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It’s the Bottom Streaming that Matters Most

by George Martell

The main headline of the Saturday Star (February 28, 2009) read “Toronto School Survey: Race, poverty matter as early as Grade 3.” No question about it. Race and poverty matter a lot in our schools. In fact, they matter a lot more than this survey suggests and a good deal earlier than Grade 3.

The survey points to a “learning gap” among poor and racialized children measured by standardized test scores. Unfortunately, this isn’t the “learning gap” we should be worried about. The really troubling “learning gap” can’t be measured by standardized test scores, which only serve to exacerbate the problem. And it can’t be understood in the official framework of understanding school “success” in terms of higher test scores.

What causes the “learning gap” among poor and racialized children –better understood as a destruction of learning – is the whole process of “bottom streaming,” which these children experience in school.

It’s a long complicated process, and it’s often hard to grasp due to both the active and passive resistance of both students and teachers.

What we see in our schools is by no means entirely what those who control the top levels of education system – the bottom streamers – have in mind; good teachers and determined students can often carve out small areas of genuine learning and sometimes significantly resist the bottom streaming process in a local school.

Nevertheless, what poor and racialized children experience in school, on the whole, moves in sync with the bottom streaming direction of our provincial government and its education ministry.

Indeed, the resistance put up by poor and racialized students to this “educational” experience often ends up supporting and encouraging their bottom streaming. Angry and frustrated, these students routinely throw out the baby of genuine intellectual discovery with the bathwater of the official curriculum and come to accept – at a very personal level – a role as workers and citizens in which no one will ask them to engage their minds or their hearts. Both passively and aggressively, they buy into their profiling and end up physically dropping out of school or psychically dropping out of the bottom stream programs in which they are placed.

At the same time, what poor and racialized students actually learn in school – and learn it on their own – prepares them for survival in mindless, heartless jobs (or for no jobs at all) and in dealing with the empty “democratic” manipulation of the social order as a whole. They learn to build their own “counter school culture” – sometimes in gangs – that offers a little freedom, dignity and pleasure to the side of the work they have been assigned and stands in opposition (sometimes direct, sometimes not) to the official ideology they have been asked to parrot and to the powerlessness they are required to accept. They learn, in other words, to find a life outside the established order. It’s not enough, by any means, and sometimes it can be deeply destructive, but it appears to them to be their only option given the reality they face.

Bottom Streaming: Systemic Racism and Classism

This bottom streaming process – centred in the educational bureaucracy at Queen’s Park – has four key elements:

  • There is the imposition of fragmented, disorienting bits of information (“outcomes” or “expectations”) which direct the daily curriculum of the classroom.
  • This curriculum mandate is then policed by a variety of standardized tests, which also serve to begin the pejorative labeling (or profiling) of these children.
  • The bulk of this profiling, however – and its irrevocable impact on individual children – takes place through a wide spectrum of intellectual and behavioural “disability” labeling, sometimes at a very early age.
  • Finally, comes the placement in bottom stream programs in which these profiled children – thoroughly alienated from the “regular” curriculum – are “educated” to prepare them to accept the “bad” jobs and the unemployment lines that continue to grow in the economy at large.

Premier McGuinty and Michael Fullan, his chief education advisor, call this bottom streaming process a “human capital” approach to learning. They tell us it’s fundamental to the growth of the Ontario economy. It begins the first day of school.

This process of “bottom streaming,” when linked to the underfunding of poor schools and the continued centralization of education decision-making (undercutting school-community capacity to improve local schools) is the core of what is often described as systemic racism and social class bias in our schools. It is put in place by a set of legislated system-wide policies – mitigated in practice by good teachers and the resistance of parent and community activists – but nevertheless dominant in determining the fates of so many poor and racialized children.

Racism and class bias in our schools aren’t primarily the result of prejudice among teachers and school officials; they are mostly with us because of real government and school board policy.

What do the test scores tell us?

In this context, how do we understand and respond to the figures Kristin Rushowy, in her Toronto Star story, has pulled out of the Toronto District School Board’s 2008 Parent Census Kindergarten-Grade 6?

This census tells us that Middle Eastern, Latin American and Black children do badly on the EQAO standardized tests for Grade 3 and 6. And so do poor children.

In Grade 3 reading, for example, only 40% of Middle Eastern Children, 37% of Latin American children and 43% of Black Children reached the provincial standard (roughly a B) compared with 68% of East Asian and 60% of White children. In Grade 6 math only 54% of Middle Eastern students, 42% of Latin American students and 37% of Black students reached the provincial standard as compared to 86% of Asian students and 72% of White students. Furthermore, Caribbean students perform “6 to 14 percentage points” below their fellow Black students.

Among Grade 3 students, whose family income is less than $30,000 a year, only 47% reach the provincial standard in reading, 58% in writing and 62% in math compared to 66% in reading, 67% in writing and 86% in math for those students whose family income is $100,000 a year or more. Among Grade 6 students, whose family income is less than $30,000 a year, only 55% reach the provincial standard in reading, 62% in writing and 56% in math compared to 86% in reading, 85% in writing and 84% in math for those students whose family income is $100,000 a year or more.

What do these figures tell us?

Mostly they tell us that poor children and racially marginalized children do badly on what the school asks them to do – as part of the bottom streaming process I touched on above, which intensifies the more general impact of poverty and racism in the society at large.

They certainly don’t tell us anything about the quality of mind of those tested. These tests are thoroughly empty of any substantive thinking or creative response to the world – a reflection of the official curriculum “expectations” they test. All they ask is the fitting in or the fitting together of bits and pieces of disconnected information and a few bland sentences or story lines.

For most poor and racialized kids these tests simply don’t count. They don’t think these tests test anything of importance; the “expectations” curriculum they police appears as mindless rote learning. They also don’t think these tests matter for them in terms of upward mobility (even though the middle- class world does). They know there is only so much room at the top in which richer kids have the edge at finding a place for themselves. Furthermore, these students are told every day they don’t have the smarts to make it up the social class ladder and they feel the judgment. In this context, why bother mastering the information bits and the one-dimensional templates the tests require? A few of these kids, of course, do bother and make it up the ladder – often a product of intense family focus and pressure – which allows our school officials to say it can be done by everyone. But the overwhelming majority of these students know it can’t. They know, as I said, there’s only so much room at the top and they’re not welcome there. For most, this is a lottery not worth entering. The “counter school culture” offers better prospects, including, among other things, a little more money in their pockets.

The bottom streaming numbers are what count

The extent to which the bottom-streaming process impacts poor children (especially very poor children, who are increasingly immigrant children of colour) gives us a far more chilling picture than the test score “failure” or “success” of these children.

While the on-going analysis of the TDSB student census has yet to give us a clear understanding of current bottom-stream placement of poor and racialized students, one set of figures has emerged that allows us a rough estimate of the extent to which these students have been bottom streamed.

These figures are to be found in Table 13, “Neighbourhood Income and Post Secondary Registration,” in Robert S. Brown, TDSB Secondary Student Success Indicators, 2004-2005, TDSB Research Report, May 2006, p. 103.

To take one example from this table, we can say that around 80% of students graduating from high school in our poorest neighbourhoods (our lowest 10% income areas) have been bottom-streamed in one way or another.

In this context, being “bottom streamed” means that around 80% of students in these areas did not register in university or community college programs that lead to good jobs during the year following high school graduation. Thus, by that measure, only around 20% of our poorest children end up “succeeding” in the system – at least for the graduating year 2004.

Here are the figures:

University and Community College Registration of 17-20 Year-Olds in Poorest Neighbourhoods:

In Table 13, it is reported that of the 17-20 year-olds (from the lowest 10% of income areas) who were in the TDSB in March 2004 only 13.4% registered at university and only 6.5% registered at community college. That adds up to 19.9% of these students who registered at university and community college in the year following their high school graduation.

17-20 Year Olds in Poorest Neighbourhoods Who Were Not Accepted at University and Community College in the Year following their Graduation

10.6% of the 17-21 year-olds in our poorest neighbourhoods applied to university or college, but did not attend in Ontario in that particular year. A few of these will have applied to universities outside Ontario and been accepted, but this will be a small number given the high cost of having their children attend university or college away from home. I am estimating no more than .6% were accepted outside Ontario. This leaves 10% who applied but did not get in. To this 10%, add 69.5% of these 17-21 year-olds who “did not apply” largely because they were in non-university/community college bound streams or because they couldn’t afford to go on to postsecondary education and had to look for a job or because they figured they didn’t have the grades to be successful in their application.

We now have 79.5% of the 17-21 year-olds from our poorest neighbourhoods in 2004 who did not register in a university or community college in the year after graduating from high school.

Additional Factors

There are a number of additional factors to consider in dealing with this non-registration rate of 79.5%.

On the one hand, there are a number of factors that would add to this non-registration rate. They are as follows.

(1) Of the 6.5% who were accepted at community college, not all their programs of study would have had the promise of good jobs. (2) A not insubstantial number of students, who have been accepted into community college, don’t follow up their initial acceptance.

(3) There will also be a small number of students in “low income” areas who are not “low income.” We can assume (from all the TDSB research on this subject and research studies conducted elsewhere) an overrepresentation of better-off children from low-income areas among successful applicants from these areas to university and college.

(4) A significant number of 17-20 year-olds will have dropped out of school prior to the survey (March 2004) and were not included in its analysis.

(5) Finally, we might also want to consider that there will be an overrepresentation of students from poor and racialized families who drop out of their university or community college programs before graduation.

On the other hand, there are factors that would reduce the non-registration rate of 79.8%. At least two of these factors appear to be significant:

(1) A number of these non-registered students will eventually be registered at university or community college when they return as adults. While the confirmation rates of 18-year-old students are lower than 17 year-olds, and 19 year-olds are lower than 17 year olds, etc., the cumulative effect is important. This is something that has been very difficult to measure and which researchers in Toronto are now examining.

(2) Furthermore, the students in the system for the 2003-04 school year are not entirely representative of today’s students. Compared to today’s graduating class (entirely under OSS), there are a larger number of returning students in the 18 to 21 year-old category in 2003-04 graduating class. These returning students – reportedly a significant number – are less likely to have done well at school and thus more likely not to apply to university or college or to fail in that application. This should result in a larger number of current graduates (involving a larger number of 17 year-olds) applying to university and college and getting in.

It’s clear that we don’t have the data to provide a final figure on bottom streaming at the Toronto District School Board. Hopefully, further reports from the TDSB student census will allow us a more precise analysis of the representation of poor and racialized students in the various streamed programs at the board and provide a more complete picture of the board’s streaming system. What we can be clear about is that there is very significant over-representation of very poor children in our bottom streams (increasingly from immigrant families of colour), and it presents a much more disturbing picture than even the standardized test scores present.

The bottom-stream programs experienced by bottom-streamed students

The programs that direct their students to poorly paid mindless work and to a powerless role as citizens, as you might imagine, do not involve substantial intellectual, creative or technical work. They are officially “modified” to reduce the “expectations” placed on their students. They have fewer academic expectations; their curriculum is widely described as a “dumbed-down” program. And they have fewer behavourial expectations; there is less freedom for students to make their own judgment on what’s important to learn and how to act on that.

Such programs include Individual Education Programs (IEPs), a wide assortment of bottom-stream Special Education Programs (that define their students as educably-retarded or emotionally-disturbed or both in one form of another), and the Applied, Essentials/Locally Developed, Workplace, Mixed and College Programs in high school (all which assure a post-secondary dead-end for the vast majority of their graduates).

Bottom streaming can be hidden in programs like English-as-a-Second Language, in differential regular programs, and in segregated groups within the regular classroom.

Bottom streaming is also to be found in local elementary schools in poor neighbourhoods, which feed a disproportionate number of “regular” students into bottom-stream high school programs. It can be found, too, in local high schools, whose overall program has been unofficially “modified” to take into account what is seen as the lack of academic potential among its student population.

Students who have dropped out might also be considered to have been in a bottom stream throughout their schooling.

How do we respond to the absence of school “success” among bottom-streamed students and the dumbed-down programs they experience?

The official response is a bad joke.

Gerry Connelly, the retiring director of the TDSB, in responding to the test score results for poor and racialized children, tells us that poverty is growing at “an alarming rate” and that “we need to advocate for better nutrition programs, housing and social services.” This is advice from a board that is moving into its 13th year of cutbacks, expects to chop another $23.9 million from its budget this June, and makes no effort to seriously advocate for more money from the province.

But what about the classroom? What should we do there to make a difference for poor and racialized kids? Here TDSB Director Connelly tells us what every senior education bureaucrat in the province says: “We need to continue to find ways to close the achievement gap, so that our children have the skills, knowledge, hope and positive job choices to be successful.” She means closing the “achievement gap” in test scores; there is no other standard on the table. Closing the [test score] gap” is a mug’s game. It can’t be won, the kids won’t buy it, and she knows it. She knows, too, how much it guts the arts and sciences and how destructive it is for an engaging, creative and purposeful curriculum. Gerry Connelly is doing what the Ministry of Education insists she do: focus on the test scores for poor and racialized children to keep the low-level “human capital” curriculum in place.

How should we respond?

We should respond in direct opposition to this “human capital” curriculum.

Insist on a great program for all our children in school. No more bottom streaming!

Insist that all our children join their teachers in a genuine exploration of the world. Give our teachers the freedom and support needed to make this happen.

Insist that all our children be encouraged to make judgments about what they find along the way:
• what’s true, what’s false, what they don’t know;
• what’s beautiful and what’s not;
• what’s to be loved and what’s to be changed in their personal lives and in the world around them;
• what it means to strive for social justice; and
• what it means to live in harmony with the natural world.

Insist that what happens in school opens up and supports the extraordinary human potential of our students and teachers — at work and as citizens — and leads to their consistent building of community in the society that surrounds them.

Insist, finally, on well-resourced schools to strengthen this agenda, and on significant local power in our schools — a working democracy of students, parents, teachers, school board workers and engaged members of the community — to carry it out.

It’s a straightforward, obvious agenda. There’s no mystery to it. The only mystery is why we have left the government’s agenda on the table for so long.


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