In 1999, Ontario officially eliminated “streaming” high school students. Students entering grade nine no longer had to choose just one path; they could now opt for a mix of academic (university bound) and applied (hands-on) courses. The idea being, a student could begin in applied math in grade nine and later switch to the academic. The route to graduation no longer needed to be a linear journey, but rather students could move back and forth between streams as needed. Theoretically.
In reality, very few students actually select a mix of academic and applied courses. Even fewer switch to academic math or English once they begin applied. In the winter of their grade eight year, students must make their high school course selections and they seldom change their streams before graduation.
A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommends delaying selective programming until later in high school, as is done in Finland, Poland, and Spain. And, I have to absolutely agree! The OECD is telling teachers what they already know. Grade eight is simply too early for kids to select their pathways through high school, especially since those pathways have a huge impact on success after high school.
Of course, there are those kids who sail through grade school—the ones who don't struggle with tests, who find assignments straightforward and easily completed, who have no difficulty focusing in class. For these students, choosing their courses at any point isn’t problematic. The choice is obvious—they select academic courses and follow that pathway all the way through until graduation.
But for our other students, those who might have some difficulty with the academic material, those who may struggle a bit with math or don’t always meet the standard reading level, for these students, selecting their path too early could spell-out disaster. And there are students who haven’t had many advantages, those whose home life or financial difficulties may be impacting their school performance. There is currently an over representation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds in applied courses. For our students who are having difficulties in elementary school, whatever the reason, the obvious choice would seem to be applied courses. These courses are taught a little differently, using a more hands-on, experiential approach, and tailoring the teaching pace to the student’s needs.
However, outcomes for students in applied courses are worse than their academic counterparts. Statistics show that students who take applied courses in grade nine are less likely to attend college or university, and are less likely to graduate high school at all. Provincial standardized tests show a significant achievement gap between students in applied and academic courses.
The transition from elementary school to high school is a big one. Students have all sorts of new things to deal with, socially and academically. I think it would be far better to support kids through this big change by teaching them in general, non-streamed courses for at least a year before students select their levels. It would be helpful for students to have some experience and understanding of high school culture—the homework, the exams, the constant rotary between classes, the social aspects—before being faced with this academic fork in the road. Delaying this choice would also allow high school teachers to assess the students and help guide their choices.
We know our human brains don’t mature until sometime in our twenties, so some kids need a little more time to catch up with their cohort. I have seen many students who have struggled with a particular area of study for much of elementary school suddenly start to “get it” toward the end of their grade eight year. Sometimes, it's because they finally understand their own learning style, sometimes because their maturity allows for a greater concentration when faced with a task, sometimes because they’ve finally been identified with a Learning Disability and have begun to learn how to manage it. Whatever the reason, often something significant happens for these kids around the end of grade eight or beginning of grade nine. If we were able to give these kids a little more time to grow into themselves, we would see greater academic success.
There will be some that argue it is difficult to teach students at a variety of levels in the same classroom, but that is what every elementary school teacher is expected to do and it is entirely possible. There will be those who argue that struggling students will “drag down” the stronger learners. Again, I point to elementary school. Those stronger learners keep growing, learning, and staying on a successful trajectory, no matter who is in the desk beside them. Research shows that having diverse abilities in a classroom is advantageous to both the lower and higher achieving students.
I really see no disadvantages to delaying this choice and many advantages. Let's let our kids grow up a bit before making their life choices. Let's give them a chance to figure themselves and high school out before choosing a path. Let's support struggling learners in every way possible to help keep many doors open to them.
Here’s hoping the Ministry of Education is paying attention to this report. Come to think of it, maybe the Ministry of Education should start reading my blog.
High school brings big changes, but don’t forget to enjoy the journey!