Curriculum arguments distract us from the true barriers to learning
In recent weeks, there has been much hyperventilating concerning government efforts to fundamentally redesign Alberta’s K–12 curriculum based on the five-year-old promises of Inspiring Education.
A small but vocal segment of this province has been gathering the tinder for what could become a season of wildfires. Calls for “back to the basics” and a return to more testing are being countered by those who question Alberta’s overloaded curriculum while calling for more local flexibility for schools. Adding potential fuel for a firestorm is the exit of Alison Redford as premier, leaving Education Minister Jeff Johnson with an orphaned mandate and an image in some people’s eyes as advancing an ambiguous agenda of “21st-century learning” hatched by an inner circle of advisors.
Whether it is the competitive energy expended over international rankings, the current hand wringing over memorizing multiplication tables or bemoaning the decline of phonics instruction, Albertans’ deeply rooted anxieties over what counts as learning (remember the existential threat from the Japanese in the 1980s?) perpetuate our collective inability to address the systemic barriers to student learning.
According to Joel Westheimer, one of Canada’s pre-eminent educational researchers, these interminable curriculum debates obscure larger social problems that stand in the way of a great education. Rather than polarizing debates over content versus competencies or traditional versus progressive education, the greatest impact on student learning is support for students in the early years of development and provision for optimal conditions of learning throughout schooling.
Renowned scholar David Berliner and his team take Westheimer’s point further. In their recent book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, Berliner concludes that the impact of the quality of teaching on student learning contributes 10 per cent of the variation in outcomes. Student background, community characteristics and other variables shape 60 per cent. Further, his team found that no credible researcher disputes the claim that teacher and school programming combined determine no more than 30 per cent of student learning outcomes.
This is all not to say that teaching, curriculum and what goes on in schools do not make a difference. But Albertans cannot lose sight of the fact that, with family and community characteristics determining more than 50 per cent of the chances for students to succeed in school, equity ought to be our strategic priority. Unfortunately, the current curriculum flare-ups distract us from the reality that among peer countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Alberta along with the rest of Canada ranks 17th out of 20 in terms of income inequality, with one in seven children in the province living in poverty.
In a two-year national study involving more than 600 principals from across Canada that the ATA undertook with the Canadian Association of Principals, school leaders report that rather than being able to focus on instructional leadership and supporting their teachers, they are increasingly struggling to mitigate the negative impacts of growing income inequality, the brittleness of families and increasing psychosocial problems of children and youth.
B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and other far less economically advantaged provinces than Alberta have made huge strides in their education systems by focusing on the systemic barriers to learning. Quebec’s comprehensive daycare system is yet one more example of how addressing readiness to learn can lead to huge gains in learning. While we are materially some of the richest people on the planet, Alberta remains at the bottom of the 25 economically advanced jurisdictions with respect to children’s readiness to learn by age six.
Alberta teachers are mindful that literacy and numeracy will always be part of the eternal golden braid of learning. In a recent visit to Alberta as part of our three-year-old educational partnership, Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education and science, remarked that, as with her country, Alberta remains among the select few “education superpowers.” With our Finnish colleagues and other international partners, Alberta teachers understand that the goal of creating a great school for all students will not be achieved through a preoccupation with fine-tuning government-mandated curriculum documents, obsessively testing students on the so-called basics or aggressively chasing competitive rankings.
Our schools are constantly renewing and recreating themselves. The 19,000 new students expected to enter next year and the 144 babies born every day in this province deserve more than the current curriculum brush fires—they deserve our sustained commitment to equity. This will ensure a great school for all students and our province’s vibrant future. ❚