Mailers, speeches, and commercials from the Alberta NDP tout their commitment to writing another, more-modern curriculum for the education system. This comes after more than a decade of curriculum-writing, first under the PCs, then under the NDP, and finally under the United Conservatives, who delivered and are implementing a new, high-quality K-6 curriculum that reflects best teaching practices and insights from the cognitive science of learning.

That’s the curriculum the NDP has fiercely opposed, with deputy leader Sarah Hoffman calling it “outdated” and likely to “set Alberta education…back 50 years.” After decades of delay, debate, and rewriting, we finally have a new, high-quality curriculum, but the NDP has promised to scrap it and replace it with their so-called modern curriculum. 

I’m a Grade Two teacher in Calgary, so I’ve followed this debate closely.

I doubt that an NDP replacement curriculum would serve Alberta students nearly as well as what we have now. In fact, there’s reason to be concerned that an NDP curriculum would mark a return to the bad old days of disproven teaching fads like discovery math, “they’ll just figure it out” in early reading, and weak, surface-level teaching in history, geography, and science. 

Alberta voters deserve to know what kids stand to lose if the NDP is elected and allowed to do the curriculum rewrite they’ve promised, so in this piece and one coming out tomorrow, I’ll lay out the stakes of this election for curriculum. 

Let’s start with math.

In the last decade, parents and advocates have spoken up with their concerns that too many teachers were straying too far away from the basics, which meant that kids were not being given the necessary foundations for understanding. Notably, too many elementary teachers were avoiding having students memorize their basic math facts (e.g., the times tables), which are critical to success in all other math domains.

Likewise, there was too much emphasis on “discovery math,” which is basically encouraging students to struggle towards understanding while teaching them skills incidentally, and not enough direct instruction, which is when the teacher shows how to do something, the class practices together, and then individual students apply and are assessed on the skill or concept. 

De-emphasizing arithmetic facts and direct instruction were both popular teaching fads in the early 2000s – after all, they seem to give kids more freedom, make school more fun, and reduce the role of the teacher as the authoritative imparter of knowledge and skills – but they have failed wherever they have been tried.

These teaching fads always lead to worse performance on assessments and decreased math confidence among young children, which then sets them up for even worse math performance later on. 

What works?

Well, in my Grade Two classroom, I introduce students to skills and concepts in a logical sequence, provide them with direct instruction and intentional practice in those skills, help them memorize their math facts, and guide them through more complex application problems with increasing independence as they gain the skills they need to complete them. This approach is in line with the new K-3 curriculum introduced by the UCP, which encourages math fact memorization, explicit, direct instruction in certain key algorithms, and guided practice that aims for mastery. 

Unfortunately, that approach has been attacked – mostly on the basis that “it’s too hard” and “it’s too teacher-led” – by the NDP and some of their allies in the teacher’s unions. 

The NDP has promised to scrap the curriculum and return to the drawing board.

That would mean years more uncertainty in math teaching and likely a continued decline in math understanding. After more than a decade spent revising and rewriting curricula, we finally have a high-quality math curriculum that reflects best practices and avoids teaching fads. It would be risky to rewrite it, as there’s no indication that the NDP would be guided by proven methods or the science of learning.

In fact, their commitment to progressive approaches to education suggests they might make math less rigorous and more political, copying their peers in other jurisdictions.

Students would be better served by staying on track with what we have now, especially as the province works with math resource experts like JUMP Math to create effective curriculum-aligned textbooks, workbooks, and lesson plans. This new curriculum and the aligned resources have already helped to deliver a massive boost in scores in Fort Vermilion, one of the first school divisions to fully implement it. 

If the NDP’s approach is risky in math, it’s downright irresponsible in reading, English language arts, and the content areas like social studies and science. I’ll cover that in the next instalment of this series, coming out in True North this weekend.

As they prepare to vote, Albertans should know that a well-written K-6 math curriculum hangs in the balance. We can either choose to move forward with what works, or risk returning to discredited, ineffective teaching practices that leave students behind.