Here on the RSEKN blog site, there are so many rich and interesting pieces written with hopes of contributing to conversations around an array of issues on equity in education. What we often do is write and share our blogs and let the discussions spread and unfold. Less often, however, do we take the time to re-visit what was posted in the past and show you, the reader, how our own internal conversations are developing. For this post, I decided to recall a post from the past, written by a fellow member of the RSEKN team, and present my own reflections and response.

After reading Olivia Faulconbridge’s post Suspensions and Expulsions: A Look at the Racial Injustice of School Punishment, the topic of Academic and Applied streaming and its link to socioeconomic status immediately came to mind. We’ve all been there, 13 years old and trying to make decisions that could impact the next 4-8 years of our lives, and maybe more. As Olivia mentions that “Students are expected to make decisions before they have any experience with high school life and the opportunities that are available to them. Requiring grade 8 students to make important decisions about their future without the benefit of firsthand experience appears to be an impractical element of the current system.” Without any high school experience at all, students are being asked to blindly make a decision that may or may not even align with their future career and life goals, and leaves little room for those goals to fluctuate. 

According to a 2015 report by People for Education, in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in 2010, 53.5% of the students in grade 9 Applied courses had not successfully completed all their grade 8 courses and were “transferred” to high school, whereas only 4.5% of students in academic courses were transferred. These results suggest that Applied courses have improperly become placements for lower performing students rather than courses for students who are looking to learn the practical applications of certain concepts. 

There is evidence that streaming supports economic and educational disparities among individuals and families. EQAO as well as a 2006 Census data shows that schools that have higher percentages of students from low income families have a larger number of students in Applied math courses. The People for Education article points to a TDSB study which found that “92% of students from the highest income neighborhoods took the majority of their courses as academic courses, compared to only 56% of students from the lowest income neighborhoods.” On the Applied side of things, only 6% of students in the highest income neighborhoods took an Applied-heavy course load while 33% of students in the lowest income neighborhoods had Applied courses as the majority of their class schedule. 

I found these statistics to ring true because, having grown up in a lower-income area of Toronto, this was definitely something that I witnessed first-hand. The difference between Academic and Applied classes were extreme; so extreme that it was almost as though there was a clear divide within the school between those taking Academic courses and those taking Applied. From my experiences, I can say with confidence that the majority of students who were in Applied Math and Science were students who came from lower-income families. This leads me to believe that students who take these courses feel obligated to take them because of their teachers lowered expectations of them in the classroom. This 2013 People for Education article suggests that “Teachers may have lower expectations for some students, particularly disadvantaged or lower performing ones, and assign them slower-paced and more fragmented instruction. Students, in turn, adjust their expectations and efforts, resulting in even lower performance.” When a student feels as though their teacher has lower expectations of them, that student will internalize it and act accordingly. 

In Olivia’s post Suspensions and Expulsions: A Look at the Racial Injustice of School Punishment she states that “when asked how Black students feel about their education, they express feeling negatively about their school experience, their safety in the school and feel mistrusting of school authority figures.” At the end of Olivia’s blog, she also mentions that, instead of focusing on the minimal aspects of this situation, we need to look at the larger problem: our own biases and assumptions. Instead of focusing solely on the academic aspects of this issue, schools should be working on creating a flexible structure to accommodate pathway changes, instilling confidence in students, closing this gap and finding ways to approach these courses so that all students are successful, regardless of their socioeconomic status. 

Written by Sidney Pompa-Sidhu