Choosing Mediocrity Promotes Neither Inclusion Nor Equity

June 18, 2021 Updated: June 21, 2021

Commentary

The Vancouver School Board (VSB) strives for excellence in educating students. At least that’s what its vision statement says.

However, the VSB’s recent decision to cancel all of its math and science honours programs calls this commitment into question. Instead of getting advanced instruction in math and science, gifted students will have to make do in regular classes with considerably less-advanced material.

Of course, students from wealthy homes will have little difficulty adjusting to this change. Their parents can afford to send them to private schools or pay for tutoring in math and science subjects.

The problem is that most students don’t fit into this category. Gifted programs in public schools are of significant benefit to students who want to master advanced courses, but whose parents cannot afford to pay for them. By cutting its honours programs, the VSB is sending a clear message that advanced math and science courses should only be available for rich kids.

In a statement defending its decision, the VSB claimed that the new B.C. provincial curriculum mandates a stronger focus on inclusion. The board also argued that this new approach will help students “participate in the curriculum fulsomely.”

In other words, taking away advanced math and science courses will help gifted students gain a deeper understanding of math and science. If you think this sounds like educational doublespeak, you aren’t alone. Many parents have serious concerns about this change and believe that their kids are being sacrificed for the sake of an educational philosophy.

This philosophy maintains an almost religious fervour for keeping all students in one-size-fits-all classrooms regardless of interests or abilities. Perhaps the foremost proponent of this approach is Dr. Jennifer Katz, an education professor at the University of British Columbia.

Katz, who has also served as a VSB consultant, is the creator of the “Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning.” Not only has Katz written multiple books promoting her model, but she also acts as a consultant to numerous school boards across Canada. Clearly, Katz has a vested interest in seeing her model widely adopted.

While some educational terminology has changed over the last 50 years, the fundamental debate has not changed. Educators have long been divided over whether all students should be kept together (mainstreamed) or whether students should be streamed according to their interests and/or abilities. While streaming has largely fallen out of favour, especially in the early and middle years, it remains quite common in high school.

That’s because high school students are approaching the point where they need to decide on their future career paths. Students with significant interest in math/science will likely take advanced courses, while those going in a different direction will likely take basic math and science courses.

There’s nothing wrong with recognizing this difference between students. We’re not all the same, nor should we be.

That’s why many high schools offer vocational programs. Students who want to be hairstylists, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, or welders should be able to take courses in those fields. It would be the height of absurdity to suggest that vocational courses shouldn’t be offered unless all students are required to take them.

The same is true of honours programs. Courses in these programs take a deeper look at math and science and tackle concepts and problems that are more advanced than those covered in regular courses. Far from promoting elitism, honours programs are a great way to recognize and celebrate the real diversity that exists in schools.

Forcing all students to take the same courses in the name of inclusion is neither inclusive nor equitable. It’s certainly not wise. A one-size-fits-all has never been the right approach to education, and it’s very problematic at the high school level. Students are unique human beings, not interchangeable widgets.

School boards like VSB are doing all families a disservice by prioritizing a rigid philosophy of inclusion ahead of the real-life practical needs of students. Cancelling programs that benefit gifted students makes no sense and could do actual harm.

It’s time for school boards to put students ahead of ideology. Honours programs are important to many students and they should not be abolished. If the VSB wants to show that it strives for excellence, it can start by reversing the misguided decision to abolish its honours programs.

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.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.