A Numbers Game

Can’t say I’m a big fan of Marx, I’m more of a
Leibniz guy, but he’s a useful tool for examining
the blind spots around systemic privilege.

One of the perils of having a degree in philosophy is that it provides you with a wide range of tools for dismantling bureaucratic doubletalk.  One of the most dangerous of these tools is Karl Marx.  I can’t help but apply Marx’ aggressive economic analysis to any idea being floated as, ‘dismantling systemic prejudice’ in order to parse bureaucratic language couched in privilege. This week in PD this reflex was twinged by how the upcoming destreaming of grade 9 mathematics is being framed in Ontario education.

The way destreaming was portrayed to us (in keeping with current educational value theory) is as anti-racist pedagogy.  We were earnestly told that destreaming destigmatizes our students of colour and sets them free from educational oppression.

It helps to live in a rich area that offers
limited access to specialist schools that
don’t admit the proles if you want to science!

I’m no fan of streaming.  The myth of STEM and many other educational prejudices are founded on a university focused system being run by academics from that same university system.  I was writing STEM curriculum in the spring when the doctor/president of a STEM focused organization dismissed my intent to focus on technology subjects because, “no schools run them, they’re irrelevant.”  This academic prejudice made it difficult for me to continue working with a group that casually dismisses all but the streamed super-students they teach at their specialist urban school.

I believe that there is a distinct advantage to running de-streamed classes.  The neuro-diversity in an open level class offers all students insight into how people other than themselves think and also offers a qualitative performance advantage when students in groups can leverage many different thinking approaches rather than all following the same (terrifyingly tedious) route to a singular solution.  This implies open level classes are at least (if not more) pedagogically rigorous than current, streamed academic classes.  Having said all that, my last principal said that my open level classes ‘were too difficult’ and that I ‘should make them easier’ (even though we hadn’t had a failure in years).  I’ve never found an open level de-streamed class an excuse to do less.  It’s an opportunity for students to escape their intellectual ghettos and understand the world and how to solve it from many perspectives.  If only de-streaming were treated as a pedagogical tool rather than a financial one, we’d see real advantages to de-streaming, but the cynic in me suspects that pedagogy isn’t actually the focus of de-streaming.

I teach technology courses and all my classes have been de-streamed forever.  Even my ‘M’ level supposedly post-secondary focused senior classes are typically filled with 10-20% essential students and an even split between applied and academic streams (I’m still capped like an academic class at 31 though).  What this means is that the system drops high-needs essential students in my class while offering no increase in resources to support these children.  In my experience, de-streaming is an excuse to offload more work onto teachers while pulling funding in sections and resources that previously existed.

Ontario’s current push to de-stream grade 9 mathematics is, I believe, a good idea, but I have little faith in the system doing it for the high-falutin equity ideals they claim are motivating them.  When equity is used as a marketing tool for financial oppression, no one wins, and when we’re all sitting in larger classes with more diverse, higher-need learners and less resources to help them find their best selves, I can’t help but wonder how the people marketing this can sleep at night.

The current representatives in Ontario government
are taking educational oppression to new heights.

A brutally honest Marxist analysis might look like this:

A school has 20 sections of grade 9 mathematics, 2 essential level, 10 applied level and 8 academic level classes.  Essential classes are currently capped at 21 out where I am in order to provide more support for these high-need learners.  Applied classes are capped at 23 and academic classes at 31.  I imagine you can see where this is going but I’ll take you there anyway.

In our imaginary school this would result in 2 sections for 42 essential students, 10 sections for 230 applied students and 8 sections for 248 academic students.  That’s 20 mathematics sections serving 520 students.  In our system, open level classes are capped at 27 students, so our 520 students would find themselves in 19 sections once de-streamed, which begs the question: are we doing this to save money or help students find success?

I don’t know what the caps are for these new, de-streamed classes, but if the system ignores its own class caps for open level classes and magically sets the class cap for de-streamed math at 28 or 29 students (changes like this always offer an opportunity to get more for less), suddenly our 520 students are being stuffed into even fewer sections and larger classes, which makes the whole ‘we can decolonialize and produce greater equity in education by destreaming’ angle look a bit disingenuous.

Ontario’s de-streaming is being heavily marketed as an anti-colonial escape from systemic oppression.
It could be, if it isn’t actually cost cutting under an equity marketing banner.

There are genuine benefits to destreaming.  Prompting more neuro-diversity in a learning context offers rich alternatives to rote learning catering to the neuro-uniformity prompted by streamed classes.  Struggling students are surrounded by peers who can show them better habits and capable students can soak up rich opportunities to mentor while also exploring alternate pathways to solutions.  There is also an equity benefit in that everyone is humanized and formerly streamed students are less likely to look down on their peers or turn into teachers who dismiss blue collar subjects out of hand.

These advantages are predicated on de-streaming happening in order to nurture student success, not as the result of hidden financial imperatives designed to cut costs while marketing the whole exercise as the enlightened removal of systemic oppression.  If this really is a numbers game then everyone loses, and who loses the most?  The kids with less social privilege to begin with.

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