Streaming alive and well in high schools: report

Issue misunderstood by parents and students, trustee says

Imagine being 13 years old, about to enter high school. Maybe math is not your forte, but you are a good writer, and an even better speaker. Or perhaps you are excellent quantitatively, but English is not your first language, and writing is a struggle.

Now imagine taking an applied course in one of these disciplines in Grade 9. Unfortunately, you have effectively removed yourself from a huge pool of post-secondary and employment opportunities.

This practice, known as streaming, is the grouping of students into pathways that determine their access to college and university.

Though Ontario claims streaming has been abolished, a new report from Social Planning Toronto suggests the practice in Toronto high schools, including in East York schools, is alive and well.

The report, Still Streamed: How High Impact Decisions are Shaping Students’ Futures, also suggests streaming is often misunderstood by students and parents.

Sheila Cary-Meagher, trustee for Beaches-East York, has witnessed this discrepancy.

“People are left with the idea that you can switch,” she says. “If you took Grade 9 in applied and did well and decide in Grade 10 you want to switch, you can’t, because you haven’t got the background that you would have if you were taking Grade 9 academic.”

De-streaming has been around for decades. In fact, it was recommended 30 years ago in journalist George Radwanski’s report for the Ministry of Education, The Ontario Study of the Relevance of Education and the Issue of Dropouts.

“There had been a push for a long time to get rid of streaming and the Rae government at that time said do it,” Cary-Meagher says.

In fact, Ontario was in the preliminary stages of de-streaming in the 1990s, until Premier Mike Harris’s administration reintroduced it in the form of applied and academic streams, which remain in place today.

According to the 1987 report, students in the low and middle streams are
held to lower standards and, as a result, their educational experience suffers and their social mobility is limited.

“Now we’re back again to actually recognizing that there are differences in what kind of education poor kids get compared to those from well-off families,” Cary-Meagher says.

Additionally, black and Aboriginal students are over-represented in the applied and essentials pathways, while South and East Asian students are over-represented in the academic pathway.

Perhaps the most salient finding of the report is that many students feel they lack the maturity necessary to make informed decisions about their futures, especially predicated on their elementary school performance.

“This is a way of telling people, ‘You’re not smart enough to succeed,’”  Cary-Meagher says. “Twelve and 13 is not the time to be deciding what kind of education you’re going to need for the rest of your life. To make that kind of choice — whether you go to applied or academic at that point — is unfair.”

So, is streaming on its way out this time around? Probably, says Cary-Meagher, noting the de-streaming pilot at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute and others popping up across the province.

In East York? Not at this moment.

Percentage of Grade 9 students enrolled in academic stream in Toronto from 2012-13. East York appears outlined in black. (TDSB Academic Research And Information Services)

“We have mostly comfortable schools — only a couple that would be called in the TDSB language ‘inner-city schools,’ but every community has poor kids.”

As for the future, the TDSB’s Enhancing Equity Task Force is set to release a report later this year to help combat inequity in Toronto schools, including the issue of streaming.

De-streaming is going to be “problematic because its been embedded for so long,” Cary-Meagher says.

“Generally speaking, high school teachers have not wanted this to happen, but I think minds are changing. It’s a different thing. It’s a very different thing in high schools, and it’s going to be rocky in the beginning.”