OPINION | The trouble with high school streaming

Streaming recreates social inequality, providing fertile ground for discrimination against poor students, as well as Black and Indigenous students. It’s systemic racism (and classism), pure and simple, says Leslie Gavel.

No other province in Canada streams in the concerted way Alberta does. It's time to call a halt to it

Premier Doug Ford has called a halt to high school streaming in Ontario. According to Leslie Gavel, it's time for Alberta to follow suit. (CBC)

This column is an opinion from Leslie Gavel, a writer based in Calgary.

I have a daughter both bright and privileged, yet while in school she was also rebellious and oppositional. She always had an inherent sense of her own equality, not standing for teachers treating her poorly, simply because she was young and a student … simply because they could.

My kid had what is called "an attitude."

In Grade 10 she was streamed into applied courses. Did her teachers think, "Well, let's put her in her place?"

"I was put in the [worst] classes that wouldn't get me into university," she says, "so why would I bother with Math 14 when it wouldn't help me in the future?"

It was the placement in applied math, rather than what is referred to as pure math, that made her especially livid, and as a consequence she dropped out. She's always had a great math brain. In fact, she's now an accountant.

Applauding Ford

Not in this lifetime did I think I would be applauding Doug Ford, but 2020 has been most peculiar.

Ford has called a halt to high school streaming, saying Ontario was the only province that still used this sorting mechanism. He got this wrong.

Alberta continues this anachronistic practice, where we have a labyrinth of high school "pathways," "sequencing" and "differentiated learning." I've pored through curriculum handbooks across the country and nowhere else does a province stream in the concerted way Alberta does.

Alberta Education boasts a general stream for your garden-variety student seeking a university education after graduation. A different layer of core courses is offered for those planning on pursuing technical school or college. And then there's a third stream of classes, known as "Knowledge and Employability," that prepare students for the workplace.

No matter what they are called in the course catalogue, these are known as the dummy classes.

Streaming has been practiced in Canada for over a century. It was first conceived as a way to address a social problem that no longer requires a solution, if it ever did.

Secondary schools were finding it difficult to assimilate the increasing racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity of the student population.

The theory held by the government and administrators was that children born to lower classes and recent immigrants were lazy, slow, irresponsible and most suited to manual work, unlike the children of longer-established Canadian families, who were assumed to be literate and most suited to intellectual work. 

Streaming has been practiced in Canada for over a century. It was first conceived as a way to address a social problem that no longer requires a solution, if it ever did. (Gillian Flaccus/The Associated Press)

Today, streaming is articulated something like this — a broader range of academic levels enables schools to meet the needs of all students and keep more kids in school longer.

Those most academically inclined have the opportunity to take advanced courses that challenge them, while students who are less academically inclined are encouraged to take the level of course that best meets their needs. Students learn better and develop more positive attitudes when placed with others like themselves. 

On the surface this sounds logical and reasonable, but a closer look reveals a good example of language standing in for reality. The research flies in the face of this tidy explanation.

Streaming is "rankism" at its best. This is the term the author and educator Robert Fuller has given to the abuse of power by those society sees as "somebodies" (teachers, some students), perpetrated against "nobodies" (far too many students).

Fuller sees schools as institutions built on the strong, age-old foundation of authority and rank, institutions that strip students of their dignity and erode their will to learn.

My daughter couldn't stand being a nobody, and you can bet most other students can't either.

Higher dropout rates

Streaming causes students in applied classes to drop out at a much higher rate than students in academic classes.

The research bears out that students in applied classes feel marginalized by peers and teachers, the atmosphere in their classrooms is more negative and authoritarian, and the school work is more rote.

And once you're locked into a particular stream, it's hard to move out of it. 

It's also worth noting that the sorting of students is a wildly subjective process. Those in charge often define intelligence in narrow terms. They view learning as receiving knowledge in a linear fashion, transmitted through teachers in the classroom.

Teachers and administrators tend to associate misbehaviour and nonconformity with slowness, regardless of aptitude, and compliance and passivity with intelligence.

These decisions have the potential to slam the door on future opportunities in a time when academic credentials matter more than ever before.

Streaming recreates social inequality, providing fertile ground for discrimination against poor students, as well as Black and Indigenous students. It's systemic racism (and classism), pure and simple. 

Calling a halt to streaming is long overdue.

Through my own experience, the experiences of my kids, and after writing about education issues for years, I know only one thing for sure. Students don't want school work to be easy, they want it to be meaningful and to have some intense connection to their hearts and minds. There lies the challenge.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.


Leslie Gavel is the author of 'Dropout: How School Is Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It'. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Canadian Living, Today's Parent, Avenue, and several Canadian and American newspapers.


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