De-streaming proposal lacks understanding of how courses delivered

Posted on July 10, 2020 in Education Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

It seems that there has been a general lack of understanding of how streaming actually works in most high schools around Ontario. Commentators on many sides of the political spectrum have weighed in on the racial aspect of streaming, highlighting how a disproportionate number of racialized young people are “pushed” into the applied-level course stream as opposed to the academic stream. However, that decision is always meant to be made in consultation with schools and guidance departments, but with the final call resting with parents and students.

A strong, high-achieving student of any race being enrolled in applied courses in the transition from elementary to high school would be seen as extremely rare, and extremely inappropriate, in the majority of schools. In most cases, a student with high marks in elementary school would simply sign up for the academic stream, and teachers would have little say beyond suggesting where the student might be most successful based on their anecdotal observances.

Cases such as those outlined in a recent Star article featuring two Black women who had been unfairly streamed into the “applied” system would, in most of the province, be outliers. Those cases should be investigated, and those biases eliminated, with questions asked of the teachers and schools involved. This is not to diminish the reality of systemic racism that holds back young BIPOC students, but to show that streaming in Grade 9 is not the root of the issue. The over-representation of BIPOC youth in the applied stream is a symptom, rather than a cause, of that educational disenfranchisement.

The education system has seen this before. Ninth grade was de-streamed in the 1990s, initially by the NDP government of Bob Rae. It was the Conservative government of Mike Harris who re-streamed Grade 9, leading to the current irony that the Ford Conservatives, so often compared to the Harris-led Tories of the 1990s, are in actuality eliminating the academic/applied streams that were introduced in 1999, and going back to an NDP policy. The cyclical nature of education policy truly is non-partisan!

It is also worth noting that the current streaming system is set up to allow students to take a diverse set of courses. Students are not streamed into an all-applied, or an all-academic, program; rather, each course is selected at the level deemed best. Having taught high school for 15 years, I have seen numerous students who take a mix of applied- and academic-level courses in high school, depending upon their own interests and abilities. Many grade nines will take the academic stream for certain subjects, but sign up for applied-level courses in areas they don’t intend to pursue after Grade 9, or in courses for which they don’t have a particular aptitude. While most students do sign up for courses in one stream or the other, a student with a love of reading and writing, but struggling in math, can take English and History at the academic level, while taking math and science at the applied level, or vice versa. Flexibility is the key, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of de-streaming.

The main difficulty with the government’s recent announcement is the lack of awareness that it shows about how courses are structured, delivered and timetabled throughout the province. The idea that this change could happen in September, after announcing it in July, would be laughable in a non-pandemic year; to suggest it can happen when we have no idea what schools will even look like in September is totally inappropriate.

This change will require the rewriting of current curriculum documents across multiple disciplines, a rethinking of the expected standards in the new, de-streamed classes, and a complete overhaul of student timetables in every school. Once again, Lecce and Ford have simply made a blanket statement that has no chance of succeeding in the short term, showing a lack of knowledge about the education system, and without any consultation of the people who are responsible for it —the teachers.

The streaming that they should be concerned with first is the constant stream of media content our young people are accessing at all times. That is the “de-streaming” that would benefit the mental health, emotional resiliency and educational outcomes for the greatest number of students, regardless of race. But that would require a complex solution that involves teachers, students and parents working together, and this government is seemingly much more comfortable with sound bites and headlines than the hard work of real reform.

Glenn Waugh is a high school teacher based in London, Ont.

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