An end to “discriminatory” practice of streaming for students in Ontario

An end to “discriminatory” practice of streaming for students in Ontario

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce and the Ford government declared the practice of “streaming” in Ontario high schools as systemic racism, and are vowing to end it for Grade 9 students beginning this September. 

The highly dysfunctional practice has plagued many students of colour for years. In an interview with the Toronto Star Lecce said, “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.”

This hit close to home for me and my 13-year-old son, Ethan who is getting ready to start Grade 9 in September. Ethan is bright, compassionate, competitive, popular with the other kids, and like any boy, he loves video games and annoying his younger brother! 

A few years back, my husband and I decided to hire a tutor for Ethan to help him with some classes. We found a great former teacher who knew the system and knew exactly what Ethan needed to focus on.

My husband and I thought if we got Ethan a tutor, and if he worked hard, he could overcome some of the challenges he was facing in math; after all, we are a middle class family – my husband is an engineer – and a senior manager at one of Canada’s largest banks – and you now what I do!

In other words, we have the means to get our kids the extra help they need, and we want to believe that if we work hard our kids will have a fair chance at a good education. 

But we’re not naïve – we know that as much as we might work hard to provide the best for our children the systemic biases we face every day and the micro-aggressions we live with, will always be a barrier in our quest for true equality.

So, this past February when we received Ethan’s suggested list of courses and streams by Ethan’s Grade 8 teacher, we were anxious to show them to our tutor to get her input, but little did we know the reality check we were in for.

As we looked at Ethan’s “suggested courses,” we realized they were all for the applied stream, except French. The tutor explained to us that she thought Ethan should be in the advanced stream and told us, “He’s a hard worker and he’s very smart.”  She knew our goal was to send Ethan to post-secondary education.

But she also said, “Once a student is in the applied stream, it is difficult to get out of it. The decisions he makes now for Grade 9 will greatly influence his future opportunities if he desires to go on to post-secondary education.” 

This statement is backed up by People for Education, a non-partisan organization that studies the education system. In their document, Tips for Parents – High School Course and Choices while it is possible to transfer from an applied course to academic, “It is usually easier to transfer from academic to applied courses.” 

In 1999, the then Liberal government made the decision to change the learning structure in Ontario High schools by introducing streaming.

Students would be allowed to choose what stream they wanted to enter into be it – Applied for students who might choose to go to college, or the trades, or straight into employment. Advanced was for students who would pursue higher post-secondary education at a college or university.

But what happened along the way was a clear distinction between race and class.

According to one study, Toward Race Equity in Education done by York University, a disproportionate amount of low-income and students of colour found themselves being encouraged to enter into the applied stream while a smaller percentage found themselves in the advanced stream.

What exactly does that mean? 

People for Education say, “Students who want to keep all post-secondary options open should choose academic courses in Grades 9 and 10.” 

It’s maddening to think that unknowing to many parents – including us – this means it is less likely for a child in an applied stream to be accepted by a post-secondary institution. 

As we were going through all of this, our tutor reluctantly admitted to something that I think we all know, but would like to think would never apply to our child… and that is:

Teachers already have an idea of what mark they will give a student. And while your child might work hard, they have prejudged the child by who they hang out, how engaged they are in class and a myriad of other preconceived notions they have already formed about the student.

Our tutor is not a person of colour, she is a White, retired teacher of Scottish decent. Yet she recognizes the implicit biases imbedded in the educational system that affecting many students of colour, or of low-income status.

In our story, at no point did one of Ethan’s teachers ever explain to us that their recommendation of applied classes could affect his chances at going on to post-secondary education, nor did they ask Ethan what career path he would want to pursue in the future. 

Today’s acknowledgement of a systemic racial problem within schools is only the first step but it is a big one.  

We are grateful to have ‘caught’ this with thanks to our tutor and our research, but how many other parents aren’t able to? 

Now that ‘streaming’ is being phased out, the questions remain:

  • Will it change the opportunities provided to each student?
  • Will it challenge teachers to see every child through a non-biased lens?
  • Will we see more students of colour graduating from high school and stepping into higher education?

For now, we will have to wait and see.  

If anything, this has meant entering into some hard conversations. As I wake up my beloved 13-year-old son from the slumber of his youth I must also wake him up to the reality that racism exists, his skin colour will be used against him, and sadly as filmmaker Ava DuVernay says, “The system is not broken, it was built this way.”



Tips for Parents- High School Course and Choices By; People for Education

Towards Race Equity in Education: The Schooling of Black Students in the Greater Toronto Area- York University April 2017

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


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