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.
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 George Floyd’s murder — have brought us to this point where the Ontario Ministry of Education announced 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.