Many articles that have appeared in Quillette over the years have presented case studies in how small groups of ideologically motivated activists can take over university programs, NGOs, literary groups, and social-media subcultures. In the case of the public education system, however, the stakes are much higher.
Nevertheless, when parents express concern that their children are being conscripted into social-justice crusades—rather than being provided with the skills needed for higher education and the job market—they often are dismissed as regressive, paranoid, or racist. Those who doubt parents’ concerns in this regard should consider recent events involving the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school board, and the seventh largest in North America.
Understanding what has happened at the TDSB requires one to go back to 2005, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission announced that, after a two-and-a-half-year fight, its officials had “reached an important settlement” regarding the disproportionate impact of the TDSB’s application of the disciplinary provisions contained in Ontario’s Safe Schools Act “on racialized students and students with disabilities.” The opening paragraph of that settlement reads more like a capitulation to an intersectional world view (as one would now call it) than a good-faith attempt to balance the TDSB’s legitimate interest in maintaining school safety with the need to treat students in an even handed manner:
The TDSB accepts and acknowledges a widespread perception that the application of Ontario’s school disciplinary legislation, regulations and policies can have a discriminatory effect on students from racialized communities and students with disabilities and further exacerbate their already disadvantaged position in society.
Whether there was evidence of actual discrimination by the TDSB seems to have been beside the point. Mere “perception” was sufficiently damning. And the settlement agreement went on to assign the school board the task of finding the data to back up the accusation.
Moreover, it wasn’t just school-discipline policies that were deemed racist. The entire system was presented as rotten, from the curriculum, to the school board’s hiring and promotion practices. Therefore, the TDSB was required to train staff to “be aware of and sensitive to the presence of racially biased education in the elementary and secondary school curriculum,” and to actively recruit and promote racialized teachers “in order that there is an equitable representation reflective of the Toronto Community.”
The settlement also gave an approving nod to what would be called the TDSB’s Africentric school pilot project, which took form in the TDSB’s racially segregated Africentric Alternative School in 2009. From the beginning, the venture was out of place for Canada—a country that, then and now, is rightly held up as a global leader in creating diverse and socially integrated communities.
The architects of the settlement seemed untroubled by the loose relationship between the alleged problem and their proposed remedy. To take one obvious shortcoming: it was never clear how hiring and promoting teachers of, say, Asian descent would have any effect on decisions regarding the suspension or expulsion of black students and students with disabilities.
The main effect of the 2005 settlement was that it transformed a loosely identified “perception” that TDSB discipline policies were being unfairly applied, into an unchallengeable orthodoxy that the entire school system was racist. The idea that students and teachers could be divided into a white oppressor faction and a collection of non-white victims now had a measure of legal authority.
The settlement’s requirement that the TDSB collect demographic data on students who were suspended or expelled soon metastasized into a census of all TDSB students, which has been conducted once every five or six years, beginning with the inaugural instalment in 2006. According to a subsequent research report, this first census was conducted within reasonable parameters. It covered only students in grades seven through 12—i.e., children who might plausibly be able to understand and answer questions about gender, race, national origin, sexual orientation, parental education, and their family’s socio-economic status. Questions about sexual orientation (which lumped LGBTQ into a single catch-all) were limited to students in grades nine through 12, presumably because it was considered inappropriate to inquire about the sexual proclivities of pre-pubescent children. Gender was divided into just two categories: male and female.
It’s unclear whether all this effort gave the TDSB any clues about how to improve academic outcomes. As I wrote in 2018, despite a 14-year campaign by successive Liberal provincial governments to revamp Ontario’s math curriculum, median household income remained a strong predictor of whether a TDSB school was able to get its students up to the provincial level on standardized math exams. My research found that, on average, for every $10,000 increase in a school’s median income, the portion of students at that school who met the provincial standard on grade six math exams went up by about two percent.
In other words, while the TDSB continued to increase its focus on race, gender, and other personal characteristics as the prime determinants of student success and wellbeing, what actually mattered far more to students looking to attain a measure of numeracy was having rich parents. In a province where Kumon and other outside tutoring services had grown into a billion-dollar industry, it seemed likely that all this extra help was paying dividends for those kids whose parents could afford it. Yet, oddly, nobody was bothering to ask students whether they were taking any outside math tutoring, and if so, which programs might be working for them.
As the 2022 version of the TDSB student census approached in recent weeks, this issue took on a personal dimension for me. On October 25th, I received a short e-mail from another TDSB parent: “I don’t want our kids doing this.” It was unclear to me what “this” was, but I scrolled down and saw a forwarded message that had been sent to parents of the roughly 247,000 children in the TDSB system. I had received the e-mail but not yet looked at it.
The cheery message began thus:
November is Student Census month at the TDSB! The Student Census is a confidential and voluntary survey that asks students important questions about their identities and school experiences and is an opportunity to honour students’ voices.
It included a link to a short, upbeat video that spoke to the virtues of the census and the importance of participating. Parents would complete the census for children in kindergarten up to grade three, and students in grades four through 12 would do it themselves in class. Technically, it was voluntary. But given that it was being conducted as a classroom activity for all but the youngest students, it seemed—in my view—intended that the kids would feel the exercise was mandatory. Otherwise, the school board would have allowed the older students to elect to complete the census (or not) at home.
Oddly, I noticed, the email that parents received contained no link to the census itself. After doing some online digging, however, I did find a 40-page TDSB document entitled Approach to Census 2022: Guiding Research Principles. As someone who has experience doing statistical analysis with real-world data, I was expecting a dispassionate discussion of the statistical methodologies to be used, the limitations of the conclusions that might be drawn from questions asked of children, and perhaps some preliminary hypotheses that the research would either validate or disprove—ideally with reference to data collected from the three student censuses that the TDSB had already conducted. That, in a nutshell, is the stuff of honest data science.
What I found instead read like a lengthy polemic from undergraduates in a grievance-studies program. The document has since been removed from the TDSB website—more on that later—but it can be accessed via waybackmachine.com. From the first paragraph:
Prior to starting the planning for this iteration of the Census, the TDSB Census teams spent over a year developing a theoretical framework to help guide this research. This framework is rooted in anti-racist, anti-oppressive, anti-colonial, and community-based participatory research methods. [It] is a confidential and voluntary survey that asks students important questions about identity and school experiences … Identity-based data can help highlight how mindsets, systems, and structures have historically created and maintained educational inequities; a large part of the change that needs to happen focuses on amplifying ways in which educators, researchers, and system leaders need to (un)learn about themselves in relation to students. These data can be instrumental in highlighting the various forms of systemic oppression and complex issues of human rights that impact students and families. For example, some forms of systemic oppression that can impact students in the TDSB include but are not limited to: ableism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Palestinian racism, antisemitism, anti-Sikh hate, biphobia, cissexism, homophobia, Islamophobia / anti-Muslim hate or racism, transphobia, and all other issues of oppression and human rights as they might exist on the basis of caste, class, creed, gender identity, gender expression, race, religion, and sexual orientation, among others. These forms of oppression can work in isolation, or overlap and intersect with each other. Acting on these data can enable the Board to develop enriching learning and working environments for everyone.
Following a brief history lesson on the school board’s prior data collection efforts, the authors then describe the
key theories informing our research approach—[theories that] underscore the centrality of colonialism, oppression, and racism in school boards and serve as tools for better understanding how to work towards social justice: ● Anti-colonial and decolonial theory ● Anti-oppression theory ● Anti-racist and critical race theory ● Community-based and participatory action research methods ● QuantCrit or quantitative critical race theory.
Anti-colonialism, the authors note, “theorizes the nature and extent of social domination, and particularly, how the relations of power are framed using race, capitalism, patriarchy, and neo-liberalism to establish a dominant-subordinate connection.” And in regard to the third bullet point, the TDSB Research Department advises that
instead of questioning whether racism exists, Anti-Racist and Critical Race Theory acknowledge racism to be an ingrained aspect of society and inherently present in settler-colonial states like Canada … Contrary to popular opinion, anti-racism work or anti-racist theory does not imply the privileging of a singular type of discrimination; the theory posits oppression is best understood within prisms of ‘and/with’ instead of ‘either/or’ — there are multiple, interlocking, and intersectional oppressions present in our schools, but race becomes the axis on which multiple oppressions are engaged.
One of the strangest aspects of the document was the authors’ treatment of the Middle East, which somehow managed to completely pass over the diverse mix of nations, languages, religions, and cultures that exist in that part of the world (and whose diasporas are well-represented in the Toronto area). Instead, the authors repeatedly circled back to the alleged scourge of “anti-Palestinian racism (APR).” Palestinians represent only about five percent of the Arab-Canadian population living within Toronto. Yet the apparently singular “virulence of APR” required a definition supported by no less than a dozen sources that also conferred victim status on non-Palestinian supporters of the Palestinian cause:
Anti-Palestinian Racism (APR) can involve intimidation, attacking, silencing, censoring, or stereotyping of Palestinians for being Palestinian, advocating for justice, human and political rights, and/or liberation for Palestine. Non-Palestinians who express solidarity with Palestinians and Palestine can also experience harm because of the virulence of APR. While APR intersects with anti-Arab and Islamophobic prejudice and discrimination, as well as other forms of racism that are rooted in Euro-American settler colonialism and imperialism, it is distinguished because Palestinians are distinctly targeted with the erasure of their voices and experiences as Palestinians. APR can manifest in things like negative pressures on people who are speaking about Palestine, which can be justified by societal and institutional anti-Palestinian racist beliefs and ideas that Palestinians’ social, moral, and political expressions for justice, dignity, and freedom are inherently antisemitic, hateful, prone to violence and terrorism, and averse to peace, peace-making, and peace dialogues.
The next morning, I reached out to my school-board trustee, whom I had voted to re-elect in Toronto’s municipal elections a mere two days earlier, and requested a copy of the census. She immediately directed me to a link on the TDSB website. It was in an obscure location, but at least the information was available. (Since then, the censuses have been scrubbed from the TDSB website entirely).
Many of the questions for each age group would be unlikely to trouble the vast majority of parents. Below, for instance, are the first 10 questions for grade four – six students:
Q1 Since September, I feel happy. Q2 I look forward to going to school. Q3 I enjoy school. Q4 At school, I can be myself. Q5 At school, rules are applied to me in a fair way. Q6 At school, I feel left out (like in games, school activities, friend groups, etc.). Q7 At school, I feel accepted by my classmates. Q8 At school, I have at least one friend I can count on for help and comfort. Q9 Since September, I feel lonely. Q10 My feelings matter to my teachers.
As the survey went on, however, the questions became more pointed, and their content suggested that the survey designers were seeking what might be called “oppression-affirming” answers:
Q26 My teachers use the correct pronouns (like she/her, he/his, they/them, etc.) to refer to me. Q36 At school, I feel comfortable expressing my ethnic or racial identity (like wearing a durag, keffiyeh, cultural clothing, etc.). Q38 At school, I feel comfortable expressing my religious or spiritual identity (like wearing a cross, hijab, kippah, turban; praying, smudging, etc.) Q41 At school, I feel comfortable expressing my gender identity (like the way I dress, the length or style of my hair, the way I act or speak, the choice of whether or not to wear make-up, etc.)
For some of the questions, it seemed implausible that younger children would understand what they were being asked. To be fair, “I don’t understand this question” was a possible answer for many questions. But Question 31, “Are you Two-Spirit or Indigiqueer?” required a yes or no answer—from eight- and nine-year-olds.
Question 55 invited students to identify any spaces—from a long list, including single-gender washrooms, all-gender washrooms, prayer spaces, school buses, lunchrooms and clubs—in which they felt unsafe or afraid. Question 56 was basically a fishing expedition, inviting students to tick off “what makes you feel unsafe or afraid at school (Select all that apply)”:
__ The way I look __ How well I do at school work __ I have a disability __ My gender (people think I don’t act or look like I should) __ My family is different from other families __ My race or ethnic background __ My religion __ I am new to Canada __ Other reason (specify): __________________ __ Doesn't apply to me - I don’t feel unsafe or afraid at school
Children are highly suggestible, and many suffer from a constantly shifting array of anxieties. Put this kind of push poll in front of fourth graders—on page 11 of what’s probably the longest test they’ve ever seen—and a lot of children will simply go down the list ticking boxes. Once they’ve done so, those now-articulated fears may then become an object of identity and the basis for further grievances. All the TDSB needs is some significant fraction of students to tick these boxes as a means to justify further programming that’s anti-racist, gender affirming, and so forth. After all, the census “proves” that students feel “unsafe.” Or at least that’s what one can expect TDSB officials to claim.
As I dug deeper and spoke to other parents, I learned more. Most importantly, I learned that the survey data, while nominally “confidential,” is not anonymous. The census results would be appended to existing data held by the TDSB, such as academic performance, suspension history, and attendance record.
Those parents who might accept the census as a worthwhile endeavour could still have legitimate concerns about a possible data breach, and ought to know about the risks before their children participate. A malicious actor could have a field day with a vast database containing the contact information, addresses, household income levels, academic history, and potentially embarrassing mental health information of children—all of it indexable by race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.
I learned that another Toronto parent had already filed a complaint to Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner that raised some of these issues. A second parent (also a lawyer) opined that if such a survey were being conducted in the European Union, the entire exercise would probably be prohibited under EU privacy laws.
I wrote a letter to the TDSB’s Legal Services Executive Officer outlining my concerns, pointing out that, in their pronouncements, TDSB officials had been oddly cagey about which of their employees and outside research partners would have access to this giant data set. Moreover, their assurance that their “data stewards” would respond to data requests “in an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and decolonial way” was hardly reassuring. Indeed, it was meaningless.
The day after I sent my letter, the TDSB did something that only confirmed my suspicions that they weren’t being sufficiently candid with parents: they removed the above-described documents from public view. In place of the census questions, Approach to Census 2022: Guiding Research Principles, and other related subpages that, by now, were being widely circulated and critiqued on social media, the TDSB posted the following message:
This document is not compliant with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act (AODA). You can view the original non-compliant document here or you can send a request to our Accessibility team at firstname.lastname@example.org, who can help you procure a compliant and accessible version of this document.
The links they provided to the original documents didn’t work, and parents using the above e-mail address to ask questions received an automated response telling them, “you should receive a response within 15 business days.” To my knowledge, no one’s heard anything since.
A few days later, on November 3rd, parents received the TDSB’s official newsletter, which noted that the census was being “paused.” In this new telling, the claim about “accessibility” had now been abandoned. Instead, parents were told that the 40-page Approach to Census 2022: Guiding Research Principles document that had now been disappeared from the TDSB website had somehow been posted prematurely by overzealous underlings, “without an internal review and approval.”
“As a result,” the newsletter continued, “the TDSB is disappointed that we must pause the release of the census itself until the review process can be conducted. Our students must be able to voice their experiences and inform the development of school and system programs. It is regrettable that there will be delay in gathering this important information.”
What of the “many months of review of scholarly research, literature, and consultation with TDSB communities” that the research-document authors had bragged about—and the fact that the document had alreadybeen “extensively peer reviewed by a number of academic and community experts” over the course of more than a year? Apparently not so much.
In recent days, the census issue fell off the public radar, as TDSB schools were closed by a short-lived labour walkout, which had parents scrambling for child care. With the potential for further walkouts and school closures on the horizon (collective agreements with the province’s major education labour unions expired in August), the news cycle seems to have moved on.
I take the TDSB at their word when they say that they’ve merely “paused” the census, and I assume it will be back at some point. If it returns without major changes—on transparency, consent, data security, and, most of all, utility in improving academic outcomes for all students—I have no doubt there will be another backlash. One can only hope that those running one of the largest public education systems in North America have gotten the message from parents, and are capable of learning from their mistakes.