Our Blog

Equity in Our Schools

Looking to the Margins for Symptoms of Success
3580 votes
Vote up!

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!

It occurs to me that the tie

It occurs to me that the tie that binds all of these areas together is change. These are not issues that can be dealt with by imposing short-term solutions.CISSP nor can they be addressed by but tinkering with our rife way of doing things.350-030

Equity is a challenging thing

Equity is a challenging thing to achieve in our school and try as we might with increased funding to our lower socio-economic schools, I don't believe that we are anywhere near where we need to be. In my own school division here in Manitoba additional funding, staffing, administrative time is given to schools with "higher needs" and this does go somewhat towards providing a more equitable basis for a student's school experience. However, the day-to-day life in our schools can be quite different. In school A--in a more affluent area--a Principal will have the opportunity to spend a higher percentage of his or her day enaging staff and students in pedagogical matters, acting as an instructional leader whereas a principla in school B--a less affluent area--will more likely spend a higher proportion of his or her day dealing with disciple matters, and calls to local agencies including police. It is similar for teachers who are working with young people with a greater degree of need such as hunger, and who are often more of a social worker than a teacher. So students who need quality teaching the most, don't get it because teachers cannot  give what is most needed.

On top of this, school A has a greater ability to fund raise, support out of school activities, have students come to school equipped with the latest electronic devices and other equipment. A fund raising activity at school A will generate a far higher return that a similar event in school B. Funds raised will increase the inequity as school A is able to buy more computers, go on extended field trips, purchase additional musical instruments and so on, thereby increasing the inequity. Access to enrichment opportunities for students too often rely on a network of parents to drive them to games, rehearsals, and events. In school B this often is not possible.

Schools with the most, continue to get the most and how we fund, support teaching and learning for all our students will require us to question the foundations of how we offer schooling.

Graham, thanks for this

Graham, thanks for this comment. You have brought us face-to-face with some of the real challenges to equity. I teach in a school where the social and emotional needs of many of our students take up so much time. There are some days when the official curriculum needs to  be put aside so that we can deal with the more important curriculum: the students that sit in front of us. Yet, in our province, students from all schools write the same assessments and are judged accordingly. 

I'm intrigued by your last statement about question the foundations of how we offer schooling. What foundations do we need to challenge the most? What alternatives to our current way of offering schooling can you imagine?

Looking forward to hearing more.



This is a good start for

This is a good start for discussion.  Do I think education is equitable in Canada?  Obviously it isn't.

 On a macro level, it depends on which province you live in.  Alberta has the most options for education services in the country and, not surprisingly, achieves the highest on international testing.  See:  http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/parents/canada-choices.html

On the micro level, it can come down to the neighborhood you live in. Having the ability to choose a safer school or one that uses more effective pedagogy is often the only way a family can get the needed education for their children. 

Thanks Doretta for jumping in

Thanks Doretta for jumping in to this. I'm hoping that others respond, but I will follow-up with a question for you. How do you see choice--through charters or alternative schools--contributing to equity in access to quality schools. Isn't there a danger in creating even greater inequity.

 I'm not suggesting that your position is wrong, but I would like to get your input on the question that has been bounced around our own dinner table on several occasions since the release of Waiting for Superman!

Gee, greater than the

Gee, greater than the inequity that exists now? How can things get worse for a low-income, but motivated family that lives in a less affluent neighbourhood?  Can they send their children to the school in the affluent neighborhood if the school board has closed boundaries or there is no room at the "better" school?  Allowing freedom of choice and movement actually creates diversity.  See: http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/school_choice/1180.pdf  or this study about vouchers helping to dispel inequitity: http://www.tepper.cmu.edu/facultyAdmin/upload/ppaper_73911829066546_vouchers.pdf

Some school districts in the U.S. are actually mixing student populations up not by race or ethnicity (as many neighborhoods currently exist), but by income.  In Toronto, for example, this would mean bussing kids from Rexdale to Rosedale and vice versa.  A controversial policy to be sure!

A study carried out by Guppy, et. al, Parent and Teacher Views on Education, (2005) showed that parents with children in lower income schools felt that more choice should exist to a much greater extent than their more affluent counterparts did.  Not surprising since more affluent families have access to many more choices, public or private, for their children and the ability to easily transport children to programs in other schools.  The families with the least ability to choose, desired choice more. (Funny how the same study showed that teachers took advantage of choice much more than the non-teacher parent population!) 


Doretta, are you working on

Doretta, are you working on the assumption that schools in non-affluent areas are poorer schools? My own teaching career has been spent in schools with some of the lowest SES in the region, yet I have found that these have been pretty high quality schools.