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Paul W. Bennett: You shouldn’t get a participation award for failing high school

Commentary

High school graduation is now being reinvented to align better with runaway grade inflation and everyone-gets-a-pass education times. “No pass? No problem” read the headline in the Ottawa Citizen on proposed changes to the academic graduation tradition that went national this past week. Little wonder it immediately became the latest flashpoint in the ongoing debate over declining standards in Canada’s schools. 

One Ontario public school district, Ottawa Carleton District School Board, is proposing to change graduation ceremonies into commencement exercises and striking out academic awards from its policy. The proposed changes, if accepted next month, will soon get recognized at a June “commencement” ceremony which would include students who have not passed or secured a graduate diploma. 

The proposed shift replaces “graduation” with “commencement,” but the changes go far beyond a simple doctoring of the language. A graduation marks a stage in a student’s academic career recognizing the successful completion of a program, signified by the achievement of a diploma, and the conferring of a range of academic and non-academic student awards. Changing it to a “commencement” implies that it’s a community celebration, including everyone, which marks “the beginning of a journey” in education rather than a milestone. 

The clock is ticking on the changes. Proposed amendments to OCDSB policy P.038.SCO, dating from May 1998, initiated by associate director Brett Reynolds and senior staff, were tabled for public feedback until March 29 and will be reviewed by a board committee on April 4. They will then be presented to the board of trustees on April 25 for final approval. That’s clearly not enough time to ensure proper public engagement and accountability, but par for the course at the local school board level. 

The OCDSB claims that the intent of the change is to make the end-of-year ceremony more inclusive. “At commencement, students of all levels of achievement will be able to cross the stage with their peers,” reads the official statement that accompanied an invitation to members of the public to comment on the proposed change. 

The OCDSB rationale downplays the salient difference: “For a variety of reasons, students may not have completed all the requirements for a move on from secondary school. With this change, these students will be able to join their peers and celebrate their achievements.” What students who have not passed the grade are celebrating is as clear as mud. It, in fact, implies that simply “showing up” is now worthy of praise. 

They go on to add, “Commencement is equity-based and not marks-based,” and that “Students have diverse educational journeys, and all students’ diverse experiences should have the opportunity to be celebrated, including those who have historically faced challenges within the education system, both in the past and in the present.”

Students leaving secondary school after reaching 18 without meeting the marks will receive a Certificate of Accomplishment. It takes participation medals to a whole new level. 

Graduation rates have skyrocketed as well as final averages over the past two decades or more.  While Ontario high school graduation rates in 2004  sat at 68 percent, they now soar into the high 80s and low 90s. Being an Ontario Scholar used to mean securing a difficult 80 percent average. Today the vast majority of students exceed what was formally a benchmark of academic excellence. 

The awarding of high marks is deeply entrenched. This, in many ways, has undermined the value of a high school diploma. In June 2022, for example, some 86.1 percent of Ottawa-Carleton DSB students graduated in four years (Grades 9 to 12) and 90.5 percent took five years. That’s a little above the provincial average, comparable to Toronto DSB (85.8 percent over five years) but lower than York Region DSB (94.2 percent over five years) and York Region Catholic DSB (97.3 percent over five years). 

Coleton McLemore is silhouetted against the sky during the Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2020 at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School’s Tommy Cash Stadium on July 31, 2020 in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP.

It’s still alarming to examine the impact of the proposed OCDSB changes on the current cohort of graduates. Students who work conscientiously to complete the high school program will have their achievement diminished further by the presence of a smaller group, roughly 14 percent, who get a free pass to participate in the final ceremony. 

The OCDSB policy change did not come out of nowhere. It owes its origins to the OCDSB Strategic Plan for 2023-27 and its undergirding philosophy—a commitment to inclusion, equity, and accessibility for all students. While few quibble with embracing inclusive education, the devil is in the details and the extent to which it now overrides the core mission of schools: teaching and learning in the classroom. 

Recognizing high student achievement is now being conflated with the traditional graduation ceremony and that is seen as antithetical to the overriding goal of celebrating all levels of achievement while serving those who have been “underserved” by the school system. 

Most inspiring school reforms and policy changes seek to lift children up and instill what American education psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” For students, it amounts to a “commitment to thrive on challenge” where you don’t see failure as a way to describe yourself but as “a springboard for growth and developing your abilities.”

Degrading graduation is completely at odds with fostering a student growth ethic and a commitment to exceeding expectations. If the OCDSB policy changes go through and other boards follow suit, it may, in fact, breed complacency and give aid and comfort to what former U. S. President George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It will have arrived when, in the not-too-distant future, everyone gets a high school participation certificate. 

Peter Menzies: It’s time for Trudeau to stand up to TikTok

Commentary

Here’s a tip for web giants wanting to make sure public policymakers don’t shut them down because they fear they will abuse the power of their platform to exert political influence: don’t use the power of your platform to try to exert political influence.

Such is the lesson learned by TikTok (and, hopefully, others) over the past few days when it encouraged users to call U.S. congressional offices to express their alarm that the popular global social media platform could be evicted from the lucrative American market.

At stake is a bipartisan anti-TikTok bill that is fairly breezing through Congress. It would ban the purveyor of user-generated short-form videos from the U.S. if its parent company, Bytedance, doesn’t sell the video platform. Bytedance, which has global revenue of $110 billion (USD) is a Chinese tech company with firm ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It has over 1.8 billion global users and 3.2 million active monthly users in Canada.

While it ranks as Canada’s third most popular and fourth most regularly used social media platform, 70 percent of its users are under 40 and the majority (60 percent) are women. That makes TikTok particularly appealing to advertisers and politicians trying to appeal to Millennials who now outnumber Baby Boomers.

Bytedance also owns Douyin, which is TikTok’s Chinese counterpart designed specifically to comply with that nation’s censorship restrictions. It has not gone unnoticed, however, that while the two systems have separate networks, they share the same software.

Given the CCP’s, ahem, curious nature concerning what’s up in the world of its rivals, the Americans want to eliminate any chance that the CCP has access to sensitive data about TikTokkers and could use the platform as a vehicle to spread disinformation and manipulate political outcomes.

TikTok is trying to fight back. But when it used its platform to encourage users to contact their representatives in Congress, the move backfired. Big time.

The BBC reported that the office of one of the co-sponsors of the bill, Florida Congressman Neal Dunn, took 900 calls “many of which were vulnerable school-aged children” with the end result being that “this effort by Bytedance validated the Congressman’s concerns.”

Given the extent to which Chinese political interference has been exposed in Canada in recent years, one might have expected the Justin Trudeau-led government to have spearheaded the battle against Bytedance.

But then again, given the government’s pattern of downplaying and footdragging on virtually all Les Affaires Chinoise, perhaps it’s not that surprising at all. 

Whether it involves the ongoing presence of Chinese “police stations” in the nation’s major cities, the apparent use of spies within the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, and an official commission of inquiry into foreign political interference—triggered by allegations China manipulated nomination battles and even election races in key ridings—the Trudeau government has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into action.

Its appointment of Justice Marie-Josee Hogue to head the commission of inquiry came only after the debacle of special rapporteur David Johnson’s perfunctory look into the matter. The revelations regarding the fired scientists at the bio lab in Winnipeg took close to four years to emerge and an attempt to look further into the matter by Conservative MP Michael Chong was shut down recently when the House of Commons ethics committee, thanks to Liberal and NDP MPs, voted against it.

Then there was the matter of Canada taking years to decide that Huawei posed a security threat and banned it from participating in the nation’s 5G networks. This was long after Five Eyes intelligence-pooling allies in Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. had done so.

If Huawei could constitute a security threat, one might wonder, why wouldn’t the same apply to TikTok?

TikTok Canada has argued that it is not at all controlled by the Chinese government. Steve de Eyre, the company’s director of public policy and government affairs, made that clear to MPs at a House of Commons committee meeting just last fall.

At that same meeting, David Lieber, TikTok’s head of privacy public policy for the Americas, conceded, however, that “it would be irresponsible for me or any other employee of a technology company to make categorical guarantees about what governments are capable of or incapable of in terms of their ability to conduct activities including hacking on their own initiative.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with other social media platform heads on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, to discuss child safety online. Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo.

So, given that the U.K., Australia, the European Union, the European Commission, and the European Parliament have all expressed “security concerns” regarding TikTok and India has banned it completely since 2020, it’s unlikely Congress is barking up the wrong tree.

So far, all Canada has done is ban TikTok from being accessed on government smartphones. But the Liberal Party of Canada, as appears to be the case with its rivals, still has an active account.

Another reason for not taking further action could be concern about the consequences. In India, for instance, the departure of TikTok paved the way for Meta’s Instagram to dominate the user-generated video market.

That’s a concern raised by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump who noted that data privacy issues extend to other social media companies as well. Meta, he said, gathers the same information and claims that “they’ll do whatever China wants.”

“When I look at it, I’m not looking to make Facebook double the size,” Trump told CNBC. “If you ban TikTok, Facebook and others—but mostly Facebook—will be the big beneficiary.

“I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people, along with a lot of the media.”

Given that the Trudeau government appears to share Trump’s view of Facebook due to its refusal to be shaken down by the Online News Act, there might be something to that.

But there’s also the chance that, as with all its other files concerning China and the CCP, Canada is just afraid. But whether it’s of Millennials or the Chinese, it’s hard to say. Maybe both.