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Assessment, EdTech & Design, Equity, Opinion

Ways and Means

Income inequality most assuredly goes to the heart of the equity-in-education issue

In my last blog, I pontificated (don’t all bloggers pontificate?) that it is time to move beyond the school orthodoxy of successes/failures, winners/losers to a more benign atmosphere for learning. Alas, easy to say but very difficult to realize. The difficulty resides in the stubborn fact that public schooling reflects the values of the surrounding community where success, typically, is judged in terms of credentials, income and material display.

A recent column by Jeffery Simpson in the Globe and Mail lays out some shocking details about income inequality in Canada. Though the problem is worse in the U.S., it is nevertheless severe in Canada. Nearly a third of Canadians are rated, according to Simpson, as “concerned” about income inequality, more concerned than they are about crime, immigration, environment and climate change.

That large segment of Canadians upset about income inequality largely explains the Occupy Movement now fizzling before the harsh winds of winter. Yet there is no discernible political drift to radical political solutions such as confiscatory income tax on incomes over, say, $300,000. Most of us are satisfied with the free market system for determining the price of toothpaste and the salaries of the high-flyer executives who run the corporations. The market is neither good nor bad. It is the “unseen hand on the tiller”, say the stand-pat majority. But income inequality most assuredly goes to the heart of the equity-in-education issue, the issue that comes out the spout as unfairness.

It is not fair that children of privilege can be readily moved to a private school or a special public school while underprivileged children cannot. It is not fair that children who are hungry or lacking dental care or skill with the language are doomed to do poorly in certain aspects of standardized testing. It is not fair that advantaged students receive higher scores on tests and exams just because of the circumstances of their birth. These unfair elements of the system are toxic in their effects on some children caught in the age-grade achievement orthodoxy. When unfairness at school is discussed at home over the supper table, usually in anger, the student will exaggerate it in thinking about his/her difficulties at school.

Short of a socio-economic-political revolution, there is only a slim hope of a major change in the scene of inequality in education. But the inequity hydra can be strangled in lots of practical ways without any major political upheaval. The unfairness of universal standardized testing could easily be replaced by randomized testing only for system wide diagnostic purposes. The unfairness of invidious comparisons of schools based on universal test results could be resolved. The competition among teachers for official commendation based on test results could and should be ended.

Short of a socio-economic-political revolution, there is only a slim hope of a major change in the scene of inequality in education. But the inequity hydra can be strangled in lots of practical ways without any major political upheaval. The unfairness of universal standardized testing could easily be replaced by randomized testing only for system wide diagnostic purposes. The unfairness of invidious comparisons of schools based on universal test results could be resolved. The competition among teachers for official commendation based on test results could and should be ended.

The unfairness of assessing individual progress in school within the framework of a class of 30 kids moving lock step through the grades can be confronted, though with some difficulty. That is a structural feature, historic and therefore ingrained. But step-by-step modification is feasible. Individualized learning facilitated by the computer and the World Wide Web is already happening but needs lots more official support. Repealing compulsory attendance laws and mandatory textbook use would help. More than any of these, encouraging teachers to move up to a higher level of professional autonomy would kick-start learning for the 21st century in manifold ways, a style of learning that, one hopes, would bring greater equity in a world searching for peace and harmony.

Meet the Expert

Peter H. Hennessy

Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.

Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.

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