Andy Hargreaves is visiting professor at the University of Ottawa and formerly education adviser to premier Kathleen Wynne. He is the author of Moving: A Memoir of Education and Social Mobility.
This week, the Government of Ontario announced that it would end streaming in Grade 9. When I grew up in a working-class mill town in the north of England, streaming started even earlier. I recall going up to the headmistress’s desk, when I was barely seven years old, for a vocabulary test. The words were easy at first and then got progressively more difficult. I received effusive praise when I successfully struggled through the phonetics and even the meaning of “pneumonia” – the last word I remember spelling correctly. Then, after several failed attempts to pronounce “phthisis,” the test abruptly came to an end. Why somebody devised a test that expected a seven-year-old to pronounce a word meaning “pulmonary tuberculosis or a similar progressive wasting disease,” straight after “pneumonia,” still defies the imagination.
What I didn’t appreciate was that this test was being used to determine the kind of education I would get for the next four years – and the kind of life I would have after that. Half of the seven-year-olds would go into the A stream, culminating in inspired teaching that ultimately led me into the education profession. The other half went into the B stream and got teaching that fell far short of this.
Old class lists show names divided into A and B streams. Next to them was the secondary school each child went to after the 11-plus selection test four years later – an academic grammar school for the top 20 per cent or so of the town’s students, and a vocational secondary modern school for the rest.
When I looked back at the list, many of the names in that top stream were still familiar. I’d walked home with those children, played with them in the schoolyard, or collaborated with them on projects. I could recall almost none of the names in the B stream. We were already living separate lives, building different networks, going down divergent paths.
Research at that time and since showed that once kids like us were streamed at seven, no more than 2 per cent transferred to another stream later if a mistake had been made. As Aristotle, then the Jesuits, said: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”
This was what streaming and testing looked like in England a half-century ago. Surely, it’s not relevant now. Or is it? There are still Canadian elementary schools that have reading and math groups with cute names where everyone works at a similar level, even though all the kids know that the animal with the least attractive name is actually the bottom group. And then, except for a brief interlude, in the 1990s, Ontario has persistently streamed students in Grade 9 into academic and applied streams.
Grade 9 streaming departs from the practice of other provinces and of many European countries. Research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development demonstrates that the countries that delay streaming or selection until the age of 15 or later have the best record in terms of student equity. Indeed, in the early 2000s, unpublished findings from an internal review of equity in Ontario by the OECD found that Grade 9 streaming produced disturbing inequities according to race and working-class poverty.
Research by York University professor Carl James is not alone in showing that Black Canadians and especially historic Black Canadians (compared with those from the families of recent immigrants) are far more likely to end up in the bottom stream than all their peers. Shamefully, Ontario’s streaming policy has been segregating students by race and class for the best part of 30 years.
Aware that unstreamed classes can be more challenging to teach than streamed ones, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has been less than enthusiastic about ending Grade 9 streaming. Indeed, in the 1990s, the OSSTF explicitly opposed the NDP’s policy of de-streaming.
In fairness, they had a point. With little funding, and in their haste to get the policy into place, the NDP government rushed implementation. An evaluation I led of the government’s pilot projects showed that de-streaming only worked when teachers believed in it, when school leaders could get teachers to work collaboratively on solutions, and when secondary schools could break out of the norm of having one-teacher/one-class for 50 or 100 minutes or so at a time.
Poor implementation looked like individual teachers trying to teach non-streamed classes all by themselves and just being flat-out exhausted by the end of the day. Effective implementation looked like groups of four or five teachers working in flexible teams with 90 or so students, so that students could get extra individual help, small-group support and opportunities to work collaboratively with their peers – sometimes when they were at the same level on a task, sometimes at different levels.
So congratulations to the Government of Ontario for putting an end to the bad practice of streaming. Now the harder work must begin of developing an effective alternative. This will need agile and flexible teaching, undertaken by teachers collaboratively, under good leadership, with extra in-class support, and with additional assistance from in-school digital technology, too. Over the past 30 years, enough teachers and schools have already reached this point where they can help their colleagues get there, too.
Kids shouldn’t have their futures decided at the age of seven or at 14 either. Putting an end to streaming solves half of the problem. Now is the time for government and teachers to work together to put in place something better.
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