Ghanaian Professor in Toronto Speaks Out
... on Board Intention to Collect Race-Based Statistics on Student Achievement. Why I back school board plan Toronto-Canada --- The truth is, statistics do not stigmatize minorities more than they are already labelled by segments of the larger society. Those who engage in this racist practice do not need any statistics to back them, says George Sefa Dei
The decision by the Toronto District School Board to "develop a research program that examines student achievement, including such factors as gender, race, ethnicity, mother tongue, income, place of residence etc." has, not suprisingly, generated much discussion.
As an African-Canadian parent and an educational researcher, I fully support the TDSB decision to collect race-based statistics on student achievement. Undoubtedly, most of those who oppose race-based statistics mean well. When they express concerns about stereotyping and labelling, these concerns should not be dismissed lightly.
But the truth is, statistics do not stigmatize our youth and minority communities more than they are already labelled by segments of the larger society, including teachers and school administrators. Those who engage in this racist practice do not need any statistics to back them.
Furthermore, for those concerned about "labelling," the board findings will point to students who are doing well, along with those who are failing. So where will be the basis for stereotyping an entire community?
What is truly problematic about the argument against race-based statistics is the attempt to deny race and its significance for education. The TDSB motion lists all the relevant categories, so why the apprehension about race, and also the denial? We may not know what race is, "scientifically," but does this mean race is irrelevant?
Race has powerful, material political and economic currency in our society. Rather than dismiss race, we ought to be honest about it and to spend time reflecting on it through critical discussion. instead of sweeping it under the carpet and hope this will settle everything.
Racial categories such as "black," "white," "brown," etc., no matter how imperfect, are not the problem in themselves. The reality is that these categories organize our society. Rather than deny them, we must challenge the interpretations attached to them. Those who speak about race do not create a problem. Anti-racists discuss race as a problem that already exists. To argue that we should be colour-blind misses the point. To argue that someone is black and therefore less intelligent or that another is white and therefore smart is the problem.
It is misguided for anyone to simply overlook the destructive and ubiquitous presence of race. Rather than an overemphasis on race, what is truly excessive is the amount of time spent avoiding a discussion on race.
In Ontario under successive Progressive Conservative governments (1995-2003) we lost any gains in anti-racism programs that the NDP achieved. We have repeatedly witnessed drastic reductions of frontline services such as school community advisers, equity programs such as English as a Second Language, African Heritage and adult education.
Community organizations have been left to fill the gap left by such cutbacks, to ensure the needs of children from diverse racial backgrounds are being met. No wonder some argue we have a two-tiered educational system. Here are four major reasons why I support the collection of race-based statistics.
We need to know the exact nature of the problem: Which students are doing well in schools and who are not, where they can be found in the system, why they are underachieving and what can be done about the problem. We may disbelieve the statistics but such information should exist for us to initiate a well-informed conversation about the nature of the problem.
Our different communities must have this information when we make a request. Sometimes the explanation given to communities that schools do not keep such information becomes a convenient excuse for not doing anything about the problems facing minority youth.
We need to make schools, boards, administrators, and educators accountable. If we have children in the system who are failing and/or are being failed by the system, we must find out who is responsible. Why is this happening more to certain groups? To what do we attribute this? What have school authorities done to rectify the problem? Why are some schools more successful than others? Local communities should expect our schools to educate our children. As school authorities take credit for success, they must also be held accountable for failures.
Local communities should also have such information if they choose to seek legal and political redress for their children failing in the system. In such cases, the statistics become the hard facts supporting the arguments of children being failed by the educational system.
We need to discuss collective responsibility.
If we are a community and some of our children are not doing well in school, then it means we have a collective responsibility to ensure that the problems are addressed.
The problems are the responsibilities of educators, administrators, students, social workers, caregivers, parents, families, communities, etc. If we see ourselves as a real community, a community of differences, and yet connected to each other, this can only empower our children to succeed. When some children fail in school, it does not augur well for the entire school system. We need statistics to justify allocation of resources. We cannot treat all schools the same way. Some schools must have additional resources to address problems.
Social justice is not defined simply by treating everyone the same. There must be other models of social justice to examine the historical injustices and inequities, and direct resources to address these inequities if our goal is to level the playing field for all.
As a parent of a child in the school system, as an educational researcher, and, as someone who has looked critically at the question of student disengagement from school, the challenges of minority education and the possibilities of inclusive schooling, I strongly believe the benefits of keeping race-based statistics on student achievement far outweigh the disadvantages. Let us get on with the work ahead and recognize that the purpose of keeping such data is to enhance learning outcomes for the youth in schools and not simply for public consumption.
George J. Sefa Dei is professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.