Your child’s school grades in Black and White

By Pat Watson Wednesday May 08 2013 in Opinion
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E, G, S, and N: If you are a parent with a child or children in elementary school in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) you should know the significance of these letters in school report cards. They stand for (E)xcellent, (G)ood, (S)atisfactory and (N)eeds improvement. And, if you are the parent of a Black child in the TDSB, you may have found yourself addressing concerns about fairness in grading for your child.


If you went through the education system here, you already know that there had been bias in grading your academic efforts. You know you did work that had not been given the mark your work merited, but rather had been given a lower grade.


I shall never forget the words of an African Canadian co-worker when speaking about a particular high school teacher during her years at a school that had a significant Black student population. She recalled that teacher’s mocking motivation to his students of colour was ‘Keep your eyes on the prize; strive for the Bs.’ Clever and cruel, all at one go.


Along the lines of the contrast between Black and White, here’s a problem you will not likely hear a Black parent have to address, but which was written about in a recent New York Times article by Toronto writer Aviva Rubin. Rubin laments that her son, who she details as inattentive to his schoolwork at best, brought home a report card that belied his lax work habits. He had received a very positive assessment where she knew for a fact that he was not doing the work.


I’d like to meet the Black parent who has had to speak to his or her child’s teacher about that teacher having overrated that child’s academic output.


Despite training in how to observe students in order to make assessments, teachers’ biases are reflected in students’ report cards and cannot be ignored when the issue of ‘race’ is considered. This does not mean all teachers who are not Black will unfairly grade students of colour, but let’s not ignore ‘racialization’ and bias.


Because of bias, some teachers will not see the talent and excellence of Black students. Because of bias, a Black student who does average work may receive a lower than average mark when compared to a student who is not Black. Because of bias, Black students who show some athletic aptitude may be pushed away from academics to focus on sports.


The TDSB likes to talk these days about its growing success in graduating students. At the same time, let’s not lose sight of the still large number of students who are struggling or dropping out, or under the unspoken rubric of low expectations are channeled into the non-academic, ‘applied’, stream of education.


A recent report by the research and advocacy group People for Education reminds us that everything old is still in effect, so that students from low-income families are streamed into applied courses at a higher rate than the general student population and certainly at a much higher rate than students from families with $100,000+ incomes.


In a Toronto Star report on the findings, People for Education executive director, Annie Kidder, noted that “kids in applied have a much lower chance of graduating, of succeeding, of getting all their credits.” She added that they are also not likely to go on to college or university.


Yet, when Black parents do make an effort to address concerns about their child’s education progress, they have to walk a cautious line. A White parent advocating for his or her child is a ‘good’ parent. A Black parent on the other hand may be a good parent, but may end up being labeled as ‘aggressive’. It has happened. Some have been banned from school property.


In today’s cosmopolitan society, educators have a complex role. They are in the classroom to provide instruction as a means to a viable future for each child in that classroom. At the same time, teachers are among the gatekeepers of society. How they function in the classroom, their level of commitment to justice and fairness for each student, their passion for teaching, their racial biases, all have profound effects on the direction many students’ lives take.


A note on Mother’s Day…


She may not tell you so, but being a mother really is one of the most challenging endeavours in the world today. One good gift this Mother’s Day, for her and for you, is forgiving her for not being perfect.


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