Canadians have an unhealthy obsession with statistical parity.
In 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced his 50-50 cabinet, prioritizing gender over merit in the name of equality. And last summer, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the end of academic streaming to combat “systemic racism.”
Streaming refers to grouping students based on performance. Beginning in the ninth grade in Ontario, students enter one of two tracks: the hands-on applied stream or the academic stream, which prepares them for university.
Critics say streaming is a racist practice because more students of colour enter the applied track, and there are disproportionately more white students in the academic track. This conclusion stems from the faulty assumption that any difference in outcomes between racial groups is due to so-called systemic racism.
By obsessing over racial disparities, we are ignoring the rich diversity of talents and abilities. A one-size-fits-all educational path will hurt both applied and academic students.
Embedded in the concern of too many ethnic minorities in the applied stream is the view that the academic stream is always better and that everyone should go to university. In reality, only a minority of students have the cognitive ability required to attain a proper university education.
Those who oppose streaming constantly talk about its negative impact on children’s self-esteem. However, a review of 15,000 studies on the relationship between self-esteem and childhood development found that elevated self-esteem doesn’t improve career achievement, grades or any other desirable outcome.
Mixing children of varying abilities in classes emphasizes rather than conceals their differences, as noted by Charles Murray in Real Education. If teachers call on students equally, the shortcomings of slower students become apparent. If teachers only call on brighter students, everyone quickly figures out what’s going on and they identify the struggling students.
An end to streaming can’t prevent these hardships. The learning process involves making mistakes, getting embarrassed and being humbled. Educators can point out that merit for an individual comes in many forms and isn’t defined solely by academic ability or classroom performance.
For many, the applied stream is a better fit; one stream isn’t objectively better than the other. Consider that incomes for many occupations that don’t require a college degree are higher than incomes for many occupations with a bachelor’s requirement. The demand for tradesmen is so high in Ontario that the minister of labour announced in August a $43-million investment to attract youth to skilled trades and address the workforce shortage.
This investment to attract more students to trades contradicts an end to streaming, which allows students to sort into a trade-oriented path at the beginning of high school. Ontario Labour, Training and Skills Development Minister Monte McNaughton has admitted there’s a stigma against trades, even though they offer fulfilling, well-paid jobs. An end to streaming worsens rather than eliminates this stigma against lucrative trades.
Many, like Ontario Premier Doug Ford, say streaming is unfair because it involves “asking a 14-year-old child to make a decision in Grade 9 for the rest of [his] high-school career.” Considering that the frontal lobe fully develops at 25, the premier’s logic also rules out university decisions at 18, and especially student loans. He also falsely assumes one is stuck in one of two paths for a lifetime.
A student struggling with math, for example, needs individual attention rather than pressure to enter an academic stream competing against advanced math students. Given the tendency of elementary schools to pass everyone, struggling students move on to higher grades without solid skill foundations. They enter ninth grade with wide-ranging differences in literacy and numeracy, necessitating different educational streams to cater to their varying levels of ability. The majority of applied students, for example, don’t pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test.
Instead of pursuing the unattainable ideal of academic equality, we should focus on redefining our idea of educational success. People of varied cognitive dispositions can achieve in different fields. Students are blessed with different interests, aptitudes and talents. Lumping everyone into a supposedly superior academic stream ignores diversity and stigmatizes lucrative and satisfying vocational paths.
Streaming is imperfect but helpful to most students in guiding them on their path to success. Cancelling streaming may suit political rhetoric but it’s a disservice to our youth.
Caitlin Rose Morgante is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Boston University economics student, and currently enrolled in an internship at Econ Americas.