Angela Frias had to make a choice in Grade 9. It turned out to be a fateful one.
She’d been struggling in academic math, and she wasn’t sure whether to stay the course or switch to applied math, a curriculum based more on hands-on learning.
In the end, her homeroom teacher convinced her to take applied.
“We were told that applied is easier, so why not take it?” she said. “And that’s what a lot of my friends told me. They were like: ‘Oh, applied is easier. I like that I took it.’”
In Grade 12, when she realized she wanted to study business at university instead of college, her choice of applied math came back to bite her: no school except Ryerson University would accept her.
The choice to take academic or applied courses is one that all Ontario students must make going into high school. Education research group People for Education argues that the academic/applied choice is far too important for a 14-year-old to make.
Why did I waste my time taking applied when I should have taken academic?
Frias said she and her friends weren’t fully aware of the consequences of choosing applied courses.
“After [my friends] realized that they didn’t want to go to college or don’t want to do a specific program in college, they were like, ‘Oh, okay, why did I waste my time taking applied when I should have taken academic?’” she said.
According to People for Education, Ontario abandoned the previous high school streaming system in 1999 for the academic/applied model due to research showing streaming cements inequality.
Ontario secondary school students who take applied courses are able to move up to academic. But according to research by People for Education, most students who take applied courses take more than one, and most never move to academic.
“Which means,” People for Education director Annie Kidder said, “that it is tracking or streaming — you’re in a stream — and that stream is very hard to get out of when you’re in.”
Kevin Conroy agreed.
“I think there’s a real danger in, as soon as we’re in that applied stream, not being able to easily get out of it,” said Conroy, who like Frias also took applied math in high school.
He made his choice thinking applied math featured largely the same material as academic, which he said it turned out not to.
Conroy found the work far too easy, and at one point was even chastised by his teacher for working too quickly, he said. But he was unable to move to academic during the school year and had to wait to take a transfer course in the summer, he said.
“And,” he said, ”at 15 or 16, or however old I was, I’m not going to do that.”
School systems have slowly been moving away from tracking, said Jane Gaskell, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The consensus in the academic community is that tracking results in poor outcomes for students., she said.
Ontario is the only province to still track in Grade 9.
“There’s been a tradition of tracking here,” Gaskell said, “It’s been very difficult to get teachers and parents to agree that tracking should not exist.”