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What Academic Streaming Calls Fairness, Ontario's Black Students Know As Racism

Equal access to education doesn't breed equal treatment for racialized high schoolers.

“How do I get in trouble for wearing the same uniform? I can’t help that my body is shaped differently or that I’m tall, so skirts look short on me.”

“Do you feel like you’re treated differently when you don’t wear braids or straighten your hair?”

In May 2019, I wrote a column about my experiences in journalism school as a Black student. Since then, I sometimes get invited to speak on panels or give talks.

After I had given a talk a few months ago in Ottawa, a group of Black female Grade 12 high-school students asked if they could speak with me about issues they faced on a regular basis. They described how they felt they were perceived and treated based on how they wore their hair, and how their bodies were policed by dress codes that didn’t seem to apply equally to others.

At one point, the conversation turned to education.

The United Nations found African Canadian students are far more likely to be streamed into applied courses.
FG Trade via Getty Images
The United Nations found African Canadian students are far more likely to be streamed into applied courses.

“I wanted to take a university law course,” said one student, “but I wasn’t allowed.” Others chimed in with their difficulties in course selection.

They were referring to Ontario’s streaming policy and being unable to choose for themselves.

In 1999, the Ontario Ministry of Education introduced the Ontario Secondary Schools, Grades 9–12: Program and Diploma Requirements, 1999/Policy. The policy introduced both academic and applied courses (commonly known as “streams”) for math, English, geography, science and French courses in Grades 9 and 10. Academic courses focus on theory and abstract concepts, whereas applied courses focus on practical applications. In Grades 11 and 12, these lead to a variety of university and college preparation courses.

The 1999 policy replaced a previous policy that streamed students into vocational, college or university tracts. In theory, the 1999 policy was intended to allow students to keep their options open, but in practice it continued the act of streaming.

“Education is supposed to be the great equalizer.”

Numerous studies and reports have found that streaming disproportionately impacts Black students. Racialized students and students from lower-income families are more likely to go into applied courses and are less likely to graduate from high school. They are less likely to pursue post-secondary education, which limits their career opportunities and future prosperity.

When I attended high school in Ontario, my peers and I interpreted the 1999 policy as “academic courses get you to university and applied courses get you to college.” In Grades 9 and 10, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted to keep my options open.

Luckily, I was able to register in academic courses, but there were moments that made me question if I should be in those courses at all — like the first day of my Grade 10 academic English. After going through the syllabus for the semester, the teacher said, “If you were not born in this country, you will not pass this class.” Seventeen years later, this remains the most enduring memory I have of that class.

Moments like this plant seeds of doubt that can blossom into feelings of inadequacy. Is my being here a fluke? What if my ideas aren’t as good as theirs?

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. It is presumed that equal access to it will unlock a brighter future, but equal access doesn’t necessarily breed equal treatment.

‘This is what institutional discrimination looks like’

In late 2017, the United Nations released the Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada. In the report, the Working Group laid bare its concerns that despite a reputation of promoting multiculturalism and diversity, structural racism and systemic anti-Black racism lay at the core of many institutions that impact the human rights of African Canadians.

Specifically, the Working Group found disparities in education and that “African Canadian students have disproportionately low educational attainment, high dropout rates, suspensions and expulsions and they are more likely than other children to be streamed into general and basic-level academic programmes, instead of advanced-level programmes.”

None of this is new. Streaming in schools has been the subject of many studies, reports and news articles. Some studies find streaming beneficial because it keeps students motivated and helps schools meet their perceived needs, yet debates on its effectiveness, as well as calls for de-streaming, have been going on for years.

Many students incorrectly believe that guidance counsellors have the final say over their choice of stream.
Hill Street Studios via Getty Images
Many students incorrectly believe that guidance counsellors have the final say over their choice of stream.

My conversation with the Grade 12s a few months ago highlighted another impact of this policy: choice.

One student said that, early in her high-school career, she wanted to take an academic course. Her guidance counsellor suggested an applied course instead. The young woman disagreed, but a deal was made — if ­­she did well in the applied course, she would be placed in academic the following year. She says she was kept in the applied stream despite her success.

It’s possible to switch streams, but it requires students to take additional “transfer courses” between Grades 10 and 11, depending on when they choose to make the switch. However, People for Education, an Ontario-based organization that lobbies for a strong universal public education system, found that only 23 per cent of high schools offer the transfer courses.

Other students in the group told me of their academic choices being challenged or denied. When I asked the group who had final say in course selection, almost half said it was the guidance counsellors. This is not true. The final decision rests with their guardians. If they had known, some of the students said, they would have advocated for themselves.

This is what institutional discrimination looks like. The streaming policy was supposed to help all students, but it’s leaving certain ones behind. And for some, when it comes to choosing an educational path that meets their needs and aligns with their interests, some students are simply being denied the choice.

Streaming is a complex issue, and like any policy, communication between policy makers and stakeholders like teachers, administrators, parents and students is essential to understanding its impact. My hope is that conversations about streaming include the voices of students impacted the most, because if they’re like the women I was speaking to, they have a lot to say about their own futures.

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