When Alberta’s NDP government was still in power, the United Conservative Party campaigned on the idea that its political rival was trying to smuggle politics into Alberta classrooms. Once in office, UCP Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said her own government’s plans for a sweeping curriculum revamp would be about getting away from any “ideological bent.”
But when everyone got the first official look at the UCP’s draft kindergarten-to-Grade 6 curriculum this week, it became clear that the governing party’s political stamp is on its own strategy. In social studies, in particular, it’s a prescriptive, details-heavy document with a take on history that’s not an easy sell to many parents, or the people who teach the stuff.
The document asks Grade 3 students – kids aged 8 or 9 – to explain items many grownups struggle with, including the clauses of Magna Carta, the First Nations’ claim to land beyond the settled area of New France and “why Alberta is a leading resource-producing region.”
There was never a chance that a large-scale blueprint that outlines the lessons that will mould young minds would be anything but political. Education is a fraught issue everywhere, but it’s especially so in the polarized landscape that is Alberta politics. Here, there’s no consensus on where the oil and gas-focused economy needs to go, and where it feels like the NDP and UCP are locked in a perpetual, election-like battle.
The government says the draft K-6 curriculum brings a renewed focus to literacy, numeracy, citizenship and practical skills. Everyone seems to agree that the addition of financial skills, computer coding and sexual consent are good things.
The government is asking for feedback from the public but intends to test the curriculum in some classrooms this fall, and all students are expected to be learning it in the 2022-23 school year. The quick turnaround for reimagining the curriculum is in step with the government’s focus on fulfilling campaign commitments, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Alberta has long had a strong, well-regarded public-education system with high student test scores in reading, math and science, compared with global peers. Ms. LaGrange, however, also notes that some parts of the curriculum are decades old, and raw scores are either flat or seeing a decline.
“This is actually very ambitious – to change all of the curriculum at one time,” said Ms. LaGrange in an interview this week with The Globe and Mail.
But already, the Métis Nation of Alberta has called for a redo. Edmonton Public Schools – which counts more than 100,000 students of all grades on its rolls – said Thursday that it will not participate in a pilot run of the draft elementary curriculum this fall. The decision is based on worries about bringing in a new program during the pandemic. But there’s also high public concern as to whether the curriculum is age-appropriate, whether it properly addresses the issues of residential schools and reconciliation, and whether an “us-versus-them mentality” is embedded in the document.
Elk Island Public Schools is also out, and Edmonton Catholic Schools has said it “will not be committing to piloting the curriculum.”
All subjects are under intense scrutiny but social studies appears to be the major sticking point. Some parents and critics say the curriculum is far too dense for young students, mishandles issues of race and leaves out LGBTQ issues, is too American- and European-centric, or is focused on the three major Abrahamic religions.
There are seemingly gratuitous partisan jabs, like in Grade 6, where the curriculum notes that “the United States Congress, controlled by the Democratic party, ruled in the Fugitive Slave Act that escaped slaves must be returned to their owners.”
NDP critic Sarah Hoffman’s blunt assessment is “this is a mess of a curriculum.”
But the UCP is responding, in part, to broader concerns about the education system – which Ms. LaGrange notes helped her party win the 2019 election. A key part of this is what she has described as the political biases of some individual teachers.
Last year, Ms. LaGrange referred to an excerpt from an exam that she said was from a Grade 10 class in Calgary. She argued that it was an attack on the province’s responsible energy sector. A multiple-choice question asked students to identify “one of the valid arguments against oil sands development” being the destruction of tracts of forest.
“My main concern has always been to ensure that our curriculum is taught without bias,” the Education Minister said the interview. “And the fact that the new draft curriculum is really based on factual content – that will really leave little room for bias in our classrooms.”
But the other side of this argument is that the ability of teachers to adapt to circumstances is diminished. “The new curriculum turns education into a checklist and rote memorization,” said Alberta Party Leader Jacquie Fenske.
And a second, related theme for the UCP is that current teaching now is so focused on the many errors of history, and injustices, that it fails to note the accomplishments of modern civilization, in Alberta and elsewhere. Premier Jason Kenney says it’s possible to face up to historical racism, for instance, “while also teaching how we have increasingly managed to overcome those things, and how we’ve created this incredibly diverse, pluralistic society.”
This part of the revamp is very on-brand for the UCP. Part of it, however, feels incongruous in a week when Mr. Kenney talked about “hitting our stride in diversification.”
An overly political remaking of Alberta’s now-strong school system is galvanizing parent groups who are against the changes. A big fight over the base curriculum for the youngest kids is not only bad for the province, it could make potential newcomers – and even the companies and investors Mr. Kenney’s government has spent two years trying to entice – less enthusiastic about coming to the province.
Politics will be part of any new curriculum. But Mr. Kenney’s UCP is, as often, in danger of letting politics take over.
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