Vancouver school board ditches honors math and science courses (English, too), fibs about why

June 20, 2021 • 10:45 am

From News1130 (a Vancouver, BC radio station) via reader Jeff, we have yet another case of academics trying to dismantle the meritocracy. It is no coincidence that ranking and tracking of students, whether it be by eliminating standardized testing or eliminating advanced placement (AP) classes, is all happening at an increasing rate. The reason to anyone with brains is transparently clear: this kind of ranking and sorting leads to inequities—differential representation of ethnic groups compared to their proportion in the population.  In the U.S. (and I suspect in Canada), there’s an average achievement gap between Asians (at the top), whites (middle) and blacks and Hispanics (lowest). I suspect this is due to cultural differences that will take years to remedy, but which must be remedied. But in the meantime, it’s inimical to eliminate opportunities available to all groups.

If you ranked or sorted students solely by achievement, then, you would get lower representation of students of color in colleges. That’s one reason why we have affirmative action. But you’d also get the AP classes in high schools filled largely with Asian and white students—another inequity. Abraham Kendi, in his How to be an Antiracist, asserts that inequities are evidence of racism—not just the long-term effects of past racism (as is surely the case in the U.S.), but current and ongoing systemic racism. This claim, while false, is almost untestable if you hold the belief that racism can be so subtle that it’s unconscious but nevertheless still powerful.

The elimination of the meritocracy, while it has some good aspects (I favor limited affirmative action), will have long-term dire effects not only on societal progress, but, as John McWhorter claims, on the self-image of minorities themselves, who don’t get a chance to show high achievement and are told, in effect, that they’re not as good as others. It’s an opportunity eliminated, one that should remain while we work on the root causes of inequality.

Here’s a short piece about the Vancouver School Board eliminating honors science and math programs in the only two schools that offer this option. (Honors English classes have already been eliminated.) Click on the screenshot to read:

While I favor some affirmative action, I do not favor eliminating opportunities, especially ones like these that could act to identify minority students who excel in STEM.  Being forced to take a non-honors course when you’re really interested in and talented at doing science is a good way to kill interest in it.

But the worst part is how schools always lie when they dismantle the meritocracy. Here’s the Big Lie promulgated by the Vancouver School Board:

The school board says the move will not mean less opportunity for students.

“By phasing out these courses, all students will have access to an inclusive model of education, and all students will be able to participate in the curriculum fulsomely. Teachers support the diverse needs of all students in their classes through differentiated instruction — and this includes enrichment,” a spokesperson writes in an email.

“Honours Math and Science do not provide enrichment – they are simply accelerated courses. It is important to note that a student who excels in math or science will still be able to learn at a level that challenges them and allows them to explore their potential.”

The pharse “inclusive model of education” not only gives away the real motivation, but denies students the opportunity to have their education tailored to their talents and desires. Such a system, if it’s to help those with the greatest educational handicaps, must perforce teach everyone geared to the needs of the lowest-achieving students. But in such a case a rising tide doesn’t lift all the boats. (By the way, does the school board know what “fulsomely” really means?)

Another arrant lie is this: ““Honours Math and Science do not provide enrichment – they are simply accelerated courses.”  Now correct me if I’m wrong, but this sounds like a tautology: a distinction without a difference. Why doesn’t acceleration provide enrichment? My own honors English and classics courses in college immensely enriched me beyond the non-honors courses I was used to taking.

As one academic claims, whose name indicates he’s Asian, this new policy actually increases inequality, reducing opportunities for talented but poor kids who can’t afford access to the private schools that provide the equivalent of honors courses:

Andy Yan, is the director of The City Program at Simon Fraser University, and considers himself a beneficiary of these programs.

“Certainly in my experience the enriched and honours programs actually got us on to the first rung of social and economic mobility. The removal of these programs, I think, is a terrible decision that it doesn’t promote equity,” he says.

In a tweet objecting to the cancellation of the programs, Yan describes himself as an “East Van, blue-collar household, VSB kid. Scrapping this option, in his opinion, means less opportunity for kids whose families can’t pay for private school or extra tutoring.

“If anything it promotes, and increases inequality,” he says.

“Now, those that can afford these program will go to them, and those who can’t now don’t have any of these types of programs.”

Whether or not you favor dismantling the intellectual meritocracy (something also tried without good results in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China), we should at least expect a little honesty from those who support such a move. The profusion of dissimulation about this stuff is starting to really get to me. Not to draw too fine a comparison, but it reminds me a bit of Orwell’s 1984—not in terms of eliminating social classes, but in terms of promulgating obvious lies but asserting that they’re truths.

 

h/t: Jeff

34 thoughts on “Vancouver school board ditches honors math and science courses (English, too), fibs about why

  1. I suspect this is due to cultural differences that will take years to remedy, but which must be remedied.

    Being a contrarian, let me ask: why? If one group has a culture that values academic success while other groups value other things more, why is that a problem? If “diversity” is a good thing, why isn’t cultural diversity good? I fully support equality of opportunity but I don’t much care about targeting “equity” or identical outcomes for all groups.

  2. Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s infamous “The Bell Curve”discussed this exact issue (although the reasons may have changed) way back in 1994. Chapter 18, The Leveling of American Education, particularly under the section The Neglect of the Gifted, where they note (p. 434) that the priorities of funding from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) had done a complete 180 degree flip and focused on low-income and students with special needs: 92.2% (of the $8.6 billion budget) for programs for the disadvantaged, 5.6% for programs that might apply to any student, 2.1% for admin, and 0.1% left for gifted programs. A school I worked at back in 2007 ended all their gifted programs and eliminated some employees the year after I left. I doubt the situation has improved, in fact I expect it is worse, with an active attack of the sorts of programs that could assist the best and brightest as being elitist and that the smart kids will be fine anyway so why bother. I’m sure there’s a race issue as well, with the oddly racist undertones put forth by the “anti-racists” that black kids won’t be in these programs. They never say that directly but what else can Kendi & co. mean by rewarding kids for their “desire to know”? But maybe I’m wrong. (I wouldn’t have qualified for these gifted programs) Anyway, the chapter is well worth reading and I’m certainly not doing it justice here. The overall point is we’ve somehow stopped wanting to educate each student to the limits of their abilities and our nation (or Canadian) will not be the better for it.

  3. Unfortunately the story is quite a lot like the story of “holistic admissions” at Harvard and elsewhere: it’s pretty much all about reducing the advantages of Asian (mainly Chinese and Korean) kids who tend to do really well in these honours courses. It isn’t about providing opportunities to indigenous or Black kids or other kids who *also* benefit from honours programs and AP courses and other enrichment. The goal is not to help any students. The goal is just to make it harder for Asian kids to stand out from other kids (high school awards, university admissions, scholarships).

    Andy Yan at SFU is an interesting guy. He did a lot of the original research on the causes of the extraordinary rise in the cost of housing in Vancouver (and by extension a few other large cities in Canada). His work (based mostly on tax data) showed that the cause is mainly Chinese investors who are desperate to get their money out of China and into some safe investment in the west (rule of law etc.). Those investors tend to choose houses in Canadian cities, they pay cash, and they are willing to over-pay. Yan’s work showed that this puts tremendous upward pressure on residential real estate prices, and leads to increases that can’t be explained by any other changes happening at the same time (like increases in income of Vancouver residents, which has been almost flat since the 2008 recession). The follow-on effects are lousy for lots of people who can’t afford housing because so much of the housing stock has become a place to make money rather than a place for working-class people to live.

    Yan was vilified for this work, and accused of anti-Asian (!) bias. His prediction about the effects on kids from East Van and elsewhere who can’t attend private academies is right on.

    1. My understanding is that a significant component of Chinese investment in Vancouver came from Hong Kong, in the wake of the 1984 British agreement to transfer the colony to China. About half a million residents left Hong Kong after this triumph of de-colonization, and many of them (and probably some who remained in Hong Kong) put their money in safe investments such as real estate in Vancouver. Canada has in fact taken steps to attract immigration from Hong Kong, especially recently. See:
      https://www.visaplace.com/canadian-immigration/country/hong-kong/

      1. Jon, you’re right about that, but that was mostly a phenomenon of the ’80s. Many of those HK expats returned to HK when the worst fears of the Chinese takeover didn’t materialize. (At least the men did, often leaving wives and children behind.)

        The last twenty years the majority of immigration from China has been from the mainland. The past couple years, with the crackdowns in HK, that may be changing a bit.

        Still, where in the 1990s the majority of Chinese in the Vancouver area were Cantonese speaking, the majority is now Mandarin speaking.

  4. “Inclusion” is of course the buzzword used to justify the abolition of honors and advanced placement courses, as well as various tests of ability. Next, the educrats will assert that the existence of special courses for gifted students violates the principle of “Equity”. Before long, I predict, school administrators somewhere will proclaim that advanced courses cause “harm” and “offense” to students who are not in them— and apologize that they were ever offered, while announcing their cancellation.

  5. So therefore, they are dumbing down the school system. The things taught in the AP courses will not be taught to anyone. This is changing a meritocracy into an Idiocracy. The movie of that name is becoming reality. 🤪

  6. Here is why I feel that “opportunities” for advanced learning (Honors classes, AP, Dual Enrollment, etc) is needed in schools…
    My son gets bored if you don’t move fast enough for him with information – he needs a challenge. Not everyone learns at the same pace or in the same way, so we need courses of varying degrees of challenge. He used to be bored in some classes in his much younger years because everyone was learning at the same steady pace…but it ended up being too slow and boring for him. He was finally able to take high school courses beginning in the 7th grade and he breezed through them with A’s. I can’t imagine how poor his attitude would have been if advanced courses were never offered in middle school and high school.
    By NOT having advanced learning courses available to those who need the challenge, you are alienating a pretty big population of kids for the sake of others who work well with a slower pace. Keep all the options open because what works well for one does not work well for another.

    1. I am reading an essay by writer David French regarding evangelicals and fundamentalists. And he writes about fundamentalists:

      “The fundamentalist Christian typically possesses little tolerance for dissent and accepts few sources of truth outside of the insights that can be gleaned directly from the pages of scripture. ”

      Remind you of anyone else?

  7. Always seemed to me that grading students creates much greater disparities in outcome than the classes themselves. If not being in an advanced class hurts students’ feelings, imagine the “emotional trauma” when they see first hand just how far behind they are compared to their more studious peers.
    Not that I support dumping advanced classes or grades. Just pointing out the inconsistencies in the thinking behind getting rid of advanced classes, and that I suspect the “problem” will get worse.

    1. It is of course racist, indeed “white supremacist”, to give a student of color anything less than the highest grade available.

  8. From my experience with statewide k-12 education policy over the last decade or so, The greatest issue in all of this is that the creation of these new “fulsome” and “enriching” curricula will be in the hands of educationalists as opposed to content area or subject matter experts (SME’s). These education school grads have minimal content background, ie deep math, science, or engineering in their undergraduate degrees and their masters degrees are likely in math or science education – programs that are heavy on education coursework but light on math or science. There will be little or no involvement from university, government research lab, and industry SME. Currently offered AP courses meet an agreed upon set on content requirements for freshman courses at a set of universities, the development and agreement overseen by the college boards folks and college credit often conferred to a student upon demonstration of certain levels of competence in the subject. Similarly IB (international baccalaureate) courses were put together and benchmarked by an international team of education experts and SME. Earlier high school science enrichment programs in the 1960’s post-sputnik, such as pssc (physics) and bscs (biological sciences) all had the characteristic of content creation being led by university SME (NOT schools of ed) and then actual curriculum developed by a team of these SME and educational experts and teachers.

    There is certainly room for enrichment and improvement of k12 curriculum to meet real 21st century political, economic, social, and technological needs of high school grads in our society over the next 50 years. But i fear that the driver to the vancouver and other similar educational experiments do not have these types of needs or improvements anywhere in sight.

    1. I think we can look forward to new kinds of “enrichment” in math and science teaching, along the lines of a Seattle plan to “infuse all K-12 math classes with ethnic-studies questions that encourage students to explore how math has been “appropriated” by Western culture and used in systems of power and oppression”. An anthropologist from Mars might view this tend in school bureaucracies as a move by School of Ed graduates to rise in status and supplant those professionals whose credentials are in mere subject matter content.

      1. Yep. The entrenched attitude among many on the educationist side of things is that they have a special sauce that is required for teaching kids and that we SME’s do not carry the special sauce skill.

        1. The special sauce is acquired (with appropriate credentials) in special courses in “Teaching of Math, “Teaching Physics”, “Teaching Biology”, etc. etc.” These are offered sometimes in the School of Ed, sometimes in School of Ed-ish antechambers of the relevant real departments.
          The existence of these various “Teaching of X” sub-disciplines brings up an interesting implication: what is the best way to teach the “Teaching of X”? Clearly, the next step will be graduate level programs in “Teaching of Teaching of Math” and so on. Lest this thought pull us into a vortex of infinite regress, perhaps each School of Ed should have an antechamber called
          “Philosophy of Education in Schools of Education”.

  9. The remedy is clear. Vancouver voters need to coordinate their strategy to get the school board members who pushed this idiotic initiative tossed in the trash at the next election cycle. My guess is, it wouldn’t be hard to do that. Vancouver, where I used to live, has a very large middle/upper middle class Asian population, a large chunk of which is in the right set of age brackets to have school-age children—and most of those kids will be in public schools. And there are plenty of other groups (including old-line Anglo-Canadian families) who are in the same position and who are committed to the high performance goals that AP courses and ‘gifted/accelerated’ programs were introduced to advance. The theme would be, don’t let these fifth-raters drag our kids down to their abysmal standard. All that’s needed is a couple of creative, intensely motivated strategic leaders for the resistance to crystallize around and this clown show will be out on its ear next election.

  10. While I favor some affirmative action, I do not favor eliminating opportunities, especially ones like these that could act to identify minority students who excel in STEM.

    As Kendi has said, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” It’s Harrison Bergeron for curricula.

  11. Globe and Mail article:
    https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-vancouver-school-board-phases-out-honours-programs-in-high-schools/

    Jennifer Katz, an expert in special education at the University of British Columbia, supports the curriculum changes and has worked as a consultant for the Vancouver School Board. She said students who are strong in some subjects should be challenged. But she dismissed the concerns of parents who say their gifted children struggle to fit in.

    “That’s a stereotype,” she said. “I don’t buy that. That is a part of racism and systemic racism. It’s a part of ‘I don’t want my kids in class with those kids.’ And that’s nonsense.”

    1. So the only kids who get advanced science and math are those who get it at home from their engineer and scientist parents? Now that really is a perpetuation of the socio-economic elite! A great value of public funded k12 in the U.S. is that it provides an educational path from learning to read through AP calculus and sciences for all children regardless of their parents’ educational achievement…when it works right and it does in many school divisions.

  12. Kids should learn in preschool to report to their teachers if their parents sneakily read to them at home, which is clearly racist and disproportionately disadvantages kids of color.

  13. Meanwhile in China:

    “The Chinese educational system is determinedly meritocratic: Children compete to get into the best nursery schools so that they can get into the best secondary schools and then into the best universities. Examinations — most important, the university entrance examination or gaokao that students take at 18 — regulate the race to get ahead. This examination system, which draws on the tradition of civil service examinations that were administered for more than a thousand years, is now more geared to produce scientists and engineers rather than Confucian officials”. (from https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-05-16/china-knows-that-meritocracy-is-the-key-to-boosting-economic-growth).

    And the West expects to compete with China by tying his own hands behind his back: good luck with that

    1. Our only hope is that Americans will finally get a wake-up call when China decisively overtakes the US in economic and scientific power and influence. We need a Sputnik moment.

  14. A “backdoor” solution: bright, motivated students can form an after-school math club. If they could get an appropriate faculty advisor, then studying and reporting on advanced topics would follow. Also good, the topics would be selected by the students (with input by advisor) so more enthusiasm.

  15. I’m conflicted on this one. I graduated from the Vancouver school system in 1989. I had gone to a suburban school for Grade 8, where I took honours math, but when we moved to Vancouver the school in my catchment had no honours math or science available. I am no science or math genius, but the pace of the regular program offered me no challenge, and I so found myself with very poor study habits when I got to engineering in university.

    To me the inequity here is not that some kids can’t make it in to honours programs, it’s that only two out of eighteen secondary schools offered them. Why do kids in those two neighbourhoods get access to those programs, but nobody else?

    1. Not to worry: when honors programs are abolished all over Vancouver, then perfect Equity will be achieved via the inability of any student to take a course more advanced than the lowest common denominator. Speaking of denominators, in elementary school the concept of fractions will be replaced by teaching about the use of arithmetic by colonialist systems of oppression. These educational reforms will assure a truly equitable distribution of mathematical ignorance, much like what Madurismo has accomplished for the standard of living in Venezuela.

    2. I hope that the solution to that inequity is not to remove those programs from the only two neighborhoods that have them. It would be like the idea that the solution to the inequity of some people being poor is to make everybody equally poor (a result that some countries have actually achieved pretty well)

  16. “By phasing out these courses, all students will have access to an inclusive model of education,

    That sounds to me as if Canada (or BC, or Vancouver Municipality) operates a “grammar school” type system with selection at 11-ish, and they’re proposing moving to a comprehensive education system. Or are they just trying to confuse the issue (the #3 technique in the “Handling Political Controversy for Dummies” guide book)?

  17. I live in Vancouver and I went to high school in Vancouver too, although I’m the same age as Jerry so you can do the math and figure out when that was. They had the honours programs way back then and I was in them.

    However when I heard about the final demise of those programs I went to the VSB website to see if perhaps they had deemed school sports to also be the opposite of inclusive — which surely they are, only the best and most motivated get to be on the school basketball team. But no, there’s no mention of them taking that obvious next step.

    So it’s the usual story, the jocks get all the attention and the nerds are told to get lost and don’t bother us.

    1. Agree.
      And regarding basketball, the advantage tall players get from having tall parents is unfair and oppressive to less tall people.
      I submit only the reach that all students can achieve should be the limit for all (reach = jumping + highest body part extension). Anything like dunking in basketball should be severely punished as it hurts the other teams’ feelings.
      Students are allowed to explore their interest in reaching higher if they desire.

  18. To paraphrase some long-dead pompous British person: The meritocracy is the worst form of sorting a society, except all the other forms that have been tried.

    If we ignore the idealists who won’t be satisfied until a true egalitarian ethos overcomes human nature, there’s a genuine problem on how a social order can be established. Meritocracy has the advantage of aligning with how people think on issues of justice (hard work world be rewarded, success should go to the deserving, etc.) while giving individuals from all walks of life the opportunity for mobility. That people are willing to cheat to show their meritocratic worth highlights that the idea hits upon something fundamental to our species.

    I’m aghast at those on the left who want to dismantle the main way that social mobility can happen. There are limitations to meritocratic sorting, including much to be done to overcome the inherent disadvantages of poverty and the isms, but it still allows for the possibility of advancement through education.

  19. So the school system is stupidly down. Nobody will be taught the stuff taught in AP classes. It transforms a meritocracy into an idocracy. The film of the name comes true

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