Following Premier Doug Ford’s recent announcements of changes to the tuition, funding, and student fees frameworks for domestic postsecondary students, there has been considerable concern raised about the reduced accessibility of universities and colleges.

The discussion about equitable education, however, must start from the bottom. Namely, whether all students in the public school system even have access to decent education, prior to attending university or college, in the first place. This is a significant question with which educators continue to grapple today.

The socioeconomic factor

Consider that students from a low socioeconomic area are more likely to attend the schools within their neighbourhood, as opposed to a higher socioeconomic area, which have more funding available to them. Whereas schools in the former area are not able to raise the funds they need to cover all resources necessary for students’ learning, schools in the latter area are able to hold fundraisers to support requests that are not met by the government.

Ultimately, funding affects performance. Globe and Mail reporters Caroline Alphonso and Tavia Grant examined the results of Education Quality and Accountability Office scores and confirmed a correlation between test scores and the location of students’ schools. They found that low-income students are more likely to fail standardized reading, writing, and math tests because their schools are unable to provide the necessary programs to support students, and students are less likely to have support at home due to their parents’ low socioeconomic status.

In Ontario, the Learning Opportunities Grant (LOG) was introduced in 1998 to support schools with high proportions of low-income students by funding intervention and guidance programs, withdrawals for individual support, and parental and community engagement programs. However, over the years, funding has declined.

Initially, 100 per cent of the funding from the LOG was allocated to school boards according to the percentage of at-risk students from low socioeconomic areas. But by 2018, the proportion had decreased to 47 per cent.

People for Education, an independent, non-partisan Canadian organization created to support and revolutionize public education, recommends that the Ontario government develop a new Equity in Education Grant. The grant would support programs in schools to help mitigate socioeconomic factors affecting students’ learning.

The long-term concern is that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are not supported by the system are less likely to attend postsecondary institutions. As a recent report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario on gaps in postsecondary education participation concluded, close to 45 per cent of Canadian-born students living in lower-income neighbourhoods do not pursue postsecondary education.

The percentage is lower among students from high-income neighbourhoods. Evidently, this gap must be closed if students of all income backgrounds are to have equal opportunities in our education system.

The minority experience

Education materials used in classrooms to support students’ learning does not adequately reflect the backgrounds and experiences of all students, given Canada’s image as a multicultural society. For example, science textbooks used by students generally display images of European people to illustrate human anatomy, and reading often provides context and ideas. Students from minority backgrounds do not see themselves in the material they learn. Textbooks also often present a stereotypical and incorrect understanding of ethnic minorities and Indigenous peoples.

To address this, educators should draw from a pool of knowledge that reflects the diverse range of cultures that are present in our society. For example, they could discuss knowledge and perspectives from Indigenous peoples regarding science and medicine.

Educators can also bring in experts from various cultures to help students grasp a globally-informed worldview. For instance, when learning about Eid or Rosh Hashanah, people from related cultures can be brought into the classroom to introduce authentic sources of knowledge.

Ultimately, educators should aim to challenge the biases and stereotypes present in curricula through discussion and critical thinking — not perpetuate them. Many of these issues of representation continue in postsecondary education, where minority students do not relate to presentations of knowledge in their classrooms. For instance, images of bodies in North American medical textbooks tend to underrepresent skin tones.

Performance over learning

Barriers do not only exist in the form of class or race. Too often, outcomes in the form of test scores are considered more important than the actual process of understanding key concepts. Due to the wide range of learning styles and abilities present in a classroom, teachers must be able to support all students as holistically as possible.

A proven teaching strategy is to use inquiry-based learning, which revolves around student observations. This includes solving problems or finding answers to questions through open-ended investigations. It is important to have lessons based on inquiry and to focus on processes that nurture students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills.

U of T should take leadership

If we are to accept that Canada is a multicultural society, equity is not a matter of just recognizing the diverse backgrounds and abilities of students, but incorporating and learning from all that diversity has to offer. University students should understand diversity through the lens of equity — that no one who is different should be left behind, but rather, supported.

By eliminating barriers within the public school system, the number and diversity of students entering postsecondary education will inevitably improve. The more educated and skilled youth are, the more society, in turn, will benefit. Governments and school boards must recognize this reality as they craft educational policy.

U of T is in a unique position to lead change in the context of equitable education. It claims to be a world-renowned, research-driven institution and would benefit from a move toward using diverse learning materials that support students in making connections with their learning.

The university should also broaden the ‘how’ of learning and reform the field of education so that students are prepared for the real world. The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in particular has conducted research on poverty and education, and the impact of various interventions in reducing educational inequality as well as increasing students’ access to higher education. U of T should centre OISE as a leader in the development of support systems to help mitigate the effects of inequity that students face in the public education system.

Ateeqa Arain is a first-year Master of Education student at OISE.

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