Progress on Destreaming in BC and Ontario

This past year both Ontario and BC have started to make some serious moves on the destreaming front, but from very different starting points. Ontario readers will be mainly familiar with the ON situation, but not the BC situation and vice versa. This blog is dedicated to the destreaming issue, perhaps more than any other single issue, because it is the single fastest and most 

effective, and least costly way to move decisively in the direction of equity and fairness in the education system. The Brits call it streaming as well, but the Americans call it tracking, a bit confusing.

The research evidence is overwhelming that more students go further, and have better life outcomes in destreamed systems than in streamed situations. Nevertheless, some powerful groups still prefer streaming. 

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Parents seeking an advantage for their particular child, or their class of children still fight destreaming in one form or another, and some teachers still believe that streamed systems are either actually fairer or prefer to only teach one type of student fearing complexity or more onerous workloads. Fortunately those views are losing steam in Canada. I will deal with the two provinces separately before attempting to tie them together. 


The Ontario Situation


Oddly enough, it is a Conservative (PC) government in ON that is moving ahead with the destreaming of grade 9 in the fall of 2022. There have been experiments and a ton of research and public forums around all of this. Also it is not the traditionally progressive Toronto Board (TDSB) at the epicenter of the struggle this time but instead, Peel District (PDSB) has picked up the baton. There is a large Black community in Peel that has done the analysis over recent years and concluded that streaming is the key educational piece of systemic racism in the K12 system. Peel has become a major multicultural, multiracial board containing fast growing cities like Mississauga and Brampton. Of course streaming affects all marginalized groups, particularly all poor people, many working class people, Indigenous people, and even immigrant white ethnic groups. It is simply far more obvious with racialized groups.


Many parts of Ontario are highly predictable politically. The Liberals and NDP largely win in the cities, and the PCs win the rural and small town ridings. The NDP dominates Northern ON with a couple of Liberals. The swing seats are overwhelmingly in the Toronto GTA suburbs and similar areas around Ottawa. This is why Peel is so important alongside York and Durham Boards. The party that “runs the table” in the 905 call district, tends to win the election. 


One might suspect this underlies the intense political interest in “keeping Peel sweet”. Black folks in Peel have identified streaming, and it simply had to be addressed. 


For non Ontarians, the Ontario system up to the 1980s was even more streamed with 50% of high schoolers in Advanced (university bound) programs, 32% in General level (college bound) programs and 18% in Basic (unskilled trade bound) programs.  This was reformed to “Academic” and “Applied” programs with 80% in the former and 20% in the latter. As of September 22, grade nine students will take a new course for all in math and science and all will be enrolled in the Academic courses for geography, English, French and other languages where offered. History is a grade 10 subject in Ontario. 


Even Premier Doug Ford was apparently slack jawed as the PCs discussed the grade 9 reforms when he inquired “ who else in Canada streams like us? ” and the answer was “nobody else”. 


A 2017 report by Prof Carl James of York U, confirmed that Black kids were streamed into Applied programs “at significantly higher rates than other students” a poorly guarded secret to anyone who walked the halls of ON high schools. Students in the Applied level program were 4.5 times less likely to graduate. 


The Higher Education Council in ON took a serious look at the situation and concluded “students should be in destreamed classes for all core academic subjects in at least grades 9 and 10. “Even if you compare low achieving students in top streams, with high achieving students in lower streams, the former still have better life outcomes”.


The worrisome thing is that there is, to date, no commitment to destream grade 10 in Ontario, let alone 11-12. Perhaps BC can offer an object lesson for ON on this issue.  


The BC Streaming Situation


At almost the other end of the streaming spectrum, BC has had almost no “official” streaming at the high school level. A good friend on senior staff at BCTF explained to me, 

that BC had its fight over streaming in the 1960s and streaming lost. Almost all core academic courses 9-12 in BC have been taught at one level for over 50 years. Ontario needs to take note of this as it takes baby steps in this direction. 


Now when we say “almost” no streaming there is a small qualifier. Math, and to a smaller degree science, have always been the most difficult subjects to destream due to its pyramidal structure. Some students have math learning gaps due to illness at some point, immigration from war torn countries, or learning difficulties. The best solution is remedial help within the school system without special ed labeling, however some schools have 

two level math programs within otherwise destreamed academics. 


On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who continue to attempt to schedule elite programs within the public school system, be they labeled “mini schools' ' within larger schools somewhat similar to alternative schools in Ontario, that “specialize in math and science”. A few other schools have tried “honours programs'' in math and science. Both often involve field trips paid for by the parents, an obvious class based barrier. These “wink wink”, insiders programs are hard to access, and in the past have involved tests scores, grades and interviews, - the classic tools of the streamers. The Vancouver Board VSB, the home of these programs has declared itself “determined to root out inequality”. 


Although these programs are usually characterized by social class distinctions or SES if you prefer, it is always easier to notice the fact that they contain few if any indigenous students, who constitute the most discriminated against, racialized group in BC. 


There are still those fighting a rearguard action to “reform” these exclusive elitist programs rather than the obvious solution of simply eliminating them. There is some hand wringing that the families involved would, horrors - seek out private education if they could not receive special treatment in public schools. So why not simply let them go?


Aggressive parents of “special” children are relentless in schemes to receive special treatment for their children and separation them from “the herd”. There are many small programs that still don’t meet the VSB stated goals of equity, diversity and inclusion including the always problematic, French Immersion programs, Gifted programs, AP programs, and the like. Parents complain that their so-called “Gifted children” don’t fit in within regular programs. 


Jennifer Katz, a UBC expert in special education maintains “this is a stereotype and part of systemic racism”.


Some program leaders maintain that programs like AP are not elitist, but simply accelerated programs. The excuses are endless. It is probably, and hopefully true to say that BC and VSB in particular are engaged in a mopping up exercise eliminating the last vestiges of the streaming system in secondary school programming. Now let's look at the over enrollment of poor kids and some racialized kids in elementary special ed. 


The VSB, and BC deserve credit for persisting in the long struggle for equity, diversity and inclusion through the elimination of streaming. Let’s hope Ontario can learn from the BC experience and not take 50 years to root out elitism in our

public democratic schools systems. ON should instead, be in a 4 year phase out of all streaming 9-12.


This month's report is dedicated to the late York Professor George Martell, the single most influential proponent of destreaming in Ontario. RIP.