High Expectations: The Challenge of the Modern Multigrade Classroom

About one quarter of Ontario’s elementary school students are in split-grade classrooms. Multigrade classrooms are not new, but the debate about them is heating up.

By Helen Dolik

Teacher Nadia Ciacci is a whiz with equations and beakers, but the one experiment she can’t pull off for her combined-grade class is splitting herself in two.

"I don’t even think a machine could be programmed to do this. You’d see blown circuits," says Ciacci, who teaches gifted Grade 5/6 math and science students at Crosby Heights Public School in Richmond Hill.

The combined-grade classroom is nothing new. It’s been around since the rural, one-room schoolhouse with a lone teacher handling multiple grades. It’s not combined grades per se that are the issue. Teachers will tell you they’ve had split grades for 20 years with creative, successful results.

So what’s the problem?

In the fall of 2000, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) formed a task force to study emerging issues of combined grades in the province. The task force produced a position paper entitled Split Decisions — The Reality of Combined Grades in Ontario in 2001.

Ciacci, who is secretary-treasurer of the York region local of ETFO and a member of the task force, says the new curriculum with its hundreds of learning expectations is a primary foe of split grades. Teaching two grade levels of expectations in the time designed for only one grade is mission impossible, she says.

The number of learning expectations can run over 1,000 in a split-grade class.

"What it comes down to is you’re teaching half-time to one group, half-time to the other group," Ciacci says. "That’s me doing a full-time job.

But what are the kids getting? Half-time teaching."


The Ministry of Education says it’s committed to the curriculum that was introduced in the province’s classrooms in 1997, but it hasn’t turned a deaf ear to the teachers’ cries for help. It has responded with workshops, training, booklets and sample units designed to assist teachers with split grades.

"The government is happy with the fact that (the curriculum) is very rigorous, it’s very advanced and there are higher standards," says Tanya Cholakov, a Ministry of Education spokesperson.

"The ministry is very confident in the teachers ... Combined grades are a reality of the province. The government does want to support the teachers in every way possible because the ultimate goal is the success of the student."

The Ontario government considers the new curriculum the centrepiece of the province’s education reform. The new curriculum, province-wide testing, standardized report cards and new teaching standards were ushered in to ensure Ontario students get a high-quality education and to increase accountability to parents.

The government organized the Curriculum Implementation Partner-ship composed of ministry staff and education partners to support curriculum implementation, Cholakov says. It meets four times a year.

The ministry, in consultation with the partnership, crafted an action plan to support teachers of combined grades. The action plan, approved in May 2000, can be viewed on the Ministry of Education web site www.edu.gov.on.ca » Elementary and Secondary » Curriculum Update » Update, December 2000.

Cholakov says the ministry responded with a number of summer workshops, training in the spring for teaching combined grades, and a booklet of practices and strategies for classroom management, lesson planning, assessment and reporting.

The ministry also designed sample units for teachers of combined grades and it is working on a public web site that includes curriculum assistance for combined grades, she says. The sample units are available on CDs or teachers can access them using the electronic Ontario Curriculum Unit Planner, a ministry software tool that was distributed to schools.


Nick Scarfo, a field co-ordinator in the Master of Teaching Program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT), is an expert on these sample units. He was an education officer at the Ministry of Education in the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch.

Scarfo co-ordinated the Elementary Curriculum Unit Project, which developed the classroom-ready materials for teachers in single and combined-grade classrooms. The Council of Ontario Directors of Education (CODE), public and Catholic school boards, and the Institute for Catholic Education (ICE) are partners in the project.

Writing teams of teachers developed sample units of study for single and combined grades in mathematics, science and technology, social studies, history and geography. There are 81 sample units for Grades 1 to 8. Four copies of the CD were sent to every school in Ontario.

"The response we’ve been receiving is very positive. The materials are very effective and very practical for classroom use," Scarfo says.

Teachers can take a unit and use it exactly as is or they can customize it to meet the needs of students in their classroom, he says. The ministry produced 25,000 CDs and began distributing them in late November 2001. That’s phase one. Phase two is underway with sample units for the arts, language, health and physical education.

"We’re hoping by the end of the school year we’ll have another set of units," Scarfo says. "That’s our target date. I’m very pleased with the project. Here’s something you can actually use."


But the lead author of the elementary curriculum for science and technology unequivocally states that the curriculum and combined grades don’t work. There’s no question the two don’t mix, says Graham Orpwood, a professor of education at York University.

"It’s a funding problem, not a curriculum problem," he says.

"The question should not be asked `how do you teach this curriculum in combined grades?’ The answer to that is it doesn’t work. The question should be `how do you eliminate split grades in order that the curriculum can be taught properly?’"

He suggests adjusting the funding formula to eliminate split grades instead of downloading the problem onto teachers and the curriculum.

"This is not a teachers’ problem, it’s a government problem," Orpwood says.

Cholakov counters that the funding formula has been designed to give greater equity to the province and to make sure school boards have the money to accommodate their students’ needs.

The Ontario government’s funding formula takes into account a ratio

of one teacher for every 24.5 elementary students and one teacher per 21 secondary students, among other factors.

The government’s education reforms were supposed to limit classroom sizes in elementary and secondary school. But a survey by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) of more than 1,000 Catholic schools in the province found 60 per cent of elementary students are in classes larger than 25 and 65 per cent of high school students are in classes bigger than 22.

The 1999 survey also showed that, on average, combined grades are generally larger than single-grade classes. Rural Ontario schools have a greater number of split grades, the survey found.


Publicly Funded Elementary Schools Enrolment in Combined Grades in
1999-2000 and 2000-2001

Combined Grade 1999-2000 2000-2001
JK an K JK K Total JK K Total
  45,185 48,967 94,152 45,334 50,546 95,880
K and Gr. 1 K Gr. 1 K Gr. 1
  1,190 1,146 2,336 1,189 996 2,185
Gr. 1 and Gr. 2 Gr. 1 Gr. 2 Gr. 1 Gr. 2
  22, 461 22, 203 44, 664 20,898 21,192 42, 090
Gr. 2 and Gr. 3 Gr. 2 Gr. 3 Gr. 2 Gr. 3
  18, 663 19,213 37,876 15,732 16,942 32,674
Gr. 3 and Gr. 4 Gr. 3 Gr. 4 Gr. 3 Gr. 4
  18,113 35,935 15,784 15,784 15,986 31,770
Gr. 4 and Gr. 5 Gr. 4 Gr. 5 Gr. 4 Gr. 5
  22,654 21,909 44,563 20,413 19,884 40,297
Gr. 5 and Gr. 6 Gr. 5 Gr. 6 Gr. 5 Gr. 6
  22,837 23,353 46,190 21,142 21,900 43,042
Gr. 6 and Gr. 7 Gr. 6 Gr. 7 Gr. 7 Gr. 8
  9,450 8,425 17,875 7,564 6,917 14,481
Gr. 7 and Gr. 8 Gr. 7 Gr. 8 Gr. 7 Gr. 8
  19,120 21,424 40,544 18,744 20,343 39,087

School September Report for selected years
Date exclude hospital/provincial schools, core & treatment facilities
Date for 2000-2001 are preliminary


The combined-grades issue is one of the top-priority items for teachers and classroom health, says Brian McGowan, program facilitator with OECTA’s professional development department. OECTA produced a combined-grades discussion paper, which has a print distribution in the thousands and appears on its web site. OECTA is calling for a curricu- lum adjustment and an immediate study of the effects of split grades on students.

One of the problems is that the new curriculum doesn’t differentiate between core and secondary learning expectations, McGowan says. The type of professional discretion that existed in the past doesn’t exist with the current curriculum philosophy.

For example, there are 131 learning expectations in a Grade 7 science and technology class. "Certainly there has to be a hierarchy of importance among those 131 expectations," McGowan says.

Teachers and students must address 1,204 expectations in a Grade 7/8 split — 601 for Grade 7 and 603 for Grade 8.

"All you have to do is the math," McGowan says. "If you have twice as many expectations and the same amount of time, you can only spend half as much time achieving those expectations."

OECTA’s discussion paper on combined grades addresses the focus on accountability and new forms of assessment, which put added pressures on students and teachers.

The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) conducts provincial testing and Ontario students are involved in national and international tests. A three-page typed report card has replaced the simple handwritten one. Teachers produce individual education plans forstudents who need them.

Things can really get complicated in a combined class with provincial testing and a cross-divisional split. In a Grade 6/7 split, the Grade 6s take the provincial test but not the Grade 7s. Report cards require letter grades for the Grade 6 students but percentage grades for the Grade 7 students. Social studies is taught in the lower grade while the Grade 7s learn history and geography.


Donna Lacavera, author of OECTA’s combined-grades paper, says teachers require more flexibility in the delivery of the curriculum and teachers of split grades need twice the preparation time to account for double the workload. The current curriculum is an improvement over its predecessor, but an unexpected consequence is the difficulties it created for combined grades, she says.

"Yes, these teachers have a daunting challenge and in many cases they’re rising to it," says Lacavera, an executive assistant in the professional development department at OECTA. "They’re doing their best to ensure that students are not disadvantaged in this setting."

The report concludes that Ontario is merging two opposing educational systems — graded and multiage. In a graded system, kids are grouped by age and grade to address the same curriculum. In a multiage system, the curriculum is adapted to the children and students advance at their own pace.

McGowan recommends a curriculum review. "It’s a huge task but it’s overdue," he says.

The Ministry of Education has no plans to tinker with the curriculum. "I don’t believe we’re going to be changing the expectations that have been laid out," Cholakov says. "But what we are willing to do is completely support teachers in implementation."

French-language schools in the province face similar combined-grade challenges.

"You almost have to wear that

T-shirt with a big ‘S’ on your chest to be able to meet all the expectations," says Robert Millaire, executive assistant at the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).

Teachers are looking for materials, resources and more preparation time for combined grades, he says.


Split Grades Are Widespread

Split grades are a fact of education life in Ontario.

About one in four elementary students study in a combined-grade classroom in the province. The number dips to less than one in 10 for secondary students.

According to the Ministry of Education, 341,506 elementary students, or 23.8 per cent, were in split grades in 2000-2001. That’s a reduction from 364,135 students, or 25.5 per cent, in 1999-2000.

Only 8.4 per cent of secondary school classes were multi-level, according to a 1999 Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association survey of class size.

Combined grades are also prevalent in the province’s French-language schools. The numbers vary from 25 per cent of elementary classes to up to 35 per cent at the secondary level, says Robert Millaire, executive assistant at the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO).

Combined grades are widespread around the world, from North America to China. Single-grade classrooms sprung from the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in the 19th century. Grouping students by single grade was based on the production line — more kids could be educated for less money.

In Canada, research indicates that one child out of five is in a multigrade classroom. That data is 10 years old.

Laurentian University’s Diane Lataille-Démoré and Angèle Fradette conducted a provincial project on multigrade classes. The December 2000 report looks at combined classes around the world.

Some of their findings are that about 50 per cent of all teachers start their career in multigrade classes in Great Britain. Multigrade classes are found in the United States, France, Pakistan, Peru and Zambia. In the Netherlands, 53 per cent of elementary school teachers teach multigrade classes. In rural areas of New Zealand, Australia and Portugal, multigrade classes keep village schools open.

Many Asian, African and South American countries see multigrade classes "as a way of providing quality educational services at a lower cost." One teacher instructs all six grades in 22 per cent of elementary schools in Mexico.

"When education systems are well-funded, multigrade classes decrease," Lataille-Démoré and Fradette wrote. "Conversely, when education systems experience severe cutbacks in funding, as has been the case almost everywhere for the past decade or two, multigrade classes grow exponentially."


The teachers’ concerns are echoed by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Handbook (ASCD), in which the issue ranks No. 2 in the chapter Avoiding the Top Ten Multiage Disasters. Disaster No. 2 warns of combining children from different grades in the same room, but still using grade-level materials, assessments and reports cards.

"A multiage program is based on the concept of children making continuous progress based on their learning rate and pace," authors Jim Grant and Bob Johnson wrote. "And, where appropriate, a multiage program enables children to take an extra year to learn without a formal change in their status.

"In contrast, grade-level designations break children’s progress into distinct segments that require formal decisions each year about each child’s promotion, retention, social promotion or grade skipping.

"Sometimes the distance between two positions is so great that there is no way to build an effective bridge between them. We believe this is the case with multiage classes and grade-level designations. The organizational and instructional differences are simply too extensive and profound."

The authors further state that the multiage approach should refrain from using grade-specific textbooks and standardized achievement tests.

The current Ontario curriculum was written in isolation and has few common themes with other subjects in the same grade or across grade levels, the ETFO Split Decisions report says.

Teachers depend on common themes to integrate various subjects and are now teaching parallel classes in the same room for a significant part of the day, it says. That eats up time. Student-teacher interaction is dramatically reduced, it says.

Penny Lebo, 11, can attest to that. She’s currently a Grade 7 student in a straight-grade class at Bowmore Public School in Toronto. But last year she was one of 10 Grade 6s in a split grade that included 23 Grade 5 students at Norway Public School. She’ll take the straight grade any day.

She says the split grades are noisier, everybody is doing different things and the teacher focuses on one grade, usually the younger grade.

"They try to make it equal for both classes," Lebo says. "You’re doing some of the Grade 5 work and some of the Grade 6 work. You only learn part of what you’re supposed to learn. For the older grade, you’ve already learned that."

She believes if her class had been a straight Grade 6 class, they would have learned more and performed better on the EQAO provincial testing.


Parents are tuning in to split-grade concerns.

Greg Reid, chair of the Ontario Parent Council, says the combined-grade issue will be raised at a future meeting for study and research.

"We’re starting to hear the concerns," he says. "We’re hearing it from both sides — teachers and parents.

Reid says the council needs more information and may invite government officials or teachers’ groups to shed some light on the subject. He says one of his sons is in a Grade 7/8 split grade and "he’s enjoying it. He’s having no problem whatsoever."

Sue Robertson, vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations, says while parents prefer their children to be in a one-grade class when possible, they accept split grades as a fact of school life.

"They know it’s a numbers game," she says. She suggests a split-grade course as one of the seven core subjects of the new professional learning program for teachers.

Annie Kidder, a founder of People For Education, says it’s hard to find a consensus on split grades.

"People have very strong feelings pro and con," she says. "If you’re asking as a parent, some people love them and some people hate them. I don’t like them that much but other people think they’re really fabulous.

"It certainly hasn’t been something that we’ve seen any kind of a groundswell of concern about. I wouldn’t say it’s right up there with your school closing or not having enough books."


Martha Foster, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council, says they’ve heard nothing about combined-grade issues at the provincial level.

She says there are concerns when a teacher’s time is split between two grade levels but some schools are so small that a number of them need combined grades.

"They need that to survive," Foster says. "If that weren’t to happen, then the schools would close and the students would be out of their community for schooling.

"The other issue is sometimes it’s not just small schools. Sometimes it’s a bigger school that ends up with a funny split of students left over."

A split class shouldn’t be bigger, if anything, it should be a little smaller because of the split nature of the class, she says.

She supports assigning experienced teachers to split grades when possible.

"The reason that would be advantageous is that for the first-year teacher every preparation is a new preparation — they’ve never done it before," Foster says. "So if a brand-new teacher had a combined grade, then he or she is doing everything brand new. Even with two or three years experience, then some of their preparations are ready."

Foster also favours keeping Grades 3 and 6 out of split-grade classes when a school can.

"If you do need to do it (combined grade), then there needs to be an alternative plan so that at times your 3s and 6s are isolated," she says.


About one quarter of elementary school students in the province are in split classes. So what can be done to make them more palatable?

ETFO, in its Split Decisions report, devoted three pages to changes the ministry, the school board and federations can make to solve combined-grade problems:

ETFO says the Ministry of Education must:

  • provide teachers with greater flexibility in the curriculum by identifying core and less-important learning expectations
  • support research studies, review the funding formula and the report card.

The report suggests schoolboards should:

  • avoid Grade 3 and 6 in split grades and avoid crossing Primary/ Junior/Intermediate divisions
  • assign the most experienced teacher to combined grades and select mature, independent learners for the classes
  • avoid placing the same student in split grades for consecutive years
  • provide more preparation time and smaller classes to split-grade teachers.

Split Decisions recommends federations and stakeholders:

  • develop lesson plans and other curriculum resources for teachers and students in combined grades
  • work with faculties of education so candidate teachers get more com-bined-grade classroom experience.


While Ontario grapples with the combined-grades issue, an inner-city school in Vancouver that embraced the multiage classroom is attracting busloads of educators. You won’t find one single-grade class at Charles Dickens Elementary School.

In 1989, Dickens adopted school-wide, multiage classes.

Six hundred students from Kinder-garten to Grade 7 study at Dickens and 26 languages can be heard mingling in the hallways of this unique school.

"It’s really child-centred," Dickens principal John Perpich says. "It acknowledges kids and where they are at. You’re not trying to put a round peg in a square hole."

Students stay with the same teacher for two or three years. It’s like a family and the teacher really gets to know the students, he says.

The Vancouver School Board, educators, parents, staff and students support this program. Dickens follows the B.C. government’s curriculum, which is more flexible than Ontario’s.

Dickens provides an alternative program within Vancouver schools.

It features:

  • school-wide multiage classes (K/l/2, 2/3/4, 3/4, 3/4/5, 4/5, and 5/6/7) with a focus on continuous student progress and long-term stable student/teacher parent relationships for two to three years
  • team teaching between pairs of classroom teachers
  • learning activities based on open-ended, integrated, thematic, co-operative approaches using varied resources.


The split-grades debate has sparked numerous books and studies. A southern California study found the majority of teachers had negative views about combined classes and preferred not to teach them. DeWayne A. Mason and Robert B. Burns surveyed teachers of combination classes for a 1995 article in the Journal of Educational Research. Many teachers remarked that they could be beneficial under the right circumstances, such as appropriate student placement and a small class size. Advantages mentioned by teachers in the study were that lower-grade stidents are exposed to advanced material and upper-grade students benefit from reinforcement.

Five of the 35 teachers interviewed preferred combined classes, but they were experienced teachers with favourable classroom conditions, such as a smaller class, gifted students or considerable leeway in designing an integrated curriculum.

Closer to home, Catherine Browne, an elementary school teacher at Keatsway Public School in the Waterloo Region District School Board, considers multigrade classrooms a key topic in education circles in Ontario. It was the subject of her MEd degree project.

Browne interviewed nine multigrade elementary school teachers in the Waterloo region for her project. She found teachers viewed independent and well-behaved students as the best candidates for multigrade classrooms. Younger students gained by acquiring more academic knowledge and an increase in confidence as the school year progressed, her findings showed. Students in the older grade level felt important because the younger students viewed them as the leaders.

"On the other hand, students in the older grade level were viewed by their peers in the single-grade class as being less smart and socially immature," Browne said.

All nine teachers said they preferred to teach a single-grade classroom, though one-third elaborated to say split grades weren’t necessarily bad.

Fostering peer co-operation emerged as a key teaching strategy in multigrade classrooms, she found.

"Students were encouraged to ask two other peers before asking an adult," she said.

Love them or hate them, people generally agree split grades are here to stay. The new curriculum has unexpectedly thrown a wrench into today’s combined-grade classroom as teachers juggle time and the ministry of education attempts to support educators with various workshops and resources. The test will be in making split grades more palatable for all.

ETFO’s paper, Split Decisions, can be viewed at www.etfo.on.ca/index.html.

OECTA’s discussion paper on combined grades can be found at www.oecta.on.ca/pdfs/combinedgrds.pdf. The ministry’s action plan on curriculum implementation for support for teachers in combined grades can be viewed on the Ministry of Education web site www.edu.gov.on.ca » Elementary and Secondary » Curriculum Update » Update, December 2000.

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