Ending ‘streaming’ is only the first step to dismantling systemic racism in Ontario schools

Carl James, York University, Canada

Last week, the Ontario government announced its plan to end streaming in Grade 9, something Education Minister Stephen Lecce acknowledged is a “racist, discriminatory” practice.

Streaming refers to the practice of placing students into educational programs — academic, “applied” and locally developed. These placements usually take place after Grade 8. They are often based on teacher and guidance counsellor recommendations. For Black students, low expectations and assumptions about their academic abilities and potential, direct them away from “academic” programs, which often lead to university.

Lecce promised to end the longstanding practice of streaming, which impacts Black, low-income and Indigenous students disproportionately. The province notes that students “enrolled in applied-level courses have multiple negative outcomes and limited opportunities for post-secondary advancement.”

Four years ago, my colleagues Tana Turner, Rhonda George, Sam Tecle and I surveyed parents, community members, students and educators about Black student’s education. Respondents revealed that the streaming of Black students into non-academic pathways was a major concern. After we completed our study, we published a report, recommending the elimination of streaming for the Greater Toronto Area.

Indeed, streaming is an essential component of the architectural structure of inequity and a significant scaffold in the system of racism and discrimination.

Will streaming actually end with Ontario’s “bold action?” Will we see the fulfilment of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s pledge to “ensure students from all walks of life are set up for lifelong success”?

Will the move lead to the equity education that Black parents and community members have long sought?

A racist, white supremacist structure

In addition to moving forward with ending Grade 9 streaming beginning fall 2021, the province also proposes eliminating “discretionary suspensions for students, strengthening sanctions for teachers who engage in behaviour of a racist nature and providing teachers with additional anti-racism and anti-discrimination training.”

But these changes require more than just a policy shift. They require a commitment to doing things differently. They require a major cultural shift in education with a critical examination of the policies that have structured school programs, practices, curriculum and pedagogy.

It is not only educators who must make this cultural shift but all members of the society; for streaming has been made possible through, and in relation to, the classist, racist, white supremacist structure that underlies the colonial education system we have inherited.

Teacher assumptions

The over-representation of Black students in lower-level schooling programs reflects teachers’ assumptions that these students do not have the capacity to succeed in an academic program of study. Students who take lower-level educational programs may graduate from high school, but they often have difficulty finding suitable employment and are likely to be trapped in precarious, low-wage jobs.

Furthermore, students are placed at about age 14. This means that students and their parents are asked to decide on an educational path at an early stage of a child’s social, emotional and educational development. At this stage, young people may have little idea of their educational, employment and career aspirations.

Streaming is disadvantageous to the educational and life trajectories of students — especially marginalized, Black and Indigenous students.

Teacher expectations, testing, student records and the low educational performance of Black and other marginalized students have become normalized. As such, they sustain a schooling structure and a climate that affirm a system of inequity.

While formalized streaming takes place in Grade 9, it actually starts much earlier via the opportunities presented to students or the learning designations or labels applied to them that channel them into particular educational paths.

Black, Indigenous and other marginalized students are under-represented in enriched and gifted classes. This is usually justified by their “low performance” assessed by their low grades from teachers that are used as indicators of their academic abilities.

And insofar as teachers are well-socialized to prepare for and teach academic, applied and locally developed classes differently, how will they think of their new Grade 9 classrooms with what some researchers refer to as “mixed ability classes?”

Grade 8 teachers are accustomed to teaching such classes, so they might be able to provide useful curricular, teaching and learning insights to their high school colleagues.

Like some teachers, there are parents, students and others who believe that eliminating streaming will contribute to a “dumbing down” of the curriculum. They anticipate teachers teaching to the capacity of the lowest ability students and a situation in which “bright” students will be disadvantaged, for they will not receive education commensurate with their abilities and skills.

A first step

Will teachers be able to separate students’ potential from their race and class positions?

The Ontario government’s “bold action” is an essential first step. Still, it must be accompanied by a recognition of how Canadian white supremacist culture contributes to a construct of students’ abilities and knowledge based on their race.

If we do not address the cultural norms and values of society, which inform educational institutions, we will continue to have streaming in many other forms and guises.

In other words, in the absence of real anti-racism education and measures, streaming will still occur in many different forms — only now unofficially. Policies, programs and curricula must be assessed for the ways they maintain systemic racism and inequity and maintain the ways in which racism impacts students.

Sorting machines

Education researchers Thurston Domina, Andrew Penner and Emily Penner argue that schools are “sorting machines” of inequality. They say “schools are egalitarian institutions that produce social inequality.”

Schools create social categories and have processes that sort students — on the basis of race, gender, class and other identities — into social hierarchies that “facilitate the creation of further inequalities both within schools and in the adult world.”

Essentially, schools are instrumental to our neoliberal capitalist system, and as such play a vital role in maintaining it even as we protest systemic racism and anti-Black racism.

What will it take to change things?

Carl James, Professor, Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora, York University, Canada

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