Over the last few years, the NDP and their allies have fought tooth-and-nail against the UCP’s K-6 curriculum rewrite, with deputy leader Sarah Hoffman claiming it “outdated” and would set “Alberta education…back 50 years.” If elected, the NDP has promised to scrap the new curriculum and start the process of drafting another one all over again. This comes after more than a decade of curriculum drafting under successive governments of different political stripes.
I’m a Grade Two teacher in Calgary, so this issue has a special resonance for me. I teach the new curriculum every day. Based on my classroom experience, I can tell you that it reflects time-tested best practices in teaching as well as the latest research in math and literacy education. That might surprise you.
After all, there’s been a steady drumbeat of criticism and negative coverage ever since the new curriculum was launched. Once you have heard so many inaccurate or misleading claims about this curriculum, it can be hard to assess it fairly or to understand why anyone – much less a teacher – might like it.
That’s why I’ve offered this two-part series as a second opinion to what you may have heard elsewhere.
Earlier this week, I set out some reasons why the new K-6 math curriculum is a good one and explained why I think it would it would be risky to allow the NDP to replace it. In this piece, I’ll discuss how the curriculum that the UCP delivered is best for supporting K-6 students in developing their reading skills and lay out some concerns about what an NDP replacement might look like in this all-important domain.
Let’s start with very early reading, the kind of thing mostly covered in the primary grades.
The last decade has seen the growth of a movement known as the Science of Reading, which emphasizes the importance of phonics. Phonics is just teaching young children how to sound out the words they are reading. It’s hard to believe, but when I was in teacher’s college a decade ago, this was not the approach we were taught.
Instead, the fad at the time was “balanced literacy” – immersing kids in text, helping them read through pictures, and hoping they just kind of picked up the rules of the English language by osmosis. The vision underlying the balanced literacy approach is one of the classrooms where kids are free to explore with minimal teacher guidance. However, this leaves many kids floundering, especially those whose parents don’t have the time or resources to make up for the gaps that schools are creating. There are some kids who seem to learn how to decode words as if by magic, but most kids need explicit instruction and practice in phonics, and all kids benefit from it.
Luckily, Alberta’s new elementary reading curriculum is one of the world’s best at implementing the Science of Reading. Based on the work of scholars like Dr. George Georgiou, the director of the Reading Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta, it includes a clear guide for teachers about which skills and concepts should be taught and in what order. It suggests great resources for teaching phonics skills and then letting kids practice them.
Jurisdictions that have implemented similar curricula have seen student performance improve measurably. For example, England implemented a phonics-rich early reading curriculum in 2012 and has since improved its score to be fourth in the world on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, surpassing peer jurisdictions that have not focussed deliberately on phonics. The next generation of Alberta schoolkids will benefit from this new curriculum’s focus on what’s proven to work in teaching early reading, but only if it remains in place.
(As an aside: If you’re interested in learning more about the Science of Reading and why phonics teaching needs to be explicit and systematic in the early grades, I recommend checking out the “Sold a Story” podcast from American Public Media, or the Right to Read Inquiry Report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission).
A secondary aspect of the Science of Reading is a renewed focus on the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension. Once you know how to sound out and read the words on the page, the second most important thing for understanding what you’re reading is already knowing something about the topic. Here’s an example: imagine you’re reading a passage about Canada’s historic fur trade. Wouldn’t you be better placed to understand it if you had in your mind some sense of Canada’s geography, the appearance and behaviour of different fur-bearing animals, and the ways of life of various Indigenous peoples and European explorers? Of course you would, which is why reading comprehension relies on students developing a rich and broad knowledge base.
The new Alberta science and social studies curricula help to create such a knowledge base. They include many topics that teachers are expected to cover with their students. They encourage teachers to actually teach those topics, rather than just letting kids loose to “discover, inquire, and explore” on an iPad or Chromebook – another all too common and completely ineffective teaching fad these days, and one which the new curriculum implicitly discourages. For example, students in Grade Two will be taught about Ancient Greece, Rome, and China, among other topics. I’ve taught these topics to my own students and I can tell you: (1) the kids love them, (2) you can integrate this learning with every other subject area, including writing, math, and the arts, and (3) the knowledge and vocabulary they develop gives students a useful frame of reference for tackling other texts.
The new K-6 curriculum is modern, in that it reflects insights from the cognitive science of learning, and time-tested, in that so many of those insights reflect what good teachers have always known. Kids, especially young ones, should actually be taught things, not just be left free to explore on their own. While there can be tweaks here and there, and there will always be some bumps in the implementation phase, Albertans can be proud of the curriculum the UCP has delivered for them.
But as I’ve noted, the NDP has promised to trash it.
They falsely claimed that it doesn’t include appropriate Indigenous or Francophone content. But if you just click through and read it, you’ll see such content included, and often emphasised, from Grade One onward. For example, in Grade One, students are to be taught about Indigenous creation stories and their pre-contact ways of life, while in Grade Three, they are introduced to the story of Madeline de Verchères, a heroine of New France. Such content is woven throughout the curriculum as it continues from grade to grade.
This kind of criticism is typical of the NDP approach to curriculum development. It’s lazy, overheated, and ill-informed.
They smear advocates of knowledge-rich curricula as “eurocentric” and “racist” and promise to “decolonize” curricula, while ignoring the evidence that Alberta’s diverse, knowledge-rich curricula are best-placed to support students’ reading, particularly for students who are most marginalized.
A just-released study from Colorado supports this view. Researchers found that children randomly assigned to schools that adopted the “Core Knowledge Sequence” – a similar approach to Alberta’s – dramatically outperformed their peers in schools without such a focus on developing students’ background knowledge. The positive effect was even more pronounced for children of colour and of a lower socio-economic status. If all children in the United States experienced the same boost that these Colorado kids experienced from a knowledge-rich curriculum, then the U.S. would rank in the world’s top five school systems for reading. It’s a massive effect size, and it bodes well for Alberta if we continue implementing the UCP’s new, knowledge-rich curriculum.
But if that new curriculum was replaced, just what would the NDP replace it with? Details are sparse.
When it comes to specifics, the NDP has promised to translate the curriculum into Somali and Filipino and create alternative programs, seemingly more to appeal to certain voters than out of any genuine sense that this would support many children’s learning. Beyond that, they’ve promised more consultations, more spending, more delays, and more space for discredited “discovery learning” approaches.
One wonders if they would look to NDP-governed British Columbia, where an “inquiry-based” curriculum leaves massive gaps in student learning. Or perhaps they would do as their progressive peers in other jurisdictions have, deemphasizing rigour and merit in order to boost perceived equity and encourage children into social and political activism.
Their calls to “decolonize” curriculum are similarly unhelpful and nonspecific. Both English and French are colonial languages in this part of the world, are they to go? Or will we just teach those languages less so that we have more time for the kids to inquire (read: fool around) on the class iPads?
It’s enough to leave you worried.
I personally know passionately progressive educators who are immersed in world of the Science of Reading and are aghast at the NDP’s approach. They know that the NDP’s criticisms of the new Alberta curriculum are largely invalid and have told that to the politicians they usually support, all to know avail. Those educators are torn as they approach the ballot box this election.
The NDP has turned its back on high-quality teaching and is playing politics with the curriculum. Albertans should take that into account as they consider which candidates will show the responsibility and common sense to insist on maintaining, implementing, and improving the solid K-6 curriculum that Alberta is already lucky to have.