Schools are not powerless to address racial disparities

 Sachin Maharaja, a teacher in the TDSB, on racial disparities.
Data can be helpful in identifying and addressing disparities, both for the school system as well as for the people within the communities themselves, who also have to avoid fatalism:

One thing we do know for sure is that students in our school systems are not all given the same opportunities. Data from the TDSB, one of the only boards to collect detailed demographic information, has shown that students from lower income neighbourhoods are much less likely to be identified as gifted, more likely to be identified as having a learning disability, and more than twice as likely to be placed in applied-level classes. Race also plays a major role in how schools treat children. That is why black students represent 13 per cent of the TDSB population, but only 3 per cent of its students identified as gifted. Meanwhile white students, who make up 32 per cent of the TDSB population, comprise more than half of its students identified as gifted.

While some have disputed the role that racism plays in such inequitable treatment, we have empirical evidence that should put such notions to rest. A 2015 study by researchers at Stanford University gave teachers copies of student records with names that had been changed to be either stereotypically black or white sounding. When teachers saw records with black sounding names, they were much more likely to recommend that those students be suspended from school than when they saw identical records with white sounding names.

Given this reality, having demographic information on our students at least gives us the opportunity to address these glaring inequities. But not everyone thinks this is even a real problem. A Toronto teacher who teaches in a low income neighbourhood once told me that the reason black students and those from low income households are disproportionately placed in lower academic streams is due to “the conditions of their upbringing.” It is this culture of resignation which can be the downside of school systems having an excessive focus on poverty and race.

We see this attitude in some parts of the United States, which has collected detailed race and income statistics for years. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and one of the most prominent voices in American education, demonstrated this when she told a 2011 rally of teachers in Washington, D.C. that “our problem is poverty, not schools.” It was no coincidence then that when Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley later interviewed D.C. teachers, many stressed all of the disadvantages that their students faced. One teacher relayed the common complaint to Ripley that “parents on this side don’t have the know-how to raise their children.” The result of this type of attitude was that at the end of the school year, students in this teacher’s class fell further behind grade level in reading than when they started, and performed significantly worse than other low-income students in D.C. who had started the year at the exact same reading level.

On balance, it is a good thing to have more detailed information on the students we serve. Burying our heads in the sand and pretending that problems don’t exist is clearly not the solution. But as we better understand the racial backgrounds of our students and the issues of poverty they face, we should be careful to not let that lead to a culture of fatalism and low expectations in our schools.

Toronto school board sets higher improvement targets for students based on race, sexual orientation

The value of data to inform educators and support communities and groups that are not doing as well as most:

Cecil Roach is the York board’s superintendent of equity and engagement and a strong champion of collecting data.

“The things that are important are the things we measure, and you need to know who your students are. You cannot fully talk about supporting students unless you’re able to peel back the onion in order to see the inequities.

“You have some folks who say, ‘I don’t want to segregate kids by social identity,’ but that’s ridiculous,” said Roach. “We already know gay kids are more prone to suicide, but a lot of our knowledge is anecdotal. We need to know who our students are.”

York University education professor Carl James is such a believer in the value of gathering student data he has created a network of school board officials from Toronto, Peel, York Region and Ottawa to study the issue.

He would like to see Premier Kathleen Wynne call for a “learning gap strategy” like the one she requested this week to close the wage gap between men and women, and for this, surveys would be key.

“Such data would yield very rich information for the province,” said James, “and I would argue it would be of tremendous social and economic benefit.”

A spokesperson for Education Minister Liz Sandals said Friday her government is committed to have school boards “regularly use high-quality data and ongoing research to measure progress and guide programming,” especially after the scrapping of Ottawa’s long-form census, but “it is too early to tell what that will look like.”

But detailed surveys won’t be easy. A fierce split erupted this spring among Toronto’s Somali parents when the TDSB survey showed Somali students have a 25 per cent dropout rate, 10 points higher than the board average. While some Somali parents welcomed the information and joined a task force to examine solutions, others called it unfair labelling.

“These numbers can lead to uncomfortable conversations, especially about race and also sexual orientation,” admitted Spyropoulos, “but they’re conversations we need to have.”

As I go through the NHS data on educational outcomes, some clear and uncomfortable gaps in outcomes for some communities. Again, the conversations may be uncomfortable but silence and ignorance won’t help improve outcomes.

Toronto school board sets higher improvement targets for students based on race, sexual orientation | Toronto Star.

Should Toronto’s schools speak one cultural language, or many? | Toronto Star

The usual debate over targeted vs general programming. It starts with having information regarding which communities are struggling, and then developing appropriate supports. When such programs complement regular school programming, these can address the problems while not “ghettoizing”. Separate schools for ethnic and other groups, on the other hand, do not foster integration.

Canada’s award-winning mentoring program Pathways to Education has helped wrestle dropout rates to the ground in 15 of the country’s poorest communities by offering scholarships, tutoring and mentoring to entire neighborhoods — not the ethnic groups within them, said Vivian Prokop, president of Pathways Canada. Still, she noted there are different challenges when working with new immigrants, with aboriginal students and with home-grown “generational poverty.”

“The barriers to education vary based on a child’s postal code, and we don’t want to label or segregate students into ethnic groups,” said Prokop. “We offer wraparound supports — deep intervention — to the whole community.”

Jo-Ann Davis, the chair of Toronto’s Catholic board, believes you can serve specific groups without fuelling stereotypes. “We want kids to do well, and I believe cultural background is very important and has to be honoured. “We’re trying to bring those voices to the centre of the conversation, even though the practices will be different.”

Professor Carl James, who teaches urban diversity at York University’s faculty of education, said he’s not worried about giving extra help to certain ethnic groups as long as they don’t forget they’re part of a larger society.

“It might build the confidence and knowledge needed to feel more comfortable going into the larger community,” he said. “Whatever we are as a country is a combination of all of us.”

Should Toronto’s schools speak one cultural language, or many? | Toronto Star.