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Answered by Jennifer Wotherspoon, OCT, Student Success Lead Teacher, Halton District School Board

In order to provide a more equitable education system, the Ministry of Education intends to de-stream grade 9 classes in Ontario schools in the fall of 2021. Streaming was originally intended to group students by their learning styles in order for them to be more effectively supported and accommodated in the classroom. However, streaming has been found to compound student inequality when low-income or otherwise marginalized students are disproportionally encouraged into the applied stream due to teacher, administrator, or structural biases. Despite its good intentions, the issue of de-streaming has raised concerns for many teachers in Ontario.

Academic vs. applied: What’s the difference?

Separating courses into applied and academic streams allows educators to provide individualized attention, lessons, materials and resources to support students. Applied classes have a stronger focus on skill development and learning strategies, targeting practical application. The aim is for students to learn strategies and skills that they can apply to different situations and environments, such as the classroom, the workplace, and when communicating in personal and professional capacities. Students work at an individualized pace in order to effectively apply other learning strategies such as self-advocacy, goal setting, focusing and staying relaxed when things are difficult, to assist them in better understanding current and future course materials. In academic classes, lessons and resources are focused on skill development with an emphasis on autonomy and critical thinking. Academic classes tend to progress at a quicker pace, in order to help students adapt to fast-paced learning environments, such as those they could encounter at university.

Regardless of the learning style or the presence of a learning disability (LD), students are currently given the choice as to what stream they wish to pursue, as both streams are designed to support the success of all students. Both streams can provide the necessary resources to help students reach their goals and potential.

Should academic and applied streams be amalgamated, there is a possibility that students who require more support - such as students with LDs  - could fall through the cracks. Educators should be aware of the following potential challenges that may be caused by de-streaming:

1. It may be harder to identify and support the needs of students with LDs

In both applied and academic streams, students are generally informally assessed on their knowledge and skillset at the beginning of the semester or school year via diagnostic activities and tasks such as small written pieces, quizzes, etc. This is done so teachers can plan and differentiate materials, lessons, activities, and accommodations based on the different needs of their students.

When both streams come together, students will continue to have options in terms of how they demonstrate their understanding; however, lesson delivery strategies may not be as differentiated as the assignments. For students who can follow with ease, this presents less of a problem, as these students are more likely to seek help or clarification if needed as the lesson moves along. Conversely, students with LDs may be less likely to ask for help when they don’t understand. If lessons go too quickly, students could become overwhelmed, shut down, and not ask for help in fear of singling themselves out and/or being compared to other students. Varying levels of student confidence could hinder student participation, which in turn makes it harder for the teacher to assess the students’ level of comprehension and whether to move forward with the lesson or review parts of it again. In a class where you have very high achieving students who have strong independent learning skills, as well as students who require more coaching, prompting, explanation, and time, students in need of extra support and/or with learning disabilities are less likely to be identified. As such, not all students would receive equal opportunities and time to understand the lesson. When student needs are masked, learning requirements cannot be differentiated and students with LDs may fall behind.

2. De-streaming could impact student mental health

Students often compare themselves to peers in order to assess their own knowledge, abilities, and success. In streamed classes, where students are grouped with peers who share their learning styles, students may be comforted by the fact that when they work together on group projects, they are using similar skillsets and are working on developing strategies together.

If classes are de-streamed, students would be comparing themselves to a larger group of students who may have stronger skill sets, which could have a negative impact on self-esteem and self-worth. This could also increase anxiety among students who are overwhelmed by large classes and the environment and expectations of those classes. Students with LDs often struggle to adapt to new environments that present different structures and routines that may be out the norm for them. As they may lack the resilience of their peers, attempting to adjust without support could increase anxiety and self-doubt. For students with learning disabilities, observing their peers easily adapt, while they themselves struggle, could lower their motivation to understand material and complete assignments. This, therefore, interferes with the resilience required to move forward.

3. Larger class sizes may make differentiation harder

Streamed classes, particularly applied classes, are often smaller. This small size allows teachers to support students during class time more frequently, differentiate materials, provide a choice of format for assessments and evaluations, and can allow students who require extra time or resources to work independently while other students carry on with other activities. However, in larger classes, it is a challenge to differentiate not only the lesson plan and execution but also the course materials, to accommodate so many different learning needs and requirements. This could be especially challenging for teachers who have taught in only one stream.

For teachers who have taught mostly applied classes, it is not out of the ordinary to spend large amounts of class time cultivating relationships with students and providing additional time for opportunities to improve and apply feedback. Teachers who have taught mostly academic classes are experienced in maintaining a steady lesson pace, as well as differentiating expectations in order to equally support their students. If teachers are new to teaching one group of students compared to the other, not only can it be overwhelming and time-consuming to adapt to new course requirements, but individual student needs may be overlooked. Teachers will have to rework what overall expectations will look like and how these expectations will be equitable for all students in de-streamed classes.

What you can do to support students with LDs in de-streamed courses?

When the Ministry of Education moves forward with de-streaming classes, classroom dynamics will be essential to the success of the students in them. To better support students, those with learning disabilities in particular, in de-streamed classes, it will be crucial to reinforce a positive space and inclusive learning environment on a daily basis.

Teachers work hard to promote and create inclusive safe spaces for students to learn and make mistakes. They are good at modelling a positive attitude towards mistakes and needing additional support when making corrections. However, within a de-streamed class, it may be necessary for students, as well as the teacher, to model these skills and behaviours, allowing the students with LDs to see and learn from the skills of their peers. Providing opportunities for student mentoring and leadership will help to challenge and support stronger students and will help to build confidence and independence in students who require more support, notably students with LDs. Stronger peer relationships would help to increase feelings of comfort in the learning environment, leading to stronger skill development such as self-advocacy, participation, and self-regulation.

In any attempt to make learning environments more equitable, educators must not overlook new inequities they may inadvertently be creating. By de-streaming classes, we risk having more students in need, as well as students with LDs fall through the cracks by not receiving the additional support they require in order to reach their potential. There may be negative implications for the mental health of students who face new pressures and expectations with fewer resources. In their attempts to compensate students for what they no longer have in streamed classrooms, teachers may face more challenges in creating and differentiating lessons and resources in order to provide equal opportunities for all students. Moving forward, teachers will need to be vigilant in ensuring a positive and inclusive classroom environment, one in which student-student and student-teacher relationships are cultivated and supported in order to maintain an equitable, comfortable learning environment that will foster the success of every student.