By Yanet Mengistie
Posted on September 10, 2021
The provincial government has announced that Ontario will no longer continue the academic & applied course system. Many are left to scramble as they have become accustomed to the province’s way of schooling. However, many don’t realise that the academic & applied course system has been flawed for some time, with Black students having to deal with its negative effects.
What are academic and applied courses?
Academic and applied courses are how courses are categorized and developed in Ontario highschools. Streaming begins at the end of grade eight when students decide if they want to take academic or applied courses in highschool. Subjects such as English, Math and even Geography are categorized as academic or applied courses, and students have different learning expectations in these course streams. The different learning expectations is where students in applied courses are hurt.
In principle those in academic and applied courses should be learning the same material but in different ways. What actually is occurring is the applied students are learning less then their academic peers, even in the same subjects. For instance, a research organization named People for Education looked into the course content of Grade nine academic and applied Geography classrooms. The organization found Grade nine academic Geography students would learn more than applied students. As academic classes were expected to learn about the “environmental, economic, social, and/or political implication” revolving around the Canadian environment. Whereas applied students had the expectation to only learn about the “types of natural disasters that can occur in Canada” and their impact on a superficial level. The organization found that the curriculum expectations resulted in teaching applied students less and in a superficial way because there was a belief that applied students could not think critically about the learning material. This overall culminates to those in applied classes not learning the same amount of material as those in academic courses.
These courses essentially stream students in the grade 11 and 12 years when decisions about post-secondary education are made. Students in the applied stream only qualify for college-level or mixed-level courses while students in the academic stream can qualify for university-level or mixed-level courses. When applying to universities, students are required to have certain university-level courses depending on the program they want to take. For instance, Ryerson University’s Biology program requires university-level math courses called Advanced Functions, not accepting college-level math courses such as Foundations of College Math. So, if a student took university-level Biology but completed math courses in the applied stream, they would be placed into college-level math courses and therefore not qualify for this program. Unfortunately, this is how a lot of universities in Canada operate. In summary, academic courses are mandatory preparation courses for universities in Canada, so students who remain in applied classes are less likely to have the opportunity to attend university.
Why does the Ford government want to end applied courses ?
Education Minister Stephen Lecce stated that the reason for ceasing the current education system is because it is discriminatory towards Black children. Furthermore, Lecce said “it is clear there is systemic discrimination built within the education system” and pushed further by saying that there is systemic racism in the education system in Ontario.
Systemic racism refers to the multitude of ways in which racism is intertwined within institutional policies and practices. In this case, the applied course system affects Black students specifically. Dr. Carl James of York University conducted a report in 2017 with over 49,000 students from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). The report found that Black students made up 39 per cent of applied courses while white students made up 16 per cent. Moreover, in academic classes Black students made up 53 per cent while white students made up 81 percent. These findings indicate that educators are streaming Black students into applied courses at far greater rates than white students.
Although the decision to take a course is up to the parent and child, educators play a large part in this decision. Counselors and teachers play a role in providing parents and children with the options for their education and future. When these qualified professionals push students in a certain direction, students and parents put their trust in them. This is demonstrated in a 2015 study regarding Black students in Peel region by the United Way of Peel Region’s Black Community Advisory Council. The study revealed the feelings of many Black students who felt:
- Pushed away from math, science and academic courses overall
- Encouraged to to excel in sports as opposed to academic courses
- Teachers had lower expectation of Black students
- Black students were being punished more severely
Both studies reflect the systemic barriers Black students face in schools. As they are not only in an education system that creates negative sentiments towards learning but also, are having education professionals push them in a direction that limits their long term education or employment prospects.
Streaming impacts Black students in the long term
There is a false notion that drives the streaming of Black students. There is an underlying assumption that students in applied classrooms will not do well in a university setting. However, there is no basis for this assumption, especially since student’s approach to learning and knowledge acquisition adapts as they get older and mature. Many university programs in Ontario have practical foundations to their learning material or provide a mix of both practical or theoretical learning techniques. Programs like York University’s Global Health, and the Media Studies program at University of Toronto Scarborough offer more practical applications that any student can explore their style of learning in. Therefore, the notion of the need to stream students is false and only creates barriers to finding the best suited future for young Black adults.
In today’s world, a university degree garners more income. A study published in 2016 by the University of Ottawa delved into the income of 620,000 graduates from 14 Canadian universities and colleges. The study found that university students made $45,200 on average from the time they graduated in 2005, and saw their salaries rise to $74,900 eight years later. Meanwhile, college students during the same periods started at $33,900 and rose to only $54,000. The streaming of Black students into applied courses will impact their future income-earning opportunities. It will also impact their ability to create generational wealth especially in expensive cities like Toronto, where earning $54,000 annually could mean living paycheck to paycheck.
The halting of the long-standing division of courses will aid in undoing a systemic barrier that many Black Ontario Youth face. It is important that the Public hold the Ford government accountable to the promise made of undoing this long-standing discriminatory practice in the education system.