We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at the place we started
And know it for the very first time
— from Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot
By the time Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary, Waiting for Superman, opens this month in cities across the United States and Canada it will have already done much of the work that it set out to do. The film has managed to get people talking in passionate and energetic ways around some of the key questions related to school reform. By pulling at our hearts, Guggenheim causes us to care about the issues being presented. By pulling at some of the threads that make up the complex fabric known as public education, he invites us to think deeply about how and where real change can occur.
It would be convenient and quite easy for Canadian viewers to dismiss the challenges and issues presented in Superman as an American problem. After all, Canada ranks close to the top in the very assessments used in the film to underline the ineffectiveness of public schools in the U.S.!
But, when you begin to strip away the contextual layers of the film, and get to the major questions being presented, you are soon faced with issues that are important to any modern school system. It is this set of issues that we would like this discussion series to be about.
Canada’s institutions are rooted in values of equity, fairness and accessibility. Whether we’re talking health care, education, or political participation, we pride ourselves on the vision that all Canadians have a right to receive the full benefits of citizenship, regardless of class, creed, or cultural background.
It seems both reasonable and important, therefore, that any honest discussion about Canada’s schools needs to begin with that vision of equity and how close we are to making it a reality:
Do all Canadian students have equitable access to quality education?
This is where relying too heavily on the massaged and aggregated data presented in local, national and international test scores can lead us astray. Oh sure, test results can provide some sense of general direction—a weathervane, if you will—but they certainly don’t tell the complete story and, in fact, may mask some of the underlying inequities with which certain groups and individuals are faced on a daily basis.
The lens of equity causes us to shift our gaze from the central averages of a phenomenon to its outer edges—and that is precisely where we find those who are marginalized and left out! Here’s some of what we are forced to recognize when we begin to use our equity question as a lens to look at Canadian schools:
- 25 % of students not graduating after five successive years of high school in Canada’s largest school board are from Aboriginal, Black, Hispanic, Portuguese and Middle Eastern background. The board also admits that these same groups are more likely to exhibit attendance problems and are more likely to be suspended from school.
- Canada’s Aboriginal youth now represent one of the fastest growing demographics in Canada, yet they are still faced with a drop-out rate that is three times higher than that of non-Aboriginal groups. Closing the gap between the educational attainment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students has actually slowed in the past few years.
- While Canadian policies around students with exceptionalities have improved over the past 20 years, actual school practices and attitudes have not been altered to the extent where true inclusion—honouring and embracing the needs of all students—is a natural part of many school cultures.
- Canadian schools do better than many others in the world when it comes to mitigating the effect of socio-economic status on school success, but there is still a significant gap between the educational experiences, levels of engagement and the achievement of rich and poor in this country.
There are, of course, other areas of inequity that could (and likely should) be mentioned, but I would like to suggest that these four should be regarded as bellwethers when we talk about educational equity in Canada. It’s fine to speak about excellence when it comes to our public schools, but unless equity becomes a foundational criterion when judging what excellence looks like, we have missed an essential mark. Students who are marginalized and excluded from receiving quality education as young people also run the risk of being excluded from the benefits of full participation in the life and work of society adults.
It occurs to me that the tie that binds all of these areas together is transformation. These are not issues that can be dealt with by imposing short-term solutions. nor can they be addressed by simply tinkering with our current way of doing things. True equity can only be achieved by a commitment to a radical change in the way that we design schools—philosophically, conceptually and even architecturally!
So, here’s your invitation to participate in the conversation. What is your take on the equity question as it relates to Canadian education? How are these issues of inequity currently being addressed in Canada? What more can be done to ensure that the vision of equity becomes are reality? What changes in perspective are necessary in order to bring issues of equity into the mainstream conversation about transformation?
We need a wide variety of perspectives here to enhance and deepen our understanding around these questions and we look forward to a rich and vibrant discussion!