Overhauling Everything Schools Teach Kids

Is this the way to determine what the next generation needs to know?

By Jay Smith

On one of Edmonton’s warmest days in early April, NDP education critic Deron Bilous knocked on the office door of Education Minister Jeff Johnson. Bilous held a thick stack of papers—a petition with more than 26,000 signatures asking for oil and gas companies to be removed from Alberta Education curriculum development. Cameras from the major news outlets in the province shone bright lights on his blue suit.

In March the Edmonton Journal had broken the news that an advisory panel for the new kindergarten-to-Grade 3 curriculum included oil and gas giants Syncrude, Suncor and Cenovus. The Journal story also identified Apple, Microsoft Canada, PCL Construction and Stantec as potential contributors to the larger process that would see the entire curriculum for all public-school grades overhauled this summer, trialled this fall and implemented across the system starting in September 2015.

Public uproar was immediate: What does an oil and gas company have to say about what kindergarten students learn? Bilous, a former teacher who worked in Edmonton’s downtown with disadvantaged youth prior to taking office, was one of the first to challenge Johnson and speak out against the advisory panel in the legislature. Bilous compared the scenario to Scholastic’s aborted 2011 effort to take money from coal lobbyists and publish pro-coal education material in the US. He started the petition.

Amidst the outcry, which saw Suncor and Syncrude decline participation, the panel’s prospective influence remained unclear: No such panel had existed before. During previous reviews, curriculum development was created within the ministry by expert panels of content specialists and senior teachers of the relevant subjects. Johnson had decided to contract out the development instead, inviting school boards throughout the province to bid. The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) received the kindergarten-to-Grade-3 contract; Calgary received the others.

A spokesperson for Johnson, Dan Powers, emphasized that the choice to include the contentious corporations was EPSB’s. He neglected to mention the ministry’s directives. “We believe in broad consultation,” he said. “We want as many voices as possible heard.” However, he denied that oil companies would write the curriculum, claiming their presence would merely provide insights into what skills industry requires in its workers.

Call it strange to propose that Cenovus provide insight into what skills 5-year-olds will require in 15 years, but the language of consultation and stakeholder engagement increasingly predominates through all government literature. Alberta Education’s request for proposals required that applicants “[provide] a comprehensive and thorough description of thoughtful collaboration and communication among the consortium (if applicable) and educational stakeholders (e.g., business and industry, community organizations).”

Add to this the fact that fostering an “entrepreneurial spirit” is now viewed as one of the three goals of our public education system, and it should be no surprise that EPSB put together the advisory panel it did—the government all but mandated that corporate stakeholders be involved. Throughout the entire curriculum development process so far, the emphasis on collaboration with business has been undeniable. Even if the influence of actual corporations remains uncertain, the language and ideology of profit and resource exploitation are showing up in developing guidelines for what is taught in Alberta’s public schools from kindergarten up.

Fostering an “entrepreneurial spirit” is now viewed as one of the three goals of our public education system. The government has now all but mandated that corporate stakeholders be involved.

The “Inspiring Education” review of Alberta’s education system began in 2009. Two major shifts took effect, one procedural, the other philosophical. The rolling curriculum reviews of the past saw one subject redeveloped at a time, with grade levels and subjects conceived independently of each other. Now, all subjects for all grades are being redeveloped simultaneously.

Said Powers, “It was very clear that [it] doesn’t work to take 10 years to redesign a new subject. By the time a new curriculum is developed, it’s already obsolete.” He added that developing one subject at a time had a “very siloed” result. “We’d develop knowledge in, say, math, but not be able to apply it to a similar subject matter—say, science.”

The website for Inspiring Education summarizes the philosophical shift: “We’re shifting our focus and putting students first. We want to expand on traditional methods of teaching, not replace them. We’re investing in our students and giving educators licence to be more creative. To inspire innovation and excellence.”

Inspiring Education also aimed to distinguish itself by consulting just about anyone with a stake in education, which is pretty much everyone in the province. Throughout 2009, teachers, parents, academics, community groups and Aboriginal communities had their say. The steering committee for Inspiring Education was led by Sharon Friesen, vice-dean of education at the University of Calgary.

In 2010 and 2011 the committee engaged in discussions that Friesen described as “the largest dialogue ever held with citizens of the province, who strongly recommended that a change was needed in education.” She said, “We were at the top of the world in terms of our standings in very conventional measures. But it had been noted that in Alberta, and also Canada, there was an innovation gap. And a lot of students are marginalized and drop out.” The Inspiring Education document, the product of this consultation, informed School Act amendments in the spring of 2013.

The new mandated purpose of public education in Alberta is to produce “engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit.” Friesen explained: “The shift is that the purpose of schools is to [support] the three Es. It’s gone from creating systems to creating learners, from creating schools to creating a citizenry.” Those three Es: Engaged thinkers, Ethical citizens and Entrepreneurial spirits. Engaged thinkers, according to the Inspiring Education document, contemplate critically, use technology effectively, can see problems from different perspectives. Ethical citizens “build relationships based on humility, fairness and open-mindedness” and collaborate to contribute to their communities. And then, controversially, entrepreneurial spirits are said to “create opportunities and achieve goals through hard work”; they “explore ideas and challenge the status quo.”

An entrepreneur, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, “starts or organizes a commercial enterprise, esp. one involving financial risk.” Perhaps entrepreneurialism is not a bad value to learn—but should it be one of the three pillars of an educational system? “Everyone’s running around about kids allegedly not knowing their times tables, but we’re basing the whole education system on these 3Es,” said J. C. Couture of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “It’s clearly corporate business language imported into the education system.”

“People concerned… confuse entrepreneurialism with the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Friesen in defence. “The entrepreneurial spirit is a can-do attitude. I can do this, I can figure it out. It’s the Albertan pioneering attitude. Do 5-year-olds have it? You bet they do. Our challenge is to keep it alive.”

“Julie” (not her real name; she spoke on condition of anonymity), a teacher involved in the EPSB prototyping, pshaws: “These are exactly the talking points that teachers are supposed to be regurgitating,” she said. Her concerns about the so-called entrepreneurial spirit are shared by many teachers, she added.

Likely no one opposes encouraging our children to engage critically and ethically. What could be better? Who doesn’t want children looking at problems from multiple perspectives, using technology adeptly and internalizing honest respect for and curiosity about diverse beliefs?

A high school teacher from Edmonton, “Sheila” (she too spoke on condition of anonymity) attended many of the public consultations for Inspiring Education. She witnessed widespread opposition to the notion of entrepreneurial spirit. “Members of Aboriginal communities were very explicit in their concern about the combination of ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘spirit’,” she said. “That’s just not a respectful way of talking about spirit as it is understood within the Aboriginal community.”

“Even people within the ministry didn’t like it,” Sheila added. “The 3Es, which constitute the umbrella for the entire shift in education: People from across the province objected. But in particular, members of the Aboriginal community felt it was almost a contradiction in terms.”

Teacher Dan Scratch is blunt about his concerns with the third E: “To talk more broadly about it—it’s capitalism influencing education. Capitalism as [a paradigm in which] everything is profit-based and profit-driven.”

Larry Booi, former board chair at Public Interest Alberta (PIA) and former president of the ATA, agrees. “The Alberta government is so much dominated by corporatist thinking,” he said. “That’s what makes me nervous.” He noted that Alberta is one of the last jurisdictions where individuals can donate as much as $30,000 to political parties. Two-thirds of Alison Redford’s campaign funding came from corporate sources, he said. “My worry is that not just education but all of our institutions are way too dominated by corporatist thinking.”

Indeed, throughout the documents that precede and inform the curriculum prototyping guide—Inspiring Education and the subsequent Framework for Student Learning—the subtle sway of corporatist thinking is apparent. According to Inspiring Education, alongside the capacities to “know how to learn” and to “think critically,” the educated Albertan of 2030 should possess “competencies” which include to “innovate—create and generate new ideas or concepts” and to “demonstrate global and cultural understanding.”

In the Framework for Student Learning, these competencies are articulated in the section “Social, Cultural, Global and Environmental Responsibility,” which describes the future Albertan’s ability to “appreciate social, cultural, economic and environmental interconnectedness and diversity, demonstrate stewardship, and respect the rights and beliefs of others within local and global communities.” This document, which was sent out to schools, was retracted after Johnson became minister in 2012.

A proposed advisory panel for the kindergarten-to-Grade 3 curriculum included oil and gas giants Syncrude, Suncor and Cenovus. Apple, Microsoft, PCL Construction and Stantec were proposed for the larger process.

In its replacement, the de facto prototyping guide, the influence of Johnson’s corporatist thinking is made explicit. The original two documents situate economic concerns within broader social, cultural and environmental understanding, but the Johnson prototyping guide puts economic concerns front and centre.

Under the section “Demonstrate Global and Cultural Understanding,” the first subsection is “Understand economic, environmental and political aspects of interconnections and issues,” which consists of the following competencies:

• identify and describe economic, environmental or political
aspects of communities;
• examine how decisions are made about resources in various
• analyze various ways that decisions can affect the economic,
environmental or social well-being of diverse communities;
• evaluate the impact of human activity on the quality and
sustainability of economic, environmental and social
• advocate choices and activities that promote healthy and
sustainable economic, environmental and social systems.

The future Albertan respects not how different communities steward their local environments, but how they make decisions about their resources. The first investigation into human activity is economic, and the future Albertan makes choices guided by economic impact.

And then there’s creativity. Inspiring Education emphasizes critical and creative thought and an appreciation of the arts. All that is perhaps too often yoked to “innovation,” as in: “The creativity and innovation of Albertans will become Alberta’s ultimate renewable resource.” But Inspiring Education also praises activities that “encourage play, creativity and imagination.” One gets the sense in reading the document that there was a difficult balance between corporatist thinking and educational experts.

In the failed Framework, the ethos is similar: Albertan students will “appreciate the creative works of others, value aesthetic expression and demonstrate initiative, imagination, spontaneity and ingenuity in a range of creative processes.”

In the Johnson-approved prototyping guide, however, “creativity” appears beneath the subsection “Innovate—create, generate and apply new ideas or concepts,” and always alongside “innovation.” For instance: “I take risks and learn from mistakes when developing creative ideas or innovations.”

In Johnson’s paradigm, creativity is permissible only as the generating force for innovation. Those who care about the arts, which receive only passing mention in the prototyping guide, face with concern a future Alberta that only “innovates,” where creativity must justify itself as economic activity.

And of course this is exactly what an entrepreneurial spirit would sound like. Johnson claims that the original Framework for Student Learning incorrectly represented the values of Inspiring Education, which is why it had to be recalled—after thousands of copies of the Framework had been printed, after schools in Edmonton and Calgary had already started integrating its recommendations.

For this reason, “Julie,” the teacher involved in developing the prototype curriculum, dismissed the hoopla about the advisory panel as well. She said the consultation only took two days and, from what she could see, had negligible influence on the prototyping exercise. More important in her mind was the issue of putting all this effort into something that will ultimately be dismissed, just as the Framework was dismissed.

Even Powers, speaking for Johnson, basically concurred. Speaking about the potential influence of the oil companies, he remarked, “It is important to remember that it is just a prototype.” In other words, the minister will have the final say about what is actually going into the curriculum.

J.C. Couture at the ATA calls the influence of corporations “a canard” that disguises bigger issues about the way curriculum is developed. For him, contracting out curriculum development is far more concerning. Then there’s the issue of funding—it’s cheaper to have school boards do the curriculum, but the total budget of $3,200,000 scares him. “$3.2-million for the entire curriculum is mind-boggling[ly little],” he says. He fears that the school boards will be encouraged to take shortcuts. Handing out contracts for curriculum prototyping, he believes, also prevents the Ministry of Education from properly overseeing the process.

Moreover, Couture fears that when school boards are pushed to create vast curriculums in short periods with too little funding, they will look to multinational conglomerates of educational publishing, such as Pearson International, who may in effect end up dictating curriculum.

“Pearson is waiting in the wings because they know we don’t have the resources in the system,” he said. The corporation’s inroads are already astonishing. Pearson’s software, called PowerSchool, handles everything in our schools: reporting grades and attendance and tracking student growth and achievement. It also interfaces with SchoolZone, the website Edmonton public school parents and students use to access this information.

Larry Booi of PIA agrees: “It’s not like a contract for a building where you contract out the drywalling to someone and the framing to someone else. I think it’s fraught with problems when you assign this to school districts that don’t have the long-term capacity in curriculum development.”

Almost all the teachers I contacted for this article refused to go on the record. “Sheila” feared, not dismissal, but that criticising the political agenda would prevent her from advancing or even potentially working for the ministry or the school board someday. “Julie” expressed similar concerns. Although teachers are protected by their union, every teacher I spoke with who had worked for the ministry or for Edmonton Public School Board’s prototyping contract had signed a confidentiality agreement. They feared legal action against them. One says he was told flat out that he would be immediately fired if he went above the hierarchy of superiors and asked for clarification from one of the minister’s advisers on a particular point.

When school boards are pushed to create vast curriculums in short periods with little funding, they look to education publishing multinationals, who can end up dictating curriculum.

Knowing that a particular teacher was involved in the prototyping with EPSB, I called her at her school and asked if she would be willing to talk about corporate influence on the curriculum redesign. When she seemed uncomfortable, I asked if she would prefer that we speak outside of working hours on her personal phone. She declined, begged me not to quote her in my article, despite her not having said anything, and told me to contact some people in the ministry, who never returned my calls. Shortly thereafter, all those involved in that particular aspect of the curriculum redesign received an email which emphasized that they should not be speaking to media and provided various tips on how to avoid violating their confidentiality agreement.

All my sources involved in these processes see the ministry’s paranoid approach to media coverage as a significant part of the problem. Nonetheless, Dan Powers, again speaking for Johnson, denied any such climate of fear. “We encourage individuals to speak out and be engaged. And we hear from teachers all the time who are expressing their displeasure.”

Dan Scratch, however, is one teacher willing to go on the record—both about the direction of education in Alberta and about the culture of silence amongst teachers. Originally from Ontario, Scratch teaches at Inner City High School in Edmonton’s downtown, a private high school for at-risk youth. He says 90–95 per cent of his students are Aboriginal and about 40 per cent are homeless or in precarious housing. The school is technically private, so teachers can be more creative with how they help their students, and supports Scratch speaking to the media.

Motivated by his concern about corporatism in education and a rising uncritical obsession with technology, Scratch has tried to organize teachers and community members. So far, he’s got 10 people across the province involved—a far cry from early 2014’s mass mobilization against “fuzzy math,” which netted thousands of angry parents within weeks—only a few of whom are teachers.

“Teachers don’t feel that they can speak out, [but] teachers need to be advocates,” he said. “I know that I’m in a privileged position because I have freedom from my administration to speak my mind.” Others don’t have that freedom. Scratch, who has been fairly prominent in the media thanks to his friendship with MLA Deron Bilous, said he’s been receiving messages of support from other teachers who say, “I agree with you, I’m totally down with this, but I don’t feel that I’m in a place where I can publicly say or do anything.”

“In this province, we have a history of punishing those who speak up,” Bilous said. He pointed to the NDP’s attempt to strengthen the whistleblower act that was recently passed by our government despite opposition concerns that it didn’t go nearly far enough. “When you have strong whistleblower legislation, people are willing to step forward when they see something. This actually saves the system money. It’s beneficial to everybody.”

Jeff Johnson was unable to speak with me because he was recovering from back surgery. His press secretary, Powers, however, disagrees that teacher intimidation occurs, within or outside the ministry. “We encourage people to be engaged,” he said. “We have a very open dialogue with teachers. Why someone would feel concerned about going on the record, I can’t say.”
Such government disingenuousness is a concern. But far more disturbing is the way the powers that be are changing what kids learn in school.

Jay Smith is an Edmonton writer and mother of two school-aged children.


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