Former Alberta Education staffer warned that curriculum approach could tank international rankings

A retired curriculum expert who spent years working on Alberta's curriculum rewrite says she warned the government that its change in approach could spell disaster for Alberta's international test scores.

'The paradigm is built on the idea of winners and losers, and that you're weeding kids out as you go along'

A female teacher stands at the front of a classroom as several students seated at their desks raise their hand.
A former high-level Alberta Education staffer says she raised concerns last year about the direction she felt the UCP government was taking in the province's curriculum rewrite process. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

A retired curriculum expert who spent years working on Alberta's curriculum rewrite says she warned the government that its change in approach could spell disaster for Alberta's international test scores.

As she left the government's curriculum department last year, Joanne Neal handed over an unsolicited 40-page critique of the government's new approach. Her report said the approach would achieve the opposite of its goal to improve Alberta students' international performance.

"I knew the winds of change were coming, and I spoke my mind quite, I think, professionally and ethically and academically," said the former Alberta Education staffer. "I put my concerns not only verbally, but in writing."

When Rachel Notley's NDP government was in power in Alberta from 2015 to 2019, it started a major overhaul of public school curriculum, saying the existing curriculum was between eight and 30 years old. The revamp, building on a process started under previous conservative governments, was to encompass all grades and all subject areas, and take six years.

Alberta Education was field testing the first stage, a new kindergarten to Grade 4 curriculum, when the NDP were ousted in the 2019 election by the United Conservative Party, which promptly put the K-4 field testing on pause and made its own sweeping rewrites, while claiming the NDP changes were based in ideology. Critics, however, have lined up to pan the UCP changes, including accusations of plagiarism, inaccuracies, and flaws in how it presents race, colonialism, and Indigenous people.

'Winners and losers'

Months before the province released its August 2020 ministerial order on student learning, Neal submitted her voluntary analysis to the minister's office, motivated by concern it could segregate students.

"The paradigm is built on the idea of winners and losers, and that you're weeding kids out as you go along," she said.

CBC News obtained the document last spring but only recently tracked down Neal, who confirmed she was the author. She said she's unsure if it was ever read by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

The former teacher and curriculum studies professor explained that if Alberta adopted this approach, which she dubs "perennialism," it would be a huge deviation from how other provinces and successful Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries approach curriculum.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was not available for an interview on this issue. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

"What does this education actually prepare students for? And are they going to be able to effectively compete to go into universities outside of Alberta?" she said.

"The Alberta universities do not seem to be changing their curriculum or their degree programming to match with this."

Neal said the perennialist approach believes primarily that things worth knowing are from the past.

"You need to study the classics, so Aristotle and Aquinas and so on," she said. "The textbooks that you're going to use are what's deemed to be the classics."

'Subjective document'

LaGrange was not available for an interview, but a statement was provided by her press secretary, Nicole Sparrow.

She said Neal's document provided one simplistic notion and is not the sole method for approaches to curriculum.

"This subjective document outlines a staff member's view on the approach taken by the previous NDP government during their secretive review of the draft K-4 curriculum," Sparrow said. 

Neal's analysis in part defended the "concept-based approach" taken by the curriculum department under the NDP, and warned against a more back-to-basics approach she felt the UCP was taking.

Sparrow said the UCP was elected on a clear mandate to pause the NDP's curriculum review.

"And to broaden consultation to include a wider range of perspectives," she said.

"Alberta parents told us loud and clear that they wanted a stronger K-6 curriculum that focuses on basic literacy and numeracy, and that's exactly what we intend to deliver after the year-long public consultation."

PISA rankings

In one section of her analysis, Neal explained she felt the concept-based approach would allow Alberta students to do well when it comes to international testing standards, like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — a study conducted by the OECD.

"Both the Alberta concept-based approach to curriculum and PISA 2018 are requiring students to know and to understand what they are learning, in addition to demonstrating that understanding through doing," she wrote.

In 2019, PISA results ranked Alberta students among the best in the world in reading, math and science — taking third globally at reading and science, and eighth in math.

That year, students in Alberta achieved a higher score than the Canadian average, and were bested only by Quebec in mathematics.

'Driven by politics, not education'

Brent Davis is research chair and professor at the University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education. He read Neal's report and said that when it comes to her assessment of the possible impacts on international scores, he agreed.

"The [U of C's] mathematics team response to the current curriculum — and we back it up with lots and lots of research — is that we know how to to pitch to the highest levels of the PISA scoring rubric, and the current very tradition-oriented curriculum revision is pitching to the bottom."

Davis said that based on the draft K-6 curriculum currently being piloted, the government didn't take Neal's concerns to heart. 

"It's clear that the decisions that they made subsequent to receiving this sort of information were driven by politics and not education," he said. 


Lucie Edwardson


Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at