Ontario to end streaming in Grade 9 and change other ‘racist, discriminatory’ practices

Posted on July 6, 2020 in Education Policy Context

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TheStar.com – Politics/Provincial

The Ontario government plans to end streaming in Grade 9 — a long-standing practice that research has found disproportionately impacts Black and low-income students and severely limits their chance of graduating and going on to post-secondary education.

In an exclusive interview with the Star, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Ontario is the only place in Canada that still divides students into the hands-on “applied” or university/college-track “academic” levels in the first year of high school, calling it one of a few “systemic, racist, discriminatory” practices in the province’s schools that must change.

“The time is now to end this practice and start giving racialized kids in schools a fair chance at success,” Lecce said, noting Black, Indigenous and lower-income teens are streamed into the applied classes in higher numbers, which means they are four and a half times likelier not to earn a diploma than other students, according to school board statistics

“The status quo is indefensible,” he added.

The province will also introduce a ban on suspending younger, elementary-school kids — Black students are again disproportionately affected — and improve diversity in hiring and promotions. Additionally, the government is going to work with the Ontario College of Teachers to toughen the rules to ensure educators who make racist comments or engage in discriminatory actions are held accountable.

Streaming students into applied and academic classes is internationally frowned upon, with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development — which represents developed nations — urging that students not be separated into different tracks until they enter senior high school grades.

Closer to home, advocacy and research group People for Education has found students who take even one applied class — Grade 9 math — have almost no chance of going to university. Five years ago, it urged the then Liberal government to merge the two levels of classes for Grade 9 at least.

The Toronto District School Board, which collects race-based statistics, has already begun phasing out applied classes in grades 9 and 10. There, some 47 per cent of Black students take an applied course, versus 20 per cent for non-Black teens.

The issue was recently in the limelight after Lecce sent a team of investigators to the Peel public school board, which also found that Black students are overrepresented in applied courses and discouraged from going on to university.

Lecce said he began doing equity work shortly after being named minister last year, with the help of assistant deputy minister and human rights expert Patrick Case. In speaking with leaders, parents and students in the Black community since that time, Lecce said he heard the same concerns again and again.

The work has become even more urgent with the recent Black Lives Matter protests as well as issues in the Peel board, where reviewers found leaders had ignored discrimination for years.

The Peel board, Lecce added, was put under supervision in part for its failure to deal with racism — the first time a board has been taken over for non-financial reasons — as a way to let all boards know “we expect better, and parents deserve better for their children.”

“The problem is clear,” Lecce also said. “And it’s the reason why we will be bringing forth a plan in the coming days that gives all students — racialized, Black students — a real opportunity to succeed. A fighting chance.”

In Toronto, Black youth make up 11 per cent of the student population in public schools, but account for 33 per cent of suspensions and expulsions. In Peel, Black youth represent 10 per cent of all students but 22.5 per cent of suspensions.

Lecce also noted there has been a two per cent increase in the number of suspensions of students from junior kindergarten to Grade 3, with 43 per cent of the total number classified as “other” — meaning at the discretion of the principal — according to provincial reports.

“A six-year-old should never be handcuffed and suspended in our schools,” Lecce said, referring to an incident in the Peel board involving a young Black girl. “We are going to have fairly drastic reform to ensure these types of data points and circumstances do not arise.”

He said the government’s changes will be made via legislation and regulatory reform.

“It’s long overdue, (and) will improve to break down systemic barriers that exist within the system of education,” he added.

When it comes to hiring and promotion, he has heard repeatedly that “children do not see themselves reflected in their leaders” and said the province will take action.

Under the controversial Regulation 274, principals are expected to hire from among the top five qualified candidates who have the most seniority when it comes to long-term supply positions and new permanent positions.

In the recent round of negotiations, the regulation was watered down in the three-year contract with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association to allow for more merit-based hires. The issue was left out of deals with other teachers after they could not reach an agreement.

Unions have said because of that, they expected the government to reform Regulation 274, likely in line with the Catholic teacher deal.

Some of the sweeping equity changes the province is proposing will be immediate, while for others — such as streaming — the process will begin this September.

The current academic/applied course levels were introduced in 1999 and were supposed to improve the situation especially for low-income teens who were trapped in non-post-secondary tracks.

Applied, which is more hands-on, was thought to help students with different learning styles and keep them engaged in school.

One problem is that kids were making course choices for Grade 9 when they were still in elementary school, with little understanding of the ramifications of enrolling in applied courses.

The Toronto board’s own research has shown that students who would normally be streamed into applied English and geography actually had higher pass rates if they were enrolled in the academic level.

In recent years, one Kingston high school put all students in academic math and English, with extra supports, and found the same.


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