Premier Doug Ford's government said it will not begin the process of ending 'streaming' in Ontario’s Grade 9 classrooms until September 2021, as it launched an education equity strategy to tackle systemic racism in schools on Thursday.
And it will start with only one subject: mathematics.
Streaming is a practice in which students are separated into academic and applied courses — a process critics say unfairly directs Black students away from higher education.
“It seems like they’re playing it safe,” said Stephen Mensah, the education lead for the Toronto Youth Cabinet. “It’s not like they’re trying to expedite it.”
The practice of streaming is one of the reasons Black students are more likely to be pushed out of high school early, which in turn often lowers earning capacity and perpetuates a racialized socio-economic divide.
Mensah said it made sense to wait until 2021, given all the COVID-19-related disruption, but that they should merge streams for at least two subjects to ensure a timely revamp.
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“Are we going to be doing it one subject every year?” Mensah asked. “Because if we're going to do it like that, it's going to take forever.”
The government had signalled the broad contours of the education equity plan earlier this week.
Lecce on Thursday said the reason for the 2021 start to de-streaming is that's when a new Grade 9 math curriculum is being rolled out, following the revamp of Grades 1 to 8 math, planned for this September.
Lecce deflected a question about de-streaming plans beyond that at Thursday’s virtual news conference, as well as others on whether working parents should be asking their employers for flexibility when schools are set to reopen.
The government has asked school boards to prepare for three different teaching scenarios: one where classes resume, one which is online-only, and hybrid models that see children going to school part time.
Lecce declined to say whether the government would hire more teachers or seek to secure additional space such as community centres to enable students to return full time, which he said was the government’s goal.
He did say the government plans to spend $730 million more on grants for student needs in the next school year.
On addressing racism in education, Lecce said that “the status quo is morally indefensible” and that this plan would “unleash the full potential of every child, most especially racialized kids who have felt ignored.”
“It’s the racism of low expectations, it's not really believing in their potential, and we need everyone in the system to start doing that and that work will start this year,” Lecce said.
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On streaming, Lecce cited Toronto District School Board data showing that almost half of its Black students took applied courses (compared to 19 per cent of non-Black students) and only one-third pursued post-secondary education.
He said applied students are four times less likely to graduate, and that Black students account for 34 per cent of suspensions in the TDSB, despite only making up 11 per cent of the student body.
But Mensah said Lecce’s use of the TDSB’s race-based data made him wonder why he wouldn't agree to the youth cabinet’s request that Ontario require all boards to collect the same, standardized data by 2021, instead of the province’s 2023 target.
Lecce also said he was calling for teachers’ unions to support mandatory anti-racism training for education workers, and would deploy the same for trustees. He said the government would work with the Ontario College of Teachers to toughen sanctions for racist behaviour.
Lecce said the government would also introduce a mandatory test for new educators to meet the Grade 9 math standard, and spend $20 million to encourage teachers to take on more professional development and training.
Jamil Jivani, a community organizer who has been advising the Ford government since late last year as its Advocate for Community Opportunities, said he had been streamed into applied courses in the Ontario school system and was committed to making a difference for the next generation.
“We are challenging Ontario's education establishment to become more student-centered,” Jivani said, adding that for more than a decade prior to Ford’s government the province had fallen in line with school boards, teachers’ unions and teaching colleges looking to retain the “education status quo.”
Jivani praised Ford for collecting a wide range of views from Black communities including parents, religious groups, business leaders and those leading sports or tutoring programs, and said previous governments and the news media had paid too much attention to “a small fraction of the Black community, that makes the most noise and sends the most tweets.”
“My hope is that we will remember today as a call to continue elevating voices in the Black community that have been historically ignored and to look beyond the noise and the tweets.”
Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer