Rooted in curriculum and policy

July 31, 2017

At the end of May 2017 I gave an academic presentation in Toronto in a session about education for reconciliation. I felt I was something of an odd duck in this session, but the feedback I received from the presentation was strongly positive. At some point I may publish a longer version of the presentation, but for now I would be happy for a few more people to encounter my thoughts about Alberta’s curriculum revision process. So here is the text of my presentation as spoken.

The NDP, the TRC, and Why We Might Make the Same Mistakes Again

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
— T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion”

“In a dark time, what is the work of a syllabus? What is the function of a classroom? What does it mean to teach students about the values of close reading and critical thinking?”
— Jehanne Dubrow

On June 15, 2016, Alberta Education Minister David Eggen announced a complete overhaul of Alberta’s K–12 curriculum. This announcement, coming just a year after Alberta’s New Democratic Party “made history” in May 2015 by toppling a Progressive Conservative dynasty of more than forty years’ duration, was not a new initiative, but rather a follow-through on a process already in motion. Curriculum renewal had been instigated in May 2013 by the former minister, Jeff Johnson. But David Eggen made a point of observing that “Support for First Nations, Métis and Inuit student learning, as well as the inclusion of Education for Reconciliation … will be reflected in future K-12 curriculum” (Government of Alberta, “Updating”), recognizing the significance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which were made public around the same time as the NDP came to power in Alberta.

With the announcement of the curriculum review process, Alberta has an opportunity to create something new and important, something that changes Alberta’s relationship with Indigenous Canadians, something that reflects progressive ideals and improves life outcomes for all Albertans. For nowhere do people feel the consequences of history more than in schools, where cultures transmit valued and valuable knowledge, norms and ideologies. And no subject has greater reach into students’ hearts and minds than language arts, a near-universal discipline that accomplishes much more work than simply teaching reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and representing. Language arts underpins other subject areas by teaching efferent literacy and transmits a culture’s norms and values explicitly by representing them in texts of all kinds.¹

Because this subject area is so important, before we embark on a blithe remaking of what already exists, we need a fuller understanding of the current (2003) English Language Arts curriculum for senior high and how it produces particular social outcomes. In reviewing the existing ELA curriculum, I argue that unless the curriculum adopts a dramatically different framework, this wide-reaching aspect of schooling will — despite appeals to technological competencies and Indigenous sensitivity — continue to exploit the interests of power and retrench the material problems of Canada’s history. That’s because the main outcome of the existing curriculum is sanctioned stratification. What we need instead is critical, resistant thinking.

Before I start, I want to make clear that I do not have an Indigenous background. I am not attempting to speak for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, and am certainly not speaking at them. As someone who wishes to be an Indigenous ally in whatever ways I can, I offer my insight into this very specific and important area in the interests of greater social justice for all.

As it is elsewhere, English language arts is the underpinning requirement for graduation and postsecondary study in Alberta. It is central to achievement in other academic subjects, too, because expressive and receptive language skills underpin learning in all disciplines. The language arts encompass skills vital for success in the modern world, particularly in the knowledge economy, in which service jobs dominate and economic growth depends on the exploitation of research and intellectual property.

Alberta’s current high school ELA curriculum is a curriculum of stratification, rooted in individualism and competition and organized into two streams (actually three, as I will explain in a moment) “to accommodate a diverse range of student needs, interests and aspirations” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 5): 10/20/30-1 and 10/20/30-2 (or “dash one” and “dash two” as I will refer to them). These streams are underpinned by a rationalist tradition that sorts and selects students for particular futures. The curriculum document comments repeatedly that the streams are similar, while in fact they may be easily distinguished by content. Distinct content implies there is knowledge that certain students must know and that others simply do not need; the reason for unequal distribution is inherently political.

Students arrive at high school having already been sorted and selected. Although schools ostensibly operate according to meritocracy (also known as equality of opportunity), students do not arrive at school having experienced equality of condition: some students enjoy structural advantages from their earliest days while others face structural disadvantages. What this point means in practice is that only some students have access to high-status knowledge, by which I mean the knowledge that leads to university and potentially to well-paid, secure employment and relatively high social status. Post-graduation success is regulated by achievement in the K–12 system and so is necessarily competitive; as a society we believe there can be only so many “smart” kids and only so many top marks to go around. Competition for the benefits of schooling works hand in hand with biases built into the system through race, gender, class, and other markers of difference to produce stratification.

The curriculum document says, “In general, differences between the two course sequences correspond to differences in student needs, interests and aspirations” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 6). But the real difference in the streams is that they produce markedly unequal paths for student futures. Again, the document says, “Since the [dash two] course sequence provides for the study of text at a variety of different levels of sophistication, to meet the needs of a more diverse student population in terms of student aspirations and abilities, students who aspire to post-secondary education, but not necessarily to careers related to the English language arts, may register in this course sequence” (Alberta Learning, Senior High 7).

Diversity sounds good!² But the fact is that relatively few students take the dash-two stream, and those who do are choosing a very restrictive path. No Alberta university program, and a limited number of diploma and certificate programs, accepts ELA 30-2 for admission. Some students recognize that the dash-two stream closes doors; but students don’t all come to school with the same preparation, so regardless, without understanding the longer-term consequences of this “choice,” some end up in the dash-two stream, in which the expectations for their learning are lower, their expected level of accomplishment is lower, and their options for next steps are sharply limited.

The issue is even more acute for Indigenous students, who may find themselves in a little-known third stream: English Language Arts 10/20/30-4 (what I’ll call the “dash-four” stream). Dash four was introduced in 2006 for students experiencing extraordinary difficulties with language and literacy. These courses have as their “core responsibility … to foster and strengthen the development of language” (Alberta Education, Knowledge 3). Superficially, this program of study appears structurally similar to that for the dash-one and dash-two streams, and the general outcomes echo those in the other streams. On closer inspection, however, the subpoints under the general outcomes are fewer and much more basic than those in the other streams (Alberta Education, Knowledge 9–36). More importantly, these courses do not qualify a student to leave high school with a diploma: only ELA 30-1 or ELA 30-2 may be presented for diploma credit.

Relatively few students are enrolled in the dash-four stream, and many of those who are require further academic intervention for a variety of behavioural, intellectual, and medical reasons; but significantly, Indigenous students are singled out in the curriculum preamble with the explanation “Knowledge and Employability courses serve to facilitate positive experiences that will help Aboriginal students better see themselves in the curriculum” (Alberta Education, Knowledge 9), a statement that certainly says something about how Alberta Education viewed the Aboriginal community in 2006. Given that the graduation rate for First Nations students hovers around 36 percent (Assembly of First Nations), encouraging Indigenous students to take a dead-end course seems disingenuous, at best.

To put it another way, the curriculum offers excellent, good, and poor paths suited to excellent, good, and poor students. My argument is that the labels excellent, good, and poor are not natural as applied to students but rather are artifacts of the structures of a capitalist society. Students may arrive at these descriptors having been already constructed as excellent, good, and poor on the basis of evaluations that have little to do with their intellectual abilities or readiness to read literature. Students who cannot or do not choose the most advantageous stream of high school English Language Arts may have been constructed as dash-two or dash-four students since their earliest days of primary school on the basis of their home or first language, their lack of early exposure to text, their classroom behaviour and lack of self-management, and other factors that have a great deal to do with the norms of socioeconomic status — the hidden curriculum. It is only in high school, where streaming becomes explicit, that such construction becomes visible. Those who understand and enjoy the benefits of full literacy continue to succeed; and those whose literacy is partial, functional, and vulnerable to manipulation are at risk for failure — many Indigenous students, for instance, particularly students from backgrounds of poverty, as well as new Canadians, racialized students, and other students who experience systemic oppression. Again, because students do not enjoy equality of condition, many do not benefit from equality of opportunity.

Perhaps this information is not shocking to you. After all, Davies and Guppy observe, “Education systems long have channelled students into different types of schools and programs based on a belief that not all students can benefit from the same curriculum” (91). For many people in this room, the question may not be whether stratification should exist as a curricular outcome, but to what degree it should exist. For me, any degree of intentional stratification as an explicit or implicit curricular outcome is simply wrong; that is the reason I’m speaking here today. For me, a curriculum that deliberately produces stratified outcomes is a curriculum that perpetuates social injustice. Alberta’s current curriculum is structured to produce stratification but also mystifies its actions with the rhetoric of choice to suggest that such this outcome is natural, expected, and even desirable. Stratification begets further stratification, and in Alberta, our most vulnerable students are the children of single Aboriginal mothers. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how a curriculum organized around stratification could hurt children, families, and communities.

So let me now explain how Alberta came to have this curriculum and why it is at risk of perpetuating stratification, regardless of the best intentions of the new NDP government or the Calls to Action by the TRC.

For a long time, Alberta has been “a right-wing corporatist state in which the interests of the state align with those of private corporations” (Harrison 80). The reason stems from Alberta’s dependency on oil and gas. According to the discourse of petro-politics, the quality of democracy, personal freedom, and political integrity is eroded as the price of oil rises (see Ross 2001; Oskarsson and Ottosen, 2010; Smith 2015). In Alberta, the well-being of transnational investors and the maintenance of a business-friendly environment are critical to a robust economy: threats to this economy have informed profoundly angry and sometimes violent responses to Alberta’s NDP government and its policies. This political economy developed over several decades, after the discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947, and found its apotheosis in neoliberalism under Ralph Klein beginning in late 1993, marked by a clear diminution of democratic participation and a shift to governmental authoritarianism (see Lisac, 1995; Laxer and Harrison, eds., 1995; Taft, 1997; Harrison, ed., 2005). Petro-wealth means the government can draw on oil and gas royalties instead of taxes to fund the provincial budget, making government less accountable to its citizens. The precariousness of this wealth, however, which depends on global economics and is controlled far from the Alberta capital, has also conditioned Albertans to be defensive about their provincial wealth and fiercely protective against criticism of the oil sands and the province’s environmental record (Takach 136–38). The practicality of political survival has found even Alberta’s NDP government making numerous compromises, including Premier Notley’s stating she intends to work cooperatively with oil companies regarding issues like the oil sands and transnational pipelines (Smith 105).

I don’t believe the writers of the 2003 English Language Arts curriculum set out to write a document that perpetuates inequality. That curriculum was, however, a product of neoliberalism. Throughout the document we find references to neoliberal keywords: choice, preference, aspiration, individual interest. Framing a student’s experience of high school Language Arts as a matter of choice and interest shifts the production of structural inequality to a matter of rational, individual decision-making rather than a matter of government policy, and naturalizes the stratifying effects of schooling. If we seek to accomplish true reconciliation — not to mention address other urgent social traumas — we must recognize that the “what” of the curriculum is neither innocent nor disinterested: indeed, it is consequential and sharply interested. The 2003 curriculum made clear that it produces some graduates of high status and some of low status, as befits an economy that depends on disposable, docile labour.

Education policy is state policy. It is written by those who hold power and serves the interests of power. In neoliberalism, curriculum cannot be severed from economic outcomes, and we can see traces of this yoking even in the Guiding Framework the current Education Ministry has developed to inform its curriculum revision process. This document says, “Alberta’s provincial curriculum helps students create a positive future for themselves, their communities and society. It provides students with pathways to the world of work and post-secondary education related to their career interests” (Framework 12). Education is one of the TRC’s most emphatic calls to action. But what we know from history is that those who have most tend to rig the game to ensure their continued success, and those who have least rarely get ahead. As long as Alberta remains in thrall to petro-wealth, the shortchanging of democracy and the capitulation to international interests are real risks, even though Alberta’s governing party has changed. A practical outcome is that curriculum will be written to educate workers, not citizens.

What we need in the new curriculum is a clear movement away from the expectation that student life-outcomes are solely the responsibility of the student and her/his family, and toward the recognition that student life-outcomes are strongly and explicitly shaped through the experience of schooling: that is, a shift away from meritocracy and toward social justice. But any new curriculum has the potential to reinforce the neoliberal agenda if it does not address the larger questions of what a curriculum is for — if it does not respond to the reality that the existing curriculum functions instrumentally in the interests of power and privilege, to identify, reward, and discipline students and workers.

In speaking to you today I have outlined the negative consequences of the existing curriculum and suggested the potential for ongoing stratification if the writers of the future curriculum continue to yoke education policy to economic policy. But there is an alternative. We can change the outcomes of the language arts curriculum if we change our expectations around the purpose for studying language arts in the first place. This means changing not only the content but also the framework: we urgently need critical thinking and an end to streaming.

I cannot tell you what the ultimate curriculum document will say; its creation is happening now, and it will not be piloted for several more years. I can tell you, however, that regardless of what the document may say, unless we fundamentally interrupt the traditional purpose of English Language Arts, then the new curriculum will perpetuate the inequality and injustice we know all too well.


  1. Francophone students, of course, study French language and literature rather than English. The stratifying quality of literature study also pertains in a French context, despite that in Alberta Francophone students often struggle to assert their language rights. Simply to keep my argument manageable, I will confine my discussion to English Language Arts; my recommendations for the change in the teaching and learning of language and literature pertain equally to English and French.

  2. Actually, the corollary of stating that the dash-two stream suits “a more diverse student population in terms of student aspirations and abilities” is that the dash-one stream suits a less diverse — or more exclusive — student population. So not so good, really.