Heather McPherson and Maggie McDonnell
Reforms in K-12 science education are global. New national science curricula were introduced in the United States (NRC, 1996), in Canada (CEMC, 1997), and in Europe (European Commission 2007). In this article, the impact of these reforms on college students in Quebec is studied. Articulation between high school and college sectors is viewed through the lens of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) high school and college faculty. Faculty of both communities experienced stress as the first education reform curricula cohorts entered college. Results of a diagnostic test developed by CEGEP faculty to assess college preparedness found no difference in math and science content knowledge when pre-reform cohorts were compared with cohorts instructed with the reform curriculum. Improvements were observed in problem solving skills, which has led to changes in pedagogy at the college level. Articulation between the two sectors could alleviate anxieties among faculty and students.
In Quebec, the college system is somewhat different from the college system in other regions of North America. Colleges are referred to as CEGEP, which is an acronym for Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel. The CEGEP system is divided into two programs, one of which is perhaps best compared to two-year colleges in other regions of North America. Quebec students complete their secondary school in Grade 11. Following the two-year CEGEP program, students are admitted to university. In university, they receive advanced placement. Essentially, they would have one less year of university courses than a student entering a Quebec university from out of province (unless that student had completed an AP program in their home province) The province’s CEGEPs also offer three-year programs which prepare students for direct entry into the workforce in a variety of technical fields. Study of the CEGEP system is an important endeavour, given the number of students involved in the system; in 2010, there were almost as many students enrolled in CEGEP (210,084) as university (277, 398) (Statistics Canada, 2010). In 2012/13, there were 198,672 full-time university students in Quebec, and 196,566 students enrolled in full-time college studies (Statistics Canada, 2014), in other words, almost a 1:1 ratio, which is significantly higher than the 2:1 national average.
Articulation, bridging of the gap, between educational sectors is an on-going preoccupation for secondary high school teachers and their college counterparts. In this study, a Quebec high school science teacher and a CEGEP teacher, had informal discussions with high school teachers and CEGEP teachers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines to gain insights into the gap between high school and CEGEP science and math curricula. Changes in science curricula at the high school level have direct implications for college level science courses. In Quebec, and across Canada, high school curricula changed both in content and in recommended content delivery when the Common framework of science learning outcomes, K to 12: Pan-Canadian Protocol for Collaboration on School Curriculum, was published in 1997. In response to these changes in curricula, college teachers had numerous questions and concerns, including:
In an attempt to understand the impact of curricula changes, four CEGEP teachers initiated the Integration of Students Entering the CEGEP Science Program after 2010 program, which included a Math Science Diagnostic Test (MSDT) to measure the skills and knowledge of the first cohorts of post reform students. This initiative studied incoming college students, but did not include input from the high school sector with regard to required content knowledge and pedagogy. Feedback from the high school sector indicated that there is an expectation on the part of CEGEP teachers that certain content will be covered in high school. Some high school teachers are attempting to meet these expectations, at the expense of high school curricula. High school teachers questioned the reliability of the MSDT since it was developed without input from high school teachers, who have expert experience on knowledge expectations of their graduates.
What research has been done on the articulation of the high school and CEGEP sectors in Quebec? Answering the above questions is important. If the two sectors work in collaboration, the transition from high school to CEGEP has the potential to reduce student anxiety. High school teachers would gain insights into the expectations, both content and pedagogies, of higher level education. CEGEP teachers would gain an understanding of high school curricula, and would have a clear understanding of content covered and how the content was delivered. In so doing, the gap between the two sectors would narrow, easing the transition for students entering CEGEP. In this article, we (a high school science teacher and a CEGEP teacher) explore concerns of high school and CEGEP science teachers as the education reform was implemented, and eventually, its students entered the college network. Both sectors experienced numerous stressors leading up to the transition. Currently, the first four reform cohorts have graduated from CEGEP.
The importance of STEM education has been discussed on a global level, not least because the demand for STEM graduates has increased while the number of incoming freshmen who declare a STEM major has remained stagnant (Brown, et al, 2015). In a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2010), there is a stated need for a large and increasing supply of workers who can use STEM knowledge and skills in their jobs. Companies in STEM-related fields, such as aerospace, defense, life sciences, and energy sectors, are reporting shortages of skilled workers. Articulation and dialogue between high school and college teachers has the potential to increase student retention in STEM disciplines, and to improve access to college STEM courses, as well as projected STEM careers.
The science curriculum in Quebec, part of the Quebec Education Plan (QEP), or Reform, is a competency-based curriculum that was introduced in 2000. The QEP involved a new approach to education requiring a paradigm shift for teachers. Prior to the Reform, teachers taught learning objectives that focused on the transmission of knowledge. In contrast, the QEP incorporates social constructivist theory with cognitive theory as a means of promoting competency development. Competency is defined as: “the mobilization of resources in a specific context, the availability of a diversified repertoire of resources and the capacity to reflect upon the process of mobilizing, reorganizing and integrating the resources” (Ministère de l'éducation, du loisir et du sport (MELS), 2007). In secondary high school science courses, the QEP emphasizes student engagement with scientific inquiry and technological processes. Students develop scientific and technological literacy, enabling them to become active, critical, informed participants in social issues, using products of science and technology responsibly, and participating innovatively (MELS, 2007). Students must be taught and evaluated on their understanding of complex, authentic situations. Teachers choose strategies facilitating mastery of complex problems suited to students’ learning needs while ensuring educational differentiation (MELS, 2007). The reform in science curricula involved significant changes in teaching practices and philosophy. Moreover, there were changes in science content. Some content was removed from the courses, while new topics were added. These content changes were perceived by high school teachers as minimal, whereas the changes in method of content delivery were seen as radically different to pre-reform pedagogies.
The first science reform cohort graduated from high school in 2011, precipitating some anxiety among CEGEP science teachers, who were concerned that the new curricula would not adequately prepare students for science programs in CEGEP. The question of high school student preparedness for college and university is well documented. In the United States, most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (Achieve, 2015), with corresponding assessments to measure high school students’ mastery of college content in English and mathematics. There is a “sense of urgency to close the gap between college eligibility and college success” (Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 2014). In the US, government agencies have mobilized in an effort to increase graduation rates in colleges and universities. The first pan-Canadian research was released in 2007 by the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, Human Resources and Social Development Canada. The pan-Canadian research surveyed college students from colleges in all provinces and territories. Survey results indicated that a significant number of students believed their basic academic and learning skills were weak, in particular for studying, test taking and math skills (p. 59). A conclusion of the pan-Canadian research was the need for more secondary school and college collaboration and sharing of information to improve students’ understanding of college programs (p.60). Currently, there is regular sharing of information between high school guidance personnel in Quebec high schools and CEGEP academic advisors. What is missing is the collaboration between teachers of the two sectors.
In an effort to bridge the gap between secondary science and CEGEP science sectors, the Quebec Educational Mathematics and Science Alignment Project (QEMSAP) was formed in 2007. QEMSAP was a project that was the result of a grant from Quebec’s Ministry of Education, (MELS), initiated by S. Apollonia. The goal of QEMSAP was to cultivate an environment that provided opportunities for educators from high school, CEGEP, and university, to use their respective expertise to develop relevant problem-based situations for use in high school. (Apollonia, 2008). Apollonia recognized the fragmentation existing between the two sectors. As a CEGEP science teacher, Apollonia realized that if students arrived in CEGEP science courses and there was no articulation between the two sectors, those students would be negatively impacted, and their college experience would potentially suffer. Teachers from the high school and CEGEP sectors as well as university 4th year education students met over the course of one year to analyze the alignment between the various institutions. Project members, including H. McPherson, worked in heterogeneous groups to develop complex problems consistent with the QEP. This provided an opportunity for all stakeholders to work collaboratively in a community of practice (CoP).
As a QEMSAP participant and high school science teacher, I (Heather) felt that the one-year initiative led to a shared understanding of the reform high school math and science curriculum. Participating in a CoP with high school and CEGEP teachers permitted both sectors to voice concerns, find solutions, and write lesson plans as a community with the common objective of ensuring that the transition from high school to college was a positive experience for students. Through the efforts of QEMSAP, stresses associated with reform were somewhat alleviated for those who participated. However, both sectors had unaddressed concerns. As a high school science teacher, I felt and still feel uninformed about changes in curricula at the CEGEP level. Were the changes in pedagogical approach going to leave students bewildered? Adhering to reform pedagogies required that high school teachers teach using inquiry-based learning, which involves probing students’ preconceptions in an effort to elicit student thinking. Would this skill set be valued or recognized in CEGEP? Furthermore, were CEGEP teachers prepared to adapt CEGEP science courses to reflect the changes in science concepts outlined by the QEP? The importance of STEM disciplines is well documented. But how can I, as a high school science teacher, ensure the success of my students if I am unaware of the expectations of CEGEP teachers? In conversations with CEGEP science teachers, they felt uninformed about high school science curricula.
Although efforts were made, through participation in QEMSAP, to bridge the divide between high school and CEGEP science, there were serious concerns amongst CEGEP teachers that incoming students would lack adequate content knowledge for CEGEP science in light of changes in high school curricula. If high school science courses were taught following the reform curricula, using problem-based learning, then the concern was that less time would be spent developing foundational science content knowledge. These concerns prompted a group of science and mathematics teachers from four English CEGEPs to collaborate, and ultimately release a report entitled “Integration of Students Entering the CEGEP Science Program after 2010.” (Forand, 2011). The report presented the findings of a Math and Science Diagnostic Test (MSDT), administered to incoming college students over three years, as well as a series of recommendations based on the results. The primary concern which the test was designed to address was the level to which students were prepared for CEGEP science courses in reference to the pedagogical reforms at the secondary level under the QEP.
Teachers and administrators at the college level had concerns regarding post-reform students. Based on their analysis of curriculum documents proposed under the QEP, CEGEP teachers felt that “some college prerequisite topics/skills” were not covered by the new curriculum (Forand, 2011, p. 3). As well, a perceived lack in “support material and pedagogical training” as the reform was implemented would likely result in “some level of divergence” in the skills and knowledge of incoming students (p. 3). To address these concerns, CEGEP teachers initiated the Integration of Students Entering the CEGEP Science Program after 2010 program, which included a Math Science Diagnostic Test (MSDT) to measure the skills and knowledge of incoming high school students. The group administered the test at four colleges in 2009, 2010, and 2011. The diagnostic test was designed to:
Based on their findings, Forand (2011) and the group of CEGEP teachers felt they would be able to inform their colleagues about the skills and knowledge of the incoming students, enabling pedagogical adjustments and development of support material as required. The expectation among CEGEP teachers was that incoming post-reform students would be unprepared and would not possess the necessary knowledge to be successful in college-level science courses. There appears to have been little effective consultation between the government and its teachers. Most teachers at the different colleges shared the concern that students would be less well-prepared than their pre-reform counterparts However, despite widespread concern regarding the potentially negative impact of the reform on students’ skills and knowledge, within both science and mathematics programs, the diagnostic test revealed little of value. Differences in test results between pre- and post-reform cohorts were negligible. It was determined that the project revealed no significant effect of the new curriculum on students’ performance (Forand 2011, p. 69).
By 2016, four post-reform cohorts have entered and graduated from CEGEP Science programs. We initiated conversations with two of the original coordinators of the integration program to reflect on their study, its results, and where they feel students and teachers are now situated. Below is a summary of the conversations:
In summary, the anticipated gap in science and math content knowledge of the first three cohorts moving through high school to CEGEP graduation did not exist. Content changes in the QEP for high schools were minimal. The MSDT administered to incoming students prior and post reform revealed no significant difference in content knowledge. Looking back, it is unfortunate that the diagnostic was not administered to a greater number of cohorts, over an extended period of time. The results of the report coincided with the transition period of high school reform, which is on-going. High school pedagogies are in transition, as teachers are learning how to incorporate reform-based pedagogies into their lessons. To date, not all high school teachers are comfortable with inquiry-based and problem-based learning, and with competency evaluation. Reform pedagogies at the high school level are evolving. The opportunity to determine long term trends, both positive and negative, as reform delivery becomes consolidated would be of interest and value. To date, there has been no research completed on this topic.
The evolution of reform-based pedagogies is also of interest. High school teachers are expected to incorporate problem-based and inquiry-based lessons into their teaching repertoire. In the CEGEP sector, individual teachers have embraced new instructional strategies and learning tools, however, these shifts in pedagogy do not seem to be informed by the reform; the CEGEP teachers who were previously inclined to incorporate reform-based pedagogies into their lessons do so. Here too, more research is required. It is expected that with time and better understanding of reform pedagogies, more CEGEP teachers would incorporate these pedagogies into their lesson. Articulation with their high school counterparts could facilitate discussions of alternative pedagogies.
Unfortunately, yet perhaps not surprisingly, the lack of communication and interaction between high school and CEGEP teachers remains problematic for all involved, including students. Common misconceptions, such as the comment made by one respondent, that high school teachers are simply teaching to ensure students pass end-of-year exams, and that high school science programs lack vision, could be addressed if articulation meetings happened on a regular basis. Science teachers, on average, review for one to two weeks prior to exams. As a high school science teacher (Heather), we are too busy delivering the QEP in all of its complexities and depths to complete the program earlier. Issues of time and location make meetings between these stakeholders difficult. The vision of QEMSAP was lofty and of value to participants. We hope for similar initiatives moving forward, as the need for articulation between high school and CEGEP would benefit teachers from both sectors, and, more importantly, it would benefit students.
An unexpected outcome of this study was the realization that the mission of MELS pre-university science programs in CEGEP is to provide “genuine continuity between pre-university programs and university programs … using a «competency-based» approach” (MELS 2010, p. xvii). The mission of MELS high school programs are threefold: “to provide instruction, to socialize and to provide qualifications” (MELS, 2007, p. 5). Nowhere in the QEP is there an explicit goal for high school to prepare students for CEGEP. The authors found this gap interesting, as many high school teachers are preoccupied with adequately preparing students for CEGEP, and many CEGEP teachers expect high school teachers to prepare their students for CEGEP. The reality is that high school teachers are mandated to teach the QEP following guidelines prescribed by the Ministry of Education of Quebec. The authors feel that the intersection between high school and CEGEP needs to be better understood, and further research is required in this area. In Quebec, a renewed dialogue between the CEGEP and university sectors is a positive recent development. The need for similar articulation between high school and CEGEP is vital if these two sectors hope to align their course content, and to develop an understanding of expected student preparedness as they exit high school.
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Heather McPherson is a doctoral student in McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education, and she is a full time high school science teacher. Her doctoral research focuses on teacher engagement with inquiry-based learning through participation in Professional Learning Communities.
Maggie McDonnell is a doctoral student and course lecturer in McGill University’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education. She also teaches English Literature and Liberal Arts at Vanier College, and is a part-time yoga instructor. Her doctoral research focuses on personal and professional identity in higher education teachers, and the relationship between identity and approaches to assessment.