advocacy education politics

Data, algorithms and transparency for curriculum development

In the summer of 2018 the Ontario provincial Conservative government revoked the 2015 health and sex education curriculum that taught consent, gender identity, that LGBTQ+ relationships are valid as well as tools to develop healthy relationships and safety in the our digital age.  Instead, teachers were instructed to teach a curriculum from 1998. The Ontario government is currently seeking input on curriculum for Ontario schools. The MPP who represents my riding, Jeremy Roberts, held a town hall about this consultation on October 19.

I attended this town hall because I’m deeply opposed to the reverting to the old curriculum. According to a recent study in JAMA pediatrics, LGBTQ+ kids are three times more likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.  Having a curriculum that affirms that LGBTQ+ identities is not only an equity issue, it is a public health issue.  The role of parents and the education system is to provide the best outcome for children. To reduce the probability for kids to attempt suicide due to bullying is one of the most important things we can do.

I’ve never attended a town hall before so I didn’t know what to expect.  It was staffed by Conservative party staffers and had security folks that checked our bags at the door before we could enter. Mr. Roberts did  most of the talking and audience participation was mostly limited to participation in surveys on their phones on topics they would like included in the curriculum.

From these surveys, I  discovered many people in the room shared the many of my concerns.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.20.05 PM

At the end of the presentation, there was limited time for questions.  Every time someone had a difficult question, Mr. Roberts would defer and say to enter the question on website.  He also passed out cards with contact information for his  constituency office.  I asked some questions about analysis of the data.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 10.29.58 PM

This is the letter I wrote to Mr. Roberts on October 23, 2018.  I phoned his constituency office the first week of November but was told the Ministry of Education did not have the answers to my questions.  I called again this week and was told that there were staffing changes in the office and thus the delay in getting a response.  I look forward to the answers to my questions since the public consultation ends December 15.

Oct 23, 2018

Dear Mr. Roberts:

As a constituent in your riding, I am writing with questions that arose as I attended the Education Curriculum Town hall last Friday October 19.

I have a child in a local elementary public school in your riding.  By profession, I’m a software engineering manager. I have been working in the tech industry for over 20 years, the vast majority of that in open source software.

In your presentation on Friday, you mentioned that each of the comments submitted to the would be examined by a person and software.   Here are my questions:

1) Will the aggregate of the data be released before curriculum decisions are announced on the results of this data?   Obviously the government must adhere to the Province’s privacy statement and protect personal data but I’m wondering if a summary of the input will be released before any curriculum changes are announced.

2) Who wrote the software that will analyze the data on curriculum that people send to the  Was it developed in-house or was it purchased from a vendor? Will it be released as open source? Will there be external auditing to ensure that the algorithm does not introduce bias?

3) What is the process to clean the data once it is submitted to ensure that it is valid?  As I’m sure you are aware, information submitted to a public website will have a lot of data that is completely random, not relevant to the topic at hand or demonstratively false by scientific evidence.  For instance, a woman at the town hall stated that hormones that transgender folks take in order to transition can kill you. That is not supported by scientific evidence yet you suggested she submit her input to the website.  Will her viewpoint be considered as valid data?

4) What will happen if the data submitted does not reflect the government’s agenda?  Will the curriculum be changed to reflect public input or not?

I look forward to hearing your answers to my questions.

As an aside, I do not feel as a parent that I have the expertise to write curriculum for schools.  That is not my area of professional expertise. I understand the need to reach out to people and understand their concerns, but ultimately writing curriculum should be evidence based, and written by people who have academic expertise in curriculum development and child development.  It should also respect the charter rights of everyone, especially marginalized communities.

Coverage on the town hall

Heather Badenoch from Village PR live tweeted the event.

Egan Kelly from the Ottawa Citizen wrote an article about the event.

Community organizer Fae Johnstone wrote in the Huffington Post about the consultation process in general

As a side note, these two books are excellent references on the ramifications of automating social policy without addressing the inherent bias that exists when humans write software.

Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

If you want to read about how indifference and social policy exacerbated the AIDS crisis in North America, And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts is a comprehensive book to read.

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