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'...Applied classes were seen as the dumb kids': Education, youth advocates respond to Ontario's 'discriminatory' streaming system

Elisabetta Bianchini
·8-min read

Last week, the Ontario government announced it would be ending Grade 9 streaming into applied and academic courses, beginning with math in the 2021-22 school year.

“It’s unfair and it’s not right to ask these students at such a young age to make a decision that will determine the rest of their high school and post secondary careers,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said at a press conference on Thursday. “Everyone needs the same opportunity.”

In an exclusive interview with the Toronto Star, Ontario’s Minister of Education Stephen Lecce called the streaming system a “racist” and “discriminatory” practice, something that has been echoed by numerous stakeholders and former Ontario high school students.

“It has been very discriminatory and it affects a lot of racialized, marginalized young people especially,” Tiffany Ford, a former Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee told Yahoo Canada.

“It took, it looks like, this recent uprising to start forcing people [to acknowledge] the things that they either intentionally ignored for a long time or have just decided that it’s OK,” Leo Johnson, executive director of Empowerment Squared, a charity that provides academic mentoring and recreational programs to newcomer, refugee and marginalized youth, told Yahoo Canada.

In a public statement, the Coalition for Alternatives to Streaming in Education (CASE), welcomed the news of the province’s intention to end streaming, calling it “an important step toward a more just and equitable future for students in Ontario.”

Janelle Hinds, executive director of Helping Hands, a mobile platform that helps young people find volunteer and leadership opportunities, said the discriminatory streaming process she saw growing up compelled her to advocate for young people.

Hinds attended an all-girls school in Ontario and even at a young age she picked up on a pattern that Black students and girls from immigrant families were being “pushed” into applied courses.

“Very quickly in Grade 9 you kind of realize that applied classes were seen as the dumb kids,” Hinds told Yahoo Canada. “That was the undercurrent that no one said but everyone knew existed.”

“For me it didn’t make sense,...why all these people were being pushed into these applied classes that they didn’t really want to take.”

What is the streaming the process in Ontario?

When high school students in Ontario enter Grade 9, they can either take classes in the applied stream or academic stream.

Courses in the applied stream have a practical focus with more “concrete examples,” according to a parents guide from the Peel District School Board.

Academic courses have a theoretical focus with more abstract concepts.

“These courses best serve students who are independent learners and who enjoy a fast-paced learning environment,” the Peel District School Board guide reads.

The TDSB has reported that students who take academic courses have a more “positive outcome” from their high school education, compared to students in the applied stream of learning.

“Research shows that students in an academic program of study generally experience more positive outcomes than those in an applied program of study and experience higher achievement in courses beyond Grade 10,” the 2019 Director’s Annual Report from the TDSB states.

“Students also have greater success in post-secondary programs and maintain increased pathway options beyond high school (e.g. college, university, apprenticeship, workplace) when they study at the academic level.”

At a press conference on Thursday, minister Lecce shared that high school students who take applied courses are more than four times less likely to graduate. He also indicated 47 per cent of Black students in Toronto take applied classes, compared to less than 19 per cent of non-Black students, and only one-third pursue post-secondary education.

TORONTO, ON- APRIL 11  -  Principal Monday Gala enjoys co-teaching, here he demonstrates an experiment in a The electron charge/mass measuring apparatus to a grade 12 physics class.  As principal of CW Jefferys, Monday Gala has abolished streaming, earned national and local leadership awards and helped the high school known for the tragic shooting death of a student boost its performance in academic rankings.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON- APRIL 11 - Principal Monday Gala enjoys co-teaching, here he demonstrates an experiment in a The electron charge/mass measuring apparatus to a grade 12 physics class. As principal of CW Jefferys, Monday Gala has abolished streaming, earned national and local leadership awards and helped the high school known for the tragic shooting death of a student boost its performance in academic rankings. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Black students getting ‘stuck’ in the applied stream

A 2017 report by Carl James, a York University professor, found that Black students in the Toronto area, in particular, were directed towards applied classes and away from academic courses.

Ford’s experience with the TDSB reinforces the research from James’ report. She found the system was largely used to stream predominantly Black students to “more applied courses and more hands on approaches.”

Johnson said this is an indication that the education system “refused to take responsibility for providing the type of resources and support that these students need” to perform to their full potential in school.

“The easy way out was to stream them into applied courses because then that kind of absolved everyone of their responsibility to make sure all of our children are being equitably served within our education system, in my opinion,” he said. “The reason for streaming was not because Black kids were not capable of succeeding or performing well, it had to do with...poverty, racism, from decades and decades of marginalization.”

Ford explained that these students get “stuck” there because transferring from applied to academic, missing the prerequisite credits, is not a smooth process.

Hinds considers herself one of the “fortunate ones” who took all academic classes but she still remembers overhearing a conversation at the guidance office in high school, where school staff rejected a schoolmate’s request to take night school and summer school to make up the academic credits she was missing.

When Hinds’ little brother was entering high school, she once again saw a school push a child into all applied courses, although he was an A student.

“I switched it to academic and then got a note back in September saying no, we’re putting him in applied,” she explained, stressing that this occurred even though Hinds, as his guardian, did not sign off on the applied course load. “The school still thought...this kid deserves to be in applied.”

Although this may be a step in the right direction, Johnson believes the changes to streaming may not go far enough because there needs to be a “deep cultural change” to rectify the “deficits” that have been created for racialized students in Ontario.

“These things are so deeply entrenched in our society that what we’re really calling for is deep cultural change,” he said.

“Until a teacher or a principle or an educator is deeply interested in seeing to it that their students succeed, regardless of their race or their colour or their creed, regardless of what policy you put in place, that educator, teacher has immense ability to either make it work or not work.”

Johnson is calling for people to make “strategic, intentional investments” to deal with equalities that have been created in the education system.

‘Without having that option I never would have passed’

While many are happy to see the streaming system go, some people believe having the applied course option actually benefitted their high school education.

Sarah Colero was a high school student with disabilities and she believes the applied courses she took, math and french, were necessary for her to be able to keep up with coursework.

“Without having that option I never would have passed,” Colero told Yahoo Canada. “I don’t think they fully understand what it will do to the education of a disabled student.”

She fears that disabled students will be “crammed” into academic courses, where teachers will use one teaching method for all students.

“This will make many fall behind who can't keep up with that one teaching style,” Colero said.
“Equity is giving [students] the choice of choosing which learning style best identifies with them and ensuring the teaching style they get matches their learning style.”

Both Ford and Hinds recognize the possibility that eliminating applied courses could highlight existing issues for students who need extra support in the classroom. Ford wants the province to look at implementing more resources for these students from the beginning of their time in school.

“There are a lot of issues, in terms of the elementary school system, where kids are just being carried along until Grade 9,” Ford said. “That’s another systemic issue where they’re not getting the right support system and so, by the time they get to Grade 9, they can absolutely fail.”

Hinds highlights math is a good example of a school subject many students struggle with and she does have concerns that teachers are not going to be able to give adequate support to students.

“I definitely think they need to end what I would call forced streaming but still recognizing that some students do need support,” Hinds said. “Will the government provide additional funds to both train teachers and, if anything, have math clinics or something that would allow students to get that extra support?”

Colero said students needing to take extra courses to get to the “same level” as those in the academic stream to apply to university, if they only have applied credits, is also problematic. She believes this is evidence that there needs to be adjustments to the evaluation of courses for post-secondary education.

“Having a different teaching method shouldn’t hinder someone from applying to university if they wanted to,” Colero said.