The mysterious secrecy surrounding Alberta’s sweeping curriculum revamp

It’s causing wild rumours, errors, pseudo-fiction, and injury, all for no visible reason

This article is full of errors. It is a fictional account of what actually happened; even the date and my affiliation are wrong. I was never contacted by the author for fact checking of this article. Technical problems do happen and yes it would have been nice to have had a full 15 minutes, but that was in no way an intentional slight by Alberta Education. This divisive article should be deleted.

The above letter is from Dr. John Bowman, distinguished professor of mathematics at the University of Alberta, and the subject of a column I wrote in this space last week. Dr. Bowman has of late played a central role in opposing the government’s planned changes in the provincial maths curriculum. Among other things, they propose to abolish compulsory memorization of the multiplication tables. He and other mathematicians have volubly denounced this before protest crowds at the Legislature as well as in the media. Many of these curricular changes in the maths program have already been instituted, and according to teachers and critics they simply are not working. Kids are being misled, confused, and alienated from the subject.

All of which has been a matter of record, but Education Minister David Eggen has made an announcement which vastly expands the dimensions of the conflict. He has launched and is now pursuing what he describes as the most sweeping curricular changes in the history of Alberta education. So the maths changes are merely part of a much wider endeavour.

But for reasons unknown, he has surrounded the entire operation with a wall of secrecy, unprecedented in Alberta political history within living memory. Who is actually running this Herculean operation is totally secret. How their work is constructed is secret — is it by committees perhaps, or by individuals, or by imported expertise? All secret. What are these people doing day by day? Are hearings being held? Who gets to testify? Strictly confidential. The educational lives, capabilities and intellectual component of our children could be critically influenced here, all secretly. It boggles the mind.

It also invites numerous unnecessary problems  in which people get hurt, one of them in this case Dr. John Bowman. Consider the situation. When vital changes such as Mr. Eggen describes are being fashioned for our schools then the media and the general public want to know what, why and how. And when a government slams the door on them, then they will make every effort to discover the story some other way. And that is what the media in a democracy are supposed to do. It’s their responsibility to find out as best they can. The result will be errors, omissions, pseudo-fiction, and numerous grievances, but that’s what the government brings upon itself when it shuts the door.

However, I brought this column back to the person who leaked the information to me. He made several minor changes which I will make in the column on the blog Monday. I’ll also make any factual changes Dr. Bowman wants made. But I will not kill the column because the substantive facts of it are not in dispute at all, namely: 1. He was required to limit his submission to 15 minutes. 2. Because of the government’s mismanagement of the projection equipment, ten of his fifteen minutes were lost. 3. Did the government  offer to extend his time? It did not. Did it offer him his full 15 minutes on another day? It did not. They simply told him to shut up and get out.

Oh no, they didn’t use nasty words like that; they were no doubt most courteous about it, I’m sure. But that was the import of their message, and its inescapable meaning is that Alberta Education doesn’t really care what professional mathematicians think of their program.

One last appeal to Dr. Bowman. In your suggested changes to the original column, please do not retain  that word “divisive,” which you’ve used in your letter. It’s the wimp word of the 21st Century western world. What do you think you yourself  are being, if not “divisive,” when you quite properly hammer their “discovery method” of teaching math? Try “confrontational” or “adversarial” or even (given the circumstances) “defiant.” Do remember your field is numbers. I’m into words. Maybe we should try to work together some time, if I should live so long. I’m 88.

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.

The man who said that was John F. Kennedy, hardly what you would call an intolerant, hateful, right-wing bigot. Maybe somebody should whisper this quotation to Education Minister David Eggen (pronounced Eagan.) Meanwhile, in the next column I’m going to tackle the question of “Why the secrecy?” Because I think I know the answer.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century. a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The Christians.com, a web journal. He has recently authored two little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters and The Revolution Nobody Covered

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3 thoughts on “The mysterious secrecy surrounding Alberta’s sweeping curriculum revamp

  1. Thanks Ted for all your efforts. I agree we are approaching a world where facts are irrelevant, truth doesn’t exist and there is no right and wrong. OK, Mr Eggan, let’s then simply abolish the Dept. of Education. It seems to have no useful purpose. I suppose you have one but it’s a secret, no doubt. I used to wonder why my 10 years of university math and science did not qualify me to teach grade 1 arithmetic according to the Dept. of Education. Now I see the reason perhaps being is that I lack the important skills in brainwashing that seem to dominate your department.

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  2. How do you know that they propose to abolish compulsory memorization of the multiplication tables when you say that everything is a secret? Who’s your insider in the working groups on the new curriculum? I think you’re just making stuff up… readers of this blog – do your own research and read everything with a critical eye…

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    1. The changes in the math program preceded by two or three years the NDP’s current vast curriculum endeavours –a trial run, so to speak, on one aspect of the oncoming revolution. The maths changes were not secret, and have been implemented in the schools. The protest against them, coming from parents, teachers and academic mathematicians, has been very severe and resulted in at least two demonstrations at the Legislature. The same changes had been instituted in Manitoba where they became a proven failure, just as they are now doing here. Why then, one must ask, did Alberta Education so zealously insist upon them? Despite their failures, will, they nonetheless be retained in the new curriculum or dropped? The answer to that, like the answer to everything else around the new curriculum, is kept secret.

      Nonetheless, your question was well worth raising. How (you asked) can the new curriculum be so secret, Byfield, when you know so much about it? Well, that’s how. But notice that much the same question can be asked of the minister of education. He assures us how broad and wide is the range of public opinion being sought by the curriculum revisers. How, then, does he know in advance that what will result is the most sweeping curriculum changes in the history of Alberta Education? There can be but one answer — the government knew what changes it was planning before it consulted anybody. The quest for public input, therefore, is a sham.

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