Opinion Piece:  Can we make major changes to Ontario’s Public Education?

Yesterday Ontario’s Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, announced that Ontario public highschools would de-stream grade nine learning and remove suspension for students in grades JK-Grade 3. In a press conference, he said that these moves were in response to concerns of racism in Ontario public schools. (See a news article related to this announcement here.)  

Ontario’s first steps reminded me of an opinion piece I wrote in early June with the help and guidance of my colleagues Carolyn Ralph, RSW, and Chelsea Thomas (de)Colonization and Education researcher and PhD candidate. The piece I wrote was about the Investigation of the Peel District School Board (PDSB) and was conducted by Arlene Huggins, lawyer and human rights advocate. (A news article with links to the investigation can be found here.) I read the investigation document several times and wrote about my personal points of view for your consideration but I never shared it. I feel compelled to share now. As I see the changes Lecce is making, I am reminded of the depth of changes I wish to see. As political pressures and deadlines are applied, I feel a new sense of urgency to speak up. I think the investigation into allegations of racism within PDSB is still a great place to start the conversation as it embodies the problems that many school boards in Ontario are facing.

In November 2019, PDSB was investigated on allegations of racism and required to meet several Directions in response to issues of reported racism within the school board. In Huggins’ investigation in April 2020, she outlined the Directions that were not met. After reviewing the document, I would like to look at Direction 1 in more detail. All were important but I feel pulled to this one in particular. Direction 1 required the Board Directors and trustee members to take part in mediation. Board members are hired within the School Board. Trustee members are elected into their positions from within the community and they are not part of the school board.  They represent the interests of community within education.

Prior to the mediation, 2 of the trustee members pulled out of the mediation and said (I’m paraphrasing) that there was not sufficient interest at the board to address anti-black racism and participate with black community members. The 2 trustees believed the chair and vice-chair prevented relevant discussions and questions in public and in-committee meetings, indicating their lack of commitment to making sustainable change on the topic of racism with PDSB. These 2 trustees had been vocal advocates for human rights and engaged in PDSB’s black and other equity seeking communities. The report says that the Chair and Vice-Chair assumed the withdrawal of these trustees from the mediation process was related to their individual destructive agendas. I recognize this as a judgement on the part of the Chair and Vice-Chair.  Since they are in positions of relative power, I think the onus is on them to lean in to understand more. This is the specific area I wish to offer my perspective on.

When the two trustees pulled out of mediation, they effectively left the board in violation of binding agreements. I think this is why the Chair and Vice-Chair (and likely others within the school board) assumed that the trustees were trying to cause problems and sabotage the process. For people who benefit from maintaining the current paradigm, they are in a position of wishing to maintain the system. Entrenched and in positions of power, it’s easy to judge people who express dissent or appear to be working against what they wish to maintain as “sabotaging”.  8 years ago, I could have easily taken that position myself. I feel lucky to have been inside public education as a teacher, long enough to experience the culture.  I have also worked outside public education long enough to let go of some of those established ideas. Education as institution, like many of our institutions, was created in principles of domination over others and reinforces them.

With my time “out” of public education, I think I understand why the 2 trustees withdrew their participation in mediation with more clarity. If they participated in the mediation, the board would fulfill its binding mandate and continue on the path it had traditionally followed. By participating, the trustees were essentially endorsing the trajectory the school board is on, affirming its capacity to provide a safe, fair, and just learning experience for BIPOC students. I am not surprised that two elected board of trustees from outside the Education system were the ones sounding the alarm.  Essentially, that is what they were elected to do – represent their community and bring about changes their community needs. By not taking part, by refusing to go along with the binding agreements and disrupting the education system, the two trustees were saying that the school board needs more than training for teachers and school board members. 

After this report, Lecce was likely under a lot of pressure. He fired the PDSB Chair and appointed Bruce Rodriguez to supervise the school board to “get back on track”. (See a news report on this topic with this link.) Rodriguez has worked in positions in the Toronto Catholic District School Board and EQAO.  Although Lecce feels confident in his abilities to drive change within PDSB, I feel skeptical. I see the importance of disrupting the status quo and I am not sure if Rodriguez is going to offer the changes I think need to happen. Some people struggle to understand my wish for significant change in education. I can think of three examples that might highlight the need for deep change. 

1.  Within education there is a hierarchy that paints every interaction with a layer of judgement, performance, and conformity to the ideals of the people at the top of the hierarchy. The predominantly white curriculum and assessment consultants, Ministry of Education staff, School Board Staff, and teaching and admin staff promote and assess conformity to one curriculum. Assessing others on their ability to conform to this one curriculum means that there is often a disconnect for learners who do not relate to the dominant group. This may be experienced for a BIPOC learner as being assessed for using one way of communicating in an English class – “proper” grammar and spelling –  when in real life multiple styles exist and are accepted. The result is that learners don’t feel seen, heard, or valued in their educational experience. Learners are rewarded with “good grades” and opportunity based on their ability to conform to curriculum, not their ability to navigate and contribute in the world.

2.  Bullying festers in systems of dominance and hierarchy. When one person is bullied and has their power taken away from them, they are more likely to bully someone else. Within schools, BIPOC youth are more likely to get in trouble and suspended. “Getting in trouble” is a main tool of a dominance system and the people with the least power bear the brunt of the power differentials. Removing suspension for JK-Grade 3 students is a good start and I hope that it spurs additional reflection about why learners are “getting in trouble”.  What if the behavior that leads to “getting in trouble” is a tragic expression of unmet needs? How would that change our reactions to this behavior? I think it is easier to identify bullying when it happens between kids. It is much harder to understand how adults (often representing dominant groups) might be using power in ways that feels like bullying to young people. I have personally helped parents process and look for ways to advocate for young people after witnessing children being yelled at or shamed by teachers. Removing suspension from younger grades is a great start.  I would like to see the whole approach to “discipline” change completely.

3.  Finally, BIPOC kids are less likely to be in advanced streams and enriched learning opportunities. Our province spends a lot of money on EQAO, improving grades, and other trending educational initiatives and yet they are not as forthcoming in sharing information about  marginalized groups and their suspension rates, graduation rates, and success in accessing learning opportunities. BIPOC leaders and community groups have been sounding these alarm bells for decades.  Removing Ontario’s streaming process for JK-Grade 9 learners seems like a good idea on the surface but will it affect the change it claims to?  Will delaying the streaming process for a year lead to more BIPOC and low income learners graduating or more equality in the learners in each stream?  I am highly skeptical but I hope this is the beginning of deep questions and changes taking place in public education.

There is a lot of pressure on people in positions of power to make big changes in short time frames. The question publicly asked is “What is the solution?” but I think it is too early to be asking this question. I recognize the pressure that Lecce is under to make significant changes and I would like to see big changes also. From my point of view, those big changes require listening to the voices that have long been marginalized and deep reflection on the part of people in power. I am curious to see how this plays out and how our Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, will proceed. If he maintains status quo, he reinforces a colonial system rooted in Eurocentric normativity, dominance and racism. If he moves ahead in making changes, will they satisfy the marginalized learners in Ontario?  He is a deeply entrenched from within the system and he is under significant political pressure to both “get back on track” and make big changes  – during a pandemic. Can he navigate what changes need to be made through collaboration and engagement with the people who currently feel marginalized? Is that even enough?  

Racism in schools cannot be fully solved within an education system alone because the problem is so much bigger than one institution. Education is a piece of the puzzle, without major changes within the whole, the problems will continue. The bigger need is decolonizing multiple institutions. Rushing to have solutions seems like a bandaid before understanding how the injuries are happening. As a culture we are currently involved in big questions and perspective-taking. How do we wish to create agreements and make changes to those agreements based on our needs? (Law-making and policing is one strategy.) How is income disparity playing out for various communities during this pandemic? What other voices have we not been hearing from that offer other perspectives worth considering? There are different ways of meeting our needs that we have not explored as a collective. We have an opportunity to have those discussions now. Before institutions change, as a collective, people will need to make the shift and that is where we are right now as a society of people and why we should not rush to define the solution so early in this significant process. 

The onus is on all of us to hear the concerns expressed by our marginalized community members and respond with openness and intention to value and understand. Engaging in that process might lead to a radically different vision of our society, education included. As uncomfortable as this part of the process is, I hold a lot of hope.

Although major changes may sound scary, keeping things the way they are is significantly HARMING people.  I believe that we need to bravely say this hasn’t been working, we value the perspectives of all people in our society, and we are going to engage in a process of learning, valuing and reimagining education. If we wish to get rid of racism, we need to dismantle our colonial structures. It’s the only way to create space to value all people.

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