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The new kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum will be implemented in Alberta schools, in staggered fashion, this fall.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Alberta students go back to class in a matter of days. But the question of what will make up the curriculum in elementary schools in the years ahead is far from certain. It all depends on the outcome of two key political races. This is a problem for teachers, parents and – especially – the youngest children in the province, whose early years of education are being used in a game of political football.

COVID-19 and waves of objections have slowed down, but not stopped, the governing United Conservative Party’s ambitious push to create a new blueprint for education. The new kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum will be implemented in Alberta schools, in staggered fashion, this fall.

This September, those students in kindergarten to Grade 3 will be taught the new English language arts and literature, and mathematics curriculum. And all students, K-6, will be taught under the new physical education and wellness curriculum. If schools boards so choose, they can pilot some programs, such as science and French immersion language arts for K-6.

All school boards are expected to implement the new curriculum, for all subjects, starting in September, 2024. At that time, teachers are also supposed to be teaching a new version of social studies, a subject punted from the early curriculum lineup amid promises for a major rework. Parents and teachers were vocal in their concerns about age appropriateness – the social studies curriculum asked Grade 3 students to learn the clauses of Magna Carta, for instance. Critics also said it was overly focused on memorization over understanding, and not reflective of Alberta’s diversity.

But here’s the rub. The entire curriculum schedule could be slowed down, or tossed out, depending on how the UCP leadership race and the next provincial election play out.

Alberta is on the verge of the constitutional abyss

First, the United Conservative Party could elect a leader who would slow down implementation. Candidate Brian Jean, for one, said he would give teachers autonomy to decide whether they teach it this year. Candidates Rajan Sawhney, Rebecca Schulz and Leela Aheer have called for a pause to implementation.

Ms. Schulz said the education system is still trying to catch up from the stress of the pandemic. “We need to get kids caught up in reading and math. And I don’t think it’s fair to ask teachers to also be giving a whole bunch of feedback on curriculum development,” she said, speaking at a UCP leadership debate held by the Alberta Teachers’ Association earlier this month.

But leadership candidate Travis Toews, the former finance minister, has said he would continue with curriculum rollout and implementation, as currently outlined. And Danielle Smith, one of the leading contenders in the leadership race, would do to the issue of education what she has done to the issue of provincial autonomy – ramp up the discussion to a whole other level. In the past, she has written about school curricula being overrun by social justice themes and political correctness, and defunding “government-run, union-controlled public school more interested in indoctrinating students than teaching them critical-thinking skills.”

More recently, she’s expressed her desire to see that teaching in foundational subjects, such as literacy and math, improved – and for the public system to be more attuned to parental concerns regarding negative messages about the province’s energy industry, or religion.

“If we can find better ways to address that, so people can maintain their confidence in the public school system, I think that’s in all of our interests to do,” Ms. Smith told the ATA conference.

But here’s the other twist in the story. Last year, the NDP said it would scrap the UCP curriculum in its entirety should they win the provincial election in May, 2023. Education critic Sarah Hoffman said the message from school boards was it “belongs in the trash.” The opposition party promised if they form government again, they will bring in a new curriculum by 2024.

Albertans should be tired of the tussling over curriculum. A major revamp of the province’s dated curriculum has been in the works since 2008, when then-premier Ed Stelmach asked the education department to come up with “a long-term vision for education.” The NDP continued the work, and developed a new curriculum kiboshed by the UCP in July, 2019, shortly after they took office.

The education of children has morphed into one of Alberta’s most contentious political subjects. And that’s saying a lot.

The UCP curriculum that is now being partly implemented is supposed to be focused on literacy, numeracy, citizenship and practical skills. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has said the prescriptive plan is designed to make sure “our curriculum is taught without bias.”

Of course, there’s no such thing as no bias. And the UCP blueprint has been criticized for being political in itself. Teachers also feel their views weren’t taken into account as the UCP rushed the curriculum to completion even in the depths of the pandemic. (Originally the entire K-6 curriculum, announced in March, 2021, was supposed to be in place this fall).

The Kenney government’s approach to the curriculum revamp also showed a misunderstanding of the regard in which many Albertans hold the education system, and the pride they’ve felt that it had been respected outside the province. The NDP keeps bringing up that the Northwest Territories decided in 2021 it will no longer teach Alberta’s curriculum in its schools – they know it still stings for many Albertans.

To its credit, the government has taken some steps to rectify the problems. For instance, it has made changes to address concerns about age appropriateness, wording clarity and First Nations, Métis and Inuit content.

And it is possible to act and not dismiss often-heard concerns about children falling behind in certain subjects, or the way contentious matters such as the role of oil and gas development are framed. And to be sure, there are debates across North America about the value of traditional versus inquiry-based models of learning. Alberta isn’t alone in that.

Politics will never not be some part of the process. But Alberta will see its seventh new premier in the span of 16 years this October, when the UCP selects its new leader. I can’t be the only parent who is frustrated that the instability that has become part-and-parcel of Alberta politics is now invading the classroom.

Politicians need to find a way to step back, and create a system for curriculum development that is at least less politicized. The continuing uncertainty about what will be taught this year and next is the last thing students in the province need.

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