Canada’s largest school board is considering a drastic change to its practice of steering high schoolers toward either “academic” or “applied” courses in an effort to remove barriers and offer equal educational opportunities to all students.
The Toronto District School Board’s director of education, John Malloy, has suggested an overhaul of the policy — known as streaming — that requires students in Grades 9 and 10 to choose whether to take courses such as math, science and English in the more theoretical, university-geared academic stream, or the hands-on, practical “applied” stream.
“Our data suggests that when students are studying at the academic level in Grades 9 and 10 their chances for graduation grow and their opportunities after they leave us are better,” Malloy said, adding that if given the right support in the classroom, almost any student can thrive at the academic level.
“Our goal is to have the majority of students in academic courses and try to minimize the use of applied courses in all schools, and in some schools there will be none.”
Nearly one fifth of Grade 9 and 10 students took a majority of their courses in the applied stream last school year, the board said.
Streaming into academic and applied courses has been standard practice at all public Ontario school boards since 1999. But Malloy’s proposal — which was to be considered by a school board committee Wednesday evening before being debated by board trustees on Feb. 7 — would require schools to root out more subtle forms of streaming that he says occur as early as kindergarten.
“We don’t want to put (students) on a pathway too soon that moves from a struggle to read to a special education program that might then lead to an applied program,” Malloy said.
A study led by York University education professor Carl James, released last year, found that black students in the TDSB are twice as likely to be enrolled in applied courses, as compared to kids from other racial backgrounds.
“It could be because of disillusionment (black students feel) with the education process, the alienation they feel from school, the fact that the curriculum might not speak to them in ways that engages them effectively,” said James, who welcomed the idea of limiting streaming in Grades 9 and 10.
James found that, often, black students were being pushed into the applied stream by teachers or guidance counsellors, raising questions about racial bias among school staff.
“We as a community and a society have to reassess how we … evaluate students and measure what we consider their intellectual abilities and skills,” James said.
A handful of TDSB schools have already eliminated streaming in some grades.
Oakwood Collegiate Institute in west Toronto, stopped offering Grade 9 applied courses in September 2017. Classes are capped at 25 kids, to help teachers address individual students’ learning needs, Oakwood principal Steve Yee said.
And students who may have normally been in applied courses, or who have special education needs can take an additional “learning strategies” class, to help them with literacy and numeracy skills.
“Our student body overall has been positive about it,” Yee said. “They are in a program that has high expectations of them, they believe in themselves, people believe in them and that’s always a positive.”
But some critics say applied courses have a valuable role in the education system.
“At the end of the day when it comes to those challenging courses, the maths and sciences, a lot of kids struggle not necessarily because they’re not capable but because of the way it’s being taught ΓÇª because not everyone learns the same way,” said Maddie Di Muccio, president of the Society for Quality Education Canada advocacy group.
“It’s not bad necessarily to have that option of going for applied because it’s in those courses that are easier that you learn, ‘maybe I really do like this (subject) and maybe I want to be more challenged,”‘ she added.
While Malloy’s plan would scale back applied courses for Grades 9 and 10, it would not affect Grade 11 and 12 students, who must choose between “university preparation” level courses, “college preparation” level courses, and courses that combine the two.
“We are hoping that they have a better sense of where they would like to go by the time they reach Grade 11,” Malloy said. “Our theory is that (Grade 9) is too young to make that decision. And by moving that decision by two years we can support students by leaving their options open, they mature, they make better decisions that will benefit them after they leave high school.”
The applied and college preparation streams were originally created for students who were interested in pursuing more hands-on or technical careers, and the Grade 11 and 12 college courses are still valuable for that reason, Malloy said.
But board research shows students who take academic courses in Grade 9 and 10 are better prepared for college, Malloy added.
“Even the math that is required to be a carpenter or electrician or plumber is significant,” he said. “We need to ensure our kids are successful and they are more successful when we give them the appropriate learning in academic.”