Pros & cons of collecting demographic data to improve educational equity for students

On Monday, more than sixty school board staff and community members from Ottawa and the GTA area gathered at York University for a roundtable on the topic of student demographic data and educational equity.

Sponsored by the Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research, the project hopes to corral the various ways boards are using non-academic data about students to better serve their academic needs. It’s a topic that is difficult to summarize within an afternoon’s work, however Peel region’s Paul Favaro set the stage, highlighting many key challenges.

These questions are complex on multiple levels, however, we cannot be frozen into inaction, Favaro said. The meeting organizers, Professor Carl James, others, and Favaro urged the group to move through these challenges to ensure all students are offered equitable opportunities.

When 40% of the variance in student achievement can be explained by factors external the classroom and school, we need to understand the pathways and mechanisms that are at play here, Favaro said. It is a question of grounded in fundamental principles, he said.

If we agree all students deserve the best educational opportunities regardless of their backgrounds and that large inequalities exist both within and outside the classroom walls, what is the benefit of collecting data which tracks students according to socio-economic class, race, sex, or other such grounds?

Favaro detailed the some of the positive and negative aspects of collecting student demographic data.

Benefits include:

  • Assessing which groups are vulnerable and are underperforming / under-served
  • Programming better targeted
  • Able to monitor and assess improvements / accountability
  • Encourages the fulfillment of each student’s potential
  • Moves closer to providing an educational system that is free of bias
  • Increases achievement in society and among vulnerable groups
Drawbacks however were also noted:
  • May (re-)produce reduced sense of academic competence, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Members of vulnerable groups may feel stigmatized
  • May increase prejudicial attitudes and stereotyping if critical analysis not used
  • May lead teachers to implicitly or subconsciously teach students from some groups below their actual potential
  • Added pressure on members of high-performing groups
  • Contributes to labelling & false homogenizing
  • May be used by those in dominant positions to keep vulnerable minorities down
  • Potential backlash from parents & community members from high achieving groups [preserving their rank]

Another barrier to building a stronger evidence base identified by the attendees is the unwillingness of school administrators, teachers, parents and the general public to explore these uncomfortable issues, because, as one attendee described it, we risked a loss of our “Canadian innocence,” our self-image of being a fair place.

Former B.C. Deputy Minister Charles Ungerleider gave closing remarks, identifying the need for national participation in the creation of these solutions. He is writing a paper for the Canadian Education Association on the topic to which we can look forward by the end of the year.



Other posts on the topic:

Who are the students identified as having special education needs in the TDSB?

The poor job that schools do…

An opportunity gap — not an achievement gap

The strength of the EDI as a predictive tool

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