There are virtually no failures at the elementary level, so all students are promoted into secondary school even though they are at different levels in terms of coping with the curriculum.
The recent announcement from Ontario’s Ministry of Education that it will eliminate streaming in secondary schools needs to be critically examined.
When introduced many years ago, there were four levels of instruction available at the secondary level: Basic, General, Advanced and Gifted, or Enriched. This was to enable all students to be able to learn at the level at which they were performing, and it attempted to make the curriculum relevant to their needs and abilities.
There were many different programs available and some schools specialized to cater to these needs. For example, there once was a High School of Commerce in Ottawa, where programs were offered to cater to the needs of those going to work in business-related work, and a Technical High School where the various trades were taught so that students could go directly into the work place. Also, most composite high schools offered technical programs to teach students in various technical areas. It was not a perfect system and had some problems in locking some students into a program that might not have been appropriate.
Over the past 20 years, many of these programs have disappeared, technical shops have been closed, specialized schools have closed, but the academic curriculum has remained virtually unchanged, although modified.
The fact is that when students enter secondary school they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We currently have many students from immigrant families with widely diverse educational experiences. The home environment is extremely different for many of these students.
There are so many variables in student abilities, such as native intelligence, family background and environment, interests, personality, motivation, peer group influence etc. How is a teacher supposed to deal with all these variables if all students are assumed to be at the same level of preparation for learning a subject such as mathematics?
There are virtually no failures at the elementary level, so all students are promoted into high school even though they are at many different levels of preparation and ability to cope with the curriculum. How is a teacher supposed to handle this wide spectrum of ability and experience if all students are placed in the same class?
Streaming was an attempt to solve this problem, and if we eliminate this option, the teacher is left with the problem of catering to all these different variables.
Mathematics is a subject that is very hierarchical in that you need to master certain concepts at one level in order to progress to the next level. If you do not feel comfortable with basic numerical processes, you will not be able to deal with algebra. If you are not a visual learner, you will have difficulty with geometry. Similarly, if you have language problems, you will have difficulty with word problems or mastery of new concepts. The list of potential difficulties never ends and both teachers and students are left in a frustrating situation.
If you are not going to separate students by streaming on the basis of past learning, then the solution of course, is to provide more teaching assistance for those students who are unable to cope with the curriculum and hopefully bring them up to the level necessary to be successful. The education ministry is doing the exact opposite in trying to increase the average class size, which will work directly against such a solution. Now by deciding to eliminate streaming, it has added to an already difficult situation.
Society keeps increasing the demands on the education system but at the same time decreasing the resources needed to meet the needs of our widely diversified students. Since the ministry wants to eliminate streaming, parents should demand an alternative solution to meeting the vast differences in learning ability among our students.
We are not all created equal from an education standpoint, and so we all have different needs.
Dave Hunter is a retired mathematics teacher at several Ottawa high schools.