Opinon: Learning stream removal requires solid supports

Last week, the provincial government announced that Grade 9 academic and applied learning streaming would end in September 2022. Maybe because I am often repelled by decisions of this government, or maybe because I thought I’d read that they were ending all streaming, my first reaction was: “Say it isn’t so!” Since that original reaction, I now applaud it, if it’s done properly.

What this means is that Ontario students in Grade 9 this coming September will simply take geography, science, math, English, and French. They won’t have to choose if they want to take the applied versions, which colleges and universities don’t recognize, or the more difficult academic versions.

Why is this important? Ontario is the last province to still use the learning streaming system in Grade 9. Streaming was found to marginalize certain socioeconomic groups and races. In Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s words: “We want to make sure that every single child, irrespective of their background, their ethnicity, their faith, every child has an equal shot of succeeding.”

I’m glad that Ontario is moving to remove one of the systemic barriers in our education system. Let’s be real for a minute.

Did you know at age 13 or 14 if your career path was going to result in post-secondary training or not? Did your teachers before high school truly know your abilities? What if you got a great teacher in Grade 9 who inspired you to work hard, break patterns even, to become the first in your family to go on to post secondary? If you were in an applied class you might never know.

I had a teacher once tell me that I’d go nowhere in the maths and sciences, and lo and behold I stubbornly defied him, graduating top of my class at university majoring in accounting. What if that teacher had been my Grade 8 teacher and I hadn’t been as stubborn? In the current system, I would have been put in an applied class, being trained for a lifetime of lower-wage jobs.

The more I think about this, Grade 9 and 10 should not be streamed. Regardless, with a change away from streamed learning, Grade 9 has to be done right. What does that mean? To build a strong foundation for all learners, teachers will need training on how to teach to an even wider dispersion of abilities than they have now. Class sizes will need to be smaller so that teachers have the time to assess and cater to their classes. There will also need to be one-on-one support for students who are not prepared for even the basics in the classes.

If teachers aren’t trained in designing differentiated learning plans to meet the various needs in a classroom, the status quo of teaching to the middle will likely prevail. Then students at both ends of the distribution will suffer. The gifted kids will be unchallenged or bored, and those less academically prepared will be struggling to keep up.

Class size is also critical to the success of this program. Anything much over 22 students in a room will make it near impossible for a teacher to be effective with universal design. Even with smaller classes, one-on-one support will be needed for students who are grades behind in their preparation.

As one friend suggested, perhaps we remove the streaming of learning for Grades 9 and 10, but we see the return of Grade 13. (Frankly, I still can’t wrap my head around my daughter being at university at age 17.)

Regardless, we know that training, smaller class sizes, and one-on-one support, cost money. Since we’ve most recently seen this government cut $500 million from their earlier education budget, I’m concerned that this won’t be done right, and an incredible burden will drop on Grade 9 teachers’ shoulders. After what we asked of them in the pandemic, I’m not sure how much more ‘pivoting’ they can take.

Bottom line, removing learning streams in Grade 9 sounds like the right idea as it could work toward removing systemic barriers; but only if the right supports are in place. I beg of this government to not skip on laying the appropriate foundation to make this work, otherwise, the house of cards will tumble.

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