In my doctoral seminar class, we discussed equality in terms of equality of opportunities and equality of conditions or outcomes. I prefer to think about the equality of condition – with the belief that people should be as equal as possible in relation to the central conditions of their lives (Lynch, 2005). Students should have the opportunities – but only opportunities that enables and empowers them to be successful. It is more important to aim for equality of condition so that people can pursue a good life then simply equalizing access. In the high schools in Ontario and where I work, students have many choices – allowing them to find pathways that suit their interests and abilities. It is also imperative that we change a culture around the thinking of the pathways that lead to the destinations of workplace, colleges, apprenticeships, and universities. Too many parents, students, and even teachers only value the university pathway making choices for students inappropriate and often difficult to be successful.
What is the role of educational institutions in promoting equality?
Schools are guilty of contributing to class-based inequalities of educational resources by their streaming and tracking processes, the curriculum and in assessments. In our conversations around Canadian, American and other countries and their selection and grouping procedures for students, there are some that seriously limit the choices available to students or to parents in terms of where they can choose to send their child. In market-driven systems, schools target the educationally attractive, resulting in a class-biased admission system. What school doesn’t want to have parents who will invest time and resources in their children, inevitably boosting performance and status of the school?
In Noddings’ description of American systems, educationally disadvantaged students can be systematically discouraged from entering schools with higher levels of attainment, thereby fostering ghettos of advantage and disadvantage the school system itself (Noddings, 2012). Selecting students on the basis of academic achievement tends to create great social differences between schools. It also will increase the link between socio-economic status and academic performance. It is likely that students who had the best start in life from their parents will have accelerated progress over those less fortunate.
In Canada, parental choice is central to the education system. The question remains for me – do all students have equal access to quality education? How are we ensuring this? In Ontario, I have seen schools in areas that have a high population of students who are from low-income families. Looking at EQAO results, schools from low socio-economic status areas result in lower achievement when it comes to reaching provincial standards. Just by living in different areas of Ontario – puts students at a disadvantage. In my school in Milton, we offer choices of eight different specialist high skills major programs including cosmetology, landscaping, cooking, manufacturing and robotics. Students from smaller centres in Ontario would not have these types of opportunities available to them. Students struggling within the system face a further risk as they move into their final years of high school. They lack future choices and more students are at risk of dropping out altogether.
Grouping students based on their ability is a standard practice in many educational systems around the world. In our class we heard of this type of stratification in European, East Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Here in Ontario, we do have different pathways that students choose to take when entering grade 9 – although it is subject specific and a student does not have to take all subjects in a particular pathway. Although streaming or grouping practices are portrayed as social-class-neutral methods of organizing learning groups of students, this is not the case in practice. Students from working class and lower socio-economic backgrounds and those from ethnic minorities are most likely to be allocated to the lower tracks or streams. In my experiences, I have seen middle and upper class parents have a greater knowledge of how things work and a greater capacity to exert influence over, or manipulate decision on grouping.
A question that comes to mind. How are abilities viewed and measured in order for this grouping to occur?
In our system, the Grade 8 teacher makes recommendations and parents choose to either accept them or reject them. In many cases, students who are recommended to take an applied level course may end up taking academic level because of the parent’s decision. Again, we are faced with a lack of understanding of levels and a culture of believing the “best” pathway is the university stream. The idea of choosing for success has always proven to be challenging with many parents stuck with the mindset of “closing doors”.
Lynch, K. (2005). Equality In Education: An Equality Of Condition Perspective. Theory and Research in Education, 3(2), 131-164.
Noddings, N. (2012). Philosophy of education (3rd ed.). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.