Alberta UCP’s K-12 curriculum news conference by turns bizarre, deceptive, incoherent and a comedy classic

David J. ClimenhagaNo one who watched Education Minister Adriana LaGrange’s news conference on the United Conservative Party’s plans for Alberta’s K-12 curriculum yesterday could come away with the impression our province’s education system is in capable hands.

Putting aside the government’s intention to send students back to schools ill-prepared for COVID-19 next month, LaGrange’s performance on the topic of her ministerial order requiring curriculum changes to “give students a foundation of literacy and numeracy and a knowledge of the rich and diverse history of Alberta and Canada” was faltering, uncertain and occasionally incoherent.

Pressed by three different reporters on the phone lines to back up her repeated claims bias was endemic in Alberta schools under the old curriculum, she was unable to produce even a single example.

The following is not the answer of someone who is making a credible case teachers have been intentionally turning our kids into little social justice warriors instead of the obedient workers Albertans supposedly want: “So, it, I guess, I can share some examples, um, you know. One in particular is a parent that, uh, um, showed, um, sent me a, uh, an actual assessment where their child had to, um, pick the correct answer, and the correct answer was contrary to, uh, actually, the truth of what is out there in terms of, of our, uh, mm, uh, mm, environmental, um, studies that are out there.”

Who knows what actually happened, or if the situation even occurred? Evidence? None. Credibility? Zero.

As for the constant references to “discovery learning” by the minister and other UCP talking heads, they’re gaslighting. The words never occur in the pre-2015 Alberta curriculum or the K-4 curriculum developed when the NDP were in power and targeted by the UCP in the 2019 election campaign.

But who expected a comedy classic?

Consider the rambling, shambolic and at times bizarre discourse by Angus McBeath, chair of the 12-member curriculum advisory panel chosen a year ago by the UCP to come up with this claptrap after the party successfully campaigned on the claim that NDP efforts to update the curriculum were intended to poison young minds with ideology.

McBeath boasts he is “a lifelong teacher.” Judging from his performance yesterday, he must have been one who often left his students more confused than enlightened.

“Oh, I can hear people say,” he said at one point, adopting a sing-song voice, “‘well, I went to university and became a history teacher. I teach history. I don’t teach anything to do with literacy or numeracy.’ Not quite true in the future!” (smirk) “All teachers will be teachers of literacy and numeracy.”

Needless to say, no history teacher would say that.

As for the claim “this focus on numeracy and literacy, that’s new, that has not been the case in the past,” that may have been a key talking point yesterday, but it is false.

Alberta teachers have always emphasized literacy and numeracy, of course. They’re good at it, too. According to international standardized testing, Alberta students are among the best in Canada and the world in reading, math and science.

As for the NDP’s 2016 curriculum review, it was inherited from the previous Conservative government and was intended to link expectations in every subject to, yes, literacy and numeracy.

The UCP’s obsession with history was very much on display yesterday. McBeath — historical note, he was superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools the last time there was a teachers’ strike, and was acting superintendent during the Klein cuts in 1994 — had this to say about the social studies curriculum:

“They should be learning Alberta history, they should be learning Canadian history ’cause we are part a Canada, and we should be learning world history. Sequentially …” — he paused to pound the podium — “not ‘Let’s drop in on Friday and we’ll study a little bit about Vietnam cookin’ (sniff) and next Monday we’ll be in England, and on Thursday, we’re gonna be in Saddle Lake. Reserve. Out by St. Paul.”

I’m not making this up. I encourage readers to watch the video for themselves and check my transcription.

He continued: “We want students to have a sensible approach to learning history. You can’t do that unless you develop a sequential curriculum that allows students to understand one thing after another. If you don’t know Magna Carta, you can hardly teach students their legal rights. Because Magna Carta was one of the kingpins in determining for our country habeas corpus. Which is a really important legal concept.”

Well, God forbid anyone should make history interesting! Or coherent.

Then there was McBeath’s discourse on the need to instil virtue in students: “We want to focus on the character of students,” he said. “So we want to teach students a certain reverence for honesty. Integrity. Perseverance. Sticktoitishness. Better learn how to say that word! Resilience. Respectfulness. …”

This led up to what’s become the money quote of yesterday’s fiasco — which quickly turned into a viral meme on social media spreading beyond Alberta’s borders.

“We want every young person who graduates through Alberta schools, we want them to be the kind of person you’d want to be selling you a used car. Because you can trust them.”

Where did they get this guy? Central casting? The UCP has often been mocked as “the Used Car party,” thanks to the identities of some of their most generous donors. But I’m not sure the province’s used-car dealers would approve of that idea, quite!

Said Carolyn Blasetti, executive director of Support Our Students Alberta: “We are disappointed with the language Angus McBeath used around Alberta’s youth. Referencing their work ethic, talking about how young employees may be apt to steal from employers, are often late, and equating our world-class education system to used car sales is disheartening and out of touch with today’s youth. It was uninspiring if not offensive language that is often what turns children off of education.”

To me, though, the most troubling part of the news conference was the repeated emphasis on how, in McBeath’s words, “We don’t want students to say, ‘Schooling appears to be about everybody else but me.'”

This may be intended to sound inclusive. But if you listen carefully, it sure sounds like a dog whistle to those parts of the UCP base that aren’t interested in inclusiveness at all, but which complain constantly about the neglect of their old-stock sentiments.

What do you want to bet this is where the UCP’s strange obsession with history education comes from too?

Who can doubt their real problem isn’t that history is sometimes taught out of order, but that the interpretation of history that supports their worldview isn’t the only version permitted?

Well, if this is what we can expect from the UCP on school curriculum, I guess we can expect talented young teachers to start following Alberta’s doctors to B.C.

Note: Mea culpa, I predicted yesterday the UCP’s curriculum plans wouldn’t really be all that different than what the NDP would have come up with. I certainly missed that pitch. Lesson learned: It’s always a mistake not to expect the absolute worst from this government.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr​

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