#onpoli newsletter: A new day for Ontario high schools?

The province says it will end 'streaming' in Grade 9. But will it actually happen?
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 07, 2020
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the province will end streaming in Grade 9 (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

The province says it will end the practice of "streaming" Grade 9 students into academic or applied courses — a longstanding demand of many education activists. But the province has heard this promise before. Podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath discuss the past and future of Ontario high schools.

It ain't over 'til it's over

John Michael McGrath: To quote Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” So at the risk of making a prediction that ends up looking foolish in the not-too-distant future, it’s possible we’re going to look back on Canada Day as the time when Ontario politics returned more or less to normal, post-COVID-19. Obviously, there will still be COVID-19 issues to handle for a while to come yet, but the Ford government is working to get all sorts of non-COVID priorities through the legislature — something we covered in an episode of the podcast last month. And they’re not just tackling the issues that had to be back-burnered when the pandemic arrived: they’ve started addressing some of the new things that inevitably crop up. Premier Doug Ford and his transportation ministers (Caroline Mulroney and Kinga Surma) announced a new bill on Monday to speed-up the creation of transit-oriented housing. And, driven in part by events in Peel Region and elsewhere, the government announced its intention to end the practice of “streaming” in Ontario’s high schools — whereby some students are herded into courses that don’t allow them the opportunity for university access when they graduate. I’m old enough to remember this policy being seriously debated when I was still in Grade 7 — and I turn 40 next year. Steve, I imagine you might have some helpful context for our readers on this file.

Steve Paikin: Well, if we're going to trade Yogi Berra quotes, let me suggest that, when you get to the fork in the road: take it. Strangely enough, that seems to have been what successive Ontario governments have done for the past many decades when it comes to streaming. I don't want to sound like a cynic, because neither you nor I engage in cynicism, JMM, but I have heard this announcement about ending streaming made before — and more than once. I can recall back in the late 1980s, Premier David Peterson tasked analyst George Radwanski with coming up with some recommendations about streaming. (If that last name rings a bell, it's because his son Adam is the very fine columnist/reporter with the Globe and Mail). George recommended an end to streaming and yet, here we are, six premiers later, and streaming persists. The arguments about why we needed to end streaming more than 30 years ago were sound then, and they're sound today. Making important announcements hasn't been the problem: following up has been.  Let's see if this government has any more luck ending this pernicious practice.

Less money, more problems?

John Michael: The premier had strong words about streaming at his Monday press conference, saying it’s unfair to ask children to make life-shaping decisions before they even get to Grade 9. But it’s worth saying the policy does have its defenders. Historically, that’s included the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, the province’s public high school teacher union. It has, in the past, argued that streaming makes for a more effective learning environment. As you say, making announcements hasn’t been Ontario’s problem, following up on them has been. One obvious point to make here is that well-meant changes to the status quo usually come with a dollar figure attached, and any serious attempt at de-streaming the province’s high schools is likely to have a pretty substantial dollar figure. Off the top of my head I can see demands for more teachers, smaller class sizes, and more teacher training to deal with the impacts of dismantling the status quo. But neither you nor our readers need me to point out that this government hasn’t exactly showered the education system with new money. If anything, the fiscal constraints as we come out of the COVID-19 crisis are going to be tighter. So how does the government follow up this kind of announcement with real policy change? The plan to reopen schools in September suggests one possible answer might be that Queen’s Park will make a decision and leave the details to the school boards.

Steve: I suspect interested observers are going to want to know whether this announcement about streaming is the real-deal or simply an attempt by the province to "virtue signal" its solidarity with anti-Black racism demonstrators. We won't know the answer to that for a while. I noted on Twitter that former deputy minister of education Charles Pascal (a tough critic of Education Minister Stephen Lecce) called the announcement "wonderful." But then in the next breath, he pointed out that the devil's in the details. Will "systemic obstacles," such as the disproportionate number of Black students who get suspended, be "obliterated?" If not, then we may be back here again with some future education minister announcing the same darn thing all over again.

John Michael: Check back in with me in 2030 or so. I’ll let you know if my child — currently in kindergarten — is entering a streamed high school or not.

Just a reminder...

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