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Tianna Follwell is the policy and research assistant for education and youth policy and Sam Andrey is the director of policy and research at the Ryerson Leadership Lab. They’re the co-authors of a recent Ontario 360 paper, “How to End Streaming in Ontario Schools.”

The Ontario government’s recent announcement of its new “de-streamed” Grade 9 math curriculum is a small but important step in addressing a long-standing and harmful practice in the province’s secondary school system.

Starting in Grade 9, Ontario high-school students have to opt into one of two streams for their core courses. Academic stream classes are typically for students who intend to ultimately go to university and focus on theory. Applied stream classes are most often for those who don’t have postsecondary ambitions and focus on application. This two-tier system, which currently starts at a younger age in Ontario’s education system than any other province, creates systemic inequities and produces poor outcomes.

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Currently, about one in four Grade 9 students in Ontario are in applied classes. Black and Indigenous students are enrolled at about twice that rate. The students who take these applied classes are about five times more likely to drop out of high school, and only 3 per cent will make it to university, compared to 54 per cent of those in academic classes.

These are the detrimental effects of academic streaming – a process that divides students into groups based on their perceived academic ability, often based on their elementary school performance. Starting at such a young age can lead to lasting and irreversible implications for students’ educational future.

In theory, students have all the information needed to make informed decisions about their pathway with support from family, teachers or guidance counsellors. In practice, systemic barriers embedded within Ontario’s education system – racism, classism and ableism – often predetermine a students’ academic pathway regardless of their postsecondary desires.

Here’s what we know. Grade 9 students enrolled in lower-level courses rarely shift to higher tracks. Students streamed into non-academic courses experience depressed achievement, delayed graduation, increased rates of drop-out and lower expectations from educators that harm students’ confidence. In essence, Ontario schools provide two streams: One that channels students to higher education and another that more often leads to drop-out and low-wage labour.

This issue is gaining the attention of policy makers in the midst of rising public consciousness of and opposition toward institutional racism and inequity. The Ontario government announced its intentions to de-stream Grade 9 math back in July, 2020, and students entering Grade 9 in the fall will be the first cohort to learn from this new curriculum.

Yet while de-streaming Grade 9 math classrooms is a promising start, the data illustrates that this must be just the beginning. This transformative shift in our education system requires policy makers to implement a careful multiyear strategy to de-stream Ontario’s secondary school system more broadly, across all core subjects. Such a strategy must be developed collaboratively with education and community stakeholders and should include the following key components:

First, Ontario will need to invest in support to make this transition successful. Given the impact of COVID-19 on our students and schools, asking school boards to self-finance integral learning recovery supports, along with the training and community engagement necessary for a smooth transition out of streaming, will undermine buy-in and lead to inconsistent outcomes across the province.

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Second, to equip educators with the necessary tools to effectively lead classrooms of diverse learners, professional development and anti-oppression training will be needed – training that challenges racism, discrimination, ableism and classism. This learning should not be limited to Grade 9 teachers alone, but available to all teachers, principals, guidance counsellors, school and executive staff, as well as board trustees and teacher candidates. Professional development plans should also include instruction that contributes to a K-12 culture of universally high expectations and open pathway mobility.

Lastly, a provincial task force should be created to inform the design, implementation and monitoring of de-streaming across the province. That task force should see to the successful expansion of provincial de-streaming initiatives to include all core Grade 9 and 10 subjects, such as English and science, that act as key gatekeepers to pathway mobility. For senior grades, the province should prioritize differentiation by discipline, rather than ability, to keep postsecondary destinations open longer for students. For example, the majority of Canadian provinces do not stream Grade 10 science by ability, but rather begin differentiation in Grade 11 in biology, chemistry, physics and earth sciences.

Students are counting on Ontario to successfully address systemic inequities in education and de-streaming should be only the beginning.

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