That pesky bell curve, again

Remember the bell curve? In mathematics (probability theory) we have what is called the central limit theorem. Here, for the mathematically inclined and those not so inclined, are two explanations:

The point is that the central limit theorem and the bell curve, which is how we very often express it, is pretty well grounded in both theory and observation. This is a HUGE problem in some fields, especially education, because the bell curve is unfair. Everyone knows that … don’t they? It seems intuitively obvious that everybody must be equal in everything in 21st century Canada … intelligence and academic performance cannot, possibly, be predicted using mathematics … can they? It’s not fair!

Thus, according to an article in the Toronto Sun, Toronto District School Board (TDSB) “education director John Malloy insisted [that while] specialized programs [gifted, fine arts and technology] will stay … he also said “changes need to happen” to ensure “each and every student can achieve high academic achievement and success.”” Never mind that years decades centuries of experience and observation, captured in data, says that notevery student can achieve high academic achievement and success,” it must be made to happen … or, at least to appear to happen.

Centuries of experience says that in properly graded elementary and secondary schools we are almost always certain to see this result at the end of almost each and every academic year:


We can, and many schools and school districts and whole provinces do inflate the bell curve … move it to the right, to get this:


But even if we send only about half of the new B students and all the A and A+ students to university,  guess what happens …





… about 30% will demonstrate that they ought not to be there, that they are a waste of valuable space and time.

We need to be conscious of a few facts, and I assert, without fear of contradiction, that they are facts:

  • A university education, even one with three or even more degrees, does not make anyone special;
  • Good plumbers and diesel mechanics and conscientious trash collectors are just as valuable to society as are doctors and lawyers and philosophers;
  • There is dignity in all honest work;
  • Some occupations ~ due to the iron law of supply and demand ~ pay more than others. Doctors, who need to spend 10+ years learning their craft almost always earn more than do, say, land surveyors or retail shop clerks. Equally, oil rig workers ~ due to the conditions of their work ~ often earn a lot more than do, say, bank tellers or taxi drivers. Some good, hard working heavy equipment operators who never finished high school can earn more than some dentists and most civil servants and school teachers. There’s nothing unfair about any of those outcomes, it’s just how life in a free market economy works.

What is the proper function of the public education system? Is it to aim to ensure that “every student can achieve high academic achievement and success?” Or is it, perhaps, to prepare all young people to take an honest and productive role in society? I would argue that it is something closer to the latter … not everyone can or will benefit from the full range of education which might include a PhD in philosophy, mathematics, history or bio-chemistry. We, Canadian society at large, don’t need everyone to have a piece of paper that says they are as well educated as their neighbour; we need good, honest, hard working, productive citizens. The education system is a key part in producing those good people, whether they are truck drivers, brain surgeons or farmers.

I am certainly not opposed to recognizing that some people, in fact whole communities, are “disadvantaged” and that children who, for example, have too few books in their homes,  or who are poorly nourished or who, in fact, have a whole host of other disadvantages, will not perform up to their capacity … that’s unfair to them. It is in society’s best interests to remedy that to the extent possible: supreme court justices, cabinet ministers, chiefs of the defence staff and bank presidents should not come only from the ranks of the upper middle class, and putting asphalt on roadbeds and collecting rubbish is not and must not be the destiny of the poor.

Society should aim for equality of opportunity for (almost) everyone* but it is doomed to fail if it tries to ensure equality of outcomes. That, aiming for equality of outcomes, is what it appears the TDSB wants to do … it is understandable, no one really wants to accept inequality, but they will fail, as they should.


* There is a very tiny percentage of people, maybe <1%, who cannot or will not be helped in any meaningful by any reasonable measures; they, like the poor, are always with us.


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