Canada's biggest school system has some problems. Math scores are flat or in decline. Too many kids aren't doing well in school, and too many of them are visible minorities. Something must be done. What is it?
The answer is to make social justice and "equity" the main focus of education in Ontario. Every school board, school and classroom will be re-engineered to root out racism and discrimination. School boards will collect data on race and ethnicity to ensure that equity is reflected in everything from staff hires to student suspensions. Teaching materials will be revised to be less Eurocentric. Children will be taught the history of colonialism, residential schools and oppression. Kids in the "applied" stream will be placed in the academic stream, because streaming is discriminatory.
The social-justice movement has spread across the country, most notably in Alberta and British Columbia. "Equality" is no longer the goal. The new goal is "equity," a very different concept. According to a sweeping draft plan prepared for the Toronto District School Board, equity is not achieved by treating students fairly. It is achieved by challenging "entrenched systems of power and privilege" and "constantly working to centre the conversation around the effects of inequity, oppression, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of hate and discrimination specifically for racialized students."
In other words, kids' success or failure is shaped by historic forces that determine their victim status. (The vexed question of why some "racialized" students do extremely well and others not so well is not addressed.)
One mother wrote me that social justice and equity are now the focus of her son's school. At parent council meetings they talk about microaggressions. "There is no room, it seems, for white children or mixed children," she lamented. (Her children are mixed.) In the name of social justice, Grade 9 math is being de-streamed.
De-streaming is a big deal these days. Streaming is unjust, we're told, because kids in the applied stream are less successful at math than kids in the academic stream. This is attributed not to their lower math skills, but to "structural elements" that divide students.
Putting the applied kids in the academic stream will raise their aspirations, their self-esteem and therefore their results. As Ontario's new equity plan says confidently, "Given the opportunity and the right supports, all students can succeed in the academic stream."
Teachers know better. "Here's what will happen with de-streaming," wrote Don Cooper, a retired teacher, in a letter to the Toronto Star. "Grade 9 teachers will be faced with a classroom with more academic and social disparity, which will be much more difficult to educate." Translation: Struggling kids will be the losers.
Where do education theorists learn such dumb ideas? In education school, and especially in OISE (the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), which is a highly influential hotbed of nutty social theory. The folks at OISE believe that differences in academic achievement are caused by social inequities, not differences in ability. In a just world, the education system would produce equal outcomes for all.
According to the new education theorists, equal outcomes cannot be achieved by equal treatment. The desired policy, as Ontario's equity plan explains, is "equity of treatment … because it includes acknowledging historical and present systemic discrimination against identified groups and removing barriers, eliminating discrimination and remedying the impact of past discrimination."
In the real world, eliminating so-called discrimination can be a terrible idea. For example, the equity warriors want to integrate all special-ed kids into regular classrooms – a move that's bound to hurt students who need intense hands-on instruction and a structured learning environment. They also want to abolish specialized programs and schools, because they are unfairly skewed toward privileged kids. (Parents went ballistic when they got wind of this one, and the director of the school board was forced to beat a hasty retreat.)
What's so awful about social-justice doctrine is that it will hurt the very kids it's supposed to help. It deploys significant resources in the wrong direction and aggressively ignores everything important that we know about kids and school achievement. Decades of social-science research confirm that the biggest predictors of school achievement are family structure effects – family composition, stability, maternal education and socioeconomic status. These have nothing to do with entrenched systems of power and privilege, and everything to do with factors such as having two parents and close parental supervision. Sad to say, not all the anti-bias training in the world is going to change that.