Higher education levels mean greater opportunities for a successful standard of living. The opposite is also true. Knowing that, advocates for Black student achievement fought for close to 40 years to get an Africentric curriculum into the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).
However, the need for activism in education on behalf of Black students is far from over.
A recent People for Education (PFE) study, “Mind the Gap: Inequality in Ontario’s Schools”, confirms what many already know, which is that students from low-income families do not get an equal education in our publicly funded school system. Racialized students fall into the low-income category in significant numbers and are thereafter most affected.
The great vision for public education is that it will create opportunities for every child to have a fair chance at a successful standard of living through access to a quality of education that is equal across the board. However, that noble aspiration is yet to be achieved.
When Dalton McGuinty led the Ontario government, he placed strong focus on education outcomes. As a result, the province’s education ministry can boast higher numbers of students completing high school, as well as higher scores for literacy and numeracy. But those glowing results belie the failure to support those students still most in need.
Following the release of the PFE study, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) issued a statement expressing “concerns” about what teachers and education workers witness every day regarding failure to adequately support low-income students, while decrying “systemic patterns of unfairness”.
Some of these inequalities are directly related to parents’ ability to fundraise for extracurricular activities like field trips to foreign countries or music lessons, for example. PFE found that the top 10 per cent of fundraising schools in those well-to-do areas was equal to the bottom 81 per cent in low-income areas.
But the PFE study found an old issue is still alive in the education system. Streaming based on the social and economic status of students’ families still factor into the choices presented to students as they enter high school. This issue of streaming was controversial more than 20 years ago, yet it is still affecting the high school programs of economically disadvantaged students.
The finding is that far more low-income and racialized students end up in the “applied” stream, which prepares them for post-secondary vocational or college programs, rather than the advanced stream headed for university.
Further, the system as it is now does not adequately facilitate students in the applied stream who seek to change to the academic stream in high school, a first step to post-secondary studies which provide opportunities to higher levels in the workforce.
The fact that one in four Black youth seeking employment is out of work compared to one in seven for the general youth population seeking employment, speaks to the subsequent effect of this kind of bias. Too many are entering the job market without marketable skills that support upward mobility.
A new model for education must be implemented throughout the TDSB that ensures equality in formal education for children from low-income households and disadvantaged neighbourhoods. After all, it is our tax dollars that are paying for a system of education that shortchanges students already in need.
Features must be embedded in curricula that open up the world for those students so that they can see possibilities for themselves beyond the limits they are born into. Funding like the Learning Opportunities Grant must be returned to pre-2006 levels and must be proprietary, solely dedicated to elevating learning experiences for disadvantaged students.
Furthermore, and this cannot be stressed enough, the English Language Learners (ELL) program must receive priority funding and more teaching staff. A significant segment of the Black student population struggles to grasp academic English. Many Black students who complete secondary education and do then go on to college or vocational training are deficient in academic English, both in writing and reading comprehension. This lack of proficiency is one reason many face limited choices in post-secondary training, and subsequent low earning capability over the duration of their working lives.