Recently, Ontario’s Education Minister jumped on the Anti-Black racism bandwagon. He announced that Grade 9 students will no longer be streamed into ‘applied’ or ‘academic’ tracks as they enter high school. As well, K-3 students can no longer be suspended or expelled. Both of these practices have proven to disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous students. I know these changes in policy are necessary and are a reason to celebrate. However, I don’t think educators who care about social justice issues as they pertain to systemic issues shouldn’t celebrate for too long.
Lately, I haven’t felt as victorious as many social justice activists and educators in my community. Destreaming is great, a lovely gesture from Education Minister, Stephen Lecce. It’s also a victory for Equity and Anti-Black racism, right? Ideally, yes. In terms of policy, of course. Particularly if Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPoC) students, will finally be getting their fair chance at achieving academic goals and being one step closer at self-determination, right?
This is the dream, the goal. But will it be the reality for the students in our most under-served communities, communities populated by a majority of BIPoC?
Would you still be celebrating if I told you that increasing numbers of BIPoC students were entering high school being unable to read and write?
My grade 9 year of highschool was de-streamed, that was in 1996. I don’t know if it was a big deal for teachers one way or the other. What I do know is that the conservative government who gutted education while I was in highschool, came along and introduced streaming. So I find it incredibly fascinating, that in the midst of a global pandemic and at a time when racial uprisings and protests are happening all over the world in support of racial justice that they (our conservative government), suddenly ‘care’ about BIPoC students and suddenly want to ensure they have, to quote Lecce “an equality of opportunity”. It’s hard to take a statement like that seriously, when he fought bitterly to increase class sizes and has made endless cuts to programs that increased opportunity for marginalized students. Despite common rhetoric on social media, I don’t think de-streaming is an issue for most teachers. Instead, teachers are cognizant of the fact that the gap within students’ abilities in a single grade increases each year.
The reality is increasing numbers of students, especially BIPoC students in poor communities, are entering high school without the skills to succeed in high school. I’m not a high school teacher, but I can imagine how challenging it will be because I teach elementary students. I see that many are being sent to Junior and Senior High Schools with serious gaps in foundational skills (namely literacy and numeracy) and I worry.
The lack of skills go beyond deficit thinking and implementing dynamic Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogical (CRRP) practices. It goes beyond turning our high school classrooms into elementary classrooms set up for facilitating small group work, guided reading and running records (as my mom, a highschool English teacher tells me they are being ‘taught’ to do). Highschool teachers should never have to spend their time teaching high school students to read. We elementary school teachers are supposed to do that. We shouldn’t wear a badge of honour when we have to go into high schools to teach high school teachers how to teach students to read. We were supposed to have done that, and we haven’t. Of course, teachers are not entirely to blame for the lack of success in teaching foundational skills. It’s becoming more and more challenging to serve and meet the needs of our students because conservative governments like that of Lecce continue to gut public education.
It’s common knowledge that illiteracy will NOT get anyone very far in life based on the current structure of society and its capitalist system. Yet, more and more students are moving from grade to grade while not meeting grade expectations. Additionally, in some schools, almost the population is on an IEP (Individualized Education Plans).The support needed to help this segment of the school population is steadily disappearing.
The supports needed, particularly in the early years when it is most critical to have a grasp of reading, is steadily being cut and/or under-funded. I’m sure this disproportionately affects communities whose parents have little to no formal education. It affects poor communities. It affects BIPoC communities. I’m starting to be convinced that students who are succeeding in our ‘poorer’ schools are succeeding because they have help at home or are able to go to KUMON or get private tutors. The bulk of these students are not succeeding because we’re doing great teaching.
After the year I’ve had, I’m sure of it. Teachers are overwhelmed and burned out. I’m overwhelmed and burned out. I care about my students as if they are my own children, I am a social justice educator; I teach from a culturally relevant & responsive, anti-racist, critically conscious (wow, that’s a mouthful) perspective. All of those pedagogies that encompass my teaching praxis, make me, what many would believe to be a great teacher. I think I’m a great teacher. I think I’m capable of being a great teacher. I like to believe I work ‘magic’ in my classrooms and am always proud of the growth and development of my students by the end of the school year. But, as the years go by, especially after this year, I’m starting to believe we’re being expected to produce and do more than we are capable of.
I saw a post on Instagram with a checklist of points that reveal the qualities needed to be able to teach. Many of the points resonated with me. I read them out one by one exclaiming “yes!”, until I got to the point. “If you can’t meet your students’ individual needs based on their varying abilities’… “Then you can’t be a teacher”. That point stuck with me. I enthusiastically, confidently checked off the other points on this list, but I am NOT always able to always or even consistently able to meet all of the needs of all of my student’s. The needs are great and the needs are varied and without increased funding, supports and early reading interventions more students in Toronto schools will continue to enter highschool without being able to read and write.
I know what it’s like to sit in a class, unable to follow the lesson. Typically, when people don’t know what’s going on in a class, they check out. They might even stop attending. That’s what I did, that’s what kids I know did. It didn’t matter if I liked the teacher or not; it didn’t matter if the teacher was a good teacher or not. It is simply a horrible, demeaning feeling to experience. Without smaller class sizes, to ensure students get focused attention, without increased funding to support these smaller class sizes, I worry about the students who haven’t been prepared for highschool and I worry for their teachers.
Destreaming is a victory for most, likely. But it leaves issues of increased low-literacy skills in students unaddressed at all levels of our public education system. Unaddressed issues of illiteracy amongst Black students doesn’t lead to ‘equality of opportunity’ as Lecce suggests is his aim, if anything, it guarantees they will have few options to explore upon their graduation from high school. And so, I have a hard time celebrating.
Let’s go ahead and destream but let’s not celebrate until we have plans and programs in place to help students to learn to read.