Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fighting to defend progressive school reform in Québec

Over the course of the past decade or so, the school system in Québec has undergone a complete overhaul from K-11. This large-scale school reform, which is referred to as the "Québec Education Program" (QEP) in English, has had a transformative effect on the school system. There is a lot in this reform that Dewey scholars (as well as other educators of a progressive bent) will probably like.  Critical thinking is emphasized as a "cross-curricular competency", and all students are required to participate in an innovative new program called "Ethics and Religious Culture" that I have described in previous posts. In science education, which is a particular interest of mine, the new curriculum emphasizes STS (science-technology-society) questions and takes an inquiry-based  approach to science learning. In general, the program has a progressive, child-centered bent.

Given its immense scope and its progressive slant, it is not surprising that the reform has received a lot of criticism. A Québec teachers' union has conducted several massive campaigns against the reform, and the reform has received extensive criticisms from editorialists, academics, and politicians (and even sitcoms). These critiques have aroused some public sympathy; as is the case elsewhere in North America, traditional conceptions of schooling are strong in Québec.

In response to this opposition to the reform, a group of education professors from across Québec has recently released a document called Manifeste pour une école compétente (Manifesto for Competent Schools). This title sounds rather strange in English--the explanation for it is that one of the main criticisms of the reform is that it (allegedly) emphasizes "compétences" (competencies) at the expense of "connaissances" (facts/knowledge). The point of the manifesto is to reply to some of the key criticisms of the reform and to defend the reform from piecemeal modifications that are weakening it.

The release of the manifesto on April 13th was accompanied by a PR blitz. Newspaper editorials were written in advance and were printed by the major Francophone newspapers. The manifesto was also accompanied by a website and a series of Youtube videos. This effort was quite successful--over 1000 people have signed the manifesto online (visit here to add your signature) and the book version of the manifesto has made it on to the Le Devoir non-fiction bestseller list.

Education professors, particularly in the United States, have a lot to learn from this effort. Led by a core group of senior professors in the Université du Québec system, and including signatories from every university in Québec, the manifesto was a thoughtful, well organized effort to influence policy. Although it remains to be seen what effect the manifesto will have, this is the kind of campaigning that education scholars need to do more often. Unless education academics work to communicate with the public about why progressive education is worthy of support, progressive reforms are unlikely to be enacted or to remain in place.


Sarah Stitzlein said...

David--I appreciate your idea of having U.S. education professors engage in similar work. I do think there is a lot we can learn from what has happened in Canada in this regard. The only somewhat related effort I can think of right now is The Futures of School Reform group operating out of Harvard I wonder if there is someway that this group or other education professor groups could create a document that describes and defends best approaches to progressive education in the U.S. Perhaps AERA would have the size, diversity of researchers, and collective voice to draft a powerful piece. I welcome other ideas, especially regarding how to bring such efforts to fruition.

Barbara Stengel said...

Thanks for this, David ... and for the "prod" to all of us to think about how to take our thinking to the public square. The educational public square is being taken over by those who would occupy it for their own political and economic well-being, i think, as many sit quietly because we are too busy or too disbelieving to think that the educative qualities of our system(s) of schooling may be gutted while we sit quietly. One of the purposes of this blog is to mobilize those with the ability to understand and respond to do so. I hope that your comment here has some small effect in that regard.