School Systems are not ready to End Oppression

I am on a journey to understand how my actions as a teacher and administrator have contributed to Anti-Black Racism in our school system. And to understand why we have taken so long to acknowledge it, and to act to counter it.

  1. Our school structures are power structures. Director to Superintendent to Principal to Teacher to Student, we all impose our will on the level below.
  2. Our curriculum is a control structure. Our government and bureaucrats receive input from academics, the business community and post-secondary institutions, and write policy documents that impose strict expectations for each level and subject.
  3. Our assessment structure depends on teachers to design assessment tools, and then to translate the results in marks or grades, which are then used to sift and sort our students. The tools they choose range from traditional pen and paper tests, to oral presentations, to complex portfolio conferences. But each of these privilege students with strong skills, and handicap those whose experiences or life circumstances impact their success.
  4. Our social structures, at least in a secondary school, depend on rules and expectations, which are more easily complied with by students whose toolkit is full.
  5. Our progress is measured by the proportion of achievement to chronological age. A successful student completes the required work in less time than allotted for the course, and an unsuccessful student requires more time.  When the course is over it is not just a matter of taking a bit more time.  Students must begin again at the beginning, and repeat all of the course, in order to achieve the “credit”. Since students must remain in school to age 18, there is a race to complete all courses before this date.  After 18, students who are struggling with attendance or mental health run the risk of being demitted, rather than supported to graduation.
  6. Our budgets cover some of the resources necessary to learn, but not all that is required for all subjects.  And there are magnet programs that depend upon family resources to prepare students, to transport them to distant schools, and to furnish additional funds. Doors begin to close in the areas of athletics and the arts for students whose families cannot afford the cost of learning and coaching outside of school.

You will notice that none of this is explicitly connected to Anti-Black Racism. But a system that will tolerate practices that oppress in all these areas is likely to tolerate other forms of oppression.

Until we see each student as an individual, with agency to control their learning, we will continue to exercise unnecessary power over them.  If a policy presents a barrier to even one student, we must provide the means to adjust the policy, and support their learning.

This is why it is necessary to start with the systemic policies and processes, to dismantle anti-black racism.

In Ontario, this now means “destreaming” our grade 9 programs, to eliminate the sorting that happens as students move into secondary school, and are set on pathways to University, College, Apprenticeship or the Workplace. This is only the first, I hope, of many changes in curriculum that will serve our students well.

Moves to preferentially admit Black or Indigenous students to regional or magnet programs include the requirement that they “meet minimum requirements”. These requirements are judged both by the middle-school teachers, and by the teachers in the secondary school who review applications. Given that these programs are funded by the Ministry of Education, I struggle to understand why there need to be ANY requirements. It might just be the perception that programs’ requirements can only be met by privileged white students that is limiting the programs’ diversity.

We need to fundamentally change our programs, to make them inclusive and supportive of all students. Whether it’s Italian Art Songs in vocal music, or Ballet in dance, or having the confidence to do a monologue in drama, we need to revisit the content of our courses, and consider if they are truly welcoming all of our students.

We need magnet programs for more than just the academically strong, university-bound students. In fact, the students who need the arts most are likely those who are struggling the most in middle school.

All of this is to say that if we break down oppressive practices and barriers to learning for some students, we might be taking the first steps to dismantling those at the forefront today.

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