The racialization of poverty
SCHOOLS ARE NOT POWERLESS TO ADDRESS RACIAL DISPARITIES As schools learn more about poverty and race, they should be careful not to let that lead to a culture of fatalism
When Donna Quan resigned as director of the Toronto District School Board to become an adjunct professor at York University’s faculty of education, many viewed the new position as nothing more than a sinecure provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Education in order to put an end to her tumultuous tenure as head of Canada’s largest school board.
After all, she will continue to collect an annual salary of $272,000, which is substantially larger than any education professor could ever hope to make. However the project that Quan is tasked with, assessing the feasibility of requiring all of Ontario’s school boards to collect detailed demographic data on its students, could signal a major shift in the way we approach education in this province.
Debates about whether we should collect information on the socioeconomic status and race of students have raged inside the Ministry of Education for years.
Some argue that the government’s policies are good for all students, and amidst our high performance on international tests and ever increasing graduation rates, there isn’t really a pressing need for such information. Meanwhile others note that large disparities still exist between children from different racial backgrounds, and that family income continues to be the largest predictor of student achievement.
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 whenmagazine 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.