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'We're concerned': Alberta curriculum building process and recommendations raise red flags for advocates

Recommendations to guide Alberta's next curriculum are being criticized by education advocates, educators and the official opposition.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said 'it's time for us to get back to the basics'

The report, which contained 26 recommendations issued by a provincially-appointed panel, was released Wednesday. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Recommendations to guide Alberta's next curriculum are being criticized by education advocates, educators and the official opposition.

The report — which contains 26 recommendations for the direction of the curriculum and a draft ministerial order for the "vision" of education in Alberta — was released Wednesday morning by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

"I want parents to know that their government has heard them and we agree it's time for us to get back to the basics and ensure we are equipping our children with the skills they need to achieve their full potential," said LaGrange on Wednesday.

The minister said she knows that curriculum can either set students up for success or failure.

"So it is imperative that we get it right," she said. 

"That's why we promise to pause the NDP secretive closed doors curriculum review and broaden consultations for more open and transparent input from Albertans across this province. We established the independent curriculum advisory panel last summer to get some advice on the best way forward."

'In every aspect, we found room for improvement'

The report and recommendations were put together by a curriculum advisory panel of 12 individuals appointed by LaGrange, who she says come from "diverse" backgrounds.

LaGrange said the panel met with 19 education system partners from across the province, including the Alberta Teacher's Association (ATA). 

But ATA spokesperson Jonathan Teghtmeyer says the consultation wasn't meaningful or substantive.

"We didn't even have a full comprehensive meeting with all of the panelists. And it was a very short discussion," he said.

"So I'm worried that this report and this panel is indicative of government not necessarily going out and doing meaningful consultation with the people that matter on the files that matter."

Teghtmeyer said the ATA has been criticizing the panel since the beginning because it's absent of any teachers currently working as teachers in Alberta classrooms.

"Having current teachers working with current students and those realities I think would have been a very important voice to have included in this report, and it just wasn't there," he said.

But LaGrange said if one was "once a teacher, [they're] always a teacher."

Education minister Adriana LaGrange said that curriculum can either set students up for success or set them up for failure, so it's important it's done right. (Mike Symington/CBC)

"A number of people on the panel [come] from a teaching background," she said. "They were teachers, they were principals, they were system leaders, they were superintendents."

Carla Peck, a professor at the University of Alberta's department of elementary education, said pausing the previous curriculum work and striking a new panel started off in a "disingenuous way" by claiming there wasn't enough consultation done previously.

"[The consultations included] tens of tens of thousands of responses to online surveys that were done by the previous government and then hundreds of in-person engagement sessions that were done by school boards and professional learning consortia," she said, adding that she had participated in the consultations.

Speaking during LaGrange's Wednesday announcement, panel representative Glenn Feltham said the "bones" of the work done under the NDP on the curriculum "really did make sense."

But though Feltham said the work was good, more was needed to get to this point.

"In every aspect, we found room for improvement," he said.

Greg Feltham is one of 12 panelists. (Mike Symington/CBC)

But Peck said this process was much different and more exclusive compared to previous work that was done. 

"Before, people working in faculties of education, but also other academics — like history professors or maybe mathematics professors, or whatever subject area — experts were not only invited but were involved," she said.

Peck said the previous government had two main groups working on curriculum development. There was a curriculum writing group that for each subject area involved between 50 and 60 people, most of whom were teachers.

The professor said she was a part of the second group, which was a teacher and educator focus group, also made up of 50 to 60 people per subject area.

"And our role was to provide feedback to the people who were writing the curriculum and provide advice on strengths and weaknesses, areas to improve, areas to keep and that sort of thing," she said. "We were involved but we did not dominate the process at all. I think I was one of two on a committee of 60.

"The rest were educators from the K-to-12 system. There were a couple of ATA reps and that sort of thing. But teachers were absolutely the majority on those committees."

'I think parents are going to be concerned'

Teghtmeyer said the ATA will do a deep dive into the recommendations — but when they were released publicly, that was the first time the organization had seen them.

He said he saw red flags right away, one of which was around the recommendation for "standardized formative assessment tools to evaluate literacy and numeracy in Grades 1 to 5."

"We're concerned about the government and standardized testing interfering with the rightful role of teachers as part of their professional responsibilities to assess students," he said.

"We're concerned about the idea in here that students as young as six, seven and eight years old would be subject to standardized testing — and I think parents are going to be concerned about that too."

ATA spokesperson Jonathan Teghtmeyer said the organization didn't feel their voice, or the voice of current Alberta teachers, was present in the recommendations. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Feltham said the vision for these "standardized formative assessment tools" is related back to the concept that numeracy and literacy are core to a student's learning.

"[It's] an understanding that if a student is left behind early on, it becomes virtually impossible for them to regain that," he said.

"We just wanted to make sure that there was a clear understanding of where each student stood in each of those grades so that they could receive the additional assistance that they need."

'Strong emphasis on jobs and creating workers'

Peck said she's worried about the focus in the recommendations on work readiness.

"I felt that there was quite a strong emphasis on jobs and creating workers," she said. "And to me that is such a narrowing of thinking about the purpose of education."

The report indicates that students who will enter the system in 2020 will graduate in 2033 — more than a dozen years from now, when the world has the potential to be very different. It states that "all learners need to be prepared for what may be an uncertain future."

"So, in other words, we can't predict what the jobs are going to be. We can't predict what the skills are necessarily going to be. We don't really know," Peck said.

"And then later in the document it says, 'But we need to prepare for the skills now for the workforce now.' So, to me, that's a contradiction."

University of Alberta professor, Carla Peck, said she was happy to see an emphasis on FNMI perspectives, but said those of LGBTQ and other groups seem to be missing. (Mirna Djukic/CBC)

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said she's not surprised that the government is talking about jobs.

"They talked about them a lot during the election. They said that they were going to bring tens of thousands of new jobs to Alberta, and instead we're down 50,000 full-time jobs," she said.

Peck said there are areas of the report that she supports.

She calls the recommendation to develop a comprehensive plan to implement Alberta's program of studies "crucial." 

"If a new curriculum is going to be implemented, then sustained professional learning with teachers [is necessary], not just one year but several years, to help teachers become familiar with a new curriculum. So I'm glad to see that," she said.

"They've also included the importance of up-to-date resources to support the curriculum. That's also very important."

Peck said she was also pleased to see an emphasis on ensuring First Nations input and perspectives were included.

"What was conspicuously missing is the attention to other perspectives, such as LGBTQ," she said. 

When asked about that, LaGrange said the system is "inclusive."

"We are going to ensure that every student, every child in in our education K-to-12 system has the opportunity to learn to their full potential, and everyone is valued," she said.

The government has opened a survey asking Albertans for feedback on the report. It's open until the end of the month. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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