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A Response to the “Miseducation of Somali Youth”

by George Martell Co-Chair of Education Action: Toronto

(Notes prepared for “The Miseducation of Somali Youth Conference,” sponsored by the TDSB and held at York University, Dec. 2, 2010)

The question I have been asked to respond to is this: Why are so many Somali youth dropping out and what are we going to do about that?

It’s a big question. I’m certainly not going to deal with it properly in the 8 minutes I’ve been allotted.

It’s complicated. Many smart kids from poor backgrounds, from racialized communities, often with the experience of immigration under their belts, resist their schooling in a great many different ways under many different circumstances.

But I think we can start with one clear truth.

To borrow from the title from this conference, Somali students in Toronto – like so many students who have similar histories behind them – are being seriously “miseducated.” Not just miseducated, but seriously miseducated, in spite of what Chris Spence told you this morning.

As a response to what they’ve come to know as a disconnected, purposeless program, these students increasing throw out the baby of genuine intellectual and creative work with the bathwater of what passes for a curriculum in our schools. They give up on anything meaningful happening to them in their classrooms. In their experience, it’s dead air. All those words with nothing to say, nothing to offer. In the face of this experience, a deep debilitating boredom settles in. And with this emptiness, the future closes down. These students know there are no good jobs waiting for them. They know they will never have any real power as citizens, no place with dignity in the larger community. They also know that no amount of social work is going to make a difference. That’s how things are. So why not stop pretending? Why not drop out? Why not put a little cash in your pocket. Maybe find some dignity, some sense of power, in a gang.

No one knows this way of thinking better than yourselves. You may or may not have been all that close to it. But you understand it. Absolutely. Too many of your friends have gone this route.

It doesn’t work out as a life – it’s a dead end – as the speakers on the “personal experience” panel made clear, but it makes sense.

Creating An Apartheid School System

These students are experiencing – as you have experienced, but likely with more support in getting through it – what is increasingly understood as the creation of an “apartheid” school system in this city.

It is part and parcel of what is often called the “neo-liberal” agenda in our schools – directed by corporate power and greed through compliant governments.

An apartheid school system, let me stress, is not just about poor, black, immigrant kids ending up in separate schools, it is about them ending up in separate and unequal schools.

It is a system increasingly built on what is often called “systemic” racism and social class bias, which are deeply embedded in provincial and school board policy.

It’s a system, first of all, with fewer resources. The schools these kids go to are getting hammered financially. We are entering the 14th year of cutbacks at the TDSB.

It’s a system, as well, in which local schools and boards are being stripped of any power to deal with the issues they have to face on a daily basis.

And, worst of all, it’s a system in which teachers are being squeezed by what the premier likes to call the “human capital” curriculum and the teaching methods that go with it.

This is a curriculum, we have to understand, that is designed, however crudely, to destroy any sense of an alternative to the poverty and powerlessness these students face every day. It is there to undercut any real human meaning to their work in school. It is meant to produce workers who don’t think, who do what they are told, don’t complain about poor wages and bad working conditions, and who can see no alternative to the life they have been offered. That is what producing “human capital” is about at the end of the day.

It’s a curriculum fragmented into hundreds of disconnected parts policed by standardized tests, and hardened by official profiling or labeling that says these kids – so many of them Somali kids – are educably retarded or emotionally disturbed in one way or another. They’re judged sub-normal. And with that judgment and low test scores these students then get shoveled into the bottom streams of the system, where so many of them eventually drop out.

(And, by the way, the 36% dropout rate for Somali Students you’ve been told about is way below the number who have dropped out in their minds, but haven’t made it official.)

Building Resistance

At the same time – and this is really important to keep in mind – this agenda is resisted every day by good teachers and school board workers, by caring parents, by concerned community and labour activists, and by all those kids who don’t buy into it. But so far, they have been losing this battle, though, it seems to me, there is now a greater clarity about the need to build powerful coalitions and to take on, publicly, the oppressive reality of the classroom for both students and teachers.

The serious question for you is this: Are you going to find a way to join those who are resisting this corporate-government agenda, this growing apartheid in our school system? Are you going to stand up for your younger brothers and sisters, and for kids like them across this city and across this province?

Are you going to find a way to say No to the human capital curriculum, to the standardized tests, to the slanderous labeling of kids and to the bottom steaming that closes down their hopes for a productive future?

Equally important – more so, really – are you going to find a way to say Yes to a curriculum that honestly engages these youngsters, that develops them into strong caring individuals, who can look forward to meaningful jobs, and to finding a place for themselves as citizens in the larger society.

And, finally, are you going to find a way to reach into the strengths of Somali culture – so buried today by the way we run our school system – and bring these strengths into the classroom and into the hearts and minds of Somali youngsters?

It’s a long tough struggle. Are you going to join it?

There is no “Vision of Hope”, to borrow the TDSB director’s phrase, without that struggle. An apartheid school system is coming down hard on your community. It demands the strongest organized resistance possible.

Don’t get distracted by the official rhetoric you’re heard today. The folks who run our school have no interest in this being your “time to shine.” The big problem isn’t about your “coming to school to learn.” The big problem is something real to learn when you get there. It’s not school “success” we should be worried about (mostly measured in standardized test scores). It’s genuine learning we should be focused on, that lets you understand and act in the world – learning that captures your hearts and minds.

Listening to Chris Spence this morning I couldn’t tell if he was just whistling in the dark (not seeing what was really happening to so many of our youngsters) or more consciously covering up the hammering our schools are now taking – a hammering, by the way, which will intensify in this new period of austerity we are looking at.

It doesn’t matter. Whether they whistle in the dark or consciously impose an Apartheid school system, the senior bureaucrats and the provincial politicians who run our schools system won’t lift a finger to change what’s happening to Somali kids in school and to all those kids who share the contempt, the lack of respect, so many Somali kids face in trying to get an education. These bureaucrats and politicians helped build the system that does you in. They are committed to it. Their careers depend on it.

That’s a hard fact you have to put your minds around.

If we are going to change things, it’s up to you and to all of us who care about these kids.

Without a long sustained struggle, there will be no change in the “miseducation” of Somali youth.

There is a lot of work to be done. I hope you’ll be part of it.

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