Toronto

TDSB committee to take hard look at practice of academic streaming

The Toronto District School Board is expected on Wednesday to take a hard look at its practice of encouraging high school students to take either academic or applied courses in a bid to remove educational barriers.

Attitudes, structures need to change, says board education director John Malloy

In a bid to remove barriers to higher education, the Toronto District School Board is expected on Wednesday to take a hard look at its practice of encouraging high school students to take either academic or applied courses.

In a bid to remove barriers to higher education, the Toronto District School Board is expected on Wednesday to take a hard look at its practice of encouraging high school students to take either academic or applied courses.

A proposal to be considered by the board's planning and priorities committee says changing the practice would allow all secondary school students to have equal educational opportunities.

The meeting includes time for input on the proposal by members of the public. About 40 delegates are expected to speak at Wednesday's meeting.

John Malloy, director of education for the Toronto District School Board, said the issue is about access to educational programs, expectations placed on students by parents and educators and a desire by the board not to limit the futures of students. 

The practice, also called streaming, requires Grades 9 and 10 students to choose whether to take courses such as math, science and English in the academic stream, which is geared toward university, or in the applied stream, which is intended to be more practical. 
Adrienne Harry says when she was a Grade 12 student with an A average in an academic stream, she sought advice from the guidance office about what to do after high school. She was told university wasn't for her. (CBC)

"We believe the majority of our students can be successful in an academic program in high school if we do the building blocks in elementary school," Malloy told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday.

"We have data that says things simply need to change. It's about our attitudes and it's also about our structures. That's the reason we are doing this work."

Streaming is standard practice

In the past school year, Malloy said, only 16 per cent of students have chosen the applied program. Of that 16 per cent, nearly 60 per cent have special education needs.

 "A large proportion" of the 16 per cent are black males, he added.

Streaming into academic and applied courses has been standard practice at all public Ontario school boards since 1999. But the proposal by Malloy, which the committee is expected to send to board trustees to debate at their Feb. 7 meeting, would require schools to prevent more subtle forms of streaming that he says occur as early as kindergarten.

"We have the data that suggests that, probably from the earliest years, children are being placed on a pathway that's not taking them to where they really need to go," he said. 
'We believe the majority of our students can be successful in an academic program in high school if we do the building blocks in elementary school,' says John Malloy, education director for the TDSB. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Malloy said streaming is not just about Grade 9 and 10 students, but also how the board treats kindergarten students, how it treats Grade 1 and 2 students in terms of reading and math skills, how it develops programs for special needs students in elementary schools and how it prepares students for academic programs in high school.

He said the following questions, for example, need to be asked: Who isn't reading in Grade 1? Who is being placed in special education programs away from their home school? What impact does that have? Who is not achieving? What are the biases that teachers might have?

"The fact that we are seeing black males over-represented in this is simply part of the strong look we are taking at where racism may exist in our system and where it has to stop," he said.

It's also about expectations by parents and educators, he said. 

'Step in right direction'

A study led by York University education professor Carl James, released last year, found that black students in the TDSB are twice as likely to be enrolled in applied courses, compared to students from other racial backgrounds. 

Adrienne Harry, a writer at Exclaim under the name AHarmony, told Metro Morning that streaming needs to end.

Years ago, when she was a grade 12 student with an A average in an academic stream, she sought advice from the guidance office about what to do after high school, which universities to attend and which programs to take.

"I was told university wasn't the place for me and I should consider working with my hands."

Harry ignored the advice, applied to university and earned her bachelor of arts. Harry said "racial bias" was at work in the advice because she had the grades and the desire to go to university. The guidance counsellor did not even look at her transcript or her grades.

Harry said the proposal by Malloy is a good move.

"It's a step in the right direction," she said.

"I don't think that the fate of one's career should be decided for them at age five or six or even age 12 or 13 based on arbitrary measures such as race or socio-economic status. That shouldn't be a determining factor."

Some schools have abandoned streaming

A handful of TDSB schools have already eliminated streaming in some grades. 
A study led by York University education professor Carl James, released last year, found that black students in the TDSB are twice as likely to be enrolled in applied courses, as compared to students from other racial backgrounds. (Peel District School Board/Facebook)

Oakwood Collegiate Institute in west Toronto stopped offering Grade 9 applied courses in September 2017. Classes are capped at 25 kids to help teachers address individual students' learning needs, Oakwood principal Steve Yee said.

And students who may have typically been in applied courses, or who have special education needs, can take an additional "learning strategies" class to help them with literacy and numeracy skills.

"Our student body overall has been positive about it," Yee said. "They are in a program that has high expectations of them, they believe in themselves, people believe in them and that's always a positive."

Applied courses may play role, critics say

But some critics say applied courses have a valuable role in the education system.

"At the end of the day, when it comes to those challenging courses, the maths and sciences, a lot of kids struggle not necessarily because they're not capable, but because of the way it's being taught. Because not everyone learns the same way," said Maddie Di Muccio, president of the Society for Quality Education Canada, an advocacy group.

"It's not bad necessarily to have that option of going for applied because it's in those courses that are easier that you
learn: 'maybe I really do like this and maybe I want to be more challenged,"' she added.

With files from Peter Goffin of The Canadian Press, Metro Morning

now