The end of school streaming is nigh. So what comes next?

TVO.org speaks with Annie Kidder, of People for Education, about why creating a division between “academic” and “applied” was a bad idea — and what needs to replace it
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 08, 2020
The Ontario government has indicated that it plans to put an end to the practice of school streaming. (iStock.com/ecep-bg)

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Ontario has announced that it will be ending “streaming” in schools. But what was streaming? Why did it exist? What was it intended to accomplish? And what will replace it? TVO.org speaks with Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a national non-proft that advocates for public education, about what came before — and what should come next.

Matt Gurney: Annie, I want to start with a question that’s almost a bit unfair. I saw your reaction on Twitter to the announcement that streaming was ending. You were pleased. You weren’t a fan. But I’m still interested in a sense of what streaming was intended to do — smart, well-intentioned people came up with this policy. What were they trying to accomplish?

Annie Kidder: No, that’s a great question. By the late 1990s, we had ended up in a situation in Ontario where there were no choices. You went to high school, and it was kind of sink or swim. There were not even choices for students who had special needs, in terms of different kinds of courses that might support them to be successful. We had wanted to raise the bar and be rigorous. It didn’t work. We could see that. It was observable. The graduation rate had dropped precipitously. Students were failing. It was a problem. So in answer to that problem came the idea of providing more course choices. One of the choices was specifically for students with special needs where boards could develop what were called “locally developed courses.” Those would address very specific challenges they were seeing in their boards. But — and this is where streaming comes in — in a more general effort, a new curriculum was added so that students could choose between “applied” and “academic” in Grade 9 and 10.

The intent was that the content itself would be equally rigorous. There would be just as much knowledge gained through either applied or academic courses. But the applied stream would be more practical, more hands-on, with more real-world examples in order to learn things like math, history or geography or French or English. The academic courses would be more theoretical — more, you know, quote-unquote “academic.” The other part of the original intention was that students would kind of mix and match. They could go, “Okay, I want to take my math in applied but everything else in academic.” That wouldn't be streaming, because streaming is when you divide whole groups of students in all their courses. 

So you're right: the intention was good. It seemed great on paper. But it may be that nobody asked enough researchers, because researchers say that, any time you group students in this way, you end up streaming them. And that’s what happened in reality. If a student took one course in applied, they were likely to take all their courses in applied, and it was very difficult to move from applied to academic. And, in fact, I was just looking at the numbers from our school surveys, and 47 per cent of principals said that students never or rarely made that switch from applied to academic. 

And, in fact, the content wasn't the same. The students weren't learning the same kinds of things. Kids weren't moving from one to the other; they were taking all their courses in one stream. It was very hard to move out into academic. And that really limited your choices in Grade 11 and 12, and, subsequently, for post-secondary education. It was thought that applied courses would stream students toward colleges. In fact, they didn't end up going into any kind of post-secondary education. It also just wasn’t working in giving everyone a good education. We could compare the EQAO results for students. Students who’d been doing well in elementary school and went into academic courses continued to do well. Those that went into applied didn’t. 

So this was all bad news. It had been a good idea, but it wasn’t doing what it was intended to do. And then there was the really bad news. The Toronto District School Board and others looked at the population in applied courses. Those results were shocking. They mapped that onto StatsCan demographic data. And it was right there. You could see this incredible relationship between schools with high proportions of kids in applied and schools with very low average family income. There was a huge class dimension. And then, when we looked race, it was also huge. Black communities and Indigenous communities, in particular. We were seeing roughly double the enrolment in applied courses that we’d expect to see. But, like I said, someone should have talked to more researchers. But that’s exactly what we actually should have expected to see — the OECD data is very consistent about that. Streaming produces these kinds of outcomes. 

Gurney: I want to just table the discussion on race and class for a second — it’s a huge part of what we’re talking about, but, before we jump into that, can we drill down for a minute on how “streaming” actually worked? I’m assuming a student didn’t show up at high school and one day someone waves a magic wand and throws a bit of glitter into the air and declares, “Boom! You’re an applied kid. And boom! You’re academic.” So what does the streaming part of streaming actually look like to the kid getting streamed?

Kidder: It started in Grade 8. Do you remember this?

Gurney: I honestly don’t. And I was definitely in high school or just entering it around this time. But I was basically the opposite of the kind of kids that were falling through the cracks. I was a bright white kid in an affluent neighbourhood from a stable, prosperous family, and I went to a French-immersion high school, so I think all the applied kids were sent to a different local high school. If I recall correctly, that’s how it worked — your high school would have a specialization, and “applied” could be one of them. There was a high school in my area where “those” kids went — the ones who struggled academically. I wasn’t at that school. So maybe this is just a memory I’ve deleted, but I have zero recollection of this process or there ever being a day where I had to choose between one and the other. Maybe my parents would remember, but I sure don’t.

Kidder: Well, what would happen is that in Grade 8, someone would come to your school. And they’d talk about high school. They’d talk about the opportunities and programs in high school and the choices you could make, and that wouldn’t just be streaming academically; it would also be things like sports or art or music. [Author’s note: I have some vague recollection of that part, actually.] And you’d have to fill out a form that specifies whether you’d go into academic or applied courses. Your Grade 8 teacher would have some feedback, too. They could make recommendations. So, by Grade 8, you’d have made a big decision, or your parents would have, that could have a big impact on your life. And you could also be in a neighbourhood where a lot of the kids were going into applied, and it would just be assumed that that’s what you do. We surveyed principals to ask how parents would get the information about applied or academic. And your question was bang on, because this was one of the problems. Were people making informed choices? Were they just following the advice of teachers? Was that advice any good? 

There were reports that people believed they were getting advice based on race and class and their family situation, and people were deciding when they were 14 years old that they weren’t going to go to university. And this choice was being made in elementary school! Some high schools had a kind of a system where, after a month, they would do checks with students to make sure they were in the right stream. But, again, there wasn’t a lot of movement back and forth, as I said earlier. So these decisions were made, often a year in advance, with limited or bad advice and with no real explanation of what the research suggested would happen. That door would be closed.

And you know what? My organization was part of that. At People for Education, we totally used to say to parents, “Don’t set your kids up to fail — if you think they’ll struggle, put them in applied.” Because we didn't know. We hadn’t seen the data yet that showed, clearly, that it wasn’t leading to good outcomes, it wasn’t improving graduation rates, that it can close those doors. That it's not a good choice. And so we stopped altogether. We said we would never recommend anybody put their child in applied.

But that’s how it worked. You or your parents chose in Grade 8, and then, basically, you were stuck with it.

Gurney: What I find so fascinating about this is that, even knowing better now, even knowing all the data and results you’ve referred to, I still like the idea. I’m the walking stereotype of a journalist. I can write and talk and listen, but I can’t math. At all. Math is not my thing. But I was a bright kid, right? So I was put into classes where it was probably expected I’d just pick up math the way I did history or English, and it never happened. My report card would be A, A, A, C, A, A. The C was probably generous, too. So I love the idea of there being a way I could have done math differently and maybe struggled less. So I get why smart people thought this was going to work out great. 

Kidder: Absolutely. That’s what the plan was. It made sense in theory. But the reality showed us otherwise. There are many theories as to why this doesn’t work in practice. One of them is that, when you group students by ability in that way, their expectations of themselves are lowered, and teachers expectations of them are lowered. But math is actually an interesting example. The theory was that it would be equally rigorous, but you’d learn differently, and people would still succeed on an equal basis. But the difference in scores between academic and applied in Grade 9 in math is extraordinary. I think 40 per cent of kids reach the provincial standard in applied versus about 80 per cent in academic. 

Gurney: So let’s talk about theory and practice for a minute. So how Ontario attempted streaming didn’t work. Is there a better way to do streaming that would work? We’re talking about observable failures in outcome here, but is that because streaming is impossible or because we didn’t do a good job?

Kidder: I think that is a great question. It’s the $65 million question in education. How do you educate all the different kinds of students in an education system? There are 2 million of them in Ontario. They all have different goals and different styles and different personalities and different capacities. That’s the hard part of public education. The evidence is pretty absolute: dividing them up isn't a good idea. 

But, beyond that, what should we do? There are programs kids can take something called learning strategies, and you can identify kids who are struggling and go, you know what you need? You need to take a course so you learn how to learn. You need to learn how to study, how to look things up. You need to learn how to take something you learned in one course and apply it to another. You need to learn how to not give up when things get hard. But someone has to notice you, first of all, so it’s really important that there are enough staff there to actually go, okay, this kid needs to take learning strategies. We can't just like flip a switch and go, we're not going to stream kids anymore. We can't go back to what led us to this in the first place, which is just a sink-or-swim system we threw everyone into, and we let them figure it out themselves.

You have to identify kids that are struggling, not necessarily special needs, per se, but for whatever reason. There are lots of reasons that kids might be struggling in school and lots of different kinds of support. You need enough staff available to see these kids and make the right conclusions. 

Gurney: And we’ve looped right back to where we were before — this is where the issues of biases around class and race come back into the conversation.

Kidder: Right. Everybody has to look at themselves and understand their own unconscious bias or their own unconscious racism. That’s hard, and it has to happen throughout the system. I don't know how you start to address that. But you have to — you have to address it in so many different ways. Teachers and principals and administrators have to understand how we make those unconscious judgments and assessments of people. And it has to happen, especially now. One of the things that's been startling has been the amplification of the differences among families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because, suddenly, when nobody can go to school, you really see the stark differences in family circumstances. If kids are going to go to school part-time, at best, for the foreseeable future due to public-health reasons, we have to understand what that means.

And this stuff is fantastically complicated. Education can’t just be something in a classroom. Poverty is a problem for education. Right now, with the pandemic, public health is a problem for education. Racism and bias are problems for education. It’s easy to say, hey, that’s not up to the schools, but it is. It’s the responsibility of the education system to figure out how to mitigate these challenges. This is hard and takes money because it takes staff with resources — all different kinds of staff. But that's how you do it. 

Gurney: So you’ve done a really hard and honourable thing — you’ve explained to me, in neutral and understanding terms, why well-intentioned people thought streaming was good, even though you personally think it was bad. But let’s actually just engage with that idea fully: Streaming is bad. It failed. It had unintended and bad consequences. It didn’t achieve its measurable goals. So Ontario has announced that we won’t be doing it anymore. Is this problem fixed? If streaming is bad, is not streaming automatically good?

Kidder: Ending streaming isn’t enough. You need to replace it with something — because we brought in streaming to fix another problem, and if we just end it, we’ll have that problem again. Some boards have de-streamed. They’ve already done a lot of the work of figuring out what they should be doing instead. You can’t just flip a switch. I heard of one school that had de-streamed, and the phys-ed teacher was quite popular, and he went into all the classes that had been de-streamed. Another pair of eyes. There were two teachers. That helped a lot. So we could look at something like that. 

But we also need to look further back. Why did we assume that a student was going to be better off in an applied class? When did that decision happen and why? And what does that student actually need? This is all fantastically complex, but, in a general sense, what it’s going to mean is smaller class sizes, and that means more teachers, and that means more money. That was another thing they’ve already experimented with in Toronto. They shuffled money around to make classes smaller. It helped. 

We also need to remember that these are teenagers, right? There’s a lot happening when you’re entering high school. A lot of people run off the rails at that time. But, most of them, we can put back on the rails if we do it right and try. But streaming wasn’t doing that. It was making it worse. They’d go off the rails — and stay off. And not graduate. And then there’d be problems compounding after that. So we need a new system. We just can’t go back to sink or swim.

Gurney: I have to confess that I was listening to your answer there, and my heart was sinking a bit. Because everything you’re describing seems harder now to do than ever. I mean, Ontario’s COVID-19 numbers look pretty good right now. But then I glance at the southern United States, and they’re a disaster. And that’s not even the second wave, per se. That’s possibly still coming our way. So this thing could come roaring back. And you’re talking about needing smaller classrooms, more staff, more attention, more hands-on monitoring, and … none of this seems likely. To be honest, while I’d love to be wrong about this, I am not at all convinced we’re getting schools open normally in the fall.

Kidder: I know. I agree. I’m worried, too. Because we’re actually already trying to absorb a major change to the education system in the middle of this very, very unstable global crisis. We’re already rolling out a new math curriculum. So it’s a challenging moment, to say the least. So what we can actually do in the short term, even with all the public-health concerns, is get the right people working together on figuring out the new model. We can create a task force, a partnership table, where we have leaders representing teachers, the support staff, principals, the directors, research organizations, and student organizations. We have spent a lot of the pandemic focused on the medical dimension, the public-health realm. For obvious reasons. And a lot on the economic side, also for obvious reasons. But a huge part is going to be the human side, particularly for children. And we can all hope for the best, but we might not get schools back to something like normal for a long time. Maybe a few years. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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