Ontario government created own ‘de-streaming’ debacle in schools

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, November 29, 2023
Ontario government created own ‘de-streaming’ debacle in schools

Things are not going well in Ontario’s government-run public education system. Whether it be rampant violence in schools, declining test scores, woke ideology in classrooms, political infighting between school trustees or ongoing labour disputes, there are plenty of problems to address.

To be fair, not everything is the province’s fault. While education falls under provincial jurisdiction, school boards have broad control over education policy. Intervening directly every time a school board makes a poor decision is easier said than done.

However, the current “de-streaming” debacle is entirely the fault of the Ford government. Two years ago, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that all Grade 9 courses would be de-streamed—that is, instead of sorting students into separate courses and classes based on their abilities, interests and future career plans, everyone now takes the same classes together.

For example, mathematics used to be divided into “applied” and “academic” streams, with the applied courses focusing on everyday math problems and the academic courses preparing students for university level math. That way teachers could tailor their instruction to the interests and plans of the students in their classrooms.

Now, by forcing all Grade 9 students to take the same course, teachers must contend with a much broader range of student interests and abilities. As typically happens in these situations, teachers have no choice but to target most of their instruction to the “average” students in the class. This is a disservice both to the top students and students who are struggling. Neither group gets the instruction they need. And this is just the first step. Depending on the Grade 9 experiment, the province may de-stream more grades.

So why de-stream?

De-streaming proponents often argue that separating students into different programs is inequitable and that lower-level courses are typically composed of a disproportionately high number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This allegedly leads to these disadvantaged students being forced into lower-paying jobs since they did not receive the same education their wealthier peers received.

However, this is where ideology and reality conflict. It sounds fair to put all students in the same classroom. But students who have no interest or ability in an academic math course will not learn much in that environment. In fact, they might drop out of school entirely, which is much worse than completing high school by taking “applied” courses. And incidentally, jobs in the trades often pay more than jobs requiring a university degree.

Interestingly, People for Public Education, an advocacy group that supports de-streaming, recently released a report that slammed the Ontario government for failing to provide adequate support for the de-streaming plan. According to its survey of Ontario principals, only 20 per cent of principals felt they had enough resources to properly implement de-streaming in Grade 9.

Of course, People for Public Education has a solution—more money from taxpayers. Specifically, it wants smaller class sizes, more professional development for teachers and additional support staff. These proposals would require hundreds of millions more dollars to be spent on public education in the province.

Considering that per-student spending in Ontario has increased above the rate of inflation over the last decade, it makes sense to question whether more money is really the solution. This is a classic example of government creating a problem (i.e. de-streaming), which then leads to the demand for more money to solve the problem.

Obviously, the Ford government wouldn’t be in this predicament if it hadn’t pushed de-streaming on Ontario schools in the first place. While there are reasonable arguments for and against streaming, it doesn’t make sense to impose one approach on all schools.

Instead, it would be far more reasonable to allow for flexibility, at least in this area. Some schools might find that streaming works best for their students while other schools may experience more success using a de-streaming approach. There’s no need to force all schools into the same box.

The worst thing the Ford government could do is throw more money at the issue and hope the problem goes away. It’s time for the government to stop using Band-Aid “solutions” for problems it creates. Students deserve better than to be guinea pigs for poor provincial education policy.