Toronto

Ontario to end 'discriminatory' practice of academic streaming in Grade 9

Streaming — in which students must choose to pursue either an "academic" or "applied" track when they begin high school — has been shown to disproportionately affect Black and low-income students when it comes to graduation rates and the chance of going to a post-secondary institution.

Will also ban suspensions for young students - both disproportionately affect Black students, studies found

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce called academic streaming 'systemic, racist' and 'discriminatory' in an interview with the Toronto Star published this morning. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

After years of calls from some educators and advocacy groups to end the practice, the Ontario government says it will do away with academic streaming in Grade 9.

Streaming — in which students must choose to pursue either an "academic" or "applied" track when they begin high school — has been shown to disproportionately affect Black and low-income students when it comes to graduation rates and the chance of going to a post-secondary institution.

Details of the province's decision were first published in the Toronto Star on Monday morning. In an exclusive interview with the newspaper, Education Minister Stephen Lecce called streaming a "systemic, racist, discriminatory" practice.

Lecce echoed those sentiments in a statement issued to CBC Toronto Monday.

"It is clear there is systemic discrimination built within the education system, whether it be streaming of racialized students, suspensions overwhelmingly targeting Black and Indigenous kids, or the lack of merit-based diversity within our education workforce," he said. 

He said students and teachers deserve an education system that is "inclusive, accountable and transparent, and one that by design, is set up to fully and equally empower all children to achieve their potential." 

TDSB had already begun phasing out streaming

A spokesperson for the minister said the full plan to eliminate streaming will be rolled out shortly, and is expected to take effect by the 2021-2022 school year. 

Ontario is one of the few places in Canada that continues to separate students into the hands-on applied stream and the post-secondary-track academic stream as they start high school.

A 2017 report led by York University professor Carl James found that Black teens in the Greater Toronto Area were being streamed into applied course tracks at significantly higher rates than other students.

Fifty-three per cent of Black students were in academic programs as compared to 81 per cent of white and 80 per cent of other so-called racialized students, meaning those who are part of other visible minorities. Conversely, 39 per cent of Black students were enrolled in applied programs, compared to 18 per cent of other racialized groups and 16 per cent of white students.

Meanwhile, a 2015 report from the group People for Education found that students taking applied courses in Grade 9 were much less likely to go to university and that students from low-income groups were more likely to enrol in applied courses. 

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which began phasing out streamed courses in Grades 9 and 10 in recent years, previously found that only 40 per cent of students who took an applied course in Grade 9 graduated within five years. 

Streaming ingrained into education culture, researcher says

John Malloy, director of education at the TDSB — Canada's largest school board — applauded the province's decision in a series of tweets. He called the change "necessary and complex" and said that it will require "much support and accountability" to ensure success for students.

Meanwhile, in an interview this morning, James said the change has been "a long time coming," noting that his own research and that of others has shown that biases about race and the socioeconomic backgrounds of students have had an outsized effect on how students are placed. 

He added that parents are often unaware of the full consequences of streaming on their children's education and futures.

James also cautioned that streaming has been so ingrained in Ontario's secondary school system, it will take time and work to ensure it doesn't continue in more subtle ways.

"Since, culturally, there is the whole idea of streaming, we're going to have to have teachers —  and students and parents, as well — start to rethink what it means to place students into a classroom where we're trying to capitalize on their abilities and strengths, and not be streamed into what teachers and others think are their abilities and strengths," he said.

Ontario's NDP, the Official Opposition, also tentatively lauded the news. NDP education critic Marit Stiles called the move "an important first step." She added that her party will be "watching closely for details" as the policy is rolled out.

Ban on suspensions for younger students

The Ministry of Education also says it will implement a ban on suspensions for students in junior kindergarten to Grade 3, another practice that has been shown to disproportionately impact Black students.

The 2017 study by James reported that 42 per cent of all Black students in the Toronto, York, Peel and Durham school boards had been suspended at least once by the time they left high school. 

The issue was also highlighted in a recent third-party review of the Peel District School Board that painted a damning picture of dysfunction among administrators who are ill-prepared to deal with anti-Black racism directly affecting students.

The review found that Black students make up only 10.2 per cent of the secondary school population in Peel but represent about 22.5 per cent of the students receiving suspensions. Further, reviewers heard anecdotally that some principals "use any excuse" to suspend Black students, including wearing hoodies or hoop earrings.

The ministry says it will also work to ensure that there are appropriate penalties for educators who make racist comments or behave in a discriminatory way. 

With files from CBC's Lucas Powers

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