Three Evidence Based Strategies to Improve Quebec’s Public Schools

By Robert Green

Although the next provincial election in Quebec may still be well over a year away, education is already emerging as one of its central issues. While the student protests for accessible education have directed much of society’s focus towards a number of issues at the post-secondary level, there are also many reasons for Quebecers to be concerned about what is being proposed at the elementary and secondary levels.

Both Francois Legault’s Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (CAQ) and the governing Liberals (PLQ) seem intent on importing to Quebec aspects of the American corporate education reform agenda at the heart of George Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy. Legault wants to bring the American war on teachers unions north. If elected his party intends to remove the tenure process that provides teachers with professional autonomy and job security. Meanwhile the Liberals, through their Bill 88 passed last year, have been flirting with the notion of using performance indicators to determine school funding.

What all parties seem to agree on is that Quebec’s education system is in crisis and needs to be fixed.

This, however, is nothing new. For at least the last twenty years politicians have been wringing their hands over the Quebec education system’s poor performance and high drop-out rate. Their response has been one ill-fated policy-fix after another. Prior to this latest focus on performance-based incentives, it was curriculum reform that was supposed to serve as our miracle cure.

But the problem with miracle cures is that they tend not to be based on evidence.

Indeed evidence is what is missing most from the current debate about the future of Quebec’s education system. What is needed is a government willing to consider the numerous policy options that a wide body of research, both in Canada and abroad, has shown to be effective in improving educational outcomes.

Here are three such options:

Reduce class size

The first option is to invest in further class-size reductions. The body of evidence documenting the benefits of class-size reductions is truly enormous, particularly with regard to reductions at the elementary level. Reducing class size has been shown to have lasting positive effects on academic achievement, absenteeism and drop-out rates. It has also been found to be one of the only factors capable of closing achievement gaps based on socio-economic status. In small classes, poor kids do just as well as rich kids. Class-size reductions have even been found to have long-term public health benefits.

The Ministry has recently made a step in the right direction by committing to class-size reductions in the last round of negotiations with teachers. However, it remains to be seen whether or not the new maximums will actually be enforced. School boards have been in the habit of exceeding class-size maximums by paying compensation to teachers. Given the enormous benefits of class-size reductions, not only should government put an end to this practice, it should commit to even greater reductions. Quebec’s provincial teachers unions should also, in future negotiations, refuse any provision permitting ‘oversized class compensation’ as it essentially allows school boards to pay off teachers (with an insultingly low amount of money) to lower the quality of education.

Do a better job retaining teachers

The second option is to improve the province’s poor rate or retention of its teachers. There is a wide body of research documenting the correlation between teacher experience and student achievement. Currently Quebec’s teachers are on average younger and less experienced than their counterparts in the rest of Canada. Perhaps not coincidentally, Quebec teachers are paid the lowest salaries in Canada. They also have some of the most difficult working conditions. In 2006 the CBC reported that 31% of teachers working for English school boards who went on long-term disability did so for reasons related to stress and burn-out. Clearly government is not doing enough to provide teachers the time and resources they need in order to overcome the enormous challenges they face. If Quebec is to retain its teachers, it first has to stop burning them out. Increasing teacher salaries to the point they keep up with inflation, let alone the Canadian average, would also be a step in the right direction.

End private school subsidies

The third option is to finally address the elephant in the room: public subsidies for private schools. There is a large body of research indicating that putting strong students in the same class with weaker students creates a better learning situation for all students. Weaker students benefit by having strong academic habits modelled by the stronger students and stronger students benefit from the leadership and mentoring roles they inevitably accept.

The problem with Quebec’s subsidies for private schools is that it removes much of the upper and middle class from public education. Since there is also a well-documented correlation between socio-economic status and educational achievement, the result is an under-representation of stronger students in our public schools.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many private schools have entrance criteria that prevent students with special needs from enrolling, resulting in an over-representation of such students in our public system. This is hardly a recipe for improved student achievement.

Compared to other provinces, Quebec has by far the highest percentage of students enrolled in private schools. The only way to reduce that number and bring many of those students back to the public system is to end the subsidies that allow so many to opt out.

Despite the growing amount of evidence in the US of the failure of the corporate reform agenda both the CAQ and the PLQ seem intent on bringing such policies to Quebec. It is time that Quebec’s teacher federations begin to take this threat seriously. The public needs to be informed of the dire implications of these proposed policies and of the possible alternatives that are proven to work. Investing in any one of the options suggested above would be a far more credible plan for improving Quebec’s educational outcomes than following an American model whose credibility is currently in freefall.

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