“Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.”
— Rosemary Brown
It’s tempting to look at Ontario’s education system with its 86 per cent high school graduation rate and conclude that if the system works for so many students, failure is the fault of those for whom it doesn’t.
This education series for the Atkinson Fellowship, which is a synthesis of interviews with about 45 educators, 15 academics, dozens of students from 17 schools in four countries and a smidgen of the scholarship on the issue, found that educators are successful in improving outcomes for all students when they flip that paradigm.
Instead of expecting benefits to trickle down and playing the blame game when that supposition falls flat, experts are flashing a light from the bottom up, from the margins to the centre.
According to feminist philosopher Sandra Harding’s “standpoint theory,” it’s those in the margins who have the most accurate view of the world. They have the insider view of what’s working for them and what’s not.
That view shows that the system has wrought physical and psychological terror on students marginalized for generations.
Education is legislated as “a fundamental social good” in this country. Yet, what changes did the education system undergo after local Black activism forced Ontario to desegregate schools? How did it change its foundational blueprint to put in front and centre the worldviews of those indigenous to this land? How did it reflect various cultures after Canada opened its doors to non-white immigrants in the 1960s and after multiculturalism became an official policy in the 1970s?
The perspective from the margins shows that not only are problems of oppression in education not new, but that pathways out of it have long existed, and publicly so.
If in 1992 Stephen Lewis, in his report on race relations to Premier Bob Rae, called it “absurd” to teach texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird “in a world which has a positive cornucopia of magnificent literature by Black authors.” That book was again the subject of a controversy in 2018 after the Peel District School Board told teachers to help students analyze it through an anti-oppression lens.
Even the impatience that Gitxsan activist Cindy Blackstock voiced to Alberta educators last April is not new — “Canada has known about the inequalities with First Nations kids for 112 years, and they’re still at the first steps.”
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that after Black people had waited three centuries for civil rights, the time for waiting was over: “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ ”
Education is at the core of deep change required in a world openly grappling with issues of power and oppression and growing nationalism.
In Canada, white nationalists are recruiting high school students, Evan Balgord of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network told parents at a Newmarket high school in April. A majority of the so-called alt-right or white supremacist members are white males age 16-30, he said. He urged teachers to look for signs of radicalization in students’ homework.
It’s understandable why teachers feel bogged down by the demands placed on them. Teach larger classes, instruct students with special needs without additional help and deal with anti-oppression and white nationalism, too?
Yet, motivation can be found globally.
It’s impossible not to be inspired by the community support worker at City Springs Elementary School in Baltimore who spends his summers building relationships with families, or the renewed vigour of the vice-principal of William Colenso College in New Zealand, who was ready to retire until the professional development program Te Kotahitanga reminded him of why he became a teacher.
A common-sense definition of equity involves giving more to those with less, to level unequal conditions that students come from and to remove barriers to accessing an empowering education. Educators around the world are layering that understanding with the concept of culture in the curriculum.
Experts have long said students’ sense of belonging matters. Being valued matters. A curriculum relevant to their lives matters. Using culture and the world around students as teaching tools fosters that.
Daniel Murfitt, principal of award-winning William Colenso College, embarked on his journey to understanding oppression when he started learning Te Reo Maori. He thought he’d learn a language. “But actually,” he said, “I was going to learn about tikanga — culture, relationships, history. Language was just a door to that learning and that provided me with a much greater understanding of the country.”
The Maori Language Commission in New Zealand offers schools resources, including a songbook with lyrics, stories based on oral traditions, suggestions for activities and a program to teach 50 Maori words in 50 weeks.
- Implement the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action relating to education.
- Support the revival of Indigenous languages at the provincial level and strategize with First Nations, Métis and Inuit experts on mandatory language programs in all schools.
- Restart the curriculum enhancement process in consultation with elders and knowledge-keepers.
Reconciling with Indigenous people is a moral responsibility for Canadians, and woefully inadequate though it is, there is at least some movement towards it in education.
Black histories and perspectives continue to be invisible.
The stories of Richard Sharpe, his father, Donald, and son, Mandela, show the need for a public reckoning of the generational harm education has perpetuated on Black families.
What little acknowledgment exists, is still geared towards boys’ perspectives. What about Black girls and trans students who experience racism quite differently?
“For Black girls, to be ‘ghetto’ represents a certain resilience to how poverty has shaped racial and gender oppression,” writes Monique W. Morris in “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.” “To be ‘loud’ is a demand to be heard. To have an ‘attitude’ is to reject a doctrine of invisibility and mistreatment.” Although these were lessons learned through generations of struggle, Morris writes, “these survival characteristics are degraded and punished.”
A 2017 study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality showed for the first time that adults view Black girls aged 5 to 14 as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. That they needed less comforting, less nurturing, among other features.
“Our findings reveal a potential contributing factor to the disproportionate rates of punitive treatment in the education and juvenile justice systems for Black girls,” the authors wrote.
- Require Black Canadian perspectives in the curriculum. Fund the development of resources, train teachers and all school staff to challenge anti-Black racism, empower their professional judgment.
- Collect and act upon Black girls’ voices — see their innocence, afford them decision-making power in their lives. Build relationships of trust.
- Establish and adequately fund more Africentric schools, at least until Black-affirming practices become the norm in current Eurocentric schools.
CULTURE IN CURRICULUM
Every educator interviewed who has embarked on a serious understanding of anti-oppression education at some point was influenced by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire and his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
A founder of the philosophy of “critical pedagogy” in the 1960s, Freire called for education that enables students to challenge dominant beliefs and participate in the transformation of the world.
Teaching using critical theory is by definition not formulaic. If Freire advocated for a critical teaching practice, then the American scholar and activist bell hooks espouses a critical feminist lens, and the Indian academic Urvashi Sahni uses critical feminist drama in Prerna school in Lucknow.
Other key influencers are the American pedagogical theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings, who in the mid-’90s developed a framework around “culturally relevant teaching,” and education scholar Geneva Gay, who founded “culturally responsive pedagogy.”
In New Zealand, educators moulded these concepts to their context. For education to be authentic and relevant, they say, relationships are paramount.
Elizabeth Eley, an associate director of the University of Waikato, said their preferred term is “Cultural Relationships for Responsive Pedagogy.”
“How you teach really matters but actually bringing yourself into the relationship and building on those relationships matters more,” Eley said. “The relationship comes first.”
If teachers understand — and value — where students come from, and change their judgment about how poor, “dirty,” “dangerous” or inadequate their students’ homes are, they can teach by building on the students’ knowledge and develop student voice and esteem.
Such practices ask senior leadership and teachers to consider every policy change, every lesson through a lens of “How does this affect the most marginalized student in my school, in my class?”
This cannot happen as long as educators view the work of equity as something additional, an extra that “we” have to do to enable “them” to be more like “us.”
Inequitable outcomes cannot change as long as awareness is mistaken for action, and any action is divorced from accountability.
Overwhelmed principals and teachers cannot perform or be held accountable if not given clear support.
- Train teachers in culturally relevant teaching practices that encourage critical consciousness.
- Expect schools to visibly honour cultures in their class and communities.
- Mandate anti-racism training during professional development days. Support teachers who take on anti-racism leadership and work in their personal time.
- Make anti-racism and community knowledge a required skill for performance reviews for principals and teachers. Develop evaluation standards.
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- Make schools welcoming for student families.
There is much that is good in Ontario education, beyond academic achievement metrics. Incidents such as the massive student walkout in April stand as testament to schools developing a well-rounded, engaged citizenry.
Still, the last year has made clear the battle lines around a basic aspect of education: its purpose. Why do we educate children?
In March, Lisa Thompson, then Ontario’s education minister, revealed how business interests dictate policies when she told the CBC consultations with professionals, employers and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce showed students “lacking coping skills, and they’re lacking resiliency.”
“By increasing class sizes in high school we’re preparing them for the reality of post-secondary as well as the world of work,” she said.
In July, the new education minister, Stephen Lecce, who committed to listening to experts, also espoused that neoliberal view, when he spoke of students having access to “good jobs at the end of their journey” and making financial literacy classes mandatory.
“I want us to be looking at this with a labour market lens,” he told the CBC’s “Metro Morning.”
Is that the limit of our ambition for our children? That they become compliant cogs in the corporate machinery, at best overlords of company cubicles?
None of us shuns the idea of financial security for our children. But people also hold broader visions of schooling as a developer of moral and social responsibilities, of an education that fosters deep intellectual growth and inner wellbeing.
As these labour market goals are not about education that connects learning to students’ life experiences, they do not bode well for students unendingly kept in the margins.
- Roll back increases in classroom sizes and cancel mandatory online courses for high schools.
- Ban suspensions and expulsions in elementary schools. Place adequate in-school staff who can use alternative forms of discipline.
- Hire equity- and anti-oppression-oriented Black and Indigenous staff at all levels, but especially in leadership positions.
- Follow the Baltimore model in underserved communities. Increase the number of adults in those schools — place one vice-principal, at least one community support worker, more social workers, more guidance staff in each school.
Anti-oppression education is directly linked to other socio- political sectors and institutions.
“Education reform isn’t a cure-all,” former U.S. president Barack Obama, tweeted recently. “Fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality.”
This means employment reform is education policy. Although identity-based discrimination isn’t solely a class issue, class is closely linked with achievement. Children of rich parents are 80 per cent more likely to attend college than those of low-income parents, a U.S. academic study on social mobility found.
Criminal justice reform is education policy. A 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute outlines how children of incarcerated parents are — apart from developing health problems — more likely to drop out of school, develop learning disabilities and misbehave in school.
Housing reform is education policy; as the Baltimore community schools showed, transience hurts attendance.
Likewise, eliminating racism in child welfare, health care and transportation policies stabilizes children’s lives and, in turn, benefits education.
System-wide changes for Indigenous and Black students have to be implemented now. Not later when there’s a friendlier government, not later when the “basics” have been restored first, not later when teachers and school leaders feel ready and there is the much-vaunted consensus in staff rooms.
An education that benefits all children is the basics. If we’re serious about raising culturally flexible children fluent in global dealings, deeply practised equity policies in every school — even in racially homogenous ones — are non-negotiable.
The right to an education free of oppression should be a human right.
The New Zealand experience of “what works for Maori works for everyone,” the reimagining of lives among India’s poorest, the engagement of Baltimore school students, and the safe spaces for Indigenous students in the Braided Journeys program in Edmonton Catholic schools show that when the practice of education focuses on anti-oppression, and relationships are based on mutual respect, all aspects of education including academic achievement fall into place.
Nevertheless, even the best-funded schools, the most transformative policies, the longest bias-awareness training and the deepest restorative practices are but tools in the kit. They cannot by themselves eradicate racist practices.
Students and their families who face racism in schools are still asked for proof of racist intent.
When faced with potentially racist situations, school boards still respond using reputational risk management strategies. How do reputations matter more than racist harm faced by children? How can fear-based approaches untangle the roots of discrimination?
A look at the long pattern of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenous racism in the school system since its inception should indicate at least one thing: Believe Black people. Believe Inuit, First Nations and Métis peoples. Ensure that reparations are made for those impacted.
Individual mindsets inform policy. No amount of reflection would move those who believe they are essentially civilizers of the backward. Breaking that primitive thought process requires practising respect, a term far more tossed around than understood.
Changing habits requires what King called a “revolution in values.” That is, a revolution not just at an abstract level of ideas but in daily choices and habits.
Yet, it is Canada — this petri dish of shared values from hundreds of cultures — that has an opportunity to be a thoughtful world leader, where teachers and principals, schools, boards and unions, parents and students could unite with humility on the path to education without oppression.
I hope educators who read this series and examples of successes feel a renewed vigour. If they have just one takeaway, I hope it is understanding that what needs to change is the framework with which they view students in the margins, but especially Black and Indigenous students.
I hope policy makers and lawmakers acknowledge that fairness isn’t organic. It requires investment, which comes before accountability.
I hope parents and caregivers of all backgrounds see that they have a larger role in schools than they may have realized or given the space for by the system. That they should expect to see their language, their culture — beyond clothes and festivals — represented and valued in their child’s classroom. I hope they agitate for more Indigenous content and Black Canadian perspectives in the curriculum starting in kindergarten.
I hope students understand they have a right to an education that values them in the classroom and in the curriculum, at schools that welcome them and their families, where they don’t need to codeswitch to “fit in.”
I hope every reader understands that while all children including able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, rich white children can be disrespected and devalued in class, for Black and Indigenous students negative schooling is part of a much wider, deeper and harsher mosaic of discrimination.
That when we support those in the margins, we support everyone.
We have the wealth to make this happen. We have the know-how. All we need is the will — and a bit of courage.