Announcing the end of school streaming is easy. Implementing it will be hard

OPINION: The minister of education is promising solid new equity policies for Ontario schools. But ensuring they actually work is going to take more than promises
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 07, 2020
Minister of Education Stephen Lecce speaks during the daily COVID-19 update at Queen's Park on June 9. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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High-school curriculum “streaming” is an old enough topic in Ontario education policy that it was a live debate when I was in middle school, and I turn 40 next year. The practice of steering some students toward academic (university-track) credits and other students toward applied credits (where university access is less assured) was, itself, a break from the system the Tories inherited when they took over. In 1999, the government of Mike Harris announced the end of streaming in Ontario’s high schools — a whole generation ago. But, according to the Toronto Star, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce will soon be announcing the same thing — the end of streaming in Ontario high schools — in 2020. What gives?

The system the Harris Tories inherited in 1995 had already been under fire for years, due to the evidence that children from lower-income households and minority families were disproportionately being streamed away from university access. The system they introduced in 1999 was arguably an improvement in some ways but fundamentally left the streamed system in place. The Liberals did other things to try to lessen the academic disadvantages faced by marginalized students — full-day kindergarten and free tuition through OSAP, most notably — but they left the streamed system in place. For something that was pronounced dead six provincial elections ago, it’s been a surprisingly durable policy.

The confluence of 2020 crises may finally have put a stake through the heart of streaming in Ontario schools, however. Premier Doug Ford called the system fundamentally unfair: “You're asking a 14-year-old child to make a decision in Grade 9 for the rest of their high school career,” he said Monday at Queen’s Park, adding that Ontario is the last province that still practises streaming. The evidence that it disproportionately harms minorities isn’t new, but the urgency of strong anti-racist policies in Ontario’s schools is.

Earlier this year, Lecce received a report, by Arleen Huggins, on racism in the Peel District School Board. It highlighted the board’s attitude toward streaming — specifically, the lack of interest by Peel’s director of education in accelerating a pilot program to try de-streaming the region’s schools, as other boards of education (including Toronto’s) have done. One result of Huggins’s report: Peel’s director of education was sacked after Lecce put the school board under provincial supervision.

And, while the events in Peel region started well before the pandemic — the first review was launched last year — the anti-racism protests and movements for racial justice in the last weeks and months have added new energy to efforts to dismantle the streaming system.

It's worth noting that, despite the decades-long accusations that the system is fundamentally unfair and racist, some teachers (and, perhaps more important, their unions) have defended the practice. Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, tells TVO.org that, historically, his union’s position has been that a streamed classroom allows teachers to shape a curriculum that best meets the needs of students with roughly comparable abilities — and makes for a better learning environment.

That said, Bischof notes that the union he leads is willing to talk de-streaming — but not if the government is simply looking to repeat the mistakes of the Harris government. “It was tried in the ’90s. It wasn’t successful. They didn’t prepare for it well. It wasn’t well implemented. It didn’t succeed,” Bischof says. “These are different times, and I’m entirely sympathetic to the reasons that calls for de-streaming have been made … if this is going to be pursued without the input of front-line educators, I’m not hopeful for its success.”

That would be a shame, “especially for those kids who most need the system to do better now,” Bischof says, adding that successful de-streaming would need more teachers, more training for teachers, and more classroom support workers.

Toronto District School Board’s director of education, John Malloy, said much the same on Monday, tweeting, “‘De-streaming’ is a great first step, however, this change is necessary & complex, & will need much support & accountability so that students are successful.”

Support. Resources. Money. It’s one thing to make a big, high-minded announcement about the government’s plans. It’s another to make sure school boards and teachers have the ability to actually execute the government’s policies. Skeptics will, not unreasonably, point out that it’s hardly earth-shattering to have a union leader and school-board director asking for more money from Queen’s Park. That is, most of the time, called “a Monday.” But money is the energy that government uses to do work, and changing an entrenched status quo takes a lot of energy indeed — even if (or especially if) it’s being done to dislodge generations of privilege.

Maybe the Tories can find a way to make a big change to the education system without needing a lot of new money. But the failure of an initiative like this could be ugly in a bunch of different ways — for example, there’s a very real possibility that well-heeled parents will come to believe that their children’s education is suffering because de-streaming is being bungled.

If the Tories need more incentive to take this initiative seriously and give it the resources it demands, they need look no further than the reason for the last PC government’s eventual defeat: parents had gotten fed up with chaos in the province’s schools. On purely pragmatic political grounds, it should be worth a lot to them to keep that from happening.

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