Analysis, Commentary

Dispelling myths about curriculum-making in Alberta. Again.

I’m getting tired of having to debunk all of the lies that get repeated about past curriculum-making processes in Alberta but since those lies are being recycled again, and again, and again, it’s time to do another post about it. The most oft-repeated lie is that the curriculum development process that the NDP initiated (after picking up the baton from the previous Progressive Conservative government) was done “in secret” and lacked transparency. If you want to read what I wrote about it in 2020, you can do that here. I also wrote an Op-Ed with Dr. Lindsay Gibson in 2017, which you can read here.

Before I get into what I’ve got to say on the matter, I want to point you to some other folks who have also been human lie detectors.

Nicola Ramsey (@ramseynicola), a teacher in AB who has been involved in curriculum development since the early 2000s, debunked these lies way back in 2017 (I know, it only feels like a lifetime ago). I encourage you to read her post, Albertans: You are being lied to, which you can find here.

In 2018, Janet French (@Jantafrench), a journalist with CBC (formerly with the Edmonton Journal), wrote a fantastic long-read that explains how curriculum was being made in Alberta at that time. She also provided examples from other provinces so that readers could better understand how Alberta’s process compared to the processes other provinces have followed. You can read her piece, Hitting the books: How Alberta Education is rewriting curriculum for the next generation of students, here.

Lastly, Sean Dunn (@SeanDunn10) wrote a detailed Twitter thread on April 9, 2021 with links to documents that should put to rest the lie that the curriculum writing process under the NDP was done in secret. It should put this lie to rest, but it won’t be because these myths are alive and kicking in Alberta. I am indebted to Sean for this work as it enables me to link to some of these documents in what follows.

Since the draft K-6 curriculum was made public on March 29, 2021, many Albertans have been shocked, concerned, and worried about the quality of the document. The reaction and outcry has occurred on multiple fronts:

School Board Reaction

  • 49 out of 61 school boards have said they will not pilot the curriculum, with some citing COVID19 pressures, others citing serious concerns with the content and structure of the curriculum, and some boards citing both reasons.
  • Another way to look at these numbers: 80% of school boards, representing more than 75% of Alberta’s students, have said no to piloting the draft curriculum. Many other boards have meetings scheduled over the next couple of weeks when, I suspect, decisions about piloting the draft curriculum will be made.
  • These numbers were updated as of April 30, 2021, with thanks to Cathy Buck-Ostapowicz (@costapow) who is tracking school board responses on this spreadsheet.

Public Outcry

  • Over 38,800 Albertans have joined a Facebook group called “Albertans Reject Curriculum Draft” that includes daily posts of teachers, parents, grandparents, academics and others analyzing the curriculum, finding errors, and writing to their MLAs, their school board trustees, the Minister of Education, and the Premier expressing their since concerns about the draft curriculum.
  • Support our Students has launched several initiatives to support Albertans’ efforts to communicate their concerns with the draft curriculum.

Academic and Stakeholder Analysis

All of this happened within about two weeks. TWO WEEKS. And frankly, it feels like momentum is building.2

During the same time period, the Minister of Education, the Premier, and other members of the UCP Caucus have responded with the same, tired, talking points. This is clearly captured in this MLA’s Member Statement in the Legislature on April 13, 2021:

Excerpt from Mr. Smith's Member Statement on April 13, 2021.

Excerpt from Mr. Smith’s Member’s Statement, Alberta Hansard, April 13, 2021, p. 4459:

Many members of the Albertans Reject Curriculum Draft Facebook group have been sharing the responses they’ve received from their MLAs and/or the Minister of Education. Variations of the talking points evident above are being used in these responses. Below, I provide evidence to address each one of these UCP talking points (highlighted in yellow). I once again want to thank @SeanDunn10 for gathering some these documents in his April 9, 2021 Twitter thread (linked above).

“As you are likely aware, in August 2019, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange convened a Curriculum Advisory Panel to provide advice and recommendations on the development of a new kindergarten to grade 6 curriculum that emphasizes the knowledge, skills, and competencies that students should have when they finish high school.” 

The people appointed to the Advisory Panel represented a range of professions. None were current or even recent K-12 teachers. As far as I can tell, only one person on the panel (Dr. Amy von Heyking) was an expert in K-12 curriculum theory and policy. Dr. von Heyking has since expressed concerns with the Social Studies draft curriculum as can be seen in this Op-Ed, to which she signed her name.

“More than 8,500 Albertans, including education partners, participated in a public consultation.”  

Between 2008 – 2015, the Progressive Conservatives engaged thousands of Albertans during the curriculum development process. It started in 2008 when Premier Ed Stelmach tasked Minister of Education Dave Hancock to engage the public with the goal of developing a vision for public education in Alberta through to 2030. This initiative was called Inspiring Education and it involved broad consultation across Alberta. Twenty documents stored on provide a detailed overview of the process, including timelines, who was involved, key stakeholders, and frequently asked questions, among other information.

In 2015, the NDP was elected and in 2016 they picked up where the Progressive Conservatives left off. This presentation outlines the general principles of the curriculum redesign project. The timeline below details the process and, crucially, the numerous engagement sessions that involved a wide array of stakeholders. (Click on the image and zoom in to read the details.)

One of the first steps was to form two Curriculum Working Groups: the Curriculum Writing Groups and the Teacher and Educator Focus Groups for each subject area. This was done in 2016 – more on this below.

Timeline of curriculum development in Alberta between 2008-2019.

As you can see in the timeline above, numerous engagement sessions with a wide range of stakeholders including the Alberta Teachers’ Association, school authorities, teachers, students, parents, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit and Francophone Albertans, and other educational stakeholders took place between 2016-2018. Various organizations led these sessions, including members of the Alberta Professional Development Consortia. For example, on the Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium website, there is a list of public engagement sessions about the draft curricula that were being developed at that time. Thousands of people participated in the various engagement sessions that took place across Alberta.

Other forms of engagement included public surveys about the draft documents. In 2016, the NDP published the raw data from the Fall 2016 survey, which gathered feedback from more than 32,000 Albertans. Anyone with internet access could access the spreadsheet and see who responded (teacher, student, parent, etc.) as well as the responses to each of the survey questions. (I have attached the document below rather than link to a website, in the event that the URL becomes defunct in the future.)

Other survey results were collated by Alberta Education and/or independent firms and published online. Some examples include:

  • Summary of 32,000 responses to Parts A and B of the Fall 2016 survey.
  • Spring 2017 results (summary of 9,692 responses) of a survey conducted by a third party (Environics). 

“Alberta Education also engaged a K-6 curriculum Teacher Working Group to gather targeted and specific feedback on the draft K-6 curriculum from 102 elementary teachers, who provided specific feedback.” 

These 102 teachers were brought together in subject groups for two or three days in December 2020 to review the almost-finished product. They were not involved in writing the curriculum. I know this because I provided feedback on the Social Studies Curriculum at the same time, as part of a group of academics who examined the curricula and provided feedback. I was required to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and therefore cannot discuss the December 2020 drafts.1

I am free to discuss the drafts that were released on March 29, 2021.

In comparison, the process undertaken by David Eggen involved ~600 teachers to write the K-4 curriculum over a two year process: 

Curriculum Writing Groups: ~300 people in six subject areas (50-60 per area: Math, ELA, Science, Social Studies, Fine Arts, Wellness) to write the curriculum.

Teacher and Educator Focus Groups: ~300 people in six subject areas (50-60 per area: Math, ELA, Science, Social Studies, Fine Arts, Wellness) to review the work of the writing group and provide feedback, which the writing groups used to improve the drafts. The same process was going to be used for grades 5-9 and 10-12 (over time, not all at once). 

The composition of the groups was as follows:

“The Association of Alberta Deans of Education was also consulted.”

The Association of Alberta Deans of Education released a statement on April 6, 2021, clearly stating that “consultation does not mean we endorse the curriculum in its current form.”

So that’s that. There’s probably more information “out there” about how previous curriculum development processes in Alberta have been open and transparent, but if all of what’s above isn’t convincing, then nothing will be.

And if you share this information with someone and they continue to act like a sea lion, just walk away.

Photo by Ann H on
  1. An NDA isn’t all that unusual in this process – I had to sign one when I was a member of the Teacher and Educator Focus Group for Social Studies during the NDP curriculum development process although even with an NDA, we were encouraged to discuss the drafts with our peers in order to solicit feedback.
  2. This post was updated on April 30, 2021. Two weeks following the release of the draft curriculum 25 schools boards (41%) had said they would not pilot it and 37,500 had joined the Albertans Reject Curriculum draft Facebook group.