CM: Neoliberalism in Alberta’s Education System
Policy is complicated. However, it is essential that the average Albertan understand it. Policy shapes almost every element of our lives; education, health care, equal rights, and affordable housing are all shaped by policies our governments create. By better understanding policy, in other words, developing one’s policy literacy, the average citizen can be better prepared to advocate for policies that impact their lives. This may mean supporting polices that will have a positive impact or challenging policies that may have negative impacts.
Understanding policy requires understanding the forces that underlie policy. The policies that get created are not neutral, they are shaped by systems of power. Policies are created by whatever political party is in power and can be influenced by other institutions that governments want to keep in favour. Political parties want to stay in power, so they often make policy decisions that will maintain citizen support, and that do not create division or conflict within their parties. Policies are also shaped by powerful ideologies: protecting the things a society values, or addressing problems that are seen to be worth solving (Krings, Fusaro, Nicoll, & Lee, 2019). In the context of Alberta, policies are currently being created by the United Conservative Party (UCP) and shaped by neoliberal ideology. These ideas will be illustrated in this article though the example of education policy and it’s impacts on children.
Neoliberalism in the education system
Neoliberalism is a social, political, and economic regulatory system that calls for limited government involvement in the market and social life in order to promote individual responsibility and freedom. Neoliberal policies involve the privatization of public resources and services, the reduction of government regulations, and the shrinking of government involvement in welfare projects in order to push people to become independent (Harvey, 2005; Turner, 2014). However, neoliberalism often creates the opposite of what it claims to do – by privatizing public goods and services and divesting from welfare projects, people living in marginalized social positions are not afforded adequate resources to make a good life for themselves, and the systems end up entrenching their poverty.
Neoliberal ideas spread into all aspects of modern life – our entire lives are thought to be our own personal responsibility – when we do well it’s because we acted responsibly, and when we struggle it is our fault for making the wrong choices. This system erases the larger social forces and problems that shape our lives (McNutt, 2020) such as systemic racism, ableism, and classism.
By this framework, the goal of education is to teach conformity to the status quo, that is, teach students to conform with neoliberalism. Lessons are focused on preparing students to be good workers who follow the rules (Sims, 2017). Student achievement is increasingly based on standardized tests in which students have to memorize facts rather than demonstrate that they actually understand the material. Multiple choice tests that stress that there is only one “right” answer discourages critical thinking. When student success is based heavily on these tests, teachers may end up “teaching to the test” which discourages students from pursuing their personal interests (Sims, 2017). As a result, students only learn one understanding of the world – an understanding that reinforces the status quo – and do not get opportunities to critically reflect on material and think differently.
The Alberta Context
These ideas are highly evident in the UCP’s provincial curriculum redevelopment and implementation which directs the policies that govern education. Analyses of the curriculum while still in draft form have demonstrated that the curriculum focuses on teaching students’ “core knowledge” without the time to contextualize that knowledge. Several critics have noted that the curriculum has such a large amount of material that teachers will have to teach in shallow and decontextualized ways to get through it all. This way of teaching focuses on memorization and does not allow students to understand topics on a deeper level (Patrie, Howe, and Lorenz, 2021; Auckerman, Burwell, Seidel, & Scott, 2021).
Researchers out of Calgary have argued that many lessons in the curriculum are not developmentally appropriate, and the structure of the curriculum discourages critical thinking. For example, inferring (learning to come to a conclusion from evidence and reasoning) from text in Language Arts is not introduced until grade three, when research has proven these skills can be developed in grade one, delaying student’s development of critical thinking skills. Also in the English curriculum, the curriculum largely uses the word “identify” but rarely uses terms such as analyze or critique, showing that children are not encouraged to think critically about the texts they engage with (Auckerman, Burwell, Seidel, & Scott, 2021). The Social Studies curriculum has been criticized as well for being too focused on European history and paying little attention and respect to Indigenous Peoples (Chau-Wong & Oyasiji, 2022). Despite these criticisms, which were made by a large number of childhood and education specialists, no changes were made to the curriculum.
Neoliberalism in education also looks like the proliferation of ‘choices’ to public education – such as charter schools and voucher systems (Santone, 2019). Charter schools are autonomous, non-profit public schools that have a special area of focus, but they do not have to follow the same regulations as public schools. Alberta is the only province in Canada that provides public funds to charter schools, and the current UCP government has suggested it wants to create more. While they claim charter schools offer families choice in where they go to school, this choice is often only available to families who can afford them. Despite not being accessible to all students, Charter schools get public funding, which divests money and resources from free public education. This system, according to the Alberta Teachers Association, privileges a select few students at the expense of all others (McAthey, 2022). Students in privileged social positions will get a ‘choice’ of schools, but the rest will be stuck in a system that is slowly being eroded.
Impacts on students
Proponents of the neoliberal education system often claim it is about meritocracy – if students do well it is because they worked hard and made the right choices (Santone, 2019). However, as demonstrated above, neoliberal education policies really only reward a particular kind of learner, and all other students are pushed away.
At the same time the government is implementing a problematic public school curriculum, they are putting policies in place that privilege charter schools that only serve a select few. These processes work together so that students in public schools will have their quality of education eroded – they are subject to a curriculum that does not serve their needs and will have less resources and supports to do well in school. While families in more privileged social positions can “choose” to go to the charter schools to mitigate some of these challenges, many Edmonton students will not have that chance.
Students’ experiences in elementary school education influence their beliefs about education for years to come. Memorizing facts without context is hard, and many students will struggle with this form of learning. This does not just impact school success; it impacts long-term happiness. When school success is constructed as the responsibility of the student, students who do not do well will blame themselves, and may feel incapable or inadequate. This has lasting impacts on their self-esteem and belief in themselves to take on new challenges and learning opportunities as they age. In more extreme circumstances, it may push children out of school prematurely, which has long lasting implications for their employment, health, housing and many other elements of their lives.
Schools should provide children an opportunity for self-discovery, to foster creativity, to be curious and learn new things, and to develop their interests. However, when school becomes all about preparing children for the working world, it may limit their opportunity to explore and pursue interests that do not achieve these goals. Topics that address systemic racism and oppression, acknowledge reconciliation and Indigenous Ways of Knowing, history, social justice, literature, and the arts are disregarded. What would education policy look like if decision makers valued these core tenants of education? What could children achieve under this other system?
By understanding the policies being created, the powers behind them, and the impacts that they have on our lives, we can advocate for policies that serve us better. It is important that curriculums are developed by experts in childhood development and education, and that curriculums have built in opportunities for children to develop critical thinking skills, foster creativity, and pursue the topics that interest them. The public education system needs robust funding in order to ensure students have the resources to succeed. Children are more than future workers; schools should give students the tools they need to thrive in whatever future they envision for themselves.
What can we do?
It is important that we vote for parties whose ideologies reflect the society we want to live in, and that we hold governments accountable to make policy decisions that serve our needs. Policies that governments are considering are often in the news. Take the time to read up on these policies, listen to opinions of people with different backgrounds, talk with your friends, and think critically about how it may affect you and your community members. Governments are supposed to represent all of us, contact your local MLA and let them know your opinion. While policies are shaped by systems of power, everyday citizens have the power to tell our governments what we want from them.
Note: This is an excerpt from our March 2023 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here
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Auckerman, M., Burwell, C., Seidel, J., & Scott, D. (2021). By forgetting about thinking, Alberta’s curriculum draft misses the mark. CBC News Calgary. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/road-ahead-alberta-education-curriculum-criticism-1.5978023
Chau-Wong, C., & Oyasiji, A. (2022). Racism in Education. Coalition for Equal Access to Education.
Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Krings, A., Fusaro, V., Nicoll, K. L., & Lee, N. Y. (2019). Social Work, Politics, and Social Policy Education: Applying a Multidimensional Framework of Power. Journal of Social Work Education, 55(2), 224-237. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2018.1544519
McAthey, K. (2022). ‘The commodification of education is never good’: Concerns raised over charter schools in Alberta. CTV News Edmonton. https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/the-commodification-of-education-is-never-good-concerns-raised-over-charter-schools-in-alberta-1.5793526
McNutt, C. (2020). Unpacking “neoliberal” schooling. Medium. https://medium.com/human-restoration-project/unpacking-neoliberal-schooling-aa3a2add66e8
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Santone, S. (2019). Neoliberlism in education: What you need to know. Susan Santone. https://www.susansantone.com/master-blog/2019/5/21/neoliberalism-in-education-what-you-need-to-know
Sims, Margret. (2017) Neoliberalism and early childhood, Cogent Education, 4:1, 1365411, DOI: 10.1080/2331186X.2017.1365411
Tuner, J. (2014). Being young in the age of globalization: A look at recent literature on neoliberalism’s effects of youth. Social Justice 41(4), 8-22. Retrieved from: https://jstor.org/stable/24871272.