What is the purpose of education? This is a loaded question, and depending on your own personal and professional philosophies, there could any number of different (if not heated) debates over the answer to the question. I am in no way going to attempt to answer this in this post. However, I do want to highlight one generalization; that a large portion of education is, in essence, to prepare our students. To prepare them for what, you might ask? Well, for many things I suppose. It's about laying a foundation. Children often attend daycare, which prepares them for school (think ABC's and 123's). Elementary school can then be seen as a way to prepare students for the secondary level, which in turn, prepares students for one of many pathways (workforce, college, university, military, etc.). I say pathways, because that is the terminology that is used.
At the secondary level, we guide students along this path through the process of streaming. Although, we sometimes don't like to use this term. When I went to school, there were a few streams, including general and advanced classes. These same streams exist today, but they have different names to try to reflect the pathway that each student is working toward. Most students are now placed in either the workplace/essential, applied or academic levels. The applied changing to college level and the academic changing to university level in grade 11. In theory, this makes the most sense; have students work at a level that will help them be successful in obtaining the pathway of their choice by the end of high school. But who decides this pathway? Well, ultimately, the parents do. Teachers and principals give recommendations and even the students give their input as to what they would like to do, but the final decision rests with the parents, and rightly so. However, this can often cause some difficulties. Parents who have themselves, earned a university degree, often want the same for their children (teachers are often guilty of this). By no means is there anything wrong with this either. What can happen though, is despite recommendations from professionals (teachers and administrators), sometimes parents want their child to go into the academic/university stream no matter what, with the expectation that as long as their child 'tries and works hard', everything will work out. There seems to be a growing fear that if they place their child in the applied stream, they are closing doors. I often explain to parents that by taking applied level courses, you are not closing any doors. Students who take applied level courses can still get into university programs, but may need to take a couple of extra steps. Also, students do not need to set their academic sights on university. There is nothing wrong with obtaining a college diploma. In fact, there is a growing trend to earn a diploma over a degree, since the number of university graduates without employment is increasing, while more and more college graduates have jobs (in some cases higher paying than those with degrees).
As I explain this to parents, sometimes I use an analogy of an actual stream. Streams have shallow or deeper waters. In the shallow waters, even if you don't have all of the skills needed to swim, you can still work toward learning these skills and eventually make it to the deeper waters if that's what you want. However, if you jump straight into those deeper waters without the necessary skills, you will be in over your head so to speak. Of course, things can be done to help keep you afloat, but will this ever help you tread water all on your own?
If students are placed in the wrong stream, it can have a significant impact on their academic performance, their self-esteem, and in the end, their life goals (even if they don't know what these goals are yet). This is a huge issue, especially when it comes to mathematics. I have found in my position this year (student success) that many of these students are not in the proper math stream. We educate students on math pathways, but many continue to perform poorly on tests and assignments, and it isn’t for a lack of trying. Math is one of those subjects that can be very difficult to grasp for some students. Sometimes we can catch this early, and try to make changes to their timetables. However, the final decision still rests with the parents and the fear of limiting their child’s academic opportunities often wins out. To try and prevent this, I have worked on a collaborative inquiry team to try and come up with a way of recommending streams with some facts and data to back this up. Diagnostic assessments of what is expected at the academic or applied math levels could be given to grade 8 students, and recommendations could be made based on these outcomes. Information booklets containing examples of math questions from each stream, as well as careers linked to each stream, could be given to parents to ensure that they are properly informed. If students are in the wrong stream in mathematics, it can cause them to fall behind…quickly.
I am not sure if there is really a solution, but this is something that deserves some exploration. If we are to prepare our students properly, they need to be able to meet with success in the math courses they are taking. Most of all, they need to know that it’s okay if they are not taking academic/university level math courses in high school. Sometimes you simply need to go with the flow, rather than fight the current.