Province to collect data on students facing suspension or expulsion

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Ontario will start collecting demographic data on students, including details on race, in a school system shakeup that also could stop forcing Grade 9 students to choose whether their future is in academic or more practical studies.

In a move announced Thursday by the governing Liberals, panned by critics as politically incorrect, school boards across the province will be encouraged to track the demographic information of students, specifically those facing discipline through suspension or expulsion.

Senior staff will be encouraged to keep equity in mind in hirings and promotions, with those efforts included in their performance appraisals.

And the plan also calls for a new approach to Grade 9, with Education Minister Mitzie Hunter saying that’s too early for students to decide whether to pursue their education in an academic or an applied stream that often shapes future career choices.

Instead, the new three-year strategy calls for expanded opportunities for students to explore options such as post-secondary school or apprenticeships. “I strongly believe that we must continue to deepen the connections between achievement, well-being and equity,” Hunter said, saying they “must be inextricably linked, almost like a braid, just wound together” in the school system.

Hunter released few details about the plan or potential changes to the Grade 9 curriculum.

However, she said the government wants to work with school boards to determine how to address what she sees as a premature decision forced on an age group not equipped to handle it.

Ontario is the only province that forces students to choose an academic or applied stream in Grade 9, Hunter said.

But it’s the province’s intent to collect race-based statistics on students that’s raising the most eyebrows.

Details including race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and socio-economic status would be collected from students and analyzed by boards. The voluntary demographic information would help boards and the Education Ministry create policies to break down systemic barriers for at-risk groups and develop targeted initiatives to help them succeed.

Ann Cavoukian, who served three terms as Ontario’s privacy commissioner, said while the government has good intentions, gathering sensitive information about race and ethnicity could backfire.

“Let’s say you systemically demonstrate that one racial group is worse than another in terms of employment prospects or various skills,” she said.

“What if word of that got out, which it will, and then employers say, ‘We’re not going to have this guy.’ . . . It could, in fact, escalate future discrimination in terms of racial profiling.”

Cavoukian said research already exists highlighting systemic barriers in education, adding sensitive demographic information would be both redundant and potentially dangerous if a privacy breach happened.

The chair of Southwestern Ontario’s largest school board said while inclusion is one of its priorities, the racial performance divide has never been a major problem.

“I have not heard of any problem in our board that would require the racialized data,” said trustee Matt Reid of the Thames Valley District school board.

Reid said he’s not sure such information would have much immediate local impact, but that it could help the ministry create more inclusive policies.

“Data is never a bad thing. Having knowledge is power so making sure we have information, if it can help us make meaningful changes, is a good thing.”

But some London high school students said collecting personal information — even voluntarily — is unnecessary and invasive.

“I feel it’s a little bit uncomfortable . . . It sounds sort of unfair,” said Bradyn Elijah, a student at H.B. Beal secondary school.

The Indigenous fifth-year high school student is concerned collecting data on racial or cultural groups could lead to more stereotypes or discrimination. Another said categorizing students by ethnicity is step backward.

“We should have moved on from this,” said Geoff Greenfield, in his fifth year at H.B. Beal.

“We have a prime minister that marches in Pride parades. It’s 2017, we don’t need this data,” he said.

Goli Rezai-Rashti, a professor in Western University’s education faculty, disagrees.

She said the Toronto District school board has been collecting demographic data for years, and she believes a widespread understanding of at-risk groups is needed to create better education policies.

She said educators know anecdotally certain groups are falling behind, but lack the system-wide data to understand the extent of the problem.

“We don’t have any data in terms of student performance based on race and culture,” she said.

“Collecting that kind of data would be useful . . . I would support it, as long as it’s taken for good use and not used to further marginalize students,” Rezai-Rashti added.

At least 25 school boards had already expressed interest in a more culturally responsive curriculum to reflect the experiences of a diverse student body, the government said.

The Education and Equity Action Plan calls for identifying disparities in suspension and expulsion rates among some student groups as well as providing more teaching material to address a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Hunter said the plan will help devise a new approach to Grade 9, saying Ontario is the only province that makes students choice an academic or applied stream at that age.

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