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Ontario Education: Destreaming Grade 9 Makes A Problem Worse, Not Better

I am a mom of two awesome children who teach me more than I ever thought possible. I love writing, exercise, movies, and LGBT advocacy.

Destreaming Grade 9 Will Cause Bigger Issues


Hey, Mr. Lecce - Can You Examine An Idea Before You Mandate It?

A number of days ago, in late June or early July 2020, Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce, who is a young, privately schooled politician with no children of his own, announced that the practice of streaming classes at the Grade 9 level was going to end. For those who don't work in education and who may not necessarily understand what this means, let me explain.

Starting in high school, students are "streamed" into three separate groups: Academic, or students who might ultimately be going to university or at least require courses that are fast paced, often very based in theoretical ideas, and encourage a great deal of critical thinking and analysis; Applied, which often involves a more hands-on approach, often introduces ideas less based in theory, and is ideal for students who are considering going to college; and Locally Developed, which really often focuses on the practical end of ideas and is for students who might struggle in an Applied level class due to cognitive or learning challenges that they might experience.

Mr. Lecce announced that for students in Grade 9, this was going away, I'd imagine for the start of the 2021-2022 school year as timetabling has already occurred for the 2020-2021 school year. There are big problems with this.

First of all, let me just say that I do understand and appreciate that Lecce says the motivation behind this has to do with getting rid of practices that are racist and discriminatory, and I do acknowledge that there are those that might have been encouraged, if not told outright, that they belong in certain streams simply because of their ethnicity, their gender, or both. It is grossly unfair to make a decision about someone's educational future - and ultimately, their career - based on their ethnic background.

However, as a parent and as a teacher, the practice of streaming students is one that has its benefits and while I acknowledge no system is absolutely perfect, the educational benefits to students, to teachers and ultimately to parents cannot be denied.

From the parental perspective, I know that my oldest would have completely floundered in a destreamed math course. She has a diagnosed math disability, and when she took Grade 9 Academic math, she found the course frustrating and struggled a lot because it moved quickly and she was struggling with the concepts being introduced. She felt lost and stupid, and while she was encouraged regularly to reach out to the teacher - or anyone else who was good at math, for that matter - for help, she hated to do so and her grades were lower because she felt that she was in over her head.

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We moved her to a Grade 10 Applied Math course this year, and she became a student who felt more confident and successful in math, and her grades reflected that. She actually had fun a number of days in the course because she felt successful, and while she did have to get some help with some ideas, the applied level class worked extremely well for her. In a destreamed system, especially because she's a relatively quiet student (I know this because several of her teachers have told me as much) who is very reluctant to ask for help, she would be lost.

What happens in a destreamed class is this, more or less: academic kids work independently, for the most part, and cause little to no issue because they're either working or have their work done with no issue. There's the occasional student who is bored and might cause some trouble, but for the most part, these are the kids teachers don't worry too much about because they'll do their work and cause no issue. Applied students, who generally require more direction and will ask more questions than the academic kids, typically, (because they might be uncertain about what to do) will pull focus on the teachers. Those kids who are waiting for their turn for the teacher's attention might cause behavioral problems and pull other kids off task, thereby causing focus issues for the academic kids, who might be distracted by whatever the other kids are doing and they, in turn, will get frustrated because they can't concentrate. Those applied students who are able to work well on their own might also be frustrated by those who are not on task. The locally developed students, who typically need a great deal of direction and questions answered because they do tend to struggle a lot, might be lost altogether because the "middle kids" in the class typically are the ones who get most of the attention in a destreamed setting. This is through no fault of the teacher; the teacher is, however, only one person and can only help so many students through the course of a 75 minute period, which is what I typically teach at my local high school. If the teacher is busy helping a bunch of kids with questions, plus managing the various behaviors of those who are struggling, or who might not be working because they have given up because they feel the material is just too hard for them, plus trying to just keep moving forward with the curriculum because he or she also has to make sure these kids are ready for the next grade level, and he or she is dealing with 30 students in a Grade 9 classroom, how is that helpful for our students?

There is evidence that destreaming a class can be successful for students; however, that's provided the class is smaller and has extra support. Funding continues to go down for education, and educators aren't magicians. The number of educational assistants continues to drop from one year to the next, and teachers are regularly expected to do more with fewer resources, so how can we just magically expect to put 30 kids - the cap for academic classes right now in Grade 9, and there's no way that Lecce will support having fewer kids - of vastly different educational capabilities in a class with just a teacher and expect our kids to magically come out with the abilities we need them to have?

Yes, education needs to change and evolve with our ever-changing times, but at what cost to our students? At what cost to our educators' mental health as they burn themselves out trying to make things work?

Study an idea from all angles thoroughly before you make it official, Mr. Lecce.


James on April 21, 2021:

Excellent post! I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why this isn't the best idea, besides the fact that it has already been tried and failed already. Sadly, since they are wrapping destreaming under the guise of "helping" racialized students it's very hard to try to speak against it.

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