We are pleased to announce our second Annual School Survey is out. The survey will be sent to every school in Alberta that receives public funding. We encourage you to talk to your school administrator about filling out the survey. You can find a copy of the survey at at: SOS Alberta 2017 School Survey Schools have until December 15, 2017 to complete the survey, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. A copy of last year’s survey and our accompanying report can be found at: SOS Alberta 2016 Survey & Annual Report
On November 2, 2017 the Government of Alberta introduced Bill 24, An Act to Support Gay Straight Alliances. Protecting the privacy & human rights of Alberta youth and supporting GSA’s has been something SOS Alberta has been active on for many months as allies of those who have worked on these issues for years. We are so pleased to see legislators putting forth legislation that puts students at the centre of policies that will ensure the protection of the safety, health and rights of some of our most vulnerable youth.
Calgary student Ace Peace and his mom Lindsay Peace both spoke at the announcement of Bill 24 about their experiences and journey. Their story and the stories of many students and families across the province are what guide and inspire us in our advocacy. Ace and Lindsay have kindly allowed us to post the speeches they shared. We hope every Albertan will read their words and be encouraged to see the great things we can do when we all come together and listen to the voices of those who are far too often silenced.
Hi everyone. My name is Ace Peace. I am seventeen and a grade 12 student in Calgary. I am transgender. This means that I was assigned female at birth but I am a boy. I have always been a boy.
I came out to my mum when I was 15. I was in grade 9. One of the first people we told afterwards was my teacher. She recommended some reading material to my mum. She and I started a GSA at my school. She asked me what name and pronouns I wanted to use and she made a presentation to help tell my classmates. A school psychologist provided me with the information and paperwork needed to change my gender marker. How awesome is that? AND I can assure you that no other students were harmed during this process. Seriously though, I can’t figure out why some people think that this somehow might negatively affect other kids. To those people, please believe me, everyone is fine. No one has had to lose anything or give anything up for this to happen.
I was a bit nervous about going to high school the next year but after going to the orientation day my fears disappeared. There was a huge GSA!! I couldn’t believe how many kids were in it. I came home that day with GSA stickers that said “I love diversity” stuck all over my face. Looking back, that part seems a little silly- but give me a break. I was pretty freaking excited.
Although I was the first openly trans kid at both of these schools, I knew that I wasn’t going to be alone. I knew that I didn’t have to hide. I knew I was going to be okay. I knew that I would be accepted and even more awesome, that my differences and diversity might even be celebrated. I knew that I had allies, friends, classmates and teachers who would have my back.
Although it hasn’t been easy, my journey has been one that I have been surrounded by love, support, and acceptance every step of the way. As time goes on, I have been sad to learn that it’s not always this way for kids like me. Some kids, for different reasons, don’t feel safe to come out. Some kids aren’t as lucky as me to have such an awesome family. For these kids, sometimes GSAs are the only thing they have. GSAs are the ONLY safe place they have. I don’t want to imagine what it would mean for them if they would be outed for attending. I am scared to even think about it.
Being a kid can be tough. Being a queer kid can be even tougher. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make it even more difficult for us. And as much as I try to, I don’t understand what people are so afraid of or what they think happens in a GSA or why it would be necessary for anyone to tattle on a kid for going. It’s pretty simple…there are kids who can’t tell their parents they are queer. Like really can’t. It might even be a safety issue. If that’s the case, they need somewhere to go. There are also kids who are just afraid or nervous to tell their parents but will eventually, especially with the support of other queer kids. There are also straight kids who are just trying to be better people and make a difference in the world. Sometimes we talk about serious stuff. Sometimes we just hang out and chat. Sometimes it’s even a little boring. I don’t understand why this is so scary to some adults. As far as I can tell, it’s only scary if you’re the kid. It’s only scary if you’re the kid and an adult wants to out you and you’re not ready or that would make you unsafe.
I don’t actually like politics. Really, I don’t. It’s way too much arguing and talking for me. I’d way rather listen to music. And truthfully I’d rather be at home listening to music hanging out with my partner right now, just being a kid. But this is too important. And so, politics have become important to me, especially the more I learn. I am proud to be an Albertan. I have travelled all over the world and this is the place I love the most. I am proud of our government. I am proud of MY government. I am proud that I have a voice and that they listen to me. I am just a kid. A queer kid. But they listen to me and kids like me, because we know what we are talking about. We are the ones actually living this while everyone else is arguing about it. I am grateful that my government wants what’s best for me and all kids, that they want us all to grow up to be kind and caring and compassionate. And safe. And I am the most grateful that they know and believe that all kids actually means ALL kids.
I would like to thank everyone for giving me the opportunity to speak today. I am thankful to have a voice. -Ace Peace
Hi everyone. Thank you to Minister Eggen for allowing me the time to speak today. My name is Lindsay Peace, I am the proud parent of three teenage boys, one of whom is transgender. Through Ace’s efforts to live an authentic life, I also have been on a journey of self discovery. It turns out that I am a fierce mama bear, with a lot to say. I have become an advocate for queer kiddos and their families. I have founded a nonprofit organization called The Skipping Stone Foundation that is dedicated to changing to the narrative of trans and gender diverse youth. I have had the privilege and honour of witnessing and walking beside and playing a small part in so many families’ journeys. I feel confident in saying that I speak on behalf of many kids and parents today.
Make no doubt, that as fearful as some critics are of inclusive and protective policies and of comprehensive sex ed, parents of queer kids are much more scared of the alternative. And queer kids are terrified. And unlike the critics, our fear is fact based. Without a doubt, kids are suffering. Dr Kris Wells recently published a study on trans youth in Alberta. The rates at which these kids are facing discrimination and violence are staggering. This study clearly shows that this population of kids is subject to alarmingly high rates of self harming behaviours and a disproportionately high number of these kids consider and attempt suicide compared to their peers. These are facts.
Having safe and inclusive policies at school will greatly reduce these numbers. GSAs and being able to feel safe attending them will create safer learning environments, for these kids, as well as their peers.
I understand as a parent that I want to know what my kids are doing. I want to know who they are hanging out with, what activities they are engaging in. I want to know the decisions they are making. Because it’s important to me, I talk to them. I ask them. Over all else, I create and maintain open dialogue with them and a sense of safety and security. If for some reason one of my children didn’t feel that they could come to me, with anything, then I believe that is a reflection on me. That’s my bad. And I would need to look at doing things differently. In the meantime I would be grateful if they felt that they could turn to a teacher. The more folks who support my kids and are committed to their health and well being can only be a positive thing. Also, I think it’s important to point out that it’s not an either/or situation. Ultimately, I believe that we are working together. Parents and educators. When it comes to GSAs, specifically to the outing of students, I think there is a misunderstanding that means that parents will never find out. That this will be some sort of dirty little secret between the student and the school forever. I have heard dozens of accounts from families in which it was teachers who actually helped their students disclose their queer identity to their families. I know a former student whose teacher actually helped him write a letter to his parents to tell them he was trans. I know many kids who are queer who spent a long time at their GSA until they became confident enough in themselves to have a conversation with their parents.
I also know that GSAs teach allies how to be better allies, how to be better people. I know that kids learn a greater understanding of the adversity faced by their LGBTQ2+ peers and learn compassion. GSAs allow students an opportunity to be apart of creating positive change. Although I do know as a parent how great it is to hear that our kids are wonderful and doing amazing things, I certainly don’t believe that anyone needs to be outed for doing so.
Our kids spend the majority of their time at schools. Our future depends on our kids, all of our kids. We need to be able to send them out into the world armed with all of the skills, abilities, and tools possible. This requires safe and inclusivity learning spaces. I am so incredibly grateful
to have a government that is so dedicated to creating and maintaining these spaces. Some of our kids lives depend on it. – Lindsay Peace
For many Albertans creating safe and inclusive spaces in Alberta schools is a very important issue that will inform how they will cast their vote when voting in the upcoming school board elections. A key component to this decision is how local trustee candidates support human rights, GSA(Gay Straight Alliances) and how they respect the confidentiality of students. For many Albertans protecting these things are non-negotiable.
We are asking that trustee candidates take this pledge to state publicly that they support safe, caring, and inclusive school environments that respect and protect LGBTQ2 youth. Those trustee candidates that take the pledge will have their name published here on our website so that citizens can see for themselves which local candidates are committed to Alberta children by protecting their privacy and upholding their human rights.
Please share this pledge with all your local school board trustee candidates. Candidates can agree to this pledge by emailing us their details (name, school board, city, ward/zone) email@example.com Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.
*Please note signing this pledge is strictly about confirming for Alberta voters a commitment by trustee candidates to the points listed in pledge below, and is not an indication of support for SOS Alberta initiatives.
List of Candidates Who’ve Pledged
The 2017 municipal elections are fast approaching and include school board trustee elections. Every Albertan who is eligible to vote in Alberta can vote for a local school board trustee. Elected trustees and school boards are responsible for a wide range of roles including the day to day operations of schools and the broader vision for public education in districts and the province.
We at SOSAB often hear from citizens who are unsure of what to ask their local trustee candidates and sometimes aren’t sure what trustees actually do. This is why we have created the Trustee Election Handbook. It is a dynamic document that citizens can use to start conversations with and about their local trustee candidates. We would like to offer the space of our website for these conversations.
We are encouraging people to share the Handbook widely with friends and family, print it off and have it ready at the door for when candidates come knocking or take it with them to a candidate event.
Most importantly we would like people to add their own questions or perspectives. Every region in the province has a unique set of issues when it comes to public education and we would really like Albertans to share back with us and in turn with other Albertans their thoughts or questions about what they think is important to Albertans when it comes to public education. We’ll try our best to post links to lists of candidates throughout the province too.
Have a look at the document below and comment, email or DM us any of your thoughts on new questions or issues we have missed and we will post them. As usual our usual caveat on comments applies(see sidebar), we want this to a positive, productive and inclusive space and will monitor things accordingly.
SOS Alberta strives to put educational issues like equity into a broader context. Other educators, researchers and education commentators across the globe have also been examining issues of education, race and equity. We are publishing this op ed by Benjamin Doxtdator as he has observed a troubling trend in some recent educational research.
On Friday August 17 (today), you have Tom Bennett keynoting your Leadership Conference in Toronto and I want to make you aware of some very serious concerns that are emerging around him. For some context, I attended OISE back in 2010 and I now live and teach in Brussels. So, my concern is very much rooted in my love for Toronto, the commitment that Toronto schools and educators make to equity, and my heritage as a member of the Oneida band of First Nations peoples.
As you know, Bennett runs ResearchEd, and in the last few days, his close associate, friend, and speaker set to appear at ResearchEd in Toronto, David Didau, has made some very troubling claims about links between student performance, race, and the heritability of IQ. David Didau acknowledges that his speculation about what behavioral genetics might mean for school may face resistance because “it’s not popular to go about attributing children’s success or failure to who they are rather than what they experience.” And who are children? In What Causes Behavior?, he tells us that “the mountains of evidence that have piled up in favour of genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones is solemnly impressive.” Thus, “it seems as if schools and teaching may matter a lot less than we would like to believe.”
In the comment section, someone asks Didau, “Why do we see certain cultures doing much better (or worse) than others within the same education system?” Didau responds, “Well, firstly there’s peer effects, and secondly – despite the unpopularity of discussing such things, there are fairly clear racial differences in IQ.”
When I and many members in the community called out the scientific racism in Didau’s remarks, Tom Bennett blocked me. In none of Bennett’s frequent tweets has he condemned this statement in spite of requests to do so. Instead he has blocked the people expressing concern. When Darren Chetty challenged Tom Bennett about the lack of racial diversity at ResearchEd in the UK, Bennett blocked Chetty on Twitter, thus removing the voice of an important educator of colour from the ‘grassroots movement’ that Bennett purports the conference to be. Many important debates about education, and a government report on behavior which Bennett has authored, are found on Twitter.
As a first response, Didau wrote a post called “Differences and Similarities“, where he cited Linda Gottfresdon as representing a “mainstream view of the research” about race and IQ, when she is in fact monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for promoting scientific racism. He only later acknowledged that he did not investigate his source, despite people repeatedly pointing out her history to him. In another comment on his blog, he directs someone to “the evidence collected on the Human Biodiversity Website”, which features both Linda Gottfredson and the American White Supremacist Richard Spencer. The first link on the HBD website under ‘Multimedia’ is this: Are your children prepared for the global future that lies ahead? The video mocks people who celebrate diversity and features these demeaning images of Black people that present them as a danger to white neighbourhoods.
When Didau finally issued a statement entitled “On Being Called a Racist“, where the only damage he acknowledges is to his own feelings, Bennett Tweeted Didau’s post and referred to the concerned community as a “Twitch Hunt” and “The idea that I’m required to [speak out] is, frankly, reminiscent of The Crucible.”
As some further context on Bennett, he has made light of racism on Twitter by ironically replying to people talking about Scottish food: “So racist. I feel like my lived experience is being marginalized.” It’s no accident that he casually mocks people who take racism and hate speech seriously. He also contributes to Spiked, an advocate of the idea that “hate speech is free speech.” This kind of discourse is much closer to the “many sides” approach we have seen recently in the news than a genuine stance on social justice.
As a sample from Spiked’s education section, here are some bylines:
“The War on ‘Dead White Dudes’: The ‘decolonise the curriculum’ campaign is a threat to universalism”
“Turning Education Into Welfare: Both Labour and the Conservatives want to turn schools into wellness retreats.”
In an interview with Spiked about ‘the crisis of authority of the classroom‘, Bennett says there is a “chronic” “crisis of adult authority” in the broader culture and classroom, and he believes children want a restoration of adult authority because they are “waiting to be told what to do”. He is concerned that not teaching about “cultural legacy” might “endanger civilisation”. In the Telegraph, Bennett is quoted as saying, ““[With] generation snowflake, sometimes, there is an element of truth that children are a little bit inoculated perhaps against the harsher realities of the world.” The sad irony is that while Bennett is against ‘no platforming’, he effectively does just that by blocking and excluding the voices of women and people of colour.
It is not just in debates about education that Bennett practices exclusion; he also advocates for excluding students in cases: “We may not like excluding pupils, internally, externally, permanent or fixed term, but they are a necessary part of the system. The desire to reduce exclusions by simply turning off the tap ironically creates circumstances where their use is required more and more, as misbehaviour backs up the pipe and remodels the social norms of the school in the direction of incivility and belligerence.” Bennett’s suggestion to use exclusion for ‘misbehavior’ of course contradicts Ontario’s progressive discipline policy: “Exclusion is not to be used as a form of discipline.”
Bennett is part of a larger trend that focuses on ‘evidence-based’ methods, where science is very narrowly construed and too often supplants debates about the broader purposes of education. Ultimately, statistical data about standardized subjects replaces the need for conversations about culturally relevant pedagogy. And rather than construct tables of heritability scores, we need to construct images that help us understand what Gloria Ladson-Billings calls the education debt we owe to those who have been oppressed:
“The images should remind us that the cumulative effect of poor education, poor housing, poor health care, and poor government services create a bifurcated society that leaves more than its children behind. The images should compel us to deploy our knowledge, skills, and expertise to alleviate the suffering of the least of these.”
While I believe firmly in fair and robust debate, it surprises me and others that someone whose own values stand counter to those I proudly believe to be Canadian – those of acceptance, inclusion and compassion – is to be welcomed uncritically into our community.
To be clear, I am not asking you to cancel Bennett’s keynote. Nor am I accusing Bennett of being a racist. But his habit of dismissing and excluding dissenting voices is very troubling to many educators, and it would be reassuring to the wider community without Bennett’s platform to see that acknowledged and challenged at your conference.
Thank you for your time,
This September 3, 2017 SOS Alberta will be participating in the Calgary PRIDE parade. We have been very vocal of our support for Gay Straight Alliances in Alberta and feel strongly all children must feel supported and safe at school. With the help of a very talented Calgary student graphic designer (SKDesigns) we have created a limited edition OK WITH GSA T-shirt. You can wear one to show your support of both SOS Alberta and GSAs with a minimum $50 donation. The T-shirt has a $30 value. Your donation will go along way to helping us advocate for a safe, accessible and equitable education system.
Thank you for your ongoing support!
Order form can be found on the right hand side bar.
Recently, on social media, SOS Alberta was asked “Who are you? You know my name. I don’t know yours…” by a member of the Provincial Legislature, and a staff member of another politician accusing us further of being a ‘front group for the NDP’, (not the party they belong to). Full threads can be found here and here – but what this is really about is our questioning of public dollars going to private schools and how this diverts resources from the public education system. Although our executive’s biographies are on our website and there are plenty of methods to get in touch and meet with us, we were still questioned about who we are. Here is our answer.
We are Support Our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy group which advocates for the right of all children to an equitable and accessible public education system.
We are volunteers.
We are non-profit.
We are community builders.
We are engineers, psychologists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, custodians, speech language pathologists, scientists, dental hygienists, chiropractors, butchers, landscapers, accountants, homemakers, cashiers — hard workers, contributing to all aspects of Alberta society.
We are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and children.
We are cis, trans, bi, questioning.
We are Muslim, Christian, atheists.
We are public school graduates, private school graduates, we are urban, we are rural.
We are immigrants, refugees, 4th generation Canadians, FNMI.
We are disabled, gifted, special needs, able-bodied.
Most importantly, we are Albertans who believe in the promise of public education to build community across all these beautiful differences.
What we believe:
We believe public education is a child’s human right.
Every child regardless of income should have a barrier free public education.
We believe there is room for improvement, but also that public education is worth fighting for.
We know children go to school with trauma, mental health needs, food insecurity, poverty-related issues that can create barriers to their learning, something no PISA or standardized test score can measure.
We know children go undiagnosed and unsupported for learning disabilities, and early intervention could greatly affect their future.
We know some parents and families are unable to pay for the testing required to properly diagnose and treat their children.
We know some children feel unsafe at school, because of the colour of their skin, their religion or their gender identity.
We believe GSAs save lives.
We believe institutionalized and systemic racism exists throughout our education system.
We believe an unsupported, alienated and marginalized student becomes an alienated and marginalized citizen.
We believe competition has no place in education. Inherent in competition are winners and losers and no child should lose when it comes to education. Especially when the competition is tilted in favour of the privileged.
We believe choice is a euphemism for segregation.
We believe public funds should be for public schools.
What we have done:
We have conducted a province wide survey researching how education resources manifest on the frontlines for Alberta children.
We have met with representatives of all provincial parties, including the Wildrose, Liberal Party, Alberta Party, Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta and the New Democratic Party.
We have met with elected officials at the municipal and school board levels.
We have collaborated with public education advocacy groups across Alberta and in other provinces and internationally.
We travelled to 4 cities across Alberta to screen the enlightening documentary Backpack Full of Cash, a cautionary tale of the privatization of education.
We engage with anyone and everyone who wants to work in the best interests of children. Our door has always been and remains open for these discussions.
We are a non-partisan group. Above all else, what we do, the countless nights we volunteer to write, to plan, to work, to collaborate, we do because, we believe that when we meet the needs of the most vulnerable children, we elevate the quality of life for all children. We do not volunteer our time and energy for our own children; we do it because we believe in the institution of public education. We do not think education should be political, but the moment public funds were provided to private institutions, it became a political issue. We won’t pretend that 250 million dollars a year is not diverted from the public system to private hands. We won’t pretend competition does not hurt the most vulnerable of our population. We won’t pretend outing LGBTQ2+ children is not religious infiltration of a public service.
We also will not be intimidated, demeaned, or condescended to, when a politician or anyone else asks “Who are you”?
We are Albertans, we are proud, engaged citizens, who will continue to advocate, not because we need you to know who we are, but because our children are watching.
Alberta writer, editor and academic, Leslie Vermeer kindly gave us permission to post her recent blog post, Rooted in Curriculum and Policy , this post is from an academic presentation she made in Toronto in May 2017 about education for reconciliation. For us it speaks to the need for a new vision of how Albertans see education curriculum and how the curriculum rewrite is an opportunity to address issues of equity and institutional bias. The Alberta curriculum rewrite is just that, an opportunity to make some thing new for Alberta students, not just repackage old structures and old ways. This is the one article about the curriculum rewrite we think all Albertans must read.
More of Leslie Vermeer’s work can be found at her blog Reading With a Pencil
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 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.
On July 22 members of the Wildrose Party and Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta chose to merge and form a new political party called the United Conservative Party. A new interim leader was declared this week, MLA for Olds-Three Hills-Didsbury, Nathan Cooper. Questions were raised about his past views and work around LGBTQ2+ issues. We too have questions about his current position on LGBTQ2+ citizens, human rights and how this impacts UCP policy towards LGBTQ2+ youth and GSA’s. We have written and sent Mr Cooper a letter, posted below. One of our supporters from the Olds-Three Hills-Didsbury constituency also kindly delivered a copy of the letter to his office.
Mr. Nathan Cooper
Interim Leader United Conservative Party
Dear Mr. Cooper,
July 26, 2017
On behalf of Support Our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy organization, I wanted to reach out to you to engage in productive dialogue around education policy as you are now at the helm of the recently created United Conservative Party and official opposition in the legislature.
Support Our Students Alberta is a non-profit, volunteer organization promoting equitable and accessible public education for children across Alberta. We represent citizens, parents and students who believe strongly that diversity and acceptance are our greatest strengths in Alberta.
Among our supporters are parents and children who are supportive of and are themselves from the LGBTQ2+ community and they are concerned for the safety and rights of students while at school.
We understand in the 8-10 years since your participation in the organization: C anada Family Action , (an organization committed to seeing,“Christian principles applied in Canadian Law”) your “thinking has evolved” and you now “unequivocally support the LGBTQ community.” The most fortunate part of this change of opinion is that you are in a position not just to change your mind, but to affect real change in this regard with many Albertans. Instead of limiting people’s rights, you can now actively protect them, particularly as it relates to children in Alberta schools.
The Support Our Students Alberta community has very real concerns about your party’s commitment to uphold the rights of children in Alberta schools and would appreciate your clarification on the position you and the United Conservative Party hold with respect to the following issues:
1. What specific policy initiatives will the UCP develop to ensure the safety of children at school and specifically students in Gay Straight Alliances across this province?
2. Do you support comprehensive sexual health education as a part of the provincial curriculum in schools including topics of consent, body agency and LGBTQ2+ topics for all Alberta students?
3. Do you support the human rights of transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms in which they identify?
4. Minister Eggen has asked all school authorities to develop policies that specifically support LGBTQ2+ students, staff and families. Do you support this policy requirement? Will you ensure that all schools fully comply?
5. Do you support parental notification for any child wishing to join a Gay Straight Alliance in their school? Please explain your position.
Mr. Cooper, these are just some of the questions, citizens, parents and students come to Support Our Students Alberta with, some of whom are in fact, your constituents. We would like to facilitate your response to these questions about what your position is and the position of the UCP is on these issues. We would be more than pleased to post your responses to these important questions so that our engaged parents can have their concerns answered directly from you.
Many kind thanks for your time and consideration. We appreciate you taking the time to reach out to Albertans on these important issues.
If you have any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact us at the number provided below.
Today as part of the Alberta Government’s initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in Alberta we had the pleasure to sit down with representatives from Minister Eggen’s office and discuss the role public education can play in building community and addressing racism within Alberta. One of the most important things we were able to do at this meeting was to both share our experiences and the experiences sent to us by Albertans directly with government decision makers. We think this is the most important thing we can do as an advocacy organization, to share the voices of citizens. If you have an experience you would like to share we want to hear from you and we will pass on your comments to Minister Eggen’s office and the Office of the Premier.
Agenda July 10, 2017 Anti-Racism Meeting Ministry of Education McDougall Centre, Calgary Alberta
Amanda Henry – Ministry of Education
Ewar Jalal – Office of the Premier
Jeremy Nolais – Ministry of Education
Barbara S – Support Our Students Alberta
Elsa C – Support Our Students Alberta
Maureen S – Support Our Students Alberta
Support Our Students is a public education advocacy organization, and as such our concerns with racism and intolerance will have a focus specific to public education.
- Racism and Intolerance As Experienced by Children in the Present Day:
Racism and intolerance are very real experiences for children across all Alberta schools. We have heard from several SOS AB supporters about their experiences, and these are some of the stories they have shared with us:
*Please note these individuals wish to remain private, we’ve edited their letters to protect their privacy
**Warning there is some racist language and racist situations described in the following letters which we have chosen to include
Letter received by SOS Alberta from a parent in Central Alberta, July 6, 2017
My child who is of a mixed race was riding the bus home last November when they were called a N—– by another grade six student who attended their school, not the same class.
After watching them cry hard after being called such a negative name when they got home from school, my partner and I tried to remind them that ignorant name calling is normally done by unkind people.
I did contact the principal right away and she confirmed that she spoke to the student about not speaking like that to others and pointed out the consequences that would happen if this ever occurred again.
They didn’t have to deal with this other student calling them this name ever again but it was very shocking to hear that negative names like this still exist and are unfortunately used among the youth in my city.
I appreciate your quick response!!!
I want to share my story so that this doesn’t happen to another child again. I know that one of my close friends was able to address this issue at their child’s school by asking that more books be added that address diversity and more cultures to increase awareness/sensitivity for how people that look different can be made to feel accepted at any school they attend. That principal did bring more cultural books on staff after the request was made. I’m an elementary teacher at a large public school. I know that there are very few books like this at our school. I wonder how the minister might feel about increasing money for books in libraries to address this issue and start teaching communities as little as elementary students to help fix this issue one step at a time.
Have a wonderful evening!!!
Letter received by SOS Alberta from a parent in Central Alberta, July 7, 2017
Please share this story with the minister of education.
My 6yr old in grade 1 this past winter was on the bus to school. A few other grade 1 boys were sitting on the bus and playing a game. My child asked if they could play and one of the kids said, “No, you can’t play with us since you don’t have white skin!”
My child was very sad and we did make the bussing service and our principal aware. I had a nice meeting with our principal who wanted to know if we had any ideas of how to talk about racism in the school more frequently.
There are many cases of Racism in [our town] that we have personally heard from our other ethnic friends. It is quite common.
It’s great you are doing this. I hope it is received well.
When my eldest child was 6 (now 12) was on a soccer team, and a kid started making fun of their gorgeous ringlet hair and called out ” curly fries! Curly fries! curly fries!”
That was another issue we had to deal with. After speaking with the parents they did understand it was racist and the kid apologized.
Letter sent to SOS Alberta from parent in Southern Alberta, July 7, 2017
My children were bullied for being atheists at the Palliser school [we attended] to the point they were told they were going to hell.
Letter received by SOS Alberta from a parent in Southern Alberta, July 7, 2017)
I’d love to see it mandated that teachers and staff privately take the Harvard Racial Bias Test online so they’re aware of the biases and can work on improving them (we all have them. So much better to acknowledge!)
We also need to be teaching some more accurate indigenous history. Also should probably be openly discussing the idea of racism in the classroom since science shows that pretending to be colour blind doesn’t work or help.
Letter received by SOS Alberta from a parent in Central Alberta, July 10, 2017
A dear friend of mine fostered a number of FN kids, two of them were siblings that they got as newborns. Those kids were Blessed to grow up in a beautiful loving home. They were treated exactly the same as the natural born children in every respect. The younger of the two had some issues and dropped out of high school. The older child is now studying to be a Social Worker. In any event the oldest child and their Mom (which is what they called her) were chatting one day a few months after graduation and then it all came out. both the siblings were harassed and bullied non stop because they were FN. That was when Mom found out why the youngest quit school. This went on for the entire time they were in high school. Mom was devastated. She asked why they hadn’t told her and said she would have gone right to the school to get things sorted. The response: “Exactly Mom and that would have just made things worse for us”. Two days later mom burst into tears while talking to myself and another friend after church. She was heart broken and the sobs kept coming. The thought that those children endured so much for so long was tearing her apart. Our hearts broke for that family. How is it even possible no staff saw this? Those kids should have been safe in their small town rural high school but they weren’t. Nowhere close. I am just grateful that they have survived and maybe one day there will be healing for them.
- Public schools:
The place where children from all walks of life should have opportunities to learn across faith, culture, ability and race. The benefits to this kind of learning and environment have been shown to be beneficial to learning and skills for later in life. This is happening less and less:
- Of note, the CBE no longer even includes the term PUBLIC in its title. We must recommit & redefine what a public system truly is; accessible to ALL children.
- Presence of Christian schools, Jewish Schools, Quranic worldview schools, Muslim Academies, Traditional learning Centres (know to appeal to certain cultures), Sports Academies, Music Programs, Language programs, all segregate children under the public umbrella. This current system will only encourage, not discourage intolerance and racism.
- Specialized programming, and their associated barriers (fees, application procedures) not only segregate, but disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged population who are over represented by FNMI, people of colour and other minorities.
- Effects of these barriers and systemic inequities result in poor completion rates and disengaged students.
- Probable Solutions:
- Incorporate topics of privilege, racism, intolerance (institutionalised and otherwise) into social studies curriculum. Currently, there is not enough focus on the subject matter (both formally and informally), and the rewrite is an opportune time to weight the issue more heavily, with greater depth and detail.
- Provide training and support for teachers. Assist in identifying racial bias at all levels in education. Support leaders with a vision for inclusivity and growth around issues of racism.
- Assign a multicultural event for each public board
- Eliminate the ability for any PUBLICLY FUNDED school to “turn” away a child. *Public funds for truly public schools*
- Emphasis on diverse and inclusive community schools. De-emphasize programs that exacerbate intolerance and racism via segregation.
- Present this vision to community leaders of varying faiths and cultures to engage in conversation with the goal to generate ideas and solutions. Present and promote a vision that includes a truly public education.
- Annual audit, for students and families to inventory their positive/negative experiences with inclusivity in their school.
Talking about diversity and tolerance is important, but means nothing unless children have the opportunity to experience diversity and exercise acceptance. Anti-racism-education cannot be theoretical, it must be practical. For this to occur children from all walks, of all faiths, cultures, and ability must build community through public education together. They need us to create those opportunities. It is important to fight racism, it is equally important to prevent it.