Equitable education starts from the bottom

Combatting the weight of inaccessibility in our public school system

Equitable education starts from the bottom

Following Premier Doug Ford’s recent announcements of changes to the tuition, funding, and student fees frameworks for domestic postsecondary students, there has been considerable concern raised about the reduced accessibility of universities and colleges.

The discussion about equitable education, however, must start from the bottom. Namely, whether all students in the public school system even have access to decent education, prior to attending university or college, in the first place. This is a significant question with which educators continue to grapple today.

The socioeconomic factor

Consider that students from a low socioeconomic area are more likely to attend the schools within their neighbourhood, as opposed to a higher socioeconomic area, which have more funding available to them. Whereas schools in the former area are not able to raise the funds they need to cover all resources necessary for students’ learning, schools in the latter area are able to hold fundraisers to support requests that are not met by the government.

Ultimately, funding affects performance. Globe and Mail reporters Caroline Alphonso and Tavia Grant examined the results of Education Quality and Accountability Office scores and confirmed a correlation between test scores and the location of students’ schools. They found that low-income students are more likely to fail standardized reading, writing, and math tests because their schools are unable to provide the necessary programs to support students, and students are less likely to have support at home due to their parents’ low socioeconomic status.

In Ontario, the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG) was introduced in 1998 to support schools with high proportions of low-income students by funding intervention and guidance programs, withdrawals for individual support, and parental and community engagement programs. However, over the years, funding has declined.

Initially, 100 per cent of the funding from the LOG was allocated to school boards according to the percentage of at-risk students from low socioeconomic areas. But by 2018, the proportion had decreased to 47 per cent.

People for Education, an independent, non-partisan Canadian organization created to support and revolutionize public education, recommends that the Ontario government develop a new Equity in Education Grant. The grant would support programs in schools to help mitigate socioeconomic factors affecting students’ learning.

The long-term concern is that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are not supported by the system are less likely to attend postsecondary institutions. As a recent report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario on gaps in postsecondary education participation concluded, close to 45 per cent of Canadian-born students living in lower-income neighbourhoods do not pursue postsecondary education.

The percentage is lower among students from high-income neighbourhoods. Evidently, this gap must be closed if students of all income backgrounds are to have equal opportunities in our education system.

The minority experience

Education materials used in classrooms to support students’ learning does not adequately reflect the backgrounds and experiences of all students, given Canada’s image as a multicultural society. For example, science textbooks used by students generally display images of European people to illustrate human anatomy, and reading often provides context and ideas. Students from minority backgrounds do not see themselves in the material they learn. Textbooks also often present a stereotypical and incorrect understanding of ethnic minorities and Indigenous peoples.

To address this, educators should draw from a pool of knowledge that reflects the diverse range of cultures that are present in our society. For example, they could discuss knowledge and perspectives from Indigenous peoples regarding science and medicine.

Educators can also bring in experts from various cultures to help students grasp a globally-informed worldview. For instance, when learning about Eid or Rosh Hashanah, people from related cultures can be brought into the classroom to introduce authentic sources of knowledge.

Ultimately, educators should aim to challenge the biases and stereotypes present in curricula through discussion and critical thinking — not perpetuate them. Many of these issues of representation continue in postsecondary education, where minority students do not relate to presentations of knowledge in their classrooms. For instance, images of bodies in North American medical textbooks tend to underrepresent skin tones.

Performance over learning

Barriers do not only exist in the form of class or race. Too often, outcomes in the form of test scores are considered more important than the actual process of understanding key concepts. Due to the wide range of learning styles and abilities present in a classroom, teachers must be able to support all students as holistically as possible.

A proven teaching strategy is to use inquiry-based learning, which revolves around student observations. This includes solving problems or finding answers to questions through open-ended investigations. It is important to have lessons based on inquiry and to focus on processes that nurture students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills.

U of T should take leadership

If we are to accept that Canada is a multicultural society, equity is not a matter of just recognizing the diverse backgrounds and abilities of students, but incorporating and learning from all that diversity has to offer. University students should understand diversity through the lens of equity — that no one who is different should be left behind, but rather, supported.

By eliminating barriers within the public school system, the number and diversity of students entering postsecondary education will inevitably improve. The more educated and skilled youth are, the more society, in turn, will benefit. Governments and school boards must recognize this reality as they craft educational policy.

U of T is in a unique position to lead change in the context of equitable education. It claims to be a world-renowned, research-driven institution and would benefit from a move toward using diverse learning materials that support students in making connections with their learning.

The university should also broaden the ‘how’ of learning and reform the field of education so that students are prepared for the real world. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in particular has conducted research on poverty and education, and the impact of various interventions in reducing educational inequality as well as increasing students’ access to higher education. U of T should centre OISE as a leader in the development of support systems to help mitigate the effects of inequity that students face in the public education system.

Ateeqa Arain is a first-year Master of Education student at OISE.

An unwelcome shadow

How imposter syndrome impacts U of T students

An unwelcome shadow

It’s that special time of the year. The leaves are falling, the air is cold, and everyone is freaking out about the future. What tests are we all taking? What grad schools are we going to? Who passed the LSAT, the MCAT, the GRE, or any of the other acronyms that I don’t know? But the real challenge is going to come later this year, when we watch as our peers are accepted to dream schools and dream jobs, and we realize that, in comparison, we’ve done nothing.

I’m a fourth-year student. Despite having gone through three full years of courses here at U of T, I find myself still in fear that someone will discover the truth: I don’t belong here. I’m not smart enough, I don’t work hard enough, and I don’t deserve it. I’m surrounded by people who are planning extraordinary things, from grad school to enviable jobs, people who can speak multiple languages or balance multiple jobs, all while remaining here and being a good student.

I realize that, logically, this doesn’t make any sense. I did not trick anyone into accepting me, nor did I trick professors and teaching assistants into passing me. I didn’t trick the clubs I’ve been a part of into letting me work with them, and I didn’t trick The Varsity into letting me write for them. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like everything I have is unearned.

Like a lot of students, I suffer from what’s called imposter syndrome. According to Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, who first identified the concept in 1978, the term ‘imposter syndrome’ is used “to designate an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high achieving women.” In other words, despite someone having a record of achievement, they feel like they have not earned any of it properly and that they do not deserve it, which causes them to live with the fear that someone will discover the truth.

It makes sense that this would be especially prevalent among women. Oftentimes, women are taught to earn their accomplishments, while men are taught that success is their birthright. To see evidence of this you do not need to look further than the recent hearing for the US Supreme Court Judge and alleged rapist Brett Kavanaugh. Commenters have noted that his demeanour and the demeanour of the Republican senators trying to put him in office were characteristic of pure entitlement. It was as though he believed that he deserved his spot on the court by virtue of his wealth, race, and gender, as if even questioning his place on the court was tantamount to a partisan witch hunt, an absurd political action undertaken due to desperation. Indeed, the president even apologized to him. To quote comedian John Oliver, “That surly tone [during questioning] was emblematic of Kavanaugh’s demeanour throughout the hearing. Not the tone of a man who hopes to one day have the honour of serving on the Supreme Court, but the tone of someone who feels entitled to be on it.”

In fact, when I asked the people around me if they had ever felt a kind of imposter syndrome, most of the responses came from women, especially queer women and women of colour.

Victoria, for example, thinks that this is related to feelings of not belonging and alienation from traditionally segmented institutions among marginalized people. As she put it, “This also means folks in marginalized social positions likely experience it more and more intensely because there is already limited space for us in all sorts of fields, and we are met more often with suspicion of our ability to accomplish what needs to be done. Even the most confident person will start to experience self-doubt if they feel as if the entire world is pushing back against them all the time.”

CJ* has felt imposter syndrome all their life, but it became heightened upon entering university. They described feeling like everyone around them deserved to have accomplishments, while they did not. But rather than providing a motivation to allow them to work harder, the effect on CJ’s academic life and mental health is destructive: “I tend to worry more than actually work or study a lot, and I feel my productivity could be so much better if I wasn’t so busy worrying that I’m going to mess up and that everyone will figure out I’m not good enough.”

Beth* also described this cycle of feeling inadequate. “The anxiety of it really just makes it impossible to work. It was a vicious cycle. I would feel in over my head, so I’d shut down and fall behind, and then when I’d go to class I’d feel like a phony who didn’t belong. And then it would repeat.”

That cycle is clearly detrimental to confidence and self-worth. Maria described often doubting her own intelligence, certain that her merits shouldn’t have been enough to get her accepted to university. She also worries that she chose an easy major and wouldn’t have been successful otherwise. As a side note, I don’t think there are any easy majors. While some may be perceived as easier, in actual practice, academic struggles are universal to everyone, no matter the program.

Of course, this is all made worse by the pressures of attending U of T. The acceptance letter to U of T lures many of us into believing that we are academically superior in some way, only to have that superiority snatched away from us once we realize that everyone got the same letter. It can be easy to only see the accomplishments of your peers without realizing that they could be struggling as well. And even if they aren’t, even if you lived in a world where everyone around you achieved things that you could only dream of, and succeeded where you failed, exactly how productive would it be to compare yourself to them? Consider the famous lines from Mean Girls, during the mathletes competition filmed in Con Hall, when Cady realizes that “calling someone fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.” The inverse is also true. Recognizing the accomplishments of others does not make you inferior. I know it’s hard to think of that in this hyper-competitive environment, with fewer and fewer jobs and places in grad school, where the expectations placed on us only increase, but at the end of the day, we cannot control any of those external factors.

So what do we do? I suggest we follow the advice of The Chronicle of Higher Education, which recommends that we compare ourselves to our own progress. “Focus on what you have accomplished in and of itself, not as compared to what you had hoped to accomplish… Reframing your narrative as one of concrete accomplishments shifts your focus to the presence of labor and achievement, and away from the absence of ‘more.’ Once you do that, work on the story you tell others about yourself.”

For example, in first year, I felt intimidated by even the smallest amounts of readings and the shortest of essays. Now, I can breeze through them, if not with ease than with more understanding and clarity. Getting a lower-than-expected grade on an assignment would have once easily sent me into a tailspin then. Now, however, I am able to move past that and try to improve.

In fact, it was Beth’s ability to move past her imposter syndrome that allowed her to work more productively and improve her confidence, not to mention that it helped her keep up with her workload. Victoria found that challenging herself in a creative writing course to try to push past her insecurities, along with seeking advice from peers and talking to her professor about mental health, had a great effect and she was able to write “several short stories and some poetry for the first time in years and met most of [her] deadlines.”

Of course, improvement and progress don’t happen overnight, and in order to get to a place where you feel proficient, you have to start somewhere below perfection, which can exacerbate the whole issue. As YouTuber Nathan Zed put it in a 2016 video, “The thing is, the only way you can be amazing at something is if you practice. But I don’t want to be at that first level where I’m trash at it. I just hate feeling like the most unqualified person in the room.” That feeling is all too relatable, but as Zed also points out, the assumption that everyone secretly dislikes you and your work is more an issue of paranoia than anything else.

This is something that Maria has struggled with. She worries that her classmates are all far above her, despite performing consistently well in university. But the certainty of judgment and inadequacy forces Maria to keep quiet in class in the fear that she will be exposed.

None of this is to say that we should all swing in the opposite direction and put ourselves on a pedestal above those around us. What’s easy for you can often be torture for another, and what you’d see as a disappointing grade might be the height of someone else’s academic career. It doesn’t mean that any of us are inherently smarter or work any harder. Maybe we have mental illnesses or physical illnesses preventing us from working, families to care for, or jobs to get through. Or maybe people are just different and work differently. And, as a bonus, if we offer this type of generosity to others, we can more easily offer it to ourselves.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also offers another piece of advice, “Think about how you cede authority.” In other words, consider why you feel unqualified to make certain arguments in papers or in seminars. All revelations and discoveries come from people mulling them over, and all those people were, at one point, wholly ignorant about the topic. When you’re doing work as an undergraduate, nobody expects you to be below or above that level. If someone is asking a question and you think you may have the answer, go with your instinct. Be prepared to find that you could be wrong but don’t hold back and prevent something new from being said. Either way, you’ll be that much closer to learning the answer. This kind of confidence is invaluable, and it rests in knowing that you understand enough to be part of the conversation.

This last piece of advice has been especially relevant to me as I’ve been writing this. What makes me so qualified to tell everyone how to feel about themselves, especially after I’ve just admitted that I don’t always get past the point of comparing myself to others? Well, it’s just that. I can talk about this because I’ve experienced it. And I’ve researched it. And I’ve asked other people about it. So, I probably don’t have all the answers, but I’ve worked hard enough and thought enough about it that I can be a part of the discussion. And so can you.

*Names have been changed at the individual’s request.

In defence of the humanities

Examining how the scientific-right's vilification of "grievance studies" is flawed

In defence of the humanities

Last month, Areo magazine published a year-long project, dubbed Sokal Squared, that sought to expose the humanities as unscientific, devoid of truth, radical, and outlandish.

A team of three academics, who have previously defended and supported militant-atheist, anti-feminist, socially right-wing libertarians, crafted 20 deliberately absurd papers to be published in, what they term, “grievance studies.” These are fields that study social injustice and cultural theory: women’s studies, gender studies, and critical theory, to name a few.

Over the course of a year, they managed to get seven of these papers published in peer-reviewed academic journals. One paper that discusses how dog parks are “rape-condoning spaces” gained special recognition in Gender, Place, and Colour.

All these papers are, of course, ridiculous and should not have been published. While the intention was to show that these so-called ‘grievance studies’ are lacking academic rigour and truth, the project does more to highlight the ideology of the ‘scientific-right’  those who believe that ‘non-scientific’ fields deserve less respect. They believe that the humanities and social sciences are fields that uniquely allow nonsense to be published.

Nowadays, when discussing the humanities, many of those in the scientific-right are quick to jump to labels like ‘postmodernism,’ ‘relativistic,’ and ‘radical left.’ There is no doubt that these associations have gained recent popularity through their constant employment by controversial U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

The political objective of the scientific-right is to eradicate alternative methodological approaches to understanding the world, such as postmodernism and critical theory. But the scientific-right overlooks how the sciences are just as, if not more, susceptible to the fallibilities of the disciplines they decry.

Three years ago, three Massachusetts Institute of Technology students crafted an artificial intelligence called SCIgen to generate ostensibly legitimate, but actually nonsensical, computer science papers. This resulted in the publication of 120 nonsensical papers in highly respectable scientific journals, many of which were peer-reviewed.

This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon. In 2010, Cyril Labbé revealed that he had utilized his own program, HAL, to generate 100 false papers in, once again, well-regarded, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Add to that the fact that foundational theories in many scientific disciplines are plagued by the replicability crisis, leading to the possibility that the tremendous amount of work that is dependent upon these theories could be completely meaningless.

This is not to attack the scientific-right in the same manner in which they attack the humanities. Rather, it is a call to recognize that while both the sciences and the humanities are fallible disciplines, neither should be entirely discounted.

Each discipline has separate intellectual objectives, and should be respected accordingly. The aim of the humanities is not to exclusively investigate matters that are scientific or mathematical in nature. Rather, they are often concerned with matters intrinsic to humanity and culture.

Furthermore, the very arguments that the scientific-right uses to demean the humanities — such as lacking in truth — almost always employ notions developed in the humanities themselves. For instance, when students associate the sciences with figuring out what the ‘truth’ is, they fail to understand that the very notion of truth is developed and investigated within the humanities, not the sciences.

A core investigation in philosophy, which is a branch of the humanities, is the question of what defines truth, whether it is: correspondence to the real world; coherence among a set of held beliefs; or agreement among professionals in ideal conditions. Perhaps it has no definition at all.

Similarly, publications by Thomas Kuhn in the 1970s garnered a new outlook on the history of science: a picture of scientific practice as being influenced by socioeconomic and cultural factors. His arguments laid the groundwork for a re-examination of how scientists conduct science, and whether they are truly partaking in an objective, value-free discipline, independent of anything that is investigated within the humanities.

Additionally, the ‘grievance studies’ are critical for providing inquiries into the normative questions that plague the sciences. An example of such a question is whether we ought to pursue lines of inquiry and regard them as ‘truth,’ when the consequences of such a discovery could lead to widespread human suffering.

Possible examples may be investigations into ‘race realism,’ genetic enhancement, and nuclear energy. All these inquiries could lead to extremely disastrous effects for states and, potentially, for the world. Inquiries into ‘grievance studies’ allow us to examine the social conditions under which scientific investigation operates  a crucial, morally necessary survey that influences and shapes the sciences.

The very fact that a year was wasted on such a project is an embarrassment to the academics who have endorsed it. At most, they shed light on the issues plaguing academic journals in general and should be framed as such, rather than seeking to delegitimize specific disciplines for political reasons.

Sokal Squared shows how out of touch those on the scientific-right are. It is time that they recognize the importance of the humanities, both in relation to the sciences and in their own right.

Gavin Foster is a third-year Philosophy and History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at Trinity College.

U of T commits $1.4 million to support students studying abroad

Agreement with Mitacs will foster international collaboration in academia

U of T commits $1.4 million to support students studying abroad

U of T has announced a $1.4 million partnership agreement with non-profit organization Mitacs to support global research opportunities for U of T students. The deal, spanning a three-year period, will primarily fund Mitacs’ Globalink Research Award program, which provides undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows with financial aid to conduct research at universities in 40 different countries.

With the expenses of studying abroad contributing to students’ reticence in opting into international experience, this partnership with Mitacs will allow up to 200 U of T students to apply for funding per year. At least 80 international students will also receive funding from Mitacs and U of T to conduct research in Toronto. With an equal division of financial dues among Mitacs and the partner university, the recipients of the awards — both inbound and outbound — will receive $6,000 each for 12-week or 24-week placements.  

Dr. Ridha Ben Mrad, a professor in the Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering and Mitacs’ Chief Research Officer, said that Mitacs is a “bridge between the private sector and the university.”  

“This [new] deal with the U of T is more strategic in the sense that we are allocating a certain number of internships for University of Toronto’s students to go do internships outside of the country,” said Ben Mrad.

Internships abroad and exchange programs give students the opportunity to expand network connections, gain work experience in different cultures, and access new ideas and perspectives. The partner institutions that host these students get expertise in the field to help provide solutions to problems, said Ben Mrad.

“In the same token, U of T, being a global university, is able to attract researchers from outside. So this will pay for U of T students but the idea is that this will enable two-way mobility to U of T and from U of T,” he said.

Since starting its internship program in 2003, Mitacs has expanded its role in connecting academic research to the private sector in several educational disciplines. Of the 7,112 projects listed on its website, approximately 84 per cent are in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, while approximately 15 per cent are in the social sciences and humanities. 

Ben Mrad said that Mitacs is making “a substantial effort” to fund more non-STEM projects because “there is so much innovation to be done there.”

Much of the funding for Mitacs’ programs comes from Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada, a department of the Canadian government. ISED has provided around $56 million to Mitacs’ programs over a four-year period between 2012 and 2016, in which the Globalink program itself received close to $20 million. With additional financial contributions from the private sector, Mitacs has supported over 20,000 research internships since it was founded in 1999. 

As it continues to grow, Mitacs has set a goal of delivering over 10,000 internships annually by 2021–2022, with 2018–2019 projections at 8,190 showing promise toward that target.

To match the ambition of such goals, partnership agreements like this one with U of T are critical. According to Ben Mrad, the partnership will “enable U of T to develop strategic relationships, to choose where to send a good number of their researchers, [and] to establish strong relationships with one or multiple parties.”

To improve campus culture, let’s consider cannabis education

Marijuana legalization provides an opportunity for U of T to address substance abuse, racism, and sexual violence

To improve campus culture, let’s consider cannabis education

The upcoming legalization of cannabis is not only a concern for government and law. It is also an important cultural opportunity for universities to destigmatize drug use, provide drug education across campuses, and address the broken parts of campus culture.

Heather Kelly, U of T’s Senior Director of Student Success, has said that while the university plans to apply existing rules for alcohol and tobacco to cannabis, “we want [students] to know what to do if they find themselves or a friend in trouble” and “how to recognize signs that somebody may need assistance.” Educating students on safer substance use is vital, but where and how this education will take place remains unclear.

Acknowledging student drug use at U of T is long overdue. Even before legalization, 28 per cent of U of T students reported using marijuana last year. Now that it is no longer an illegal substance, it is imperative that we distinguish use from abuse.

For instance, students may turn to cannabis to self-medicate their mental health issues instead of seeking professional help. A 2017 study found that teenagers across Canada are using cannabis to self-medicate for stress and anxiety. As cannabis becomes more readily accessible, the university administration needs to educate students on how to maintain a healthy relationship with the substance.

Cannabis education requires confronting a university culture that normalizes binge-drinking and unhealthy substance use. However, university administrations should not attempt to counteract this culture with zero-tolerance policies. Instead, they should accept that their students drink and use drugs and focus on helping students stay safe.

Canadian Public Health Association Executive Director Ian Culbert said that “experimentation is a natural part of growing up” and that university administrations and student associations should therefore adopt “a very proactive approach at getting education materials out to all of the students.”

Yet it is necessary to acknowledge that not everyone has been allowed to experiment without repercussions. Although research demonstrates that the rate of cannabis use is similar across different racial groups, a 2017 Toronto Star investigation found that in Toronto, Black people with no criminal record were three times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people who also have no record.

A subsequent investigation found that across Canada, Black and Indigenous peoples were disproportionately arrested for possession. Cannabis legalization may help put an end to this injustice going forward, but many argue that Canada should go further and pardon all Canadians with records of cannabis possession.

U of T assistant sociology professor and Director of Research at Cannabis Amnesty Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is among those calling on the federal government to instate a blanket pardon. Owusu-Bempah told the CBC that, because cannabis prohibition has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities, “amnesty is important to level the playing field.”

Just as amnesty should accompany cannabis legalization, an anti-racism approach is central to meaningful cannabis education. Historically, governments have justified the criminalization of drug use through associations with racialized communities. Destigmatization is therefore not only about challenging misconceptions surrounding the actual use of drugs, but also the racial underpinnings that have long justified those misconceptions.

Furthermore, cannabis education must involve discussions of consent. U of T can use this opportunity to challenge the idea that women are to blame for sexual violence. Discussions of safe alcohol consumption often place the onus on women to protect themselves from sexual assault by refraining from consuming alcohol. A new dialogue around substance use and consent is necessary, because simply telling women not to drink or do drugs will not stop sexual violence.

As a Vice article points out, the relationship between cannabis use and sexual consent is a topic that is largely ignored. Where it is discussed, it is often oversimplified. A Psychology Today article notes that while “the combination of sex and alcohol greatly increases women’s risk of sexual assault… marijuana has never been shown to increase” this risk.

Statements like these are typical of society’s tendency to blame sexual violence on substances over perpetrators. Confronting this through consent education can help reduce sexual violence on campus and create a culture where perpetrators are actually held accountable.

Students and administration can work together to make this education a reality. The Sheffield Students’ Union in the UK provides its students with information on safer practices when using illegal drugs, providing a model for U of T or the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) to follow.

Student networks like the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy work to empower students with information on safer drug use, and a chapter of the organization exists at U of T. The university administration could also implement an online training module on safer substance use, like the current module on sexual education and violence prevention.

The administration and the UTSU should use their platforms to provide students with information on safe practices when it comes to the use of cannabis and other drugs and training on how these substances can affect a person’s ability to consent. The university community should also acknowledge the uneven damages left by the criminalization of cannabis on students, and reflect on how to repair these damages moving forward, including supporting calls for cannabis amnesty.

Cannabis legalization marks an important cultural shift as drug use is increasingly seen as a matter of public health rather than a moral or criminal issue. However, this shift is only possible if powerful institutions, including universities, choose education over stigmatization.

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

From grade inflation to grade deflation

All university students pay the price for boosted high school grades, but those from private schools pay more than others

From grade inflation to grade deflation

A list compiled by the University of Waterloo of Ontario high schools that tend to inflate their students averages was recently released to Global News last week through a freedom of information request. Waterloo compared students’ entrance marks with how they measured up in the first-year engineering programs to calculate the average grade deflation of graduates from different Ontario high schools. The university says it now uses the list to apply an “adjustment factor” to entrance grades.

The publication of the list puts into the spotlight the various issues that come along with grade inflation at high schools. On the one hand, grade inflation clearly disadvantages students who are forced to compete against applicants with artificially boosted averages. On the other hand, those who gain from inflated grades are, in reality, ill-equipped for their programs in university in the long-run. In my experience, this is certainly true at U of T, where first-year grades can often bring about feelings of inadequacy as they drop far below the standards students once achieved in high school.

A facet of the Waterloo list that appears to be overlooked is the clear distinction in the schools featured in terms of private and public funding. On average, first-year students from Ontario high schools see their marks drop 16 per cent in Waterloo’s engineering program. Yet private schools are overrepresented in the ranks of schools whose graduates face higher-than-average grade deflation. Almost two-thirds of Waterloo’s list are actually schools whose graduates do better than the average 16 per cent drop, but 80 per cent of private schools on the list fall into the third of schools whose graduates’ marks face above-average drops.

This disproportion should bring about critical discussions regarding why private schools are on the list at all. Quite simply, for high schools to justify charging substantial tuition fees, their graduates must be doing better than average in postsecondary education, and not experiencing such substantial drops. While it is hard to extrapolate beyond the given context of Waterloo’s engineering program, the representation of private schools on the list calls into question whether there are high schools in Ontario where grades are bought, rather than earned.

A 2011 investigation by the Toronto Star sheds light on this issue, when reporter Jennifer Yang went undercover as a student at a private high school. Yang described how her teacher, unaware that Yang was a journalist undercover, arbitrarily raised her grade by almost 25 per cent, while allowing other students to retake tests they had failed — this time open book.

A section of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s website, updated in 2013, says that “in response to concerns regarding credit integrity, the ministry has introduced an enhanced inspection training program.” But a 2015 study found that Ontario has the fewest regulations for private schools among Canadian provinces.

Low-income students already face many challenges to achieving high grades and pursuing higher education, from underfunded high schools to the need to devote time and energy to part-time work outside their studies and family responsibilities. A list that suggests that some private schools inflate their students’ averages can then be a bitter pill for those who work hard to achieve modest marks at publicly funded institutions. This is not to say that grade inflation is a problem for private schools alone; in fact the majority of the schools tracked by Waterloo are public schools.

It may be the case that grade inflation is ubiquitous. However, when schools at the top of Waterloo’s list charge $1,800 per course, and others more than $20,000 per year, it adds insult to injury. Not only are students and their families paying tens of thousands of dollars per year for private high schools, only to have their grades drop 25 per cent in their first year at university, other students who do not have access to these schools may be losing out in admissions processes for universities who do not apply adjustment factors like Waterloo.

The bottom line is that the students suffer most from the practice of artificially increased averages; not only are they not getting the education they deserve, but they are entering university programs that they are potentially ill-suited for. This can take a dangerous toll on students’ mental health when they enter their first year, and compound the symptoms of imposter syndrome that university freshmen already experience.

But the implications for private schools are greater. Grade inflation at private schools calls into question both the quality of education received for the hefty price tag, and the possibility that good grades are for sale to those who can afford them. Not all private schools are created equal, and generalizing or vilifying them all will not provide answers to these questions. It is time to go beyond acknowledging the proximal dangers of grade inflation and take a deeper look at how this practice could be magnifying larger inequities. 

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College.

Conceptualizing inaccessibility on campus

In the context of the recent OHRC policy on accessible education, it is necessary to examine how ableism still persists in universities

Conceptualizing inaccessibility on campus

With the new Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) policy that includes broader definitions of disability and ableism and stresses the importance of accessible education, it seems that Ontario is taking a step forward to further naturalize disabled people in university environments. However, many students are likely still unaware as to how the university environment might be exclusionary or what discrimination toward disabled people looks like.

Disability is a very broad category that holds within it much variation, from various physical disabilities to learning disabilities to chronic illnesses to certain mental illnesses. These disparate groups of people are united in some aspect by their societal treatment: ableism.

Ableism can be described as a guiding set of negative and derogatory beliefs about disability and disabled people that can manifest in stereotypes, exclusion, discrimination, and abuse. These beliefs are woven deeply into our culture: into our language, in which descriptors for disability are often substituted for ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’; and into our media and art, in which disabled bodies and minds are frequently used as symbols for degeneration, perversion, or evil.

Disability, in history, has often been used as an excuse for denying the rights of various groups. For example, it was once argued that women were mentally disabled in relation to men, which is why they could not carry the responsibility of voting in the United States. Certain characteristics of women, real or imagined, were used to point to some underlying ‘deficiency’ that rendered them incompetent.

This process, which surely seems atrocious to us now in retrospect, is still weaponized against disabled people. However, discrimination as a result of ableism is difficult to challenge because disability is so naturalized as an inherently bad quality. Unlike other systems of marginalization that are based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or class, it is seen as fitting that a disabled person be found inferior to an able-bodied person. In a ‘common sense’ way, it seems right that disabled persons be thought of as lacking or deficient.

This compulsive negative valuation usually does not rear its head outright, but obscures itself behind discourses of competency, skill, or ability. It is therefore seen as valid when a boss fires a disabled employee instead of putting in effort to accommodate them for the ‘common sense’ reason that the employee is less ‘capable’ compared to non-disabled employees.

The continual reaffirmation of disability as a way-of-being that is wrong, unnatural, or negatively-valued is coupled with a near-total exclusion of disability, both in the public material sphere and in the public consciousness. The city teems with markers of exclusion: stairs in the entranceway to a shop, a subway station with no elevator, a lack of braille on public notices. These material markers speak to an exclusion of disability from the public consciousness. Despite the presence of disability everywhere in our culture, disabled bodies are not thought of as immediately existent; they are not thought of as potential inhabitants of space.

The situation is mirrored and perpetuated on university campuses. The disabled student is not thought of as a rightful inhabitant of the university environment. There are some concessions made in attempts to accommodate the student — for instance, Accessibility Services at U of T — but just the concept of an accommodation mechanism points to the fact that our university, at base, is not constructed with disabled students in mind.

If a structure needs to be especially manipulated in order to be accessed by disabled people, then that structure is intrinsically designed non-inclusively. The underlying structure is inaccessible and might only become more accessible with various tweaks to the foundations. These tweaks, of course, are available only to those who, through various navigations of bureaucracy, prove themselves to be ‘disabled enough’ to deserve them.

The idea of accommodations also places the onus of the work on the disabled students rather than on the institution. The student needs to especially register with a service, undergo medical examinations and cross-examining, and provide letters of reference just to obtain some degree of comfort in their classes or be able to complete their work.

Last semester, I had a class on the third floor of a building, and for a period of several weeks, the elevator was out of service. The university had been cognizant enough to place a sign outside that kindly informed that the elevator was out of service — but that was the extent of their efforts. It was only until I personally ventured to Accessibility Services and informed them that it was difficult for me to attend my class that the elevator was fixed.

I ask, what is the meaning of accessibility when the work to render things accessible needs to be performed by those being excluded? Why not render the university environment accessible and accommodating as a baseline and not just as a special concession granted to a select few? Why not fit classrooms with more comfortable chairs, give extensions to all those who ask for them, and ensure that all buildings are fully accessible at all times?

If this were done, the disabled student might be assumed as a natural inhabitant of the university environment and not as an outsider who must constantly prove their case to be allowed to enter the front hallway. However, we can ascertain that this subsuming of the disabled student into the university environment is a process to which the university is actively opposed.

One only has to look at the school’s policies policing the inclusion of its disabled students — for example, the university-mandated leave of absence policy (UMLAP), which passed this summer. With such a policy, the university re-establishes its ability to exclude and exile disabled students who seem to them to be wrongful inhabitants — in this case, those who are too mentally ill, in ways that the university deems unfitting.

This policy has yet to be used against a student — and one might be optimistic that it is challengeable. The first version of the policy was strongly and explicitly opposed by the OHRC, and it is likely not coincidental that its recent statement on accessible education coincides with the passing of a later version of the policy. Though the naturalization of the disabled student as a rightful inhabitant of the university environment is being contested by administration, an ally might yet be found in the OHRC.

This might prove useful in the future, since discrimination against mentally ill students by universities is commonplace. Earlier this year, and south of the border, a student who checked herself into a hospital for anxiety was later barred from returning to her dorm by the University of Maryland. In words that eerily echo the UMLAP, administration cited concerns over her ability to live on campus.

A few years back, a Princeton University student recovering from a suicide attempt was barred from attending his classes and escorted off campus by security guards. Again, this exclusion was justified by concerns over the student’s ability, reflecting the rhetoric that justifies discrimination against disabled people.

Besides the need for structural changes on campus, how able-bodied students might push for increased inclusion of disabled persons in a university environment remains an important question. It does not have to necessitate intense amounts of activism and protest. It is as simple as remaining aware of one’s environment and disrupting the normalcy of exclusion in subtle ways. When you enter a classroom, you may ask yourself about the ways in which this environment is inaccessible and in what ways the rules set out by the instructor lend toward exclusionary practices.

By drawing attention to these aspects, one can spread awareness of the normative practices of exclusion — through speaking about them to your peers and instructors, and opening up discussions about accessibility. In these ways, disability might become a real presence in the university environment.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College.

RealAtoms reinvents the molecular model kit

Founders Ulrich Fekl and Joshua Moscattini aspire to create a new standard for chemistry model kits

RealAtoms reinvents the molecular model kit

Around this time of year, students purchase molecular model kits from the bookstore. These kits come with parts to create ball-and-stick models, but they are rigid and rather unreflective of the dynamic reactions taught in courses like organic chemistry.

“You have a visual picture of atoms shuffling around, and it’s very hard to communicate it in undergraduate classes,” says Professor Ulrich Fekl of UTM’s Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences. 

For instance, in existing model kits, the carbon atom can only form four bonds, and the models are unable to show chemical reactions and intermediates. 

As such, teaching reactions and mechanisms becomes difficult for instructors, who could resort to animations and videos, but this approach lacks a tactile experience. 

This lack of flexibility is what inspired Fekl and U of T alum Joshua Moscattini to found RealAtoms

“I always have this mental picture of atoms rearranging and it’s really, really smooth, and there is something enjoyable and memorable about touching models,” says Fekl. But “rearranging and the tactile experience don’t mesh with the existing kits.”

RealAtoms is a dynamic molecular model kit developed with the goal of being able to model and visualize organic and inorganic chemistry reactions, including their intermediates. 

The kit comes with 12 hydrogens, six carbons, one nitrogen, and two oxygens. The carbons, nitrogen, and oxygens all have the same composition and can be used interchangeably. 

“We call it the molecular reaction kit,” says Fekl.

Fekl developed prototypes of the molecular kit with support from his department, its Chair Claudiu Gradinaru, as well as the Impact Centre.

Moscattini, who is a sessional instructor at U of T and Professor at Seneca College, used his ten years of design experience to help develop RealAtoms using 3D Design. 

With RealAtoms there are more possibilities. SN2 reactions can be observed in the hands of the user. The atoms of this kit are capable of showing the entire process from a nucleophilic attack, a five-coordinate carbon representing the intermediate, and finally the exit of the leaving group. 

The Walden inversion — the conversion of a molecule from one enantiomer to another — cannot be demonstrated using current model kits, but can be done with RealAtoms with ease. 

The kit can also be used for inorganic studies. The atoms in the kit are also able to form transition metal complexes and show square planar and octahedral geometries, and can be used to create lattice structures, and organic and inorganic molecules. 

Unlike typical ball-and-stick models, parts in the RealAtoms kit contain magnets enclosed in ABS plastic. According to Fekl, magnetic model kits can already be purchased, but the magnets in the kits don’t contribute to their function.  

The magnets used in RealAtoms are functional and allow users to quickly assemble and change a molecule’s geometry. 

The model kit also allows users to feel the resistance when rotating bonds. 

The model clearly shows that the single bonds of sp3 hybridized carbons can freely rotate, while the double bonds of sp2 hybridized carbons, which cannot rotate. 

To form molecules with double or triple bonds, traditional ball-and-stick models would require completely different sticks to form them. The molecule must also be taken apart in order to transition between the different geometries. 

However, the atoms in the RealAtoms model kit contain plane surfaces along with concave and convex surfaces. These surfaces, contributed by Moscattini, lock in the orientation of a molecule to prevent rotation around the double bond. 

Fekl and Moscattini hope to create a new standard for organic and inorganic model kits. 

The model kit became commercially available for the first time at the 2018 Canadian National Exhibition. Moscattini delivered a pitch that won the Kids Technology Pitch Competition. It is also currently being used in a study at Seneca College to investigate the benefits of model kits in chemistry education. 

“The overall goal, I think, is for this to be the new standard in terms of organic model kits and inorganic kits,” says Moscattini. “We’re aiming for that, to have it in classrooms across Canada and the rest of North America.”