Somewhere around the mid-1960s the conventional conservative model of the English grammar school was finally over-turned by a new-age, liberal-progressive intellectual alliance of “progressive educators.”
This shift of power and influence to the left led to changes in education that have had enormous effects on the worldview and behavior of recent generations.
Traditional teachers passed on knowledge, skills, and virtues required to succeed in conventional society. That’s why so many parents trusted the education of their children to a traditional public school.
For close to a century, “traditional teachers” have been in retreat and “progressive educators” have been on the march. As a result, schools have become undisciplined mills of declining achievement and moral chaos.
Progressives are “big picture people.” Their model for education is guided mostly by the ideas of 19th-century Utopian socialism, 20th-century Marxism, and the mass formation psychoses afflicting the 21st-century Woke Movement.
Progressive teachers talk a great deal about “active learning” and “student-centered schools.” But, in the context of their high-minded ambitions for change, the well-being of the average kid has become less and less important.
Progressives care little about developing academic proficiency and personal discipline. First and foremost, activist educators seek to produce new cohorts of like-minded graduates who will become dedicated drivers of cultural transformation.
Unique Pathways to Success
For progressive ideologues, preparing students for productive, well-ordered lives is low on the educational agenda. Militant 21st-century pedagogues routinely sideline the hopes and dreams of ordinary children. Their principal mission is the transformation of society.
Consider the “progressive vision” demonstrated in a recent educational policy change by the PC Government of Ontario.
In 2020, Doug Ford’s Minister of Education announced a commitment to end the practice of streaming in grade nine, the first year of high school.
The minister claimed that streaming disproportionately affected the graduation and university entrance rates of black and low-income students. Ninth grade was de-streamed in the 2022–2023 academic year.
In an April 2023 edition of National Review, Toronto-based news writer Ari Blaff took issue with the Ford government’s policy decision.
Blaff opened his case with the testimony of Trish, a woman who had thrived in Ontario public schools and gone on to a successful teaching career. Trish was convinced that if it weren’t for the tailored approach to learning she enjoyed as a student, she wouldn’t have succeeded to the extent that she did.
“I took applied classes in high school,” the elementary school teacher told National Review. “The only reason I passed was because I had teachers who were catering their lesson plans to a student like me who needed more guidance.” The catered learning approach, known as streaming, was “a benefit to me. My self-esteem grew significantly from elementary to high school because I was getting the help I needed.”
Positive reports about the benefits of streaming are supported by scores of student experiences. Going back to the 1950s, a decade routinely vilified by neo-Marxist ideologues, streaming students was fairly common in Canadian high schools.
Childhood disadvantages produce learning challenges that often show up in the early years of high school. Steaming was never intended to embarrass students assigned to lower streams. It simply permitted teachers to teach, and students to learn, at a realistic and productive pace for everyone in the class.
In my day, high school began in grade seven. My elementary years weren’t spent rubbing shoulders with child prodigies. My family wasn’t particularly bookish, and neither were most of my neighborhood friends.
There were five grade seven classes in my high school, and I landed in 7e. Despite the undistinguished start, I will never forget being awarded a book prize that year for “Most Improvement in English.” I wouldn’t have won that confidence-building award if I’d been competing against better-prepared kids in grades 7a or 7b.
The opportunity to begin a rigorous secondary curriculum at a more basic level can be a distinct advantage for some students. It certainly doesn’t prohibit the possibility to improve. Many kids from working-class families who are initially unprepared for advanced studies do just that. Streamed classes can be unique pathways to success.
Woke Ideology Impedes Student Progress
Dedicated teachers of lower-streamed classes always had a reputation for making an extra effort to help their students. But, our present educational establishment considers positive accounts from graduates, like Trish, to be nothing more than anecdotal distractions.
Instead of engaging in discourse with parents, teachers, and students who may have reasonable objections to ideological policy changes, progressives denounce them as white supremacists, homophobes, transphobes, and climate change deniers.
Progressives express their lofty mission in the rhetoric of democracy, social justice, tolerance, saving the planet, and building a new world order.
Addressing the reality that disadvantaged kids require special attention is simply no longer a priority. Today, almost all educational issues are framed around a school’s ideological commitment to “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” In the faculty rooms of the Woke, any disparity between groups defined by race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, or sexual preferences is evidence of injustice.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce categorically asserted that streaming has always been a systemic racist, discriminatory practice. And for now, that’s where the matter stands.
As National Review’s Ari Blaff concluded: “Ontario’s personalized educational approach was sacrificed on the altar of equity.”
William Brooks is a Senior Fellow at Frontier Centre For Public Policy. This commentary was first published here.