Abolishing Honours Programs in the Name of Equity Is Absurd

Commentary, Culture Wars, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Vancouver’s recent school board election generated a lot of heat. The heat was caused, in part, by a group of trustee candidates pledging to bring back honours courses, which the board abolished last year.

Many parents were upset when the honours courses were cut, particularly since they were the only way for gifted students to receive specialized programming. Most low-income families cannot afford private school tuition, and consequently they are dependent on public schools to provide their children with appropriate academic options.

The rationale for cutting honours courses was that this was an important step in promoting inclusivity and equity. Trustees felt that honours courses were simply an advanced form of streaming and that this went against their equity objectives.

Vancouver is not the only school board to abolish specialized programming in the name of equity. The Toronto District School Board recently eliminated all its skills-based entrance requirements for specialized arts and athletic schools. When the number of applicants exceeds the spaces that are available, a lottery will be held to determine admission.

Thus, in one fell swoop the Toronto board effectively announced the death of its specialized schools. If admission is no longer based on skill, the quality of programming will inevitably decline. This means that students who wish to advance to an elite level will be forced to enroll in private schools that haven’t watered down their entrance requirements. Once again, lower-income families will suffer the most since most will be unable to afford the tuition fees.

How could the Vancouver and Toronto school boards, two of the largest boards in the country, be so blind to this obvious problem? It’s because of an overriding commitment to equity. While this word sounds similar to equality, it has come to mean something quite different.

Equality means treating everyone fairly and ensuring that students have the same opportunity to succeed. This does not mean identical treatment since students come from different backgrounds and some obviously need additional support. As a case in point, a student with a learning disability will likely need more help than a student without this disability.

In contrast, equity is about ensuring identical outcomes for all students. Any disparities between groups of students are typically attributed to systemic racism or unconscious bias and not to actual differences in ability and motivation. The ultimate goal is to ensure that educational outcomes are as similar as possible for every student.

Considering this philosophy, it’s not hard to see why school boards would abolish their honours programs. This type of programming is inherently inequitable because it provides specialized training to students who are already well-above average in their skills or knowledge. Rather than reduce disparities, honours programs increase them.

However, none of this alters the fact that abolishing honours programs in the name of equity is downright foolhardy. Unequal outcomes alone are not proof of discrimination or systemic racism. Instead, it simply means that not all students have the same level of giftedness or talent in every area. Simply put, some students will always be better at some things than others. This has nothing to do with race or gender and everything to do with knowledge, skills, and motivation.

If we took equity to its logical extreme, we would abolish the Olympic games, or at least remove any skills-based entrance requirements for participants. Similarly, symphony orchestra positions would no longer be limited to the best musicians and pro sports teams would use a lottery to select their players. We also might as well abolish all PhD programs since they promote academic elitism.

In the end, we must ask ourselves whether we want our schools to focus on equality of opportunity or on equality of outcome. One of these objectives encourages all students to work hard and improve themselves regardless of their circumstances while the other leads to an unhealthy focus on group identity and the lowering of standards.

Fortunately, it looks like change is on the way in Vancouver. On October 15, candidates who promised during the campaign to restore honours programs won five out of nine trustee seats.

Bringing back honours programs won’t solve everything that is wrong in public education, but it will be a positive step forward.

 

An original version appeared here.  It has ben slightly updated.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”