Ontario Will Be De-Streaming Its High School Courses

I recently reviewed the Ontario Ministry of Education’s new Grade 1-8 math curriculum. This was recently followed by an announcement that in Grade 9 they would be phasing out “streaming”.

I mentioned in my earlier post:

…high school is divided into streams “academic” and “applied”. The political-speak is that “applied” courses are rarely anything more than easier versions of their “academic” cousins with the tradeoff being that taking “applied” courses can shut you out of pre-requisites needed to apply for post-secondary education.

I was in grade 8 attending parent information nights about the then newly proposed Harris government’s new high school curriculum. The “official” explanation is that applied was for students who were going to college, trade school or directly into the workforce. Academic was for students who were headed towards university. And we all (I think quite correctly) read between the lines that academic courses were for the smarter kids.

They tried to deny it. “Oh, no, no, no, applied courses just focus on more hands on real world examples.” I can personally only speak for math, but the applied math courses don’t have anything different in them. They just have some of the topics and the more abstract questions cut out. A student who took the grade 9 academic course could finish their year, and immediately turn around and take the exam for the corresponding applied course and have no trouble.

Now what that means is there’s an asymmetry. You can use an academic course as a prerequisite for an applied course the following year. But not the other way around. You can also, mid-year, transfer from an academic course to the corresponding applied course. And here they say the quiet part out loud and they casually refer to it as “dropping down”. So the effect is that if you go down, but it’s hard to go back up. So applied courses have the effect of closing doors: take too many of them and you won’t be able to apply to university. (In Grade 11, they switch from the terminology of academic/applied to university/college. It’s confusing. But it was another Conservative government master plan.)

Now the claim behind this decision is that the practice is, capital R, Racist. I only went to high school in Toronto and only tutored in Toronto. And while I’ve worked with male and female and non-binary students of different skin colours, I know I’m only experiencing a tiny subset of the Ontario teenage population. Add to that that tutoring is expensive and I know I’m almost certainly not working from a representative sample. So I have to claim agnosticism on this point.

Although I will point out this is the evidence supporting the claim of racism that made it into the Globe article:

Research has shown students from low-income families, with Indigenous backgrounds or with special needs are more likely to be enrolled in the applied stream and are 4½ times more likely not to earn a diploma compared with their peers in the academic stream.


it’s a racist practice. There’s overwhelming evidence that Black and Indigenous and non-white children are streamed into applied.

Now they may very well have more research that they are sitting on and this is just what made it into their press release. But as presented, this doesn’t support the claim that the practice is racist. (And you might want to use this to justify clawing a large part of the trigonometry out of the high school curriculum and replacing it with more on managing data, probability and statistics instead of relegating it to a single Grade 12 elective that few have time to take.)

It’s the basic mistake of confusing correlation with causation: a disproportionate number of indigenous and non-white students end up in the applied stream. And since in 2020, everything is racism, so the reason for this statistic must be because teachers just assume that these students are probably less smart and belong in these classes.

So how does eliminating the streams help these students?

There is a problem in here you aren’t allowed to talk about. Children are not unbounded fonts of unlimited potential. To say that some kids are smarter than others, should be as uncontroversial as saying that some kids are taller than others. But you can’t say that. (In this case “smart” is some complex mixture of raw intelligence and the ability to do hard work and study.)

Are these students in the applied courses because teachers just assume they have less potential? Or are they already showing evidence that they are struggling academically? If it’s the former, yes that’s racist! If it’s the latter, how does moving them into a more difficult course load help them?

The climate of politically correct speech may be fraught in 2020, but even for us in 1998 when they introduced academic/applied, they knew they couldn’t say the quiet part out loud: There needs to be a stream of less demanding courses for those students who need them to have a better chance of graduating from high school. At that point, they introduced the “Grade 10 Literacy Test” because the were finding that a non-ignorable minority of students were managing to graduate high school without being able to read and they needed to stop that.

So given that  they have not produced evidence (at  least that made it to the news reporting) to substantiate  the charge that the practice is racist, you need to answer the question of why these students are in the applied courses to begin with. If you’ve misidentified the problem, then you’re going to have a hard time fixing it.

If these kids are in an easier stream because their elementary schools were less good and they are entering high school less prepared than other students. (Are their elementary schools less good because of socioeconomic status, which is serving as a confounding variable to race?) Will throwing them into a harder stream make them more likely to succeed somehow? (The theory that as gasses expand to fill the available space, kids will just rise to the challenges you put in front of them.) Are their resources that magically appear in high school to help them fill in the gaps that somehow weren’t available in K-8?

To me this seems like a case of trying to problem solve through virtue singling. I don’t deny that there is a group of students who are doing less well. And it’s probably co-related with race. But it’s sloppy magical thinking of a fairly high order to get from “kids of a certain demographic are disproportionately in applied stream” to “the idea of the streams is racist” to “getting rid of the streams will make things not racist”.

The streams existed because independent of race, some kids found some of the material too hard. If you eliminate the easier course, how does that help them succeed? If they were in that situation because some actually racist policy took resources from their K-8 education, isn’t this just a distraction that at worst will do nothing, and at best make those kids worse off? The Globe correctly points out that this timing following over a month of race-related protests across Canada and the US can’t be a coincidence. Hopefully there is more to this plan than a quick press release designed to appease a mob who invoked the R-word.

Again this is a ministry of education making announcements about curriculum changes at a time when we’re not even sure if schools will be open for in-person learning in September. And they also revamped the K-8 Curriculum for this fall, which will necessitate a rolling revision of the the 9-12 curricula as those kids grow into those grades. So we will have to wait and see how this turns out.


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