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Statistics and the damage done: On equity in education

Elementary school students. Photo: Government of Prince Edward Island/flickr

Dear Educators,

On Friday August 18 (today), you have Tom Bennett keynoting your Leadership Conference in Toronto and I want to make you aware of some very serious concerns that are emerging around him. For some context, I attended OISE back in 2010 and I now live and teach in Brussels. So, my concern is very much rooted in my love for Toronto, the commitment that Toronto schools and educators make to equity, and my heritage as a member of the Oneida band of First Nations peoples.

As you know, Bennett runs ResearchEd, and in the last few days, his close associate, friend, and speaker set to appear at ResearchEd in Toronto, David Didau, has made some very troubling claims about links between student performance, race, and the heritability of IQ. David Didau acknowledges that his speculation about what behavioural genetics might mean for school may face resistance because "it's not popular to go about attributing children's success or failure to who they are rather than what they experience." And who are children? In What Causes Behaviour?, he tells us that "the mountains of evidence that have piled up in favour of genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones is solemnly impressive." Thus, "it seems as if schools and teaching may matter a lot less than we would like to believe."

In the comment section, someone asks Didau, "Why do we see certain cultures doing much better (or worse) than others within the same education system?" Didau responds, "Well, firstly there's peer effects, and secondly -- despite the unpopularity of discussing such things, there are fairly clear racial differences in IQ."

When I and many members in the community called out the scientific racism in Didau's remarks, Tom Bennett blocked me. In none of Bennett's frequent tweets has he condemned this statement in spite of requests to do so. Instead he has blocked the people expressing concern. When Darren Chetty challenged Tom Bennett about the lack of racial diversity at ResearchEd in the U.K., Bennett blocked Chetty on Twitter, thus removing the voice of an important educator of colour from the "grassroots movement" that Bennett purports the conference to be. Many important debates about education, and a government report on behaviour which Bennett has authored, are found on Twitter.

As a first response, Didau wrote a post called "Differences and Similarities," where he cited Linda Gottfresdon as representing a "mainstream view of the research" about race and IQ, when she is in fact monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for promoting scientific racism. He only later acknowledged that he did not investigate his source, despite people repeatedly pointing out her history to him. In another comment on his blog, he directs someone to "the evidence collected on the Human Biodiversity Website," which features both Linda Gottfredson and the American White Supremacist Richard Spencer. The first link on the HBD website under "Multimedia" is this: Are your children prepared for the global future that lies ahead? The video mocks people who celebrate diversity and features these demeaning images of Black people that present them as a danger to white neighbourhoods.

When Didau finally issued a statement entitled "On Being Called a Racist," where the only damage he acknowledges is to his own feelings, Bennett Tweeted Didau's post and referred to the concerned community as a "Twitch Hunt" and "The idea that I'm required to [speak out] is, frankly, reminiscent of The Crucible."

As some further context on Bennett, he has made light of racism on Twitter by ironically replying to people talking about Scottish food: "So racist. I feel like my lived experience is being marginalized." It's no accident that he casually mocks people who take racism and hate speech seriously. He also contributes to Spiked, an advocate of the idea that "hate speech is free speech." This kind of discourse is much closer to the "many sides" approach we have seen recently in the news than a genuine stance on social justice.

As a sample from Spiked's education section, here are some bylines:

"The War on 'Dead White Dudes': The 'decolonise the curriculum' campaign is a threat to universalism"

"The Campus Rape Panic Demeans Women"

"Students' Temper Tantrum Over Trump"

"The Tyranny of 'Ze': Transgender politics isn't radical, it's deeply conservative"

"Turning Education Into Welfare: Both Labour and the Conservatives want to turn schools into wellness retreats."

In an interview with Spiked about "the crisis of authority of the classroom," Bennett says there is a "chronic" "crisis of adult authority" in the broader culture and classroom, and he believes children want a restoration of adult authority because they are "waiting to be told what to do." He is concerned that not teaching about "cultural legacy" might "endanger civilization." In the Telegraph, Bennett is quoted as saying, ""[With] generation snowflake, sometimes, there is an element of truth that children are a little bit inoculated perhaps against the harsher realities of the world." The sad irony is that while Bennett is against "no platforming," he effectively does just that by blocking and excluding the voices of women and people of colour.

It is not just in debates about education that Bennett practices exclusion; he also advocates for excluding students in cases:

"We may not like excluding pupils, internally, externally, permanent or fixed term, but they are a necessary part of the system. The desire to reduce exclusions by simply turning off the tap ironically creates circumstances where their use is required more and more, as misbehaviour backs up the pipe and remodels the social norms of the school in the direction of incivility and belligerence."

Bennett's suggestion to use exclusion for "misbehaviour" of course contradicts Ontario's progressive discipline policy: "Exclusion is not to be used as a form of discipline."

Bennett is part of a larger trend that focuses on "evidence-based" methods, where science is very narrowly construed and too often supplants debates about the broader purposes of education. Ultimately, statistical data about standardized subjects replaces the need for conversations about culturally relevant pedagogy. And rather than construct tables of heritability scores, we need to construct images that help us understand what Gloria Ladson-Billings calls the education debt we owe to those who have been oppressed:

"The images should remind us that the cumulative effect of poor education, poor housing, poor health care, and poor government services create a bifurcated society that leaves more than its children behind. The images should compel us to deploy our knowledge, skills, and expertise to alleviate the suffering of the least of these."

While I believe firmly in fair and robust debate, it surprises me and others that someone whose own values stand counter to those I proudly believe to be Canadian -- those of acceptance, inclusion and compassion -- is to be welcomed uncritically into our community.

To be clear, I am not asking you to cancel Bennett's keynote. Nor am I accusing Bennett of being a racist. But his habit of dismissing and excluding dissenting voices is very troubling to many educators, and it would be reassuring to the wider community without Bennett's platform to see that acknowledged and challenged at your conference.

Thank you for your time,

Benjamin Doxtdator

This article was first published on Support our Students Alberta and is reprinted here with permission. Follow Benjamin Doxtdator on Twitter @doxtdatorb and on A Long View of Education.

Photo: Government of Prince Edward Island/flickr

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