Curriculum, Engagement, Policy, Promising Practices, Teaching

15 Years After the Quebec Education Reform: Critical Reflections

Some key figures from the world of education agreed to answer the following question:

According to its creators, Quebec’s education Reform was designed to generate innovation and bring about major change. Do you think the Reform’s implementation produced the desired results?

As you read these observations, you will see that these education leaders agree on a number of points related to both pedagogy and administration that could explain the Reform’s successes as well as its potential shortcomings.

 N.B. The original content was in French and has since been translated to English

Flawed Rollout, But Sound Foundation
by Josée Bouchard

We must not forget that as the 21st century was approaching, Quebec’s 1995 Estates General on Education affirmed the importance of having our education system and civil society adapt to the realities of a rapidly changing world. The resulting education Reform called for a profound, yet fundamental, shift in our basic learning paradigms. It was a tall order for a public that was not necessarily ready for it.

In the absence of an effective communication plan, the perception – and I emphasize the word – of the Reform’s basic relevance and implementation among some school personnel, and among even more members of the public, was undoubtedly negative. This situation invited ridicule, notably about the concept of the competency-based approach, particularly cross-curricular competencies. Other shortcomings, like the lack of clear information about learning assessments and the delayed approval of textbooks adapted for the new program, contributed to the misunderstanding about the Reform. Successive political decisions concerning its very name (the “Reform” became the “renewal”), learning cycles, the renewed emphasis on knowledge, and the letter grade versus numbers report card debate did nothing to help change the initial perceptions of the communities affected, both the general public and education professionals, and especially not those of the media, which had a field day demonizing it.

Despite the criticism, the Reform has endured. Elected school commissioners repeatedly voiced their support for the Reform and, over time, identified improvements and corrective measures for it. Administrative and professional personnel did the same thing and, of course, the majority of teachers showed enthusiasm and a high degree of professionalism in their commitment to making the Reform a success. In so doing, they ensured that what students learned was meaningful, while the students themselves demonstrated openness and an ability to work well in groups with a multidisciplinary approach. Incidentally, now that the first cohort has graduated from high school and started college, many detractors have been silenced by this inspiring new generation that is optimistic about the future! The stage is set for ongoing improvement and an opportunity to learn from a Reform that retains a solid foundation, despite its flawed rollout.

Lessons Learned
by Ron Canuel

In the late 1990s, the Quebec Ministère de l’Éducation (MEQ) began a movement to completely overhaul the parameters of classroom teaching and learning. The goal was to revitalize the conditions, organization and assessments of learning and, ultimately, develop classrooms adapted to the new century. In the middle of the 2000s, the movement introduced political ideologies founded on traditional concepts of education; accountability measures and standardized tests began to enter the curriculum. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the “Reform” (or “pedagogical renewal”) was a mere shadow of its original concept.

At that time, the program had obvious problems with its implementation and communication strategies. The MEQ’s lack of consistency and clarity with regard to content and process was striking.

Here then are several valuable lessons we can learn from this experience.

1. Before undertaking a large-scale reform, the education system must establish clear evaluation criteria and ensure that these are well understood by all educators.

2. Before the reform is implemented, parents must be sent communication materials written in language free of the jargon that is used too often in the field of education.

3. College (CEGEP) and university prerequisites must be completely overhauled because any major reform of the system implemented from Kindergarten to the end of high school must also include a review of post-secondary levels of education.

4. For a period of at least five years, the reform must be implemented “as is” – in other words, without being subjected to a constant assault of questions or external ideologies that create instability in the classroom.

5. At least 12 months before the new curriculum is launched, the system must provide professional development courses on the new educational approaches so that teachers receive the best training and preparation possible.

6. A steering committee (max. 15 individuals) made up of educators (teachers, principals, senior administrators), communication experts and parents must be given a firm mandate of five years to truly lead the initiative and deal with any challenges.

Of course, we can’t use old professional development models and outdated pedagogical tools to create stimulating new teaching and learning models. As for technology, it can – and should – have a significant positive impact, especially if it is not used solely to reproduce existing teaching and learning models.

The Challenge of the Reform
by Claude Lessard

The education Reform had two goals: get schools back on track in terms of equality of opportunity to ensure the academic success of all students and improve the cultural content of the basic teaching curriculum. Although the Reform failed to achieve everything it set out to do, some actions are noteworthy.

Examples of educational equity introduced through the Reform include: full-day Kindergarten for 5-year-olds, junior Kindergarten in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, smaller class sizes in the first few years of elementary school, and the Supporting Montréal Schools Program, New Approaches, New Solutions. Learning cycles, which were shortened, and the end of grade retention are in the same vein. At the high school level, reformers wanted to eliminate the selective practices of public schools and re-examine the status of private education. This, however, required a political gesture; in the end, it was limited to encouraging private schools to accept more special needs students.

Combatting the fear of watering down this notion of educational equity went hand in hand with a demanding view of the culture of school. This was the meaning behind the title of the Inchauspé Report: Reaffirming the Mission of Our Schools. With its emphasis on teaching core subjects, including written French and Math, and introducing a cultural perspective in all subjects, this report aimed to strengthen the mission of instruction. However, the debate on cross-curricular competencies and the shift from curriculum to pedagogical renewal obscured the original intent of the adopted programs.

The Reform’s implementation strategy encountered three issues: the first involved the evaluation of competencies and the report card format; the second pitted the teachers’ collective professionalism against the “state as pedagogue,” which saw teachers as technicians and defined their work in detail; the third set socio-constructivism, self-regulated learning and complex situations against formal education, mastery learning and simple situations. Since these issues influenced the professional identity of teachers, the Reform’s implementation must be better understood and worked out with teachers and parents in order to cut these issues down to size.

The challenge of the Reform was to ensure that schools are both fair and demanding, and this remains valid. The Conseil supérieur de l’éducation will review the Reform in its next report on the state and needs of education.

The Implementation of the Quebec Education Reform: Between Relevance and Influence
by Raynald Thibeault

The job of a school board Director General offers one a certain perspective on what the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS), school boards and schools have managed to introduce with the Reform, notably by using proximity management with school administrators.

The numerous modifications made to the Reform during its rollout created confusion; the situation also hobbled teachers, who had to constantly adapt, particularly with regard to learning.

The Reform aimed to provide equality of opportunity by employing an approach based on cycles and competencies.  The cycle-based approach is designed, among other things, to encourage group work, take each student’s pace of learning into account and promote a variety of educational approaches.  Under the competency-based approach, the acquisition of knowledge leads to the mastery of competencies that enable students to become responsible citizens and make practical use of these skills.

When it comes to teacher leeway with regard to student evaluation, the creation of a single report card, with its percentages, different weightings for each stage and group averages, has proved to be problematic.  Since teachers now have much less flexibility, they must adjust and their professional judgment plays a much smaller role.

The Reform has experienced some setbacks as a result, but it has nonetheless made a good deal of progress that should continue to support efforts to mobilize it. It is essential that education stakeholders ensure that this doesn’t become an ersatz reform that causes us to move backwards, to the dismay of students. Since the organization of school recognizes that acquiring knowledge can help students develop a competency, it is understandable that evaluating a competency inevitably means evaluating the acquisition of knowledge.

 Given that the Reform has actually accomplished quite a lot, we must not stray far away from its primary goal, which is to give all students an opportunity to succeed. Although I believe that education stakeholders are working towards this, there must be consistency, stability, mobilization and support before we can safely proclaim “Mission accomplished!”

The Education Reform’s Highs and Lows
by Louise Chabot

In 1997, the Minister of Education noted that the Quebec Reform targeted three things: success, quality and effectiveness. Reaching these goals would require a new of power and a major restructuring.

With regard to the of power, in hindsight, the creation of governing boards for every school can be seen as a step forward for participatory school democracy. These boards give parents and staff a forum for sharing their viewpoints and making decisions for the smooth operation of the school. However, these organizations have gradually assumed so many responsibilities over time that it has become increasingly complex for representatives to effectively fulfil their roles. In this respect, the movement toward decentralization in schools has perhaps reached its limits.

The Reform has also led to major upheavals, causing education stakeholders to become increasingly polarized. Among the primary criticisms of this Reform is its rushed implementation, the policy of not repeating grades at the elementary level, the disappearance of Individual Paths for Learning classes at the high school level and the evaluation of cross-curricular competencies. After much hesitation, the government finally made some concessions in these areas to reduce the tension in schools. For example, schools once again have the option of having a student repeat a grade at the end of every elementary cycle, not just at the end of Grade 6.

The government has progressively distanced itself from this Reform by trying to put aside its more controversial elements like the evaluation of cross-curricular competencies and the debate on the role of knowledge in the evaluation of competencies. Furthermore, in 2007, the Minister of Education began to speak more or less openly of her concern that the Reform was not helping more students succeed and this perception appears to be borne out by the facts: after ten years, the number of students earning a secondary school diploma or certification has barely risen.

The Education Reform Implementation: Good Intentions, But Mixed Results
by Gaétan Neault

Designed to bring about major change and innovation, the Reform did, in fact, generate the desired curriculum improvement. The educational approach will never be the same, and that’s a good thing! However, when it comes to real change in school practices, it will be several years before we can truly qualify this Reform as a success.

Why has it only partially succeeded? The curriculum Reform revealed the limitations of the socio-constructivism approach, particularly with regard to differentiated learning, the needs of special needs students and evaluation. If problems had been addressed using a scientific approach, the education community would have been able to tackle these limitations and apply possible solutions. Of course, for this to happen, the debate would have had to be constructive, less polarized and accessible to everyone.

The Reform did not realize its full potential because the implementation program was poorly designed, the strategy shifted constantly and the education system’s senior levels lacked leadership. It was plagued by obscure terminology, extreme negativity and a lack of clear communication. As a result, school administrations found it difficult to rally their teams around concepts that were so controversial, especially at the high school level.

This context also influenced the approach. With its intent, quite rightly, to distance itself from Skinner’s factory-inspired model of teaching, the Reform prioritized the higher mental faculties and the cross-curricular aspect of learning. Paradoxically, it also introduced a results-based management (RBM) approach by bringing in number grades, group averages and success as measured by exam grades – a dichotomy that was painfully obvious in the debate over the report card. An adequate reform of governance and management practices would have supported the implementation of the desired pedagogical changes. However, the proponents of traditional models, political issues, pressure from special interest groups, the insecurity inherent in any major structural change and the massive turnover in administrative staff carried the day and reinforced the status quo.

Admittedly, the curriculum itself is the key to ensuring that the pedagogical renewal’s original meaning is not lost. Just like its authors, who are experts from the world of learning and communication, we should move away from theoretical discussion and institute practical methods for applying the Reform that will finally encourage stakeholders to seek a dynamic, progressive pedagogical approach.

Lessons From An Imprecise Recipe
by Gaston Rioux

Signalling a major change in culture, Quebec’s education Reform significantly modified teaching methods to accommodate students who are hard to reach with traditional teaching. Since we have no wish to portray ourselves as pedagogy experts, we would like to talk instead about what we have observed.

The Reform’s strengths and benefits were obscured by the inept management of its communications, notably on the part of the government, which was in charge of the dossier. If you want to implement a program, you are better off giving yourself the time, the means and the tools to do so. In this case, the goal may have been noble, but it was impossible to properly assess its impact.

The numerous unanswered questions and intense public pressure ended up eclipsing the main message. As a parent, how do you make sense of it all? Stuck between a rock and a hard place, parents were caught between the education community and the government. While debates and arguments swirled, students were the ones to experience the launch of this “educational lab experiment.”

In fact, numerous articles have been published in recent months on the academic results of the “children of the Reform.” Despite the dire predictions, the results are very clear: at worst, students perform as well as before the Reform; at best, they perform better.

What a confusing message! Did the Reform fall short, but not the students? What are we to think? Perhaps the lesson is that while the Reform contained all the ingredients needed to achieve its stated goals, the cookbook was not written clearly enough for the education community to follow the recipe properly.

Parents have learned something from the Reform’s implementation: one must take the time needed to do things and respond to the specific characteristics and needs of communities. This is essential for the success of a major project such as this. The same message applies to the teaching of intensive English at the elementary level. Having learned from past experience, we emphatically affirm that these key prerequisites must be in place if such a program is to be successfully implemented. If we can remember this, our experience with the Reform’s somewhat troubled implementation will not have been in vain.

The Quebec Reform: Not the Disaster Predicted
by Léo Bureau-Blouin

In the 1990s, Quebec’s education specialists observed that our world was changing very rapidly, but that our education system was not always keeping pace. To remedy the situation, the government proposed an education Reform of the elementary and high school levels that would focus on student-centred learning and the acquisition of competencies rather than the transmission of knowledge.

A great deal has already been said and written about this Reform, also known as the “pedagogical renewal.”

Let’s begin by examining the major changes made. Hours of classroom instruction increased for several core subjects. For example, the time devoted to teaching French rose from 150 to 200 hours per year, while that for math increased from 100 to 150 hours.[1] Another major change was that English-as-a-second-language was introduced in Grade 1.[2] Class sizes were gradually reduced and students with learning disabilities received better support.[3]

If we look at a few statistics, we note that pre-2009, or before the Reform, new college students passed 84.8% of their classes while this rate was 85.1% in 2010.

The Reform increased the number of classroom hours devoted to core subjects and students are performing well, so why did it generate so much criticism? Much of the public’s criticism of the Reform seems to stem from problems of its presentation and communication. Research on this topic conducted by the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec[4] quotes Paul Inchauspé, one of the thinkers behind the Reform, who identified the following culprits: the Reform was clumsily presented and those in charge of its implementation provided verbose, pedantic communications that focussed solely on the means.[5] In fact, many complex educational concepts were not explained in plain language, which helped fuel the dissatisfaction of a large number of teachers and parents.

In conclusion, the education system is constantly evolving and, while far from perfect, the Reform was in no way the disaster it was predicted to be. Future educational theorists would, however, be well-advised to more clearly explain any modifications that the governments would like to make to our children’s education. 

[1]Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport, The Education Reform, The Changes Under Way, 2005, p. 5.


[3] Idem p. 7.

[4]Julien Boucher, La réforme passe aux ligues majeures, August 2010, Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, p. 19.

[5] Paul Inchauspé. Pour l’école : Lettres à un enseignant sur la réforme des programmes, 2007, Montreal: Éditions Liber, p. 1.

EN BREF – Plusieurs leaders de la scène éducative se prononcent sur les résultats de la réforme, en nous livrant leurs perceptions de son implantation, 15 ans plus tard. Toutes ces personnalités reconnaissent unanimement la pertinence de ses fondements. Ceux-ci ont été élaborés à la suite des États généraux sur l’éducation (1995-1996) qui ont abouti à un certain nombre de recommandations. Cependant, plusieurs facteurs doivent être pris en considération dans l’évaluation des résultats de cette réforme. Son implantation a été parfois plus difficile que prévue car, selon plusieurs leaders, il aurait fallu se donner le temps et les outils nécessaires pour bien réussir une telle opération. Plusieurs d’entre eux ont mentionné l’importance de bien planifier les actions en revenant toujours aux orientations fondamentales qui ont précédé sa mise en œuvre. Ces décideurs de l’éducation nous donnent leur propre vision des succès et des possibles dérapages d’un changement éducationnel important, centré essentiellement sur la réussite de tous les élèves.

Meet the Expert(s)

Ron Canuel

Ron Canuel

Ron Canuel is the former President and CEO of the Canadian Education Association. He has over 40 years of experience in the public education sector. As the former Director General of the Eastern Towns...

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