The race divide in Toronto schools

The latest TDSB report on equity highlights the cycle of systemic problems that have plagued education bureaucracies for decades

School doesn’t have to divide and rule us. But it does. Even talking about schooling divides us, as we see by early reaction to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Enhancing Equity Task Force draft report, released last month.

Every decade, it seems there is a (largely sincere) effort to solve problems of racism and inequality in our schools. Reports are written, programs are started and then, after little or no improvement in the lives of students, the cycle is repeated. This latest report even begins by asking: “If we largely know what the problems are and what needs to be done, what is keeping us from making progress?”

That’s a question the report only begins to address. 

I asked some frontline educators to explain why school, which we trust to help all our kids, doesn’t.

George Martell, a retired professor who worked for decades with marginalized communities, gave this explanation: “There’s just no getting around what capitalism has in mind for its school systems – the creation of compliant workers and citizens.”

Since the early 1990s, all three political parties participated in gutting the education system. With schools starved of libraries, language and special education support, arts and even playgrounds, it’s a picnic of divide and rule.

Former teacher and professor Harry Smaller says, “When upper-middle-class parents want special things for their kids, they often get them. Unfortunately, this is done at the expense of the larger school populations, where kids in the regular system are left with fewer resources.”

Early controversy was created by the report’s idea (now dropped, it seems) that specialty schools be cut, with all students forced to attend schools in their neighbourhood, with the hope that this would “transform every local school to a strong neighbourhood school.”

A noble idea, but Carl James, a York University prof whose research focuses on the experiences of Black students, asks: “How much do teachers and principals pay attention to their neighbourhoods?”

The report flexes some muscle when it opposes streaming, a time-honoured method for keeping social classes in their places. Kids grow and change. Lightning can strike at any time and a sleepy, restless or depressed kid can awaken to possibility.

Smaller points out that, unless kids have strong advocacy, it’s very difficult to move to a higher level if they are assigned to a low stream in grade nine. “The stats suggest that when this rigid streaming is in place, those who move go down and not up. When a student wants to move up, the Board may even require that they repeat their year.”

The report’s lack of a child development perspective means it misses some systemic anomalies that most hurt the least privileged kids, such as the idea that has crept into TDSB thinking that all kids should be reading in grade one. If that doesn’t risk falsely labelling and undermining bright, capable kids of all stripes who are not ready to grasp the whole thing at six – I’m talking about double-language kids, dreamy, lively kids, traumatized kids – I don’t know what does.

Recent graduate Braxton Wignall, who helped write Rhymes To Re-education: A Hip-Hop Curriculum, testifies, “The expectations no longer match up with the time we are in right now. That’s a big disconnect… it was so hard for me to come in to school, suppress the reality I’m living in, suck it up and do what I don’t want to do.” 

The report indicates an urgent need for training and professional development when it comes to teacher relationships with students who are not white.

York Indigenous education professor Susan Dion reports from research she’s done that “85 to 93 per cent of the data sources identify teacher lack of knowledge as the number one challenge.” 

James emphasizes, “Every student should have a history book that starts off with Indigenous people and explains the coming of Europeans to Turtle Island, and what happened then.”

In these interesting times, teachers can take the lead and embrace the life-long learning they claim to value for their students. Dion reports progress in figuring out how to help them after staff at the Indigenous Education Centre did professional development with principals and teachers from every school across the TDSB.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to support that learning. But the teachers have to be committed and willing to put in the time and the energy,” Dion says. “That’s where the challenge comes in, because not all teachers are ready to engage with the history.”

Those challenges also include the massive bureaucracies teachers must obey. | @nowtoronto

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