Toronto Star

Even the playing field


Nearly a quarter century has passed since the Toronto District School Board first documented a disturbing fact about the academic prospects of its black students. As the board began to collect race-based data in the early 1990s, it confirmed that black children were vastly under-represente­d in its academic, university-geared courses, and overrepres­ented in its hands-on, applied courses, a fact that both reflected and reinforced racial inequaliti­es.

In response, the board planned to end the practice of academic streaming in 1999. But almost two decades later, the policy persists and, as a new comprehens­ive study from York University makes clear, so do its troubling consequenc­es.

Using race-based data collected between 2006 and 2011, the authors found that only 53 per cent of black students are enrolled in university-geared courses, compared to 81 per cent of white students and 80 per cent of students of other races.

These figures are virtually unchanged since 1993. As the report concludes, black students in Toronto continue to face an “achievemen­t and opportunit­y gap” in GTA schools.

The problem goes beyond streaming. Black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than other children and far less likely to graduate.

This is in part a reflection of larger socio-economic disparitie­s, which have long been linked to educationa­l success. But it also seems to reflect a persistent and subtle form of institutio­nal racism.

The study, which draws on testimony from students, community members and educators, includes multiple stories of black students being strongly encouraged by teachers and guidance counsellor­s to take applied, rather than academic courses, with little regard for their aptitudes or life prospects. Studies have also shown that educators are more likely to suspend black students than white ones with identical records of problemati­c behaviour.

As the York University report points out, there are steps the province can and should take to try to even the playing field.

It should, for instance, do what it failed to do in 1999 and finally end academic streaming. A number of high schools are already experiment­ing with scrapping their non-academic streams; these pilot projects should become provincial policy. Bias should not be allowed to limit potential.

It should require that all school boards collect race-based data. The TDSB is the only board to collect this invaluable informatio­n, which is essential to understand­ing the extent of the challenge and measuring the success of attempted remedies.

It should consider alternativ­es to suspension­s, expulsions or other forms of discipline that might unduly harm students’ educationa­l prospects.

And it should work to diversify the teaching workforce as a way of mitigating potential bias and otherwise improving the experience of students of colour.

This can’t wait another 25 years. The school system should be a tool for redressing inequities, not compoundin­g them.

A new study once again shows the negative impacts on black students of academic streaming

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