By Robert Green
Part one of this series looked at where the parties stand on education financing. This article will focus on where the parties stand on the question of curriculum reform.
We often think of curriculum as something immutable; the three R’s. However, it is much more than that. It embodies the knowledge, values and skills a society wants to pass on to future generations. As such, public education curriculum should be an issue of interest to all of those concerned about the future of our society.
Over a decade ago the Parti Quebecois introduced a radical reform of Quebec’s curriculum centred around the concept of ‘competency-based evaluation’. Neither teachers nor parents had demanded such a reform. However, around the time this reform was proposed, the concept was being pushed aggressively by multinational corporations through international organizations such as the OECD. Apparently corporate leaders felt such reforms would provide them a more objective and standardized measure with which to rank employees in a globalized world. ‘Knowledge’, the traditional subject of evaluation, was seen as too abstract, subjective and rooted in the local.
Since this reform had the support of neither teachers nor families, the two central stakeholders in education, its implementation was met with controversy and resistance, much of which remains to this day. Divisions over this reform even lead to the split of Quebec’s largest teacher’s federation and the formation of a new federation, La Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), which would take a more critical stand towards the reform.
What’s more, government attempts to tinker with the reform in response to public pressure have rendered it philosophically incoherent. For example, teachers in Quebec are now instructed to evaluate ‘competency’ using percentages. Is it even possible to be 65% competent in something?
Clearly Quebec needs another overhaul of its curriculum, but one that is done in consultation with teachers and the public. This requires a political party with vision.
Parti Liberal du Quebec (PLQ)
If vision is what you’re looking for, on this issue the Liberals are not your party. The Quebec curriculum is currently a nonsensical mess largely due to the Liberal Party’s lack of vision. Rather than roll up its sleeves and look for a comprehensive solution to the disastrous reform left to it by the PQ, it has tinkered with cosmetic changes aimed at appeasing some of the noisiest complaints. The result is a curriculum that is in many ways incoherent for both students and teachers. Many teachers, myself included, fear that the government’s inability to address the glaring problems with Quebec’s curriculum is leading to a growing number of students not acquiring the basic knowledge and skills they need.
The PLQ’s electoral platform is further confirmation that this issue is not even on the party’s radar. Prior to the recent announcement of a $100 tax credit for school supplies and new support for the government’s homework program, the only reference to education in the PLQ platform is to the economic need for more vocational and technical training. This may be an indication that the problem with the PLQ is not a lack of vision but rather an ideological commitment to the wrong vision; one that views education strictly through the narrow lens of economic utility.
Parti Quebecois (PQ)
As the party that initiated the disastrous curriculum reform that is still in place, the PQ is also dealing with a large credibility problem on this issue. So much the more so that PQ leader Pauline Marois was the Minister of Education that initially proposed this reform. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the PQ’s platform has little to say on the question of curriculum reform.
What little the PQ platform does say about curriculum reform is highly ironic. The party that a decade ago instructed teachers to forget about ‘knowledge’ and focus only on ‘competency’ now features a single curriculum-related point in its electoral campaign that is about focusing on “knowledge of Quebec’s national history and institutions.” The only other item with some connection to curriculum is a commitment to fund more cultural field trips for schools.
Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ)
Since CAQ leader, Francois Legault, was the PQ Education Minister that followed Marois in defending and implementing the current reform, he too shares much of the PQ’s credibility problem on this issue. However, unlike the PQ this does not stop the CAQ from making numerous proposals related to curriculum. While avoiding the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘competency’ altogether, the CAQ platform acknowledges that there is a serious problem in that the current curriculum is failing to adequately teach basic skills. Its proposed remedy is to cancel the Ethics & Religious Culture program at the elementary level to allow for more instruction in core subjects.
Like the Liberals the CAQ seems preoccupied with an education system that meets the needs of businesses. The CAQ platform promises to prioritize technical and vocational training, increase the number of business internships and work-study programs and create a new secondary-level course in “economics, personal finances and entrepreneurship”.
The CAQ platform also contains an item on language instruction that in fact promises very little change. Under the heading “Restructuring the means and priorities in language instruction” the CAQ promises to:
a) Entrust the school system with the mission to ensure proficiency in French for all students (already the case), which will be assessed through examinations at all levels of education (such assessments already take place at every level, though not all levels are evaluated using standardized ministry exams)
b) Promote the intensive teaching of English as a Second Language while leaving teachers the autotomy to choose methods that meet the needs of their students including those with special needs (already the case)
Quebec Solidaire’s political program features a far broader vision for Quebec’s curriculum. For QS schools are not just about vocational training and the needs of business. Rather they are for the development of the “whole person” in all its dimensions; social, cultural, intellectual, artistic, etc. In this sense the QS program supports an extended general program of study that does not pressure students to make hasty decisions about specialization. The program describes QS’s approach to curriculum as “focusing on the transmission and mastery of core knowledge in a context that promotes critical thinking, civic engagement and openess to the world.”
By involving teachers directly in the process of curriculum development, QS wants to break with the top-down approach that has been the hallmark of both Liberal and PQ governments. The QS program states: “the content of the curriculum will be developed by national committees composed mainly of teachers specializing in various domains, selected by their peers and representative of regional diversity.”
Option Nationale’s platform contains no reference to broad sweeping changes in Quebec’s curriculum or to the knowledge vs. competency controversy. It does however contain some specific targeted goals. For example, it wants to strengthen the teaching of Quebec’s national history and support the learning of second languages. It wants to increase spending on basic literacy and include one period of physical education in every student’s school day from Kindergarten to Secondary Five. It also wants to better prepare secondary students for understanding Quebec’s social, economic and political institutions.
Le Parti Vert du Quebec
The Green Party’s platform has nothing specific to say on the subject of curriculum.
Check back soon for part three of this series which will examine where the parties stand on the question of school autonomy.