Academic Streaming: Part 3 – Destreaming 101

Part 1 – Why It’s Just the Worst.

Part 2 – How I Started as a Streamer but then Saw the Light

Now that I’ve shared the importance of destreaming as an act of anti-racism and anti-oppression along with a personal journey to get to that thinking, here comes the part that most people probably just wanted me to fast-forward to:

How do teachers successfully teach an inclusive destreamed class???

Simple. It involves a battery, chewing gum, and a coat hanger.

Outdated ’80s references aside, effective teaching in a destreamed class can involve some Macgyver-like ingenuity with already-existent pedagogical tools. Because equity-centred teaching involves knowing the learners in a classroom, there is no prescribed set of instructions that I can share that will necessarily work in all environments. However, I will introduce approaches that are rooted in the discourse of inclusion, anti-oppression and destreaming. This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but I will say this is a good place to begin gathering research-informed ideas and start a professional inquiry on destreaming.

One last note: my teaching background is in secondary school math, so many of my examples will come from that angle. I also work with amazing colleagues who have destreamed English classes effectively so I will also draw examples from their work.

Be a culturally responsive teacher.

Culturally responsive educators have these mindset characteristics:

6 characteristics of culturally responsive teachers: socio-cultural consciousness, high expectations, desire to make a difference, constructivist approach, deep knowledge of their students, and culturally responsive teaching practices.
Characteristics of a Culturally Responsive Teacher (Ontario Ministry of Education).

To be an effective teacher transitioning into a destreamed environment, one has to realize that they are an active change agent in dismantling a harmful structure. They understand that not every student has had a privileged educational experience and seek to enhance equity in their learning space. When a teacher encounters challenges in their classroom, this goal serves as fuel to persevere.

No teacher will ever admit not to hold high expectations for students, but there are ways low expectations manifest in classrooms. Simply being satisfied that a student attends class but disengages all day because they face challenging life circumstances is one such example. Excluding some students from higher-level learning opportunities because “they need to sure up the basics first” is another example. Opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving are even more important for students that need to learn those skills. Peter Liljedahl’s Thinking Classrooms framework provides both the push and support that struggling learners need to help improve their thinking skills. Holding high expectations means providing the best curriculum, programming, and pedagogy for everyone, while expecting success from all students.

A successful teacher in an inclusive class also understands that students learn best by building on prior knowledge and constructing their own understanding. Below is an example of a series of questions that teaches students how to simplify algebraic expressions through sense-making. This not only validates the knowledge with which students bring to class, but it also promotes enduring understanding.

Sets of questions starting with adding concrete things like moose and sheep to adding algebraic expressions with different like terms.
Using strategic sequencing of questions to build understanding (Michelle Defilippis).

Finally, a destreamed class should provide opportunities for students to see themselves and issues that matter to them reflected in their learning. For instance, students can learn mathematics through relevant issues of social justice. MathThatMatters and High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice are great books to spark ideas for K-12 teachers wanting ways to infuse issues such as climate change and systemic racism into their math blocks. To ensure students have access to reading materials that reflect their identities and lived experiences, let them help with choosing the books that you or your school purchases for library collections.

Focus on inclusion through Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Effective destreaming means thinking about inclusion, which involves reimagining learning spaces that are free of barriers to student participation, rather than fitting people into an existing space with visible and invisible barriers. Student variability of all kinds already exists in every classroom; how educators anticipate and respond to those differences will be even more important in a destreamed setting. Here are a few simple examples of what I have done to make my classes more inclusive, and where these examples fit along the Universal Design for Learning framework:

Engagement

  • Including student interests (ones that I have uncovered through having conversations) into math lessons.
  • Designing assessments that are short enough in length so that “extra time” fits into regular class time, and all students are entitled to that time, while also providing an independent activity for those that finish quickly.
  • Providing any homework I have planned at the beginning of class so students that learn quickly can begin practicing while I provide further explanations to those that need them.
  • Making available classroom tools and anchor charts and posting supplemental videos online.

Representation

  • Using visual (e.g. graphs and diagrams) and concrete representations (e.g. linking cubes, algebra tiles) as much as possible to illustrate abstract concepts.
  • Encouraging multiple ways for students to present solutions and having students make connections between solutions.

Action and Expression

  • Solving math problems on vertical surfaces or at tables, in groups or individually.
  • Leveraging computer algebra systems to serve as assistive technology for students that have significant learning gaps in computational skills, but all students learn how to use them and can access them at all times in the classroom.

Better yet, combining the principles of UDL and culturally responsive pedagogy gives teachers an even greater base of knowledge about students to effectively plan inclusive learning spaces.

Differentiate instruction to meet particular student needs.

If UDL is about anticipating students’ needs, then differentiated instruction responds to them. When teachers are asked what their greatest concern is about teaching destreamed classes, most will identify the challenge of meeting the wide range of student readiness. Designing differentiated learning opportunities to meet students at their readiness level while creating a pathway for growth is a key element in any inclusive class.

A prevailing myth of differentiated instruction is that a teacher must make individual lesson plans for each student or a group of students. In reality, differentiation involves an ebb and flow between whole-class and small-group/individual activities, informed by assessment.

A diagram that shows differentiated instruction moves between whole class and small group/individual learning opportunities.
The flow of instruction in a differentiated classroom (from “How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms” by Carol Ann Tomlinson)

In my math class, I typically introduce a topic, have students in random groups try an open task with multiple entry points while I observe and guide, we discuss specific solutions as a group, and I consolidate the learning for the day. Mixed in there could be parallel tasks where I provide choice in questions of varied complexity but which focus on the same big idea. If I notice students struggling after the consolidation, I work individually or with a small group to try to quickly address misconceptions.

In Grade 9 English classes where students’ reading levels can range from Grade 1 to 12, studying a whole-class novel may not be the most effective approach. Teachers in destreamed English classes have begun to employ differentiated book clubs based on the work of Penny Kittle that allow students choice to access texts at their reading levels and meet their varying interests. Students still demonstrate proficiency in the overall expectations of the English curriculum with their chosen texts. Finally, more reading begets better reading, so students that are engaged in their choice of books greatly increase their reading volume and thus improve their skills exponentially.

Ensure your assessment practices are fair and equitable.

As teachers, we must inevitably place a judgement on how well students have achieved the overall expectations of subjects. Ensuring that assessment practices are fair and equitable must be a focus for any destreaming program to be successful. Let’s break down those two aspects:

Fair: Ontario’s evaluation system is mandated to be criterion-referenced, meaning that students are judged in reference to levels of the achievement chart that are standard across the province. This is in contrast to norm-referenced evaluation, which measures students to each other. The reality in many spaces across Ontario is that norm-referencing still prevails to some degree — Applied classes may have a lower bar set because students in those classes tend to be underachieving, while Academic classes may set the bar unnecessarily high as a means to invoke challenge. I do not for a moment suggest that the quality, richness, and “rigour” of learning opportunities should decrease in destreamed classes, but simply that the standard for judgements for reporting purposes must be reset so as to fulfill the criterion-referenced mandate of Ontario’s evaluation system.

For example, secondary students that show limited knowledge of content and use thinking, communication and application skills with limited effectiveness are still entitled to pass a course with a mark of at least 50%. Although you may not have faith in a mechanic with limited knowledge of cars or trust a surgeon who has demonstrated limited effectiveness, that level of unease is actually what is sufficient for students to accumulate credits and proceed on to the next course. In addition, how teachers assume a struggling student will perform in a subsequent course is not relevant when determining a grade for their current course. Teachers and school teams need to reflect on their assessment practices to ensure they are aligned with policy and are not unnecessarily holding students back from accumulating credits and proceeding on with their schooling.

Equitable: Not all students need to have the same number or types of assessments. Personally, I provide as many opportunities that students want and need to demonstrate the limited understanding they need to pass. I also take into consideration the observations and conversations that I have particularly with struggling students to get a more accurate sense of what they know.

Use pedagogy that’s actually supported by cognitive neuroscience.

Through his work on meta-analyses, education research John Hattie has shown that pretty much anything teachers try has a positive effect on student learning (TVs in the classroom and failing students are some of the rare exceptions). However, some strategies work more effectively than others and have evidence from cognitive neuroscience to back them up. Here are a few strategies that are worth mentioning in the context of destreaming:

Spiralling (or spacing, interleaving) is the practice of revisiting and relearning content after a length of time has passed. Spiralling offers multiple opportunities for the retrieval of knowledge from memory over the course of weeks or months, which helps to strengthen neural connections. I have been experimenting with spiralling in my math class, along with others, with positive results. An added benefit that I have found is that the first spiral consists of surface-level content and connections, which serves as a soft landing for Grade 9 students that are coping with a new school environment and entering with varying levels of math understanding.

Dual coding involves combining information in different forms, such as words with pictures, or descriptions of math relationships and graphs. Whenever possible, I incorporate images, diagrams, and graphs and link them to the verbal explanation. With all kinds of multimedia technology at our disposal, this strategy is easily employable. Dual coding and providing visuals and auditory modes is not to be confused with learning styles that has no scientific basis.

Active learning involves engaging in learning tasks rather than passively listening to a lecturer. Thinking through complex tasks involves more neural cross-talk and leads to greater neural connections. Although I would argue all teachers recognize the benefit of having students active during class time, some may still lean towards lectures in response to positive feedback from students. However, a recent Harvard study showed that while students feel they learn better during lectures, they actually learn more effectively when engaged in active learning. Also, with universities increasing their use of active learning approaches, such as the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, Queen’s University, and Western University, successfully preparing students for post-secondary education necessitates deep learning and engagement.

Have a school-wide intervention strategy.

Even in the most inclusive and differentiated learning space, there may be some students that require additional intensive support to achieve success.

A concern amongst teachers in destreamed classes is a struggling student’s reading ability. By high school, a student should be reading to learn, but what if they still need help learning to read? The Right to Read program that was launched at Runnymede Collegiate Institute in Toronto and since replicated in other schools has shown that targeted one-on-one support for a few weeks can lead to a year’s worth of reading gains or more (here is a TDSB report with methodology, case studies and recommendations).

Schools in the TDSB have also begun to experiment with a transitional math course in the first semester of Grade 9 for students that significant learning gaps. To prevent such a course from being yet another streaming structure, placement should require intentionality and oversight, and all students must also enrol in Academic math for the following semester. The course content differs from school to school, but teachers have highlighted the need to develop students’ number sense in order to best set them up for success in subsequent math courses. Even with a new destreamed math curriculum on the horizon, a transitional course may be still required.

Destreaming the educational system by altering the structure alone will not lead to the desired effects of removing systemic barriers for Black, Indigenous and other marginalized students — in fact, evidence suggests it would likely exacerbate societal inequities. Meaningful pedagogical shifts and intervention supports, backed by human and financial resources, must accompany the structural changes. Effective destreaming is not easy work, and progress may not be linear, but we owe the marginalized youth of Ontario our best collective effort to reset the educational system and bring about real and substantive change.


Kudos to the educators whose work I’ve drawn upon for this post: Kulsoom Anwer, Rachel Cooke, Michelle Defilippis, Stephen Dow, Sean Henderson, Ramon San Vicente, Reshma Somani, Leigh Thornton, Sylvie Webb.

Academic Streaming: Part 2 – How I Started as a Streamer but then Saw the Light

Part 1 – Why It’s Just the Worst.

Part 3: Destreaming 101

“Saida, I really think you should to go to Applied math.”

Even just thinking about my comment to this Grade 9 student years ago still makes me cringe. I remember it so vividly. We were standing outside the math office between periods at Westview Centennial Secondary School where I was the head of math. Saida was wearing a bright yellow hijab and holding her coiled Hilroy notebook and textbook on her hip. My back was facing the office door, and my shoulders were slightly hunched over, anticipating that she’d get upset over what I was suggesting.

After I said my piece, Saida shook her head and looked away. She made a face that clearly demonstrated disapproval, turned around, and slowly walked away from me.

Eventually, after a conference with Saida’s mother, she did transfer to Applied math. I felt that I was selflessly doing her a favour by moving her to a class where she could attain a feeling of success, while also absolving her of her unrealistic dreams of becoming a doctor. In hindsight, I was doing myself a favour, relieving me of both a burden and a feeling of failure.


Weeks afterwards, I received an email welcoming me to a professional learning series that the organizers titled Sifting, Sorting and Selecting: Rethinking Streaming in TDSB Schools. As the math lead, I was expected to attend. Even after reading the introductory email, I honestly had no clue what this PD was for.

What’s streaming? And why do I have to rethink it?

At that early point in my career, I had a pretty strong but unrefined equity lens. I did my teacher education through OISE’s Inner City Education Cohort, and I began my teaching career in northwest Toronto. When I was offered a position to be a school leader at Westview, the heart of the Jane and Finch community, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. I wanted to make a difference.

In the case of Saida, along with likely many other students up until that point, I didn’t know that sometimes I would be making the wrong kind of difference.

What transpired over the next few months through Sifting, Sorting and Selecting was nothing short of my mind being blown and my self-conceptions as an educator irreversibly shaken. I often refer to this as my red pill moment. I learned about power and privilege, how my own identity shaped how I taught and for whom I taught, factors that actually impact student achievement and realizing that almost all of them were, to varying degrees, within my control. I analyzed demographic data from Gillian Parekh’s seminal report on streaming and how these streams not only perpetuated societal inequality but could actually be exacerbating them. I saw the potential of alternative models of schooling, like one piloted in Limestone District School Board. I heard from Carol Burris, then a school leader in a New York district that ended streaming, invested in teacher learning, and saw incredible academic gains for their Black and Latino/a populations.

After this mind warp, myself and my Westview colleagues drew up a plan to destream Grade 9 English and math (yes, this grand plan was hatched using a Crayola marker and chart paper):

Westview’s initial thinking of “destreaming” Grade 9 English and Math classes.

We had a will. And we had a way — sort of. What we knew for sure, however, was that the status quo could no longer be upheld and that we needed to change course. We were all willing to learn more to make destreaming viable and successful. The next year involved professional inquiries: differentiating instruction to respond to varying student readiness, offering culturally relevant texts and plays, and teaching issues of social justice and providing open questions and parallel tasks in math. The specific strategies are not the point here (that’s really for Part 3). What matters is that we teachers really wanted destreaming to work and were enabled by our school administrators to try new things and take risks in our practice.

In a span of five years, I went from being a teacher who actively pushed students out of Academic to relishing the opportunity to include students into my Academic math classes that were previously excluded, such as those identified with a mild intellectual disability. It all began with a mindset change, sustained by a motive to be an anti-racist, and refined over time through ongoing learning and inquiry. To me, that’s the secret to being a successful teacher in a destreamed system. I am not a perfect teacher by any means, nor do I ever expect to become one. I do, however, expect myself to continually be better, because inclusion and anti-oppression are not static events, but rather a constant process of building and re-building.


On a June Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford gave his take on racism in Canada compared with that of the United States, saying that “We don’t have the systemic, deep roots they’ve had for years.”

Perhaps after an explanation from experts within his inner circle, he acknowledged three days later that “We have our own history of racism here in Ontario and it’s been going on for decades.”

A month later, Ford announced his government will end academic streaming in Grade 9 across the province, noting it as a form of systemic racism: “We are the only province in the entire country that does this and it really is not fair to certain groups of students.”

That red pill, Mr. Premier, is something else, isn’t it?


Shout-out to the Sifting, Sorting and Selecting team members: Ramon San Vicente, Alison Gaymes San Vicente, Diane Dei Amoah, Cristina Guerrero, Tracy Williams-Shreve, Amita Hamda, Kevin Sutton, Sandra MacInnis, and John McPhee. Read their report here.

More shout-outs to the Westview team that hatched the destreaming plan on chart paper and blue Crayola marker: Rosalie Griffith, Nastassia Subban, Saraya Elwin, Nalinee Dindial, Pamela Townsend, Cherilyn Scobie, Bruno Berto, and Charmine Gayle-Bonner

Academic Streaming: Part 1 – Why It’s Just the Worst.

Part 2 – How I Started as a Streamer but then Saw the Light

Part 3: Destreaming 101

Academic streaming in schools, which is the practice of separating students into different educational pathways based on perceived characteristics like academic readiness and potential, is now a front-burner topic since Minister Stephen Lecce announced that Ontario will end streaming in Grade 9, recognizing it as a form of systemic racism in the education system.

Donald Lewis shared his story of how streaming impacted him from as early as Grade 2 to the Coalition for Alternatives to Streaming in Education. You can watch the video here.

So exactly why is streaming a problem? Here’s the skinny. Compared to students who take the majority of courses in the Academic program of study, those from the Applied stream are:

  • greatly underachieving academically: For example, on the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test — a minimum-competency assessment — 92% of students in Academic English meet the provincial standard vs. 44% of students in Applied English from 2015-2019.
  • much more likely to be suspended: According to data from the Toronto District School Board, students in Applied are approximately four times more likely to be suspended compared to students in Academic classes (7.1% vs. 1.8% in 2011-2012).
  • far less likely to graduate: 93.2% of TDSB students who took mainly Academic courses graduated within 5 years vs. only 68.5% for those who took mostly Applied courses (2011-2016 cohort)
  • less likely to enter post-secondary education: For the same cohort, 81.2% of students from Academic courses confirmed a university or college acceptance vs. 47.5% of students from Applied classes. Another grim statistic is that only 3% of students that take Grade 9 Applied math entered university.

What makes these facts even worse is who is being placed into the Applied stream. Data from Toronto (which should be similar to those in other diverse communities) show that Black and Indigenous students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students identified with special education needs (excluding gifted) are overrepresented in Applied classes.

So to recap, the education system is placing our most marginalized and underserved youth into a pathway that is far less effective in educating them than the one in which we put more privileged students. Applied courses were originally designed to support those who wanted more hands-on learning experiences and to learn practical, rather than abstract, concepts. Instead, they became spaces of lower expectations, poorer learning environments, and fewer post-secondary opportunities for students that need the exact opposite.

Some might argue, “Of course Applied classes don’t do as well because the kids in there already struggle in school.” The fact is that if Applied courses are meant to support students that struggle, then they do not do a very good job of that, seeing as the majority continue to underachieve and do not continue their education after high school. And those that do tend to struggle in college. A report by the College Math Project in 2011 showed that close to 50% of students who took college preparation math in high school were at risk of failing math in college. Take that in for a moment.

Others might say, “It’s their choice to take Applied courses.” Not exactly. Carl James and Tana Turner documented numerous examples of teachers and guidance counsellors discouraging Black students from taking Academic courses, pressuring them to take Applied, and actively keeping them from applying to universities. On social media you can read story after story after story of this happening. If you have access to the National Film Board, watch Invisible City by Hubert Davis and fast-forward to 20:20 to watch this process go down in real time. These are not isolated incidents. They form a trend of well-meaning yet subtly oppressive acts that some students successfully fend off, while others stay trapped and kept down.

Even if students did choose Applied classes out of their own free will, they do so without all the information. Social Planning Toronto found that Grade 8 students based their next year’s course decisions on incomplete and sometimes contradictory information. The report states that “some students are unknowingly following a path which inhibits them from reaching their full potential.”

All of this research, data, advocacy work and stories — along with a seismic shift towards examining systemic racism sparked by the George Floyd’s murder — have brought us to this point where the Ontario Ministry of Education announces that they will begin to do its part in eliminating barriers to equality. More naysayers will go, “With destreamed classes teachers will just have to lower the bar” or “When teachers teach to the middle, the smart kids will be bored and the ones who need help will be lost.” I will address these quips in Part 3 of this series, but for now I’ll just say that truly successful educators know how to reach a wide audience.

Finally, the last of the buzz-killers will say, “This can’t just be the responsibility of high school teachers!” To that I would give a physically-distanced bro nod to these people and say they’re absolutely right. Streaming can begin as early as kindergarten, and possibly even preschool. Through biased perceptions and unacknowledged brilliance, many racialized students will be seen by the education system as not fitting a prescribed norm, treated differently than others, shunted to the group at the back, given special education labels, modified to meet lower expectations, and exit elementary school with significant learning gaps. This narrative is why dismantling streaming is the responsibility of the entire school system, not just high school teachers. Elementary teachers and schools need to critically interrogate their own practices and structures to see how they might be perpetuating societal inequities.

If destreaming were easy, we’d have done it by now. This process will take time, struggle, pain, and a long hard look in the mirror. Effective large-scale change never happens overnight, but this process needs to begin immediately. Do not wait for the time when destreaming becomes mandatory. Begin the process now. Read this book. Watch this video. Talk to colleagues. Start a plan. Because even if the Ministry of Education backtracks for whatever reason, the fact will remain that streaming is still a recognized form of systemic racism. How educators decide to move forward will be both pivotal and telling.

I say all these things not from an “I’m better than everyone” stance, because I totally used to love streaming. I’ll save that story for tomorrow.

Math Education as Social Empowerment

After a wild ride working centrally in the Toronto District School Board, I’m heading back to the classroom at Westview Centennial Secondary School in Toronto’s northwest and looking forward to putting in action all that I have learned over the past three years. I hope to keep up a short weekly blog now that the work life will be (somewhat) more predictable! These blogs will be mainly my reflections, a-ha moments, soapbox-type rants, sharing of insecurities and other stuff I’d like to share.

IMG_4592

Right now, I’m in the middle of teaching summer school with students that didn’t get a passing grade in their regular day school math class. I asked them all why they didn’t pass the first time around, and the answers varied from external factors (“my teacher and I didn’t get along at all”) to internal reasons (“I just gave up because it was too hard”). For me, when I see students that haven’t been successful in math, I feel that they’re at risk of being less powerful than those that are successful in math class. Yes, math is power.

Think about it: those that can do math well are the ones that have greater access to high socioeconomic status STEM fields including medicine, engineering, digital information management, etc. Doing well in math and taking higher-level math courses is also related to being able to enter non-STEM programs in colleges and universities, many of which involve taking some kind of statistics course anyway. It also impacts one’s personal identity as it relates to math. The “I’m not a math person” label, even though there’s no such thing, is often internalized after traumatic experiences with learning math and holds people back from activities like helping their children with learning math at home or, in the case of some teachers, teaching math confidently in the classroom. Finally, students that have historically not been serviced well in terms of math education are from low-SES backgrounds and who stand to gain the most from high-quality math learning.

That’s why teachers of math, whether they’re in an elementary or secondary setting, need to view what they do as a form of social empowerment. It is not just curriculum expectations that teachers check off and see merely as obligations to their day. Math is powerful enough to shape people’s lives, and that’s not an exaggeration. If we view it with that type of urgency, teachers would keep the bar high for all students, make sure that those that are struggling receive all the help they need, adjust their teaching practice if something’s not working in the classroom, and connect the mathematics to students’ lives. I’m approaching summer school this way — I’m on a mission to help students with (re-)empowering themselves with math knowledge and critical thinking experience so that they can be better prepared as citizens in a 21st-century context that is increasingly mathematical and problem-based. That’s what’s been keeping my engine going all week — and will all month — with these students that deserve to be good at math.

Setting Higher Standards: High School Graduation Just Isn’t Enough

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

– Peter Drucker

Not long ago, I was part of a meeting with math teachers and school administrators that involved identifying students that were struggling. The benchmark for “struggling” was failing with a grade below 50%. Although these students definitely deserve increased attention, why was 50% the bar that was set and not the Ontario provincial standard of Level 3, or an equivalent to a “B” or 70%? Is our goal just to pass students, or is it for them to achieve at a level that will set them up for success down the road?

My guess is that the primary measure that is given to school staff that relate to student course achievement is the pass/failure rates. Other measures, including the percentage of students that achieved the provincial standard in courses, are likely not as readily available nor distributed.

In a similar vein, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) recently shared that the graduation rate, now at 86%, is the highest it has been since tracking began in 2000. Again, this is deserving of attention and a noteworthy accomplishment, but should our goal be to simply have students graduate, or to ensure they take the next step to post-secondary education?

In today’s job market, a high school diploma is pretty much the equivalent to a participation ribbon. As the job market demands more skilled workers that attend some form of post-secondary education (college, university, apprenticeships, etc.), and knowing that income is higher for those with post-secondary education vs. a high school diploma alone, we need to work towards ensuring students are set up well to enter and thrive in education after high school, and we need to measure this and make the data well-known.

Enter some really savvy TDSB research folks…and me just regurgitating their great work.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I talk about streaming structures in education ad nauseum. These structures dictate, to a large extent, access to and success in post-secondary education. In Ontario, high school students take courses in three streams: Academic, Applied and Locally Developed, which are designed for students to access university, college, and the workforce, respectively. In a perfect world, students from all three streams should graduate and be successful at an equal rate. But, this is not a perfect world and it is littered with imperfect systems.

In these three streams, there are clear disparities in graduation rates, as shown in the data pertaining to the student cohort of 2011-2016 in the TDSB:

Graduation by POS

Students who take predominately applied and locally developed courses are not graduating at the same rate as those taking mostly academic courses. However, as mentioned earlier, access to post-secondary education is becoming increasingly more crucial. So what does that data look like across streams?

PSE Confirmations by POS

After five years of high school, more than four out of five students (81.2%) who took predominantly academic courses received a confirmation of post-secondary education. However, less than half of students (47.5%) in the applied program of study attended post-secondary education, and less than 15% of students in the locally developed program access schooling after graduation, with almost none accessing university (0.6%).

Focusing more on the disparity between academic and applied pathways, it is alarming that while both are designed to access post-secondary education, one is clearly much more successful than the other at that goal. What is more troubling is that students in the applied program of study, many of whom are not directly entering college or university, are disproportionately students from racialized backgrounds, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and students with special education needs. If this doesn’t eat away at your conscience, go to your doctor and ask them to check for a pulse.

Organizations conduct and report on measures to determine if targets are met. I argue that we need to report on and be accountable to different targets to ensure that our eyes are on the right prize. Specifically, we need to ensure that our students are not just passing at a 50% and then graduating high school, but they are also meeting or exceeding provincial standards and accessing post-secondary education. As the saying goes, “you are what you measure.”

This is mainly why the TDSB has made a commitment to challenging streaming structures to improve success for all students. Along with that structural change, educators in schools need to understand that this shift is a response to the inequities that we see in access to post-secondary education and who is disproportionately affected by streaming structures. We must set high standards for all students, but just as importantly, we must set high expectations and the right targets for ourselves as educators and the systems in which we work.

 

Another Internet post dissecting the troubling EQAO math results and the state of math education as we know it…

EQAO Results

*Record screech* *Freeze frame* Yup – that’s us. You’re probably wondering how we got here. Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Okay, we’ll start in 2009 instead, when math assessment results from the EQAO began trending downwards for our elementary students, and people — educators, parents, and anyone who cares about the future of society — are getting frustrated. There’s a lot of mudslinging, finger-pointing, and general crankiness. Understandable, but let’s take a deep breath. There’s not one single reason why this is happening, but rather there are a lot of contributing factors.

Discovery vs. back-to-basics

There’s this never-ending (and often misrepresented) saga between “discovery math” and “back-to-basics” approaches to teaching. Many experts agree that there needs to be a combination of individual sense-making and skill practicing to best support students’ conceptual understanding and fluency in math facts. Using one approach over the other exclusively will produce incomplete thinkers. This discourse on the false dichotomy between the two approaches only hurts our students and puts them in the cross-fire.

Teachers’ confidence in math

Many elementary teachers are struggling to teach math. That’s not their fault. Their job descriptions ask them to be generalists and able to teach pretty much everything. School boards, however, have not emphasized the need for incoming teachers to be specifically skilled in teaching math. According to Dr. Mary Reid, assistant professor at OISE, four out of five elementary teachers do not have post-secondary mathematics education (of course, having that doesn’t automatically make you a stellar math teacher, either). I don’t have an answer to what amount of formal math education is needed for teachers, but there is something to be said for knowing the math well enough to teach it; otherwise, teacher anxiety kicks in, and that doesn’t bode well for students. Again, that’s not teachers’ fault. It’s just what the education system has allowed to happen.

Students’ confidence in math

Students aren’t overly confident about their math skills, either, especially females. According to the EQAO, there’s a noticeable drop in female students’ self-efficacy about math compared to reading and writing — 45% of grade 6 females think they’re good at math versus 71% and 51% for reading and writing, respectively — and their assessment results reflect that drop. Having said that, male students don’t see themselves as good writers — only 35% of grade 6 males think they are — but nonetheless seem to be meeting writing expectations at a decent rate (73%). So, confidence is part of the equation, but not all of it.

Struggling students aren’t better off separated

Generally, how we treat struggling learners is only making things worse. What typically happens when students don’t meet math learning expectations is they are given below-grade level questions, exposed to more structured and rote learning of the “basics,” and separated from students (either to a different table, classroom or course altogether) that are doing fine. Time and time again this type of ability grouping has been shown not to benefit struggling students. On top of that, these practices further marginalize students from racialized groups and lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those perceived to have a disability. Organizations in the United States, including the National Education Association and the National Association of School Psychologists, as well as People for Education in Ontario, have called for an end to these types of practices. Many studies conclude that heterogeneous groupings benefit struggling learners without disadvantaging advanced learners. Finally, there’s also a great deal of evidence to show that struggling students benefit most from complex problem solving, open-ended questions and focusing on the big ideas, rather than burying them in repetitive worksheets.

The math curriculum could use a freshening up

The last time Ontario’s math curriculum was reviewed, Paul Martin was the Prime Minister of Canada, Twitter was still just an idea, and We Belong Together was Mariah Carey’s gift to humankind. The overall philosophy of the curriculum still works, but the details need some calibration after twelve years. For instance, I feel there should be a greater emphasis in and support with connecting mathematical concepts and teaching as many with a cross-curricular approach (this is already in the front matter of the curriculum documents, but how many people read that, really?). Making math relevant and creating interconnections between ideas are essential for lasting learning. Digressing a bit to high school, statistical literacy and critical thinking need to be emphasized in the world of “fake news” (SAD!). However, many students’ explicit exposure to statistics will end in grade 8 — students can navigate through high school math courses without seeing a bar graph (and then they’ll get fooled by shenanigans like this). Finally, financial math doesn’t really play a big role in senior university preparation courses, which is taken by the majority of students in grades 11 and 12. Is that why more and more young Canadians are going bankrupt?

So what’s there to do?

We all have a hand in making things better. IMHO:

Ministry, school board, and policy folks could…

  • Adjust the curriculum so teachers can focus on big ideas and connections between concepts and subjects. Also, emphasize skills that are needed for an informed citizenry, including statistical and financial literacy.
  • Promote inclusive education and monitor implementation so that struggling students learn in environments and ways that actually support them.
  • Support teachers with math knowledge for teaching, effective math pedagogy, a balanced math program that emphasizes both understanding and fluency, and differentiated instruction so high-fliers can become the next Srinivasa Ramanujan or Katherine Johnson, while others can continue to develop their math understanding to become knowledgeable adults.
  • Continue with the Renewed Math Strategy, particularly its focus on supporting students identified with special education needs and developing math knowledge for teaching. These investments take time to pay off, so let’s not pump the breaks.

School-based folks could…

  • Build students’ confidence in math: give high-fives for trying hard and not for the right answer, value process and not speed, find something genuine to praise when a student works on math.
  • Make math so freakin’ cool: Play math games, do math puzzles, make math jokes, sing math songs, do math handshakes (okay, they’re nothing to do with math, but you get the point), link math genuinely to students’ lives as much as possible.
  • Continue to learn math as part of professional learning, either formally or informally. Get a staff math group going, and have an administrator participate to show that it’s okay for teachers not to know the math yet but can work on it.
  • Resist the temptation to separate students that seem to be able to do math from those that seem to be struggling. Use alternate strategies so they can be engaged and receive support while also learning with and from their higher-achieving peers.

Families could…

  • Find the math in everything we already do with our kids (e.g. walking down the street, cooking, shopping, playing board games). Get kids wondering mathematically about as many things as possible, and then praise the heck out of them for being math wizards.

This math problem we got ourselves into has many moving parts, and hence many actions from a variety of stakeholders are needed to dig our kids out of this hole. Let’s stand up, do a Walmart-like cheer, and get on with it.

The names we (don’t) remember

Guacamole

I’ll bet that I’m not the only teacher on the planet to forget students’ names years after I taught them. I wish I could remember everyone’s name, like Bill Clinton does, but no matter how much effort I put into it, it’s gone pretty quick. It could be because, well, I’ve taught a lot of kids. In my eight-ish years of doing this teaching thing, I’ve probably taught close to a thousand students, which sounds like a lot until I think about folks who have taught for waaaaaaaaaaay longer than I have. The students whose names have completely escape me have been some of the best and brightest students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach, but five years later it’s “Hey…you” when I happen to run into them on the street (I’m lucky if I bump into them while they’re working retail, in which case I coolly and nonchalantly check their name tag and try to pass it off that I’ve remembered them so well after all these years).

However, for some reason, that didn’t happen when I ran into Steven (a pseudonym), a student I taught about six years ago. I was walking in my neighbourhood with my head down, daydreaming about unicorns or something, when a voice suddenly said, “Do you remember me?” Of course, at first, I didn’t, but then after he named his high school, his name miraculously came to me, and when I said his name, Steven cracked a huge smile, like I’ve validated him somehow. I even remembered his brother’s name, Billy (also a pseudonym) and we got to chatting for a few more seconds before we parted ways. Steven wasn’t the greatest student, and neither was his brother, whom I also taught. They were more likely to be in trouble than engaged, more into chatting than algebra, but I remember feeling that deep down, they were good people but just grew up in a rough situation.

After my chat with Steven, I wondered why I remembered his name when I’ve embarrassingly forgotten other students’ names in the past. And that’s when I came to the conclusion that it’s probably because he and his brother were part of one of my fondest memories as a teacher. One math class, I decided to teach proportions and fractions through cooking. It had been a tough go with this group for a while, and my prior lessons weren’t exactly the most fun and practical either, so I thought maybe doing something hands-on and fun to shake things up would provide a spark. I decided to make guacamole with the class – easy to make, no need to heat anything, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. I gave a recipe out and my students had to scale it up. When my students realized that we were actually going to make something and not just scale up the recipe for the sake of doing it, they got excited. Kids got up and were chopping, cutting, measuring, mixing, and eventually, eating. The lesson wasn’t super-awesome by any means, but for whatever reason, my students responded in the way that I had hoped. Billy had such a good time, he was walking out to the hallway telling everybody who bothered to listen that we made guacamole, all while holding a plate with chips and mashed up avocadoes. Steven eventually came to the class to visit Billy, and he thought it was pretty cool, too, and both of them looked giddy in a way that I hadn’t seen prior to that, and I was glad that I was able to make a positive connection with them that day.

I suppose I remembered Steven’s name not because of all the math we did, but rather because of how he made me feel while we ate guacamole that his brother helped to make. Making an impact is really about making a connection. If I can’t remember names because I haven’t made enough of an impact with students, or don’t have a memory with them that stands out, then I need to do something about that and make sure that I find opportunities to make those kinds of memories and connections with students.

My Collaborative Inquiry Journey to Date Explained Through Drake

drake-and-me

Today, my colleagues and I focused on the how-to’s of facilitating collaborative inquiry (CI) with an equity focus. In terms of my understanding of CI, I definitely felt that I started from the bottom of the group – I knew I should’ve read more this summer sixteen – but I still felt comfortable enough to share my views and contributed to the group learning. It was a tough day, not gonna lie. It wasn’t the best I ever had because I felt that I wasn’t totally getting some of the nitty-gritty details being presented about CI. Nonetheless, the over-arching message I got from today was that to effectively take care of a student learning need, the challenge of practice and problem statement need to be laser-focused, and that comes with effective questioning, data interpretation, and facilitation.

Even with great facilitation, I anticipate that school improvement through collaborative inquiry will be a hard sell in schools that think they’re too good for a coach and have little room for improvement. I get it – no one wants to do more work (work work work work) than they have to. However, rich data sets can unearth underlying student issues that can give teachers pause and say “hold, on, we’re going home to inquire about this further.” For instance, using student census data, I learned today that East Asian students are generally higher achievers in the TDSB, but report higher rates of stress and anxiety and lower rates of physical activity. Therefore, if an academically successful school with a large East Asian population needs a focus for improvement, perhaps a well-being focus would be appropriate (if the local data supports that as well).

Finally, I don’t anticipate that I’ll be the most popular guy when I come in to schools to support improvement, and I’m coming to terms with that. A principal shared today that no one really wants to get feedback, but we should all work on receiving it. In reality, all I want is to help improve student learning. Lord knows that I won’t make international headlines for saving, say, Mr. Marvins Room of students with the worst behaviour he’s ever seen. It’ll be my job to show him no student is so far gone that they can’t controlla themselves with a little bit of support with self-regulation. Hopefully, he’d at least thank me later.

Ok. I’m done.

The Faces of…

img_0226

On my way home from even more heavy discussions at work around equity in schools, I came by this mural at the corner of Dundas St. West and Cordova Ave. It’s called The Faces of Islington, painted by John Kuna in 2013. It portrays changing demographics in the style of a huge class photo. Beside it is a plaque explaining that the mural “celebrates the ethnic and cultural character of Islington as it has changed over the last century.” It’s interesting that I run into an art piece celebrating ethnocultural differences after discussing how, as a school system, there are different outcomes for students based on their ethnocultural background. I saw some pretty rough data from the TDSB about high suspension rates, lower academic achievement, and higher rates of special education designations for racialized students, particularly students that identify as Black, Latin American or Indigenous. Luckily, those heavy conversations focus around what we can do about all that. I don’t pretend that the equity work that I’ll be doing will be easy – I expect it to be messy and painful – but I know the work is worthwhile and necessary. My hope is that mural on Cordova will one day reflect a true celebration and respect of different cultures – that is, when children’s cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds don’t become barriers to success. Now that would make a nice picture.

I Got Schooled on my Unconscious Biases

yassminToday I got to watch a great TED Talk by Yassmin Abdel-Magied that challenged my own unconscious biases and how they affect my perceptions of people around me. I have to fully admit that I was guilty of a lot of the biases that Yassmin uncovers in her talk, which caused me to feel both really dumb but also relieved.

As someone that identifies as being progressive and equity-focused and has intensely studied anti-oppression education not even six months ago, I thought that I was “enlightened” and conscious of all my biases – clearly I was wrong – dead wrong. I assumed a surgeon was automatically male. I was shocked that Yassmin was part Danica Patrick, part Floyd Mayweather, and part Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon rolled into one kick-ass Muslim woman. However, I felt relieved that this unconscious bias was uncovered in a safe space with many amazing colleagues rather than somewhere else with less understanding folks, and as a result, I was able to use this moment as a learning opportunity. As a coach, I’ll be tasked with uncovering the biases that exist within teachers I’ll be working with. This work is going to be crucial in order to move forward with promoting equitable learning environments for students. I only hope that I’ll be able to develop a safe space such that the unpacking of biases leads not to feelings of shame or teachers becoming defensive, but to understanding how bias negatively affects student outcomes and begin a conversation to move beyond that.