This year, the annual YorkU Faculty of Education Summer Institute (FESI) has partnered with the Réseau de Savoir sur l’Équité/Equity Knowledge Network (RSEKN). The Institute, entitled Realities In Data: Who counts … What counts … Who’s counting? will focus on identity-based data collection, integration and reporting in education. The two-day event will address one of four priorities articulated in Ontario’s Education Equity Action Plan to explore the role of identity-based data in uncovering systemic barriers—specifically, the relationships between such data, student access, engagement, achievement and well-being. Posted on the FESI 2018 website are two guiding discussion questions for the conference. 

Day 1: “What are the present and historical challenges, opportunities, tensions and paradoxes of collecting, integrating and reporting on identity-based data?” 

Day 2: “How has identity-based data been mobilized to support students access, engagement, achievement and well-being?”

“We do not focus the conversation on the ‘marginalized students’ and how to ‘fix’ those students”, says Jack Nigro, superintendent of First Nations Métis and Inuit Education at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. “We look at it from the perspective of the system: Does it serve these students adequately?”

“We do not come together and say, ‘oh, if they only did this, they would be so much more successful. The focus is more. If we, as a system, only did these things differently, to better recognize societal conditions and reasons for marginalization, we could serve students better, giving them a better shot at success.”

One example Nigro shares is how the Toronto District School Board collects systemic data and notices trends and patterns. Certain groups of students like Hispanic and black students do not achieve at the same rate as other students, he notes. Some groups of students are suspended more often than others. Other groups of students are over-represented in special education classes.

“Data collection has the potential to provide great insights to everyone who has a stake in education; however, data collection may also categorize, label and further marginalize individuals,” says YorkU Faculty of Education Practicum Coordinator Diane Vetter. “Focused conversation on ethical and socially just use of data is imperative when analyzing the huge amount of data available in the digital world.”

Vidya Shah, an assistant professor, at YorkU’s Faculty of Education and GTA Regional Team Lead for RSEKN adds, “there are further notable gaps in graduation rates for black students and Indigenous students, as well.”

“FESI and other conversations about identity-based data collection allow us to build awareness of who is most marginalized in, and by, the system. It further provides political and instructional will for educators and organizations to engage in systemic restructuring and learning so that we do not ignore the problems, nor blame students, their families or communities for them.”

Naturally, school boards are at varying levels in their readiness with this kind of work. During the previous Wynne government, however, the province had made it a priority for all school boards to collect, integrate and report identity-based data, as outlined in the Ontario Education Equity Action Plan.

“FESI is really about recognizing that, as systems, we do not have the answers. If we did, our schools would look very different,” Shah says. “We wouldn’t have students who are excluded from educational spaces and activities. We wouldn’t have students dropping out or being pushed out at rates that are unconscionable. We need multiple voices and perspectives of community partners and agencies, families, educators, academics and the Ministry of Education to think about these very complex problems and take action collectively.”

“This is the type of data that, when collected, reveals major trends,” Nigro says. “The fact that only one or two boards in the province collect this data is a problem. In the world of demographic data collection, we say: ‘No data, No problem, No action.’”

As part of its knowledge mobilization plan, FESI is looking to create 3-5 page monographs this year: research briefs that take extensive research on particular topics and translate and disseminate it into language accessible for all to understand. Monographs will be based on identity-based data and will discuss the politics and pedagogy of the five attending stakeholder groups: English school boards; French school boards; parents and community partners; educators; and students.

“We want to help communities understand the power they have in making a change,” said Shah. “The power really does lie with the parents, communities and students, and that is a very important part of this process, and of the conversation.”

This year’s conference is expected to attract 250 participants and welcomes all members of Ontario’s education community to contribute to the conversation. For more information, visit the Summer Institute website.

Written by Dennis Bayazitov