Poverty, not race the reason students fail

By PAT WATSON

Any attempt to determine student achievement or lack of achievement by race should be viewed as specious. Media reports highlighting that particular aspect in the findings of a recently released study on Toronto elementary schools have again contributed to carrying this unfortunate perception forward. But, attention-grabbing headlines do sell papers, especially in these competitive times.

The “Parent Census Kindergarten to Grade 6″, a survey of 95,000 parents of elementary school students in the Toronto District School Board carried out in Spring 2008, found that the range in achievement among students, including those who are lagging, becomes apparent as early as Grade 3. In fact, it has been my observation, as a parent whose child has gone through this education system, that for some children the lag starts in the daycare setting and junior kindergarten.

But who is going to publicly admit that empathy and care are not uniformly dispensed to all young students? It doesn’t take long for some students to get the message that not much is expected of them or that they are not seen to be as valuable or as valued as other students.

It’s easy enough to get up in arms rejecting the blame that is constantly heaped on poor, beleaguered teachers – after all, they work hard, they are doing a valiant job under trying circumstances – but who is willing to admit that there are teachers in the school system who would be of better service in some other profession rather than training young minds?

If not the teachers then should we point a finger at the system of learning as it is configured today? Could the problem be standardization, the one-size-must-fit-all, assembly-line approach of the school curriculum?

What about the influence parents have on children before they start school and in those early years? When a family has just one parent and that parent works almost all the time, has limited education and limited time to parent and oversee a child’s school work, what are that child’s chances for academic success?

Where does the parent eke out time to collaborate with teachers on the student’s study plan and homework assignments or, for that matter, help when the child is having difficulty and needs direction? How can a student whose parents have little connection with formal education be helped?

Moreover, the findings from the census indicate that those who most fall behind or experience early difficulty are children of Caribbean, Latino and Middle East parentage. But, any discourse that attempts to frame this issue around learning ability along racial lines would ignore the more pernicious issue of poverty and how closely it is attached to racism.

Some observers want to push away the issue of racism and how it contributes to poverty by laying the blame on those who have not met the standards for success as laid out by our current social mores. That line of thinking is that if Black people are poor and underachieving it’s their own fault. This approach ignores the psychological burden many bear as they navigate the morass implicitly imposed on skin colour. That there are those who succeed in spite of this dilemma is living testament to ability that will not be denied.

Yet, the proportion of people of colour living in poverty relative to the overall poverty rate is a fact that speaks for itself. The Colour of Justice Network has pointed out that 37 per cent of Toronto families come from non-European backgrounds, yet make up almost 60 per cent of poor families here. That’s compared to a 30 per cent rate of poverty overall – a figure, by the way, which is growing in these recessionary times.

What we need to be looking at then is how to ensure that, regardless of their background, all children get a fair chance to achieve their potential. We know realistically that 100 per cent success will not be achieved in this endeavour, but it should not stop us from aiming high for their sakes. Educators already know how to provide the best possible education for each child based on different learning models. Moving the education system in a more accommodating direction must be implemented without delay.

Every parent cannot be made rich, but there is no reason to deny an enriched education and learning experience for the most vulnerable children. There isn’t a reasonable-minded person, or anyone who cares about this city, who would reject such a change in the interest of all students and society as a whole, for we lose their potential at our peril.

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