Starting this school year, all grade 9 math classes in Ontario are being offered in only one stream. In previous years, students chose one of three streams (academic, applied, or essential) which had different curriculum expectations and assessment methods. Generally, students taking academic math in grades 9 and 10 then took “university” level math in grades 11 and 12, while applied students moved to “college” level math. Most subjects (English, French, sciences, and geography) are streamed in all grades, while some are not streamed at all, such as the arts, physical education, and Spanish.
The Government of Ontario is de-streaming grade 9 math in order to create more equitable education, and “remove barriers for all students, including racialized children in Ontario,” according to Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce. Research has shown that Black, Indigenous, and low-income students have been disproportionately forced into the applied stream, which limits their educational pathways during and after high-school.
Leona Novotny, the head of Nepean High School's math department, has been teaching math for over thirty years, and is now halfway through her first semester teaching a de-streamed grade 9 class. In her opinion, the de-streaming seems to be overall beneficial to students, but some aspects of the change have been challenging.
First of all, she observes that the COVID-19 pandemic is still having a considerable negative impact on learning, which makes it difficult to evaluate the effects of de-streaming. Students have entered her class with significant differences in knowledge, caused by wildly different experiences in grade 8 math. Also due to the pandemic, all courses are now taught in 2.5 hour periods, which she finds are too long for her students to focus on math.
Ms. Novotny recognizes that, “There are now larger gaps in skills and knowledge between my students, since in past years they would have been in different streams. This is challenging for teachers, who have to keep all their students engaged, while making sure students who struggle a bit more are keeping up.” To deal with this, she has had to prepare much more than usual for each of her classes, with extra activities and multi-level worksheets for different students.
Further, a lack of course-specific resources has created issues for her department. The implementation of the de-streamed curriculum feels rushed, because teachers do not have a textbook for this new course, and they haven’t received much guidance on exactly how to manage classes of mixed-level students. This means Ms. Novotny and her colleagues have had to spend more time developing their own strategies and extra-detailed lesson plans.
On the bright side, she likes the effect this new model is having on students with low confidence in their math abilities. She says they are being “brought up by the challenges of the curriculum and by the environment of the class,” and surprising themselves with their success. For many students, having a higher bar is pushing them to try harder, and thus they achieve more.
Since she has only been teaching the de-streamed class for two months, Ms. Novotny said it is too early to say definitively if it’s a positive change. However, she hopes that once the effects of COVID-19 wear off, and teachers have had more time to adjust to the new system, it will create a net gain for students.
Recently, the Government of Ontario announced their plan to de-stream all other grade 9 classes beginning next fall. As these math classes have shown, the new approach will create unique challenges for each subject, but hopefully it will also offer more equity and opportunities for all students.