Restructuring for Equity: How Toronto is Strengthening Its Secondary School Pathways for All

Monica Pfister
by Monica Pfister

While the top performers vary in the approaches that have led to their high performance to-date, they share a common commitment to continuous improvement. This includes a willingness to re-examine and revise existing practices, even those central to the structure of their current education system, with an eye toward creating the dynamic, forward-looking education systems needed for the future.

The province of Ontario, Canada, provides one example. Despite high average performance in all three subjects on PISA 2015, the province has recognized that the way students currently select and progress through sequences of courses in each subject may unintentionally limit some students’ educational options. As a result, Ontario – and its capital city of Toronto – has committed to restructuring its secondary school pathways.  

Ontario’s existing system of secondary school pathways

Since 1999, Ontario students in Grades 9 and 10 have chosen either an “applied” or “academic” course in each core subject, with flexibility to choose a mix of course types in different subjects. Applied courses are not vocational education and training, which is offered later in secondary school; instead, they were designed to provide an alternative pedagogy for learning academic content, with a focus on practical applications, including hands-on learning. In all subjects except math, students can transfer between applied and academic courses in Grades 9 and 10 with no additional coursework. Students can also transfer from applied to academic math by taking a specially designed transfer course, which covers additional content and reinforces concepts needed for more advanced math courses.   

The applied and academic courses students choose in Grades 9 and 10 serve as prerequisites for specific “destination-based” courses in Grades 11 and 12, which are designed to prepare students with the subject-area knowledge and skills they will need for college, university or the workplace. For example, students interested in a career in IT can take a specific combination of courses and work-based learning experiences in Grades 11 and 12 to earn a “Specialist High Skills Major” (SHSM) in Information and Communications Technology. While pursuing this SHSM, students can also tailor their academic coursework to their desired postsecondary “destination”: college, university, the workplace or apprenticeships.

The intention of Ontario’s existing system of secondary school pathways was to keep “options open for all students” – particularly in the early years of secondary school, when there is flexibility to transfer between course types – while still providing individual students with customized educational experiences aligned to their needs, interests and postsecondary goals.

Re-examining in Ontario; restructuring in Toronto

But in recent years, the province has been re-examining the structure of its secondary school pathways in response to several concerns: first, that rising Grade 9 students were often choosing full programs of either academic or applied courses rather than mixing course types by subject, which in practice meant that they did not customize their secondary school pathways or interact regularly in their classes with a broad set of peers; second, that less advantaged students were disproportionately enrolling in applied courses, potentially limiting their access to university-preparation coursework later in secondary school; and third, that disparities in graduation rates and postsecondary outcomes had emerged between students in applied and academic courses.

Based on a review of the existing secondary school pathways structure, Ontario’s 2017 Education Equity Action Plan committed to “introducing a renewed approach to Grade 9 in which all students are supported in achieving their maximum potential and choosing appropriate pathways to work, college, apprenticeship or university.” The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) – which serves about 250,000 students, nearly one-quarter of whom were born outside of the country, and is the largest school board in Canada – is already taking steps toward implementing this vision. The TDSB has begun transitioning to all academic courses in Grades 9 and 10, meaning that by 2020, at the end of a three-year phase-in cycle, the district expects to enroll and support the majority of its students in academic-level programming.

School-level implementation

On a recent visit to Oakwood Collegiate Institute (OCI), a public secondary school in the TDSB serving Grades 9-12, I was able to see firsthand what early implementation of this plan looks like in one school, including how the school has added additional supports for both students and teachers to promote success in newly restructured pathways. OCI began its restructuring efforts in the 2017-18 school year with the introduction of its Enhanced Pathways program, in which the vast majority of Grade 9 students are placed in all academic courses. The goal of doing this is to ensure that all students have access to and are prepared to succeed in the full range of possible pathways that become available later in secondary school. All students get a strong foundation in literacy and numeracy, whether they want to pursue further education or training in a technical field or in an academic area.  

As part of the new Enhanced Pathways program, OCI has implemented a comprehensive range of supports for both students and teachers. Supports for students include: a two-week skill-building summer bridging program for incoming Grade 9 students; homework help during and after school; supplemental Learning Strategy courses to provide support alongside content coursework; specific supports designed to build literacy skills, including one-on-one reading assessment and instruction, greater choice of high-interest books in classroom libraries and more time in class for independent reading; and an additional math course to help students transition and strengthen numeracy skills during Grade 9, to be implemented next year. For teachers, OCI has provided release time to collaborate and co-plan as well as targeted professional learning opportunities with a focus on implementing innovative instructional approaches to serve mixed-ability classrooms effectively. While it is too early for quantitative measures of success, early indicators – like students’ self-reported sense of community and belonging at school, or increases in the number of books students report reading both in and out of school since the introduction of the Enhanced Pathways program – are promising.

Ontario is not the only example of a high-performing jurisdiction that is restructuring its secondary school pathways. Singapore, for example, has also recently announced a plan to introduce greater flexibility in course selection for secondary school students in 2020. Given the consistently high performance of these education systems to-date, their strategies and implementation processes will undoubtedly be worth watching. Learn more about Ontario’s education system in CIEB’s Canada overview.