Question: The Alberta Teachers’ Association awarded Dr. George Georgiou an educational research award in 2019 but now is critical of the elementary English language arts curriculum that reflects his work. Why is the Association politicizing literacy?
Answer: To begin with, Georgiou’s work is very good and no one is contesting that. The problem is that much of it is focused on pedagogy, how one teaches, and not on curriculum, what is to be taught. The difference is critical.
The study for which Georgiou was recognized by the Association was titled Response to Intervention: Schools Where All Children Learn to Read. It followed a group of grades 1 to 3 students in Alberta and Quebec for the purpose of evaluating the basic assumptions of the response to intervention model in literacy intervention.
The project also involved providing teachers with professional development that focused on implementing the approach and the use of standardized tools for reading assessment to evaluate its success. The actual interventions were done with small groups of three or four students and had different focuses at each grade level. Three 30-minute sessions took place each week over a span of 10 to 12 weeks. Students who continued to struggle in Grade 3 were provided intervention on a one-on-one basis. As noted by participants, the results of this intensive series of interventions was quite remarkable.
Teachers and their association would be the first to cheer on the government if it were committed to providing the necessary resources for such sustained intensive intervention in the province’s division-one classrooms. And indeed, in his recent comments to the media, the superintendent of Fort Vermilion School Division placed substantially more emphasis on the importance of intervention on student success than on the content of the draft curriculum that his jurisdiction was piloting on a very limited and partial basis.
So let’s be clear, the success of a pedagogical intervention is no proof of the quality of the draft curriculum and, in the absence of the intervention, there is no basis for concluding that the draft curriculum, now somewhat revised, is headed in the right direction.
Something that is self-evident to everyone who has worked with children in the classroom or who has been a parent is that the little tykes are quite unique and often take their own course and their own time to learn how to read. A skilled and experienced teacher recognizes this and will employ diverse approaches to foster literacy and love of learning among their students, understanding that while phonetic approaches may work for most, a variety of other approaches will be more appropriate for others.
Furthermore, a skilled and experienced teacher will monitor the learning of individual students to ensure progress, knowing that externally imposed, arbitrary benchmarks for progress are exactly that — external and arbitrary. Certainly, interventions such as those advocated by Dr. Georgiou may be potentially useful tools, and teachers, assuming they have the necessary time, support and classroom conditions that allow it to happen, will happily employ them as and when appropriate.
All this seems to have escaped the understanding of the government apparatchiks who, having failed to listen to the advice of the teachers who will be expected to implement it, are determined to push through a flawed and inadequately tested curriculum that fundamentally confuses developmentally inappropriate outcomes with mandated pedagogy; one that seeks to be uniformly prescriptive when it should be facilitative and flexible.
And that points to the fundamental problem underlying this government’s entire approach to curriculum and education policy generally. It does not recognize teaching as a profession or teachers as professionals who must be afforded the latitude to exercise judgment in the performance of their important, complex and challenging work. So the problem is not that the Association is politicizing literacy, it is that the minister, despite her bleating protestations to the contrary, demonstrates no real respect for teachers or their work. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at firstname.lastname@example.org.