourable to the desires of employers. When the mandate of the curriculum serves the interests of employers it narrows the purpose and vision of education, and moves it away from preparing students for life in a democratic society. Curriculum should be written by teachers, researchers, and content experts in order to provide students with the richest, broadest, and deepest learning experience possible.
Recommendation 17. Ensure a rigorous assessment system that builds public confidence, enhances accountability and provides parents, Albertans, and the Minister with reliable information with respect to student achievement and system performance
This recommendation’s main goal is to lay the groundwork for increased use of standardized testing in Alberta. Specifically, the recommendation advises using more standardized testing in grades one to five. For many Alberta teachers, this is a current and historical point of contention. We currently rely on standardized testing more than any other province, despite the majority of peer-reviewed research clearly outlining the limitations and inequity of this practice. Students of lower socioeconomic status, students of colour, lgbtq2s+ students, and students learning English disproportionately perform lower on standardized testing than their more privileged peers. Standardized tests also have a significant impact on guiding pedagogy in the classroom (teaching to the test) and negatively impact the mental health and anxiety of students in the classroom. The desire to increase standardized testing in Alberta is a purely ideological decision being made by this government to advance a warped notion of teacher accountability. From a curricular point of view, having curriculum driven by standardized assessment will only result in a more prescribed and top-down framework that will stifle creativity and innovation in the classroom.
Recommendation 25. Ensure the social studies curriculum reflects a balance of perspectives with respect to the importance of Alberta’s resource-rich economic base in relation to the impact on the economy, families, services, and government
This is less a recommendation and more a classic dog whistle in that it is meant to imply that social studies teachers are purposefully undermining the oil sands industry by teaching critical perspectives about it. Under the current program of studies, developed by the former Progressive Conservative government, we social studies teachers are required to teach our discipline from multiple perspectives. This teaches students critical thinking and how to evaluate different perspectives using a research-informed process. We have fact-based conversations about our resource industry and seek to teach the truth about our current state of affairs. Suggesting that this and other topics within social studies need to be taught with "balance" neglects current practice and is dangerous. We are already seeing teachers across Alberta being targetted by the UCP and threatened with violence in their communities for teaching any type of critical perspective that does not align with the UCP’s narrative. This is a dangerous use of power to direct our system of education to silence dissent.
Building a sound curriculum and a better education system for all means remembering that education is not about memorizing content to regurgitate on a standardized test. It is about young people becoming the best versions of themselves that they can be and realizing their potential. It is about understanding our collective strength as a society and that we can make the world a more just and equitable place. Curriculum is not just about teaching content. It should also be about teaching values like justice, fairness, equity, and active citizenship. And it also needs to tell the stories of Indigenous peoples, of the queer community, of poor and working people, and of all those times where people have acted magnificently in the face of injustice in order to demand dignity, respect, and rights.
We should not be afraid to declare that education is about more than just filling the needs of the economy. Education and curriculum are political, and teaching is a political act. In my first few years of teaching a mentor teacher reminded me that when you sign up to be a teacher you sign up to be an advocate of your students. Today that means standing up for a research-informed and sound curriculum, and against the harmful policies and curriculum that the UCP is seeking to impose on the students and teachers of Alberta.