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Two more out-of-province advisers hired for ongoing and contentious Alberta curriculum review

The Alberta government has hired two more advisers from outside the province to review drafts of a new provincial elementary school curriculum.

Advisers who made controversial recommendations last fall were among the highest paid

Alberta Teachers' Association President Jason Schilling, left, says the province's curriculum revamping process is shrouded in secrecy. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, right, wants the new material in all elementary classrooms by September 2022. (Jordan Mesiatowsky and Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The Alberta government has hired two more advisers from outside the province to review drafts of a new provincial elementary school curriculum, bringing the total number of advisers to 19 at a cost of more than $100,000.

For two months beginning in January, Halifax education consultant and author Paul Bennett has been combing over the proposed social studies curriculum. University of Ottawa educational psychologist Alain Desrochers has already given feedback on French language arts.

"Advisers are experts in their field and their experience is required to target specific aspects of the draft curriculum," said Justin Marshall, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, in an email.

The United Conservative Party government has now asked 19 advisers to review drafts of the curriculum crafted under the former NDP government.

Newly released expenses show that two of the most controversial advisers who provided advice last fall were also among the highest-paid.

William French, a lawyer from Calgary, was paid $25,200 for 63 days providing feedback on fine arts and literature, according to information provided by the minister of education's office. He took home the most pay to date.

Music and visual arts education experts who reviewed his leaked advice said the recommendations were Eurocentric, outdated and, in some cases, racist.

Chris Champion, a history magazine editor and former federal staffer to now-premier Jason Kenney, was paid $15,400 for 38.5 days of work, according to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's office.

Champion has authored and published articles critics say minimized the impact of residential schools on Indigenous people and ridiculed First Nations cultural activities.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling is one of several people with concerns about Champion's influence on curriculum.

"To see how many days he's been involved in the process was quite alarming," Schilling said on Monday.

LaGrange has said the advisers' recommendations are not binding and may not be included in the final documents.

Disparity in billing among advisers

Seven of the 17 initial consultants billed for less than seven days of work, and were paid between $1,000 and $2,400. Three advisers have not claimed any compensation.

Pay to literacy adviser and University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou has not been disclosed. He has now signed a secondment contract to work with the government on literacy until April 2022.

Indigenous advisers, who were brought in later after the government faced criticism about hiring Champion, each worked between four days and 12½ days.

In total, the consultants who worked last fall billed for close to $100,000; this does not include work done by Bennett and Deroschers. Marshall said the pay is part of the $64 million allocated over several years for curriculum development.

Although the curriculum is supposed to be written simultaneously in English and French, the sole francophone adviser claimed four days of work.

That concerns Gillian Anderson, president of the Francophone Parents' Federation of Alberta.

The St. Albert parent says Franco-Albertans are worried the government is overlooking qualified, local experts when seeking advice.

When drafts of the K-4 social studies curriculum leaked last fall, many francophones felt the advisers had undervalued francophone contributions to Alberta's history, she said.

And although a government website says stakeholder groups like hers will have a chance to provide feedback on the curriculum this winter and spring, Anderson said her group will be provided with the documents at the same time they're available publicly.

"It's really hard to advise on something when we're not given the opportunity to help before it's too late," she said.

Teacher groups, education professors review drafts

In December, about 100 elementary school teachers met for two days to review curriculum drafts in subject areas of their specialty. The curriculum working groups were required to sign privacy agreements that prevented them from talking about what they saw.

Alberta NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said teachers involved with the groups told her the process was chaotic and rushed and that they felt intimidated by the non-disclosure agreements.

"The government seems more focused with their own preoccupations than with making sure we get the curriculum right for kids," Hoffman said.

Marshall said teachers' feedback was considered in further revisions of the drafts. He said a summary of their comments was unavailable.

Thirty Alberta education professors, including 11 from small, faith-based universities and 10 from the University of Alberta, also reviewed the drafts and provided feedback in December.

The government contracted the two new advisers, Bennett and Desrochers, in the new year to incorporate feedback from the working groups and ensure it aligns with new provincial guidance, Marshall said.

Schilling said the surprise addition of more advisers adds to his concern about the process. The ATA in October announced it had lost faith in the government's curriculum redesign.

Although the government publishes participant lists online, Schilling says Alberta teachers have mostly been excluded and they don't know what criteria the government uses in choosing its experts.

"I'm wondering if it's to give valid curriculum input, or if (the government is) seeking individuals within the nation who will support and validate the ideology behind what the UCP is driving with this curriculum," he said.

Neither Desrochers or Bennett responded to emails from CBC News.

Marshall said the government hasn't decided when K-6 curriculum drafts will be publicly released. 

Some teachers are expected to begin pilot testing the new curriculum in elementary classrooms in September and all elementary schools are expected to use the new curriculum as of September 2022.

Work is also supposed to begin this year on the Grades 7-10 curriculum, for planned implementation in fall 2023 followed by implementation of a new Grade 11 and 12 curriculum one year later.

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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