Teaching Reflections · Teaching Topics/Activities · Topics for Parents and Students

The Fallacy of De-Streaming as a Bandaid for Education in Ontario

Why is it that when questions of the efficacy of education, curriculum, student achievement, etc. arise in Ontario teachers are the last to be consulted (if at all)?

One would think that perhaps, as sole providers of daily education to students we may (long shot) have some kind of idea about what is going on with our students.

But……no…….ask the professionals – the politicians, trustees, EQAO spokespeople, union officials, students, parents, etc………anybody but teachers.

Is there not something wrong with this picture?

The New ‘Problem’ in Ontario Secondary Education: Streaming

I first got wind of the current ‘de-streaming grade 9’ education conversation at a meeting  in the downtown office of my school board this fall. This prompted me to ‘hey Google’ and found a slue of articles on the topic, mostly coming out of Toronto that supported the rumour.

Apparently, de-streaming grade 9 is the new brainchild of all those who don’t teach(you know – the people who like to make all the rules, but don’t play the game) that will solve the problem of ‘inequity’ in our Ontario education system.

According to the honourable Misty Hunter (not a teacher), the education system in Ontario is unfairly marginalizing low-income and racial minorities by suggesting they follow the Applied instead of Academic pathways once they reach secondary school.

Moreover, the The Toronto Sun added input from EQAO (not teachers) and the lobbying group, People for Education (not teachers) who are also supporting de-streaming as according to them, “the global evidence shows that streaming students puts them at a disadvantage, making them less likely to achieve standardized testing goals, graduate from high school or move on to post-secondary education.”

The ‘professionals’ believe the issue with streaming is that the ‘self-esteem’ of students is destroyed by taking Applied courses, and that these courses have higher failure rates due to the fact that these students receive ‘a second rate education’, which inhibits their chance at social mobility. This is detailed in the cbc.ca news article that focuses on the comments and experiences of students (not teachers) and of course another social activist group (not teachers).

Although it’s not directly stated, many articles heavily imply that low-income and racial minorities are herded (assuming by teachers – hey at least we get a mention) into Applied courses to allow for the supremacy of status quo to reign.

Since all the non-teachers are so certain that their plan will be a success, they haven’t bothered to ask teachers what they think, or even look to the recent past (i.e. 1999 attempt at de-streaming which was a colossal failure). The OSSTF did release a statement fearing that the province is jumping the gun on this idea and that there is no research to support the claims that de-streaming has any effect on student success. But wait…….they’re kind of teachers – so of course nobody picked up the story and it can only be found on the OSSTF website.

What’s REALLY GOING ON (from a lowly teacher’s perspective)

I’m going to warn you before I start this section: I’m a teacher. According to news stories about education, our opinions are pretty much rubbish, so take it as you will.

This section is going to be surprisingly brief because, in reality, the issue is simple.

Wait for it……….the difference between Applied and Academic students can be summed up in one word: LITERACY.

Yep, really  – that’s it.

No news articles about de-streaming mention literacy, because they’re too preoccupied with persecuting the education system’s supposed inequities. But the issue at hand isn’t marginalization, racism or classism, it’s that Applied students have significantly lower literacy skills than their Academic counterparts, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly all Academic students pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test and most Applied student’s don’t (see EQAO Ontario Secondary School Literacy Results).

Multiple research studies have concluded that the vocabulary (literacy) gap is essentially the learning gap between students who achieve and those who fall behind. Take a peek at some of the research selections below:

  • “Many research studies show that vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success in school.” (Elley, W. B. 1988)
  • “Ryder and Graves (1984) contend that a lack of vocabulary is one of the reasons for failure in school. In addition to this, Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) report that students who have a wide vocabulary knowledge, get higher grades than students who have a lack vocabulary.
  • There is a strong and positive correlation between the volume and depth of a student’s working academic vocabulary and later success in school and eventual educational attainment; there is a strong and positive correlation between an adult’s educational attainment and their annual income potential. (Seyfer, “Words Determine a Child’s Future”)

How are literacy skills acquired? Well, via parents (whose education and influence played a major role in vocabulary acquisition). Also, via reading (which requires modelling at home as well as accessible reading materials).

Students from low-income households and racial minorities tend to be effected by a general lack of education and poverty; they are at the greatest risk of having low vocabularies as they enter school, as well as developing poor or nonexistent reading habits as they progress in education.

Therefore, the issue isn’t purposeful discrimination or restricting opportunities for students; it’s the fact that most Applied and Essential students can’t read or understand grade level vocabulary required for Academic courses.

Compounding Issues: REAL PROBLEMS with Education in Ontario

Over the past 15 years, I’ve taught both Academic and Applied students in a very important core subject: English. I’ve also been around enough to notice how changes made by the Ministry of Education in the name of ‘student success’ have in fact completely destroyed ‘student success’.

‘Ministry policies’ designed to improve ‘student success’ have essentially backfired or created smoke and mirrors statistics that don’t adequately reflect what is actually going on in classrooms regarding student achievement.

These policies have impacted Applied students the most and also contribute to their lack of success in the classroom.

Problem #1: absenteeism 

This is a good one. Did you know that students can miss as many days as they want in a secondary course and still earn their credit? Yep – that’s a ‘student success’ policy. Sounds a bit backwards, doesn’t it? Don’t come to school, learn from the teacher, complete daily assignments and……still get a credit?

In theory, this idea was supposed to support students in serious circumstances (death in the family, illness) who missed more than 14 days (previous absenteeism limit) to earn their credits.

In practice, though, it’s a complete different story. Since absenteeism is no longer connected to achievement, students have no reason not to cut class. General student absenteeism has sky rocketed (ahem….especially in Applied classrooms where absenteeism rates usually double that of Academic classrooms).

For Applied students, this is a terrible policy that essentially allows students to fall through the cracks.

Why are students from Applied classrooms more likely to be absent? Once again, yes it does point to the fact that many come from low-income or marginalized households where there may not be two parents, regular discipline or appropriate modelling of responsibilities.

Since students aren’t punished for absenteeism or limited by a certain number of days, their lack of attendance ends up translating to a lack of course knowledge and work completion, which results in failing grades.

Problem #2: elementary no fail policy (despite illiteracy and innumeracy

Another ‘student success’ initiative in the past decade has seen the end of students failing a grade in elementary school to ensure that their ’emotional well-being’ is intact as they enter high school.

Again, great in theory, but terrible in practice – especially for Applied students.

The result of this policy involves students entering secondary school with grade 3-6 literacy and numeracy skills due to the fact that they never got the chance to refine them in elementary school.

What happens to these students? Well, until now they were streamed into classes where teachers could support them at a remedial level to try their absolute best to catch them up with their classmates.

Applied (and Essential students) are often the result of the failings of an elementary system that refuses to allow students an extra year (or two) to catch up and refine essential literacy and numeracy skills before entering secondary school.

Problem #3: no late policy

To compliment students not coming to school and/or being allowed to fail, the Ministry has also enacted a document titled ‘Student Success’ whereby it is proclaimed that students can submit work whenever they like (despite set due dates or teachers returning marked work), as well as re-submit work for secondary grading after it’s been graded by their teachers.

Once again, this policy is a disaster for Applied students who usually do not have the parental support  or executive functioning skills of their Academic counterparts – yes, again usually due to the fact that they are socially disadvantaged.

Whereas Academic students often have parents genuinely engaged in their education, and ensure that they submit work in a timely manner, Applied students often do not have this support at home, and as a result of this policy end up getting behind in class work thinking they will submit everything…….one day. The result is that day never comes, and their credit is lost.

Problem #4: top down approach of education

In addition to the top 3 ‘problems’ with education in Ontario is the method in which it is delivered in this province.

It is a ‘top down’ approach, where all the decisions regarding curriculum, school policies, student success, etc. etc. are decided by Ministry of Education officials (not teachers), downloaded to School Board Administrators and Trustees (not teachers), then essentially declared ‘law’ for teachers to follow.

There is a major disconnect between theory (ministry policies) and reality (classroom experiences) that no one seems to get.

In a nutshell, those who don’t teach (and in many cases have no training or experience in teaching) are deciding what teachers should teach and how they should do it, grade it,and even the language that should be used to report it.

In Ontario, as demonstrated by the publicity about de-streaming, teachers opinions are ignored, devalued and marginalized.

The top-down approach ignores what teachers know and have proven to be best practices, and instead focuses on ‘theories’ and ‘political agendas’.

The Final Word

While discussing the de-streaming issue in the staff room one day, a wise colleague introduced me to his analysis of the social atmosphere in Ontario as ‘the tyranny of political correctness‘.

A tyranny refers to a governing rule that is abusive in its use of power and silences all other opinions but its own. He tied it to political correctness by stating that, as Canadians, we’ve been so consumed by the notion  of being ‘politically correct’ that we can’t tell the truth if it somehow offends a certain group of people (especially a minority group).

In terms of de-streaming, I can’t help but make this connection. The truth about the difference in achievement as Ontario students reach secondary school is that most low-income and racially marginalized students in Ontario enter our buildings with much lower vocabulary and literacy levels, which continue as they move through the education system. That’s it. The research and statistics conclusively prove this.

But due to the fact that this identifies an issue that pertains to race and class, we have to make it into something more………something malicious that is stopping the marginalized from succeeding in our classrooms, universities and eventual work force.

If only the Ministry could identify this issue without the veil of ‘political correctness’, they could perhaps do something about the core issue: early literacy.

Why not identify elementary schools with low-income and marginalized youth and overfund them with books, literacy resources and teachers to do out-reach work with families, teaching them how to model literacy skills. They could even go one step further and provide free education and child care to low-income/racially marginalized mothers who are often the purveyors of education to their children.

Getting rid of streaming is simply a band-aid approach forced by the ‘tyranny of political correctness’. It will not solve the core issue of early literacy, which if dealt with appropriately could actually produce significant gains for these students.

Simply throwing struggling students into the deep end as teenagers won’t solve anything but serve as a great photo opportunity for politicians ‘trying to erradicate racism and classism’.

In the end, de-streaming will fail, as the first attempt did in 1999. At best, what will end up occurring in every classroom across Ontario, will be a ‘mini-streaming’, in class, organized as student ‘work groups’ that all learn different things under the same teacher in the same classroom. Sad, but true.

What do you think of the Ministry of Education’s plan to de-stream grade 9? Add to the conversation below!

4 thoughts on “The Fallacy of De-Streaming as a Bandaid for Education in Ontario

  1. Much thanks for your blog – I completely agree regarding de-streaming! I would add another issue in the education system right now: the way we have de-valued the applied or college stream. As an educator for more than twenty years, I am dismayed by how this stream is perceived. Students best suited to the workforce or who are planning to enter directly into the workforce are strongly encouraged by administrators, guidance counselors and parents to take the applied level “just in case”. Their lack of ability affects the progress of the entire class. Why do we see this stream as lesser? I would argue that a paramedic (college program) has followed much more rigorous training than myself with a university degree in English. If students were in the correct pathway, perhaps we would see the value of each. Then, students would be more successful.


    1. I couldn’t agree more, Jennifer! I also see many students thrive in the Applied stream who were lost at the Academic level. Another issue is absolutely keeping the Applied stream relevant by properly streaming Essentials students.


    2. I am a parent of grade 9 and grade 10 TDSB students. Both do well in every subject but math, both are artistic, creative and curious but struggle with advanced math. They have lots of parental support and are set up for success. My grade 10 student moved to Applied math when he was in grade 9 with the blessing of me, his math teacher and his guidance councillor. I was all set to have my younger son go into applied math in grade 9 when the TDSB changed the rules. Now he is among many kids struggling with Advanced math. He goes to peer tutoring, gets extra help from his teacher and we go on Kahn Academy at home but when it’s test time, he fails. I understand the theory behind the decision but it assumes that all kids in Applied math were put there against their will by mean teachers. In my family’s case, the decision to have my child in Applied math was an educated decision made in consult with educators. Isn’t forcing all kids into advanced math just another form of streaming?


      1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that forcing kids into any pathway is a form of streaming. I can’t see TDSB holding this path for long. Hang in there!


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