top of page

Social Justice Demands We Wind Down the Streaming System in Ontario Schools.

Doug Little


Progressives in education are often asked what remains to be accomplished  to solidify Ontario’s and Canada’s place by extension, as the world’s leading nation in education. Canada already has one of the world's highest post secondary completion rates. Ontario is almost 40% of Canada. When Canada is examined in international comparisons, OECD-PISA for example, on the reasons for this success, well trained,well paid teachers are often mentioned along with at least some commitment to equity. Canadian boards and provinces often give more money and staffing to the poorest schools to compensate for their hurdles - the exact opposite of the USA for example. Compensatory education surely separates us from the USA but this is being damned with faint praise.


There are remaining barriers however, such as the high post secondary tuition fees which should be abolished. Class sizes could still come down further, particularly in poor and working class schools. Further gradual downward extensions of the school system in all provinces to the Montessori recommended, toilet trained, age of 2 on average, would surely help. All of these reforms would more than pay for themselves with improved results. Our indigenous education results are shameful. A great deal of support is needed to bring 1st Nations education up to a respectable level. All of these potential reforms have excellent cost-benefit ratios. In the end, they save more than they cost often by a factor of 4X at least. Nevertheless, all are expensive, in terms of up front costs, which gives some politicians pause.


When we seriously examine educational data in hopes to find ways to improve the system, one critical point leaps out, whether we look at graduation rates, the gag-inducing EQAO test scores, or post secondary acceptance rates, we are left with one shameful “elephant in the room”. Working class kids do not do as well as middle class kids in our schools.There is a racial compounding component as well. Some races such as black kids and indigenous kids and some ethnicities are also heavily overrepresented amongst the less successful students.


Is there a reform that would radically mitigate this racist and classist element remaining in our school system? The good news is yes, in Ontario, de-streaming is the reform we need. The bad news is few politicians have the guts to run with it.

What is streaming anyway?


Streaming is the placement of students, alleged to be of different academic abilities, into different levels of programs. Americans call this whole phenomena ‘tracking’. Our analogy is to river systems with different streams. Theirs is to railroad tracks, a main line or side track as it were. The process of streaming is seldom directly ‘forced’. Students are ‘recommended’, often cajoled into lower, dead end streams using their grades and the insidious EQAO scores. This profoundly confuses present performance with learning capacity. As a result we have in Ontario grade 9-10 ‘academic’ programs and ‘applied’ programs. There are even ‘locally developed’ programs below the applied level. At the grade 11-12 level, streams are even more clearly destination oriented and labelled UNIVERSITY, COLLEGE or WORKPLACE streams. Theoretically a student could be in applied math and academic English as well as other subjects. In reality this seldom happens. There is actually no research evidence that streaming ‘works’. There are mountains of evidence that it is both absurd and profoundly unfair. High school streaming also involves French Immersion, IB, AP, and Gifted programs, all heavily populated by the middle class as if they were the only intelligent and motivated students around.


It will come as a shock to some, but not all, that our elementary schools are also unfairly streamed. At one time different level reading groups within classes were encouraged, no matter the demoralizing effects this had on lower performing kids.


The most destructive element is the abuse of the special education program which, for too many younger kids and especially their parents, is sold as a ‘pit stop’ where they can get some extra help when in reality it becomes an elementary stream they can't escape. Behavioural and LD programs are largely populated by poor kids while gifted programs are snapped up by the middle class again. Other streaming tools in elementary schools include the aforementioned French Immersion which has very clear class based enrollment, Gifted programs, and sometimes even alternative schools act as streaming exacerbators.


The funding formula must not encourage boards to game the system by over identifying special ed or ESL to get more money from the province. The province must reward the boards by applying the savings to regular class sizes or the downward extension of the system.


The research on the negative effects of streaming and tracking is clear. If we look at the work of Jeannie Oakes and John Goodlad we see some of the best. Goodlad says that “Tracking has the effect of widening existing gaps between socioeconomic groups over time.” Is de-streaming a magic wand, a panacea? No, but the effects of de-streaming a system can be profound and it is the single best reform to substantially improve results for those who have the ability to do much better and go much further. It has the added advantage of being virtually cost free. It may even save money.


What the research on Tracking (Streaming) really says.


In 1989 Ontario received the Radwanski Report. The late George Radwanski was a liberal and a Liberal. He examined the Ontario system, looked at the relevant research and concluded in very clear terms that the streaming system was a failure. If placing working class kids in lower programs actually worked then they would stay in school long enough to graduate and move on to highly skilled jobs. The opposite was true. When you place young people in what they and their peers understand to be lower level, terminal programs they become highly demoralized and drop out. Streaming does not mitigate dropping out, it exacerbates dropping out. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.


In a famous quote, Radwanski concluded:


Streaming is a theoretical error, a practical failure, and a social injustice.”


Put simply, there is no research basis that supports streaming, it obviously does not work - witness the lower stream dropout rate, and it profoundly limits the future of already oppressed groups.


How then is it allowed to continue?


I was once asked in a public forum for my very best idea for improving education and the outcomes for the oppressed groups? I answered “I would totally eliminate the streaming system in our schools”. The questioner had a follow up question. He asked “what was my second best idea?” Uncomfortable laughter ensued.


Why the reluctance? We have a limited number of highly desirable, creative, economically rewarding jobs in our society. Entrance to the best university programs is not guaranteed. Middle class parents are very aware of the situation and want every possible advantage for their children within the public education system. They unconsciously want to limit the competition from smart working class and minority kids. They seek advantages for their own offspring through French Immersion, IB AP, Gifted, Academic and University bound streams. Some turn to private education and private tutoring to augment their hopes for their own children. This is not hard to understand but it cannot be allowed to trump the best educational interests of ALL students. Special advantage within a public system ought to be an oxymoron. Streaming hardly affects the truly affluent. They have a solution - private education, the ultimate in streaming. Streaming advantages are often sold as ‘what we have to do to keep the middle classes from going private’. Frankly, if this is the strategy, I would rather they went private.


Few policy makers have the guts to tackle the middle class and their lobby groups on behalf of the downtrodden.


There are those who maintain that de-streaming would be a disaster. All of those working class kids would slow down everybody's progress. The net result would hurt Ontario’s overall educational results. The sky would fall.


Those people need to explain why British Columbia has far better results than Ontario. BC eliminated high school streaming in the 1960s. Their remains two levels for math only in early high school grades but for all other subjects there is only one level. Matching that would be a great leap forward for Ontario. Using PISA results BC is number two in Canada math and science and number one in reading for 15 year olds (end of grade 10). Ontario cannot match this.


See PISA results here.


This brings us to the famous phrase ‘what is to be done?’


Since the abolition of streaming ‘root and branch’ scares even those politicians who understand that the implications of streaming is segregation by class and race and truncated educations for poor, working class and racial and indigenous groups then the best that can realistically happen is to deal with the issues one at a time as steps on the journey to full abolition.


Step one would be the elimination of official streaming in grades 9-10. There would be no Academic grade 9-10 English or science or history or Applied grade 9 English, science or history there would just be ‘grade 9-10 subjects’ as there is in grades K-8. In the short run, the lifting of the 110 required hours for students who struggle with math so they could receive extra time and in-school tutorial support without special education designation might be in order. It would be the same level of math, longer period-more support. All students would be in the same English classes and ESL students would join regular classes much earlier with extra support. If students are to be presented with Shakespeare for example, with its difficult (for all students) arcane language, then side by side modern English versions should be provided. Kids can get it on the internet through Coles or Cliff’s notes anyway. Why continue the charade. Concentrate on the brilliance of meaning, not on language as a sorting tool.


This is not ‘dumbing down’ the curriculum. This is course material at the same level. The variable moves from level of difficulty to time and support.


We need to do somewhat better in elementary math to prevent the grade 10 crunch where so many kids flounder. This can easily be accomplished by using math specialist teachers from grade 1 and slightly more curriculum time allocated.


I have had some tech and commercial  teachers in high schools tell me this de-streaming will kill tech. To the contrary destreaming will upgrade the status of tech and comm.  All tech programs should leave open the option, not just of high skill trades, but the possibility that tech students can become architects, engineers or IT specialists. All commercial programs similarly should leave students open to becoming secretaries if they choose to but also certified accountants, marketers, economists, financial professionals.


This eventually means removing the streams beyond grade 10.


If some programs remain then we need to look seriously at entrance criteria. Gifted programs are well known to be a middle class scam. Multiple intelligence has been shown to be totally bogus and very few “Gifted” students are actually gifted. Using the IQ scale for lack of a better instrument only 2% of the population is above 130 IQ yet in some upper middle class neighbourhoods, half of the public school is “Gifted”. Oddly in the blue collar part of town, it seems, nobody is gifted. The ‘gifted’ tend to have very pushy parents who know how to game the system. IB and AP same deal. They need to be phased out.


Cooperative learning is one of the best ways to have heterogeneous classroom groupings that create real everybody wins environments.


We need to break out of the 110 hours trap in Ontario, especially for math. Some students may take longer and need more initial support but they need to remain in the academic program for as long as the program remains, if at all possible, not offered the plonk of lower level programs.


We also must remove any pressure to graduate in 4 or even 5 years. Graduation dates must remain open and free. These arbitrary dates have no educational merit. They are nothing but heartless cost saving measures for provincial governments. They are also penny wise and pound foolish. We all pay one way or another for the undereducation of young people.


Principals, superintendents, guidance councillors and all teachers eventually need inservice programs to have it clearly explained that we have one great project remaining in public education. That project is equalization of the outcomes of rich and poor students, racial minority and indigenous students. Individual students results of course, will vary but the project is to equalize outcomes at the upper level, not at the lower level.


To be fully intellectually honest, we need to shift our basic orientation from equality of opportunity to equality of results. To date, our results are not as high as we would like because our ultimate goal is not as high as it should be.


Some kids will still have difficulties within a de-streamed system but the point is that far fewer students will experience difficulty. The graduation rate will increase, the post secondary admission and graduation rate will also rise. It is not the prime directive of the system to sort students into winners and losers. The objective should be to educate every single student to the maximum level that their innate ability and motivation will take them. This cannot happen within a streamed system designed to confer advantages on some students and throw up hurdles to others.


In a nutshell, more kids go further in school in a de-streamed environment.


One of my favourite quotes is attributed to Larry Cuban. “It is very difficult to make students equal within a system (capitalism) designed to make them unequal.”  Difficult yes, but not impossible.


Our understanding of innate intelligence shows us that maybe 85% of us have the ability to handle post secondary education and at least 50% of us have the ability to be successful in university. At present 55% graduate post secondary and 28% graduate university. We have lots of room for significant improvement. Let's get to it, incrementally for some, faster for others.

Postscript: In Ontario the intellectual argument for de-streaming has been carried to date, by York University professor emeritus  George Martell. He has carried this issue as a school trustee, as an intellectual and a teacher, a writer, an advocate and as a community organizer. 

He has often single handedly kept this issue on the political agenda with an able assist from Professor emeritus David Clandfield of UT who specialized in the elementary and Special education aspects of streaming. George taught me and hundreds of others that this issue is the key issue from a school reform - social justice perspective, to even the odds for all of the kids who are disadvantaged in our schools by race and class.

George Martell is critically ill at this point with leukemia. We may not have him with us much longer in his fight and in our fight for social justice for all kids.


He may leave us in the not too distant period without knowing the profound effect he has had on legions of acolytes. George is loved, respected and treasured by education activists around Canada and even internationally. If we lose him he will be deeply missed but his work will live on in improved lives for public school kids.


Toronto- Since September 2013 a British grassroots teacher organization has attracted droves of teachers to conferences in the U.K., Australia, Scandinavia, and the European Union. Next stop on this truly unique “British education revolution” is Canada.

Founder of the U.K. researchED movement, Tom Bennett, will be the headliner of the first researchED conference to be held in Canada on November 10 and 11, 2017 at the University of Toronto Schools.   

“We believe that the teaching profession is poised and ripe for change,” says Tom Bennett. “It should be a change where teachers and schools are guided by the best evidence available, not just the latest theories. That’s what propels our new, teacher-led organization.”

Working with researchED UK, a Canadian organizing committee chaired by Halifax-based educator Paul W. Bennett, has assembled some of the brightest thinkers and teacher-researchers from the UK and right across Canada.

The initial list of more than two dozen speakers includes Britain’s “Learning Spy” David Didau, UTS principal Rosemary Evans, OSSTF president Harvey Bischof, founder of JUMP Math John Mighton, teen mental health expert Stan Kutcher, self-regulation advocate Stuart Shanker, Institute for Child Study director Clare Kosnik, and VoicED Canada founder Stephen Hurley.

“Come and learn what the latest research tells us about the best ways to teach, lead schools, and help children learn,” says researchED Toronto Chair Bennett.  “Having attended researchED conferences in the U.K. and the U.S., I came away completely energized by the excitement generated by teachers and researchers passionate about putting the best research into practice in our schools.”

ResearchED Toronto aims to attract a brand-new audience of teachers, policy researchers, and education reformers and is now open for registration.  For the Friday November 10 evening program and the full Saturday November 11 day conference, tickets are $60.00 per person, priced to be affordable for most teachers. To reserve a place, simply register at event/researched-toronto/

For comment or further information, contact Paul W. Bennett, Chair, researchED Toronto at (902) 233-2414 (M) or director@  Interviews with researchED founder Tom Bennett can also be arranged through contactus@workingoutwhatworks. com

bottom of page