'Gaps Are Not Closing. We Need to Make A Bold Move.'
The superintendent describes how his system supports all students by supporting the adults
BY JOHN MALLOY/School Administrator, January 2019

John Malloy, director of education with the Toronto District School Board in Ontario, Canada, with a student at one of the district’s 583 schools.
Two years ago, if you walked into an applied level math class — the course that traditionally serves students who will not be attending college after high school — you would see a room filled with many black males. Those students would be more likely to have special education needs, more likely to face suspension or expulsion, more likely to experience racism inside their classroom and less likely than their peers to be engaged in school.

This scenario was repeated in classrooms across the Toronto District School Board in Ontario, Canada, and reinforced by 20 years of rich data on student success through a periodic student census, school climate surveys, focus groups and consultations. For those 20 years, all of our data consistently pointed to specific student subgroups in our school system — namely black boys, students with special needs, indigenous and LGBTQ students who were not achieving and succeeding as they should.

Every year, school leaders in Toronto reviewed the data to inform targeted interventions and programs to support the diverse student body of 250,000, but especially those particular student groups who were falling behind. Despite the system’s best efforts and implementation of known strategies, achievement gaps persisted, barely even moving for some black and indigenous students.

I joined the Toronto District School Board as director of education (the equivalent of a superintendent in a U.S. school system) in January 2016 and began conversations with staff, students, families and community leaders. Many expressed the need for change. My message to the system: “Gaps are not closing. We need to make a bold move.”

Underserved Students
In fairness, every attempt designed to close the achievement gaps among student subgroups should have worked because everyone was working hard to support students. Of course, many students were achieving and thriving in school, and some students from our underserved populations were achieving, but it was clear that something needed to change to support those who were not reaching their full potential. (We use the term “underserved” because this places the responsibilities on us, the educators, to create the conditions for student success.)

The Toronto District School Board is a leader in equity, a stance affirmed by our comprehensive equity policies. Yet these policies were not always translating into equitable practices on the ground. Equity means having high expectations for all students and ensuring all students have the same access to programs, resources and learning opportunities. 

In some cases, policy created barriers for students. The loudest voices drove our practice, and a common approach was to make decisions based on what the majority wanted, leaving our most underserved students vulnerable.

We had to interrupt the systems that were standing in the way of student success. And, more importantly, we had to create the conditions where, when we did interrupt those systems, people understood why.

Focusing on what students need to be successful is just not enough. Supporting students to be resilient does not help when structures and practices inhibit some students from achieving.

Adult Attention
To make the transformational changes necessary, the Toronto district made a dramatic shift and started focusing on the adults — our attitudes, our biases and our practices — to drive this equity work and ultimately impact students. We also have been focusing on our structures, procedures and practices that create barriers for some students. This work started with a bold commitment to equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression.

In the revision of the board’s equity policy, the Toronto schools acknowledged that individual and systemic bias, oppression and discrimination exist within our school system and inequitable treatment leads to educational, social and career outcomes that do not accurately reflect the abilities, experiences, contributions and potential of our students. And, regardless of intent, this treatment may be perpetuated unless we all take focused, explicit, persistent and determined action to identify, challenge and overcome it.

To highlight the urgency of this work, immediate actions made a strong statement to staff, students and community that we were listening, engaging, examining and interrupting.

Our board passed what we called our integrated equity framework, which brought together all the equity initiatives that were happening across the school system and considered them in a more coordinated way. In extensive consultations with the community, we asked, “Now what?” and encouraged people to think about what the next action steps would be. These commitments are now incorporated into our multiyear strategic plan.

The board committed to training all 40,000 staff members across the school system in equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression. This learning compels staff members to identify their own bias, power and privilege and the impact it has on their work, school and classroom. It can be difficult to see and understand someone else’s experience, but by helping staff, especially educators, see beyond their own experience and identify their own bias, they are able to listen to the voices and realities of our students and their families and interrupt the status quo.

Principles of equity were developed to underscore and scrutinize every decision made in the Toronto district, and we revised the equity policy to serve as the foundation of every districtwide policy. Equity was identified as a core leadership competency and became the foundation of leadership conversations, professional development and hiring and promotion processes.

Embedded Systemwide
In September 2017, I hired Jeewan Chanicka as superintendent of equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression. He works collaboratively with 50 members of the senior team on the focused and explicit embedding of an anti-oppressive approach through organizational and instructional structures that impact student achievement and well-being. He also sup-ports the senior team to build leadership capacity in the system by mentoring staff and overseeing professional learning so that school improvement is anchored in equity.

This approach shifts the onus from an equity department of experts to all staff understanding their roles and responsibilities in relationship to equity, with an intentional focus on closing gaps and maintaining high expectations for all.

And perhaps most importantly, equity is embedded into the school improvement planning process. This shift in planning, which is intended to change practice and help students learn better, directly connects equity with this work. Now, we are expected to talk about math or literacy achievement and equity and anti-oppression in the same sentence. In fact, we must.

We are trying to create space in every school and a department where we can wrestle with assumptions, challenge beliefs and understandings, think about why gaps exist and what our responsibility is to close these gaps. The responsibility is on us as educators to make the change. Our perspective should not blame students for their lack of achievement, but instead encourage all educators to think, “I’m with these students for seven hours a day. What am I going to do to help make it better?”

All our schools now are moving toward a model called inclusive design, an approach to looking at schools, classrooms and systems that considers the full range of diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, race, sexual orientation, creed, gender and lived experiences when thinking about school improvement and helping all students succeed.

Inclusive design ensures that students are always at the center. When we know the identities of the students we serve, who is most marginalized and each student’s identity, ability and lived experiences, we can make informed decisions that will support the student’s success. This approach is not about shame or blame, but rather allows us to change ourselves and our structures and requires leaders to create the conditions for these changes to occur.

Staying Accountable
It may take a while before the data show the success of this work. For now, anecdotal evidence shows signs of positive change.

Two years ago, when schools created an equity goal, it typically was a charity goal focused on students, such as nutrition programs or remediation classes. But now, every one of our 583 schools has recognized that the equity goal is all about changing adult attitudes and biases and the structures and practices we create.

Communities are feeling more engaged and agencies and advocacy groups we actively work with are giving positive feedback. Their voices are keeping us accountable, but we must continue to build their trust because historically, we have not been as successful in closing the gaps as we had hoped.

This work is ongoing and much remains to be done, but not everyone is on board. I’ve heard concerns raised that our focus on underachievers will come at the cost of students who are doing well. But it won’t. When school improvement ensures that all students are at the center of what we do, every student can and will be successful. The achievement gap cannot be closed by putting some students in neutral while we step on the gas for others to catch up. When the road is cleared of achievement barriers, when we step on the gas, every student will move forward.

We are engaged in system transformation. When we connect with others whose experiences are different than our own, and we are able to really understand what they are sharing, our attitudes and practices will change. We cannot change our current reality by continuing to do the same things over and over. By interrupting the status quo, we will have an impact on student success and find the way to close the achievement gap.

JOHN MALLOY is director of education for the Toronto District School Board in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Twitter: @malloy_john