by Stella Kim
In July 2020, the Ontario Ministry of Education made the announcement that it would be ending the practice of academic streaming in Grade 9 in Ontario (source). This change has begun with the release of a new destreamed mathematics curriculum for Grade 9 on June 9 2021, with other subjects to follow.
Within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in particular, exploration and implementation of destreaming is active and ongoing among groups of English and Math educators. In comparison, there have been minimal discussions in Science in my experience as a secondary science teacher. I first learned about destreaming as a K-12 learning coach, and in that role supported schools with some of their first steps towards destreaming.
This article is geared to a broad audience and is intended to provide some context on the most recent movements to destream in Ontario. Its goals are to stimulate productive conversation about the intention and impacts of streaming, as well as to invite sharing and collaboration on equitable and inclusive teaching in Science. Please click here for an invitation from STAO.
There is lots more out there on destreaming in Ontario. Please check out the references included at the end, which include reports from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA), TDSB and OSSTF. You may also wish to read this blog post by Jason To, a math teacher and a coordinator for secondary mathematics and academic pathways at TDSB.
Ten things to know about destreaming
- In the TDSB, the movement to destream has also been referred to as enhanced pathways, academic-only programming and delayed pathways. These names reflect one of the core purposes of destreaming: to defer decision making regarding pathways until later on in a student’s high school career.
Movements to destream are also active in the United States, where it is referred to as detracking.
- Ontario is the only province in Canada that divides students into academic and applied level groupings when they enter high school (source).
- The call for destreaming has been growing for the past ten years and more. It is driven by groups of educators, advocacy groups, community members and families.
- Data from the TDSB demonstrates that historically and currently, streaming replicates and perpetuates broader societal inequities. More Black, Indigenous and racialized students, students from low-income households, and students in special education are steered towards applied, locally developed and special education programs of study. Meanwhile, students from university-educated families and more affluent circumstances are more likely to make educational choices that leave more options open at the end of Grade 10
- Grade 9 student placements in applied and essential level classes are strongly correlated to lower rates of credit accumulation, graduation and pursuit of post secondary education. These factors also correlate to opportunities for future employment, careers and other determinants of health.
- Arguments in favor of streaming include the ideas that streaming respects students’ learning styles, preferences and aspirations, and provides educators with better conditions to appropriately pace and adjust instruction to benefit students placed in the academic, applied and essential levels. However, education research consistently demonstrates that in practice, streaming that sorts students into ability groupings results in worse overall educational outcomes for students.
Though students in academic or high ability groups continue to perform well, students in lower ability groups perform worse than if placed in mixed ability classrooms. Students in lower ability groups experience lower expectations, and negative effects on motivation, attitudes towards schooling and self-esteem. In all, these conditions can lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” with respect to behavior and achievement.
- Over the past ten years, a growing number of Ontario classrooms in regions including Kingston, Ottawa and Toronto have been exploring destreaming by offering academic-only programming in Grade 9.
- As of September 2021, all students entering Grade 9 in TDSB will be enrolled in academic-level English, Geography, Science and French, as well as destreamed Mathematics. This is to ensure high expectations and address systemic barriers to academic achievement. (source)
- Advocates for destreaming concur that to realize its intentions towards equity, destreaming must be part of a larger, comprehensive and intentionally supported equity and inclusion strategy which includes funding teacher-led, research-informed subject-specific professional development and as well as funding for classroom supports such as class size caps, and addressing streaming practices that begin as early as kindergarten.
- Key topics for professional development to support destreaming include: equity and oppression, systemic racism, conscious and unconscious bias, culturally relevant and responsive teaching, universal design for learning, teaching mixed ability classrooms, differentiated instruction and literacy and numeracy best practices.
Numerous educational researchers including Michael Fullan have pointed out that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated what was wrong with the system and provided a unique opportunity to make change (source). I would like to point out that this is consistent with many of our experiences during COVID, including our heightened societal awareness of racism and systemic oppression.
So much that’s happened has made me reflect on my teaching practice as a science educator – including some big picture wondering on how past experiences with science in schools may have affected the ways in which science recommendations have and haven’t been implemented, and why some historically marginalized communities are mistrustful of vaccines and the health care system.
I couldn’t tell you if streaming or how I taught science to academic versus applied classes played any role there. But after everything, as I renovate my practice out of necessity because of the pandemic, I wonder: what could I be doing now? How might I teach topics to build enduring understandings and foster vital skills of scientific literacy, critical thinking? What might I do to help build lasting trust and positive attitudes towards science and schooling in all students? Lately, I’m not sure if participating in systems that stream students has a place in all that.
If you’d like to learn more about streaming, please visit this choice board: http://bit.ly/destreamingchoiceboard
Alphonso, C. (2021, May 19). Ontario educators worry ‘political reasons’ are behind delay in math curriculum that would challenge high-school streams. Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-educators-worry-political-reasons-are-behind-delay-in-math/
Antonelli, F. (2004, November). From applied to applause: an OSSTF sponsored study on improving success for Applied level students. Toronto; Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.
Barrington, K. (2016, May 18). The Pros and Cons of Tracking in Schools. Public School Review. https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/the-pros-and-cons-of-tracking-in-schools
Fullan, M. Learning and the pandemic: What’s next?. Prospects 49, 25–28 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-020-09502-0
Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. (2021, January). OECTA Position paper on destreaming. Toronto.
Powers, L. (2020, July 6). Ontario to end ‘discriminatory’ practice of academic streaming in Grade 9 . CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-streaming-high-school-racism-lecce-1.5638700
To, J., Lloyd, E., Bacchus, N., & Gaymes San Vicente, A. (2017). Restructured pathways: Addressing streaming from grades 1 to 12 in the Toronto District School Board. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Toronto District School Board.
Toronto District School Board. (2020, October). Fact Sheet – Academic Pathways. Toronto.