What's wrong with grouping kids by perceived ability?

10 October 2022

In an article on The Conversation, academics including University of Canterbury Dr David Pomeroy, Kay-Lee Jones and Associate Professor Sara Tolbert explore the decision to end classroom streaming,

  • George teaching hero shot
Sustainable Development Goals 10 - Reduced Inequalities

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 - Reduced Inequalities

Aotearoa New Zealand’s high school teachers’ union recently approved a policy to end streaming – also known as “ability grouping” – in New Zealand high schools by 2030. The primary teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa took a similar stance in March 2021.

Supporters of streaming argue it enables teachers to focus on learning that is most appropriate for the particular achievement level of each class, and to direct extra resources to struggling students.

However, organisations including the Ministry of Education and Iwi Chairs Forum have spoken out against streaming, and policies on Māori and Pasifika education describe streaming as harmful and discriminatory.

But for a nation’s two main teacher unions to move so decisively against streaming is, as far as we know, unprecedented internationally.

So what does the new PPTA Te Wehengarua high school teachers’ union policy actually say? And is it backed by research?

We take a closer look at of the core two claims about streaming that have stirred debate.

Is streaming really discriminatory and racist?

The PPTA policy claims “streaming creates and exacerbates inequity” and “Māori and Pasifika students bear an inequitable burden” from the harms of streaming.

International research shows that streaming actively widens differences in achievement, self-confidence, and enjoyment of school between students in high and low streams.

There is also overwhelming national and international evidence that streaming produces racist and classist outcomes and some studies (and the PPTA policy) link streaming to historically racist policies.

Research from England shows a widening gap in both achievement and self-confidence from age 11 to 13 when students are streamed for maths and English. Students in top streams increase in achievement and self-confidence compared to students in middle streams.

But importantly, students in top streams are not necessarily the highest achievers. Evidence has also shown that girls, Black and Asian students are more likely to be allocated to a lower level maths class than White students, regardless of where they should be placed based on achievement. Black or Asian students are also more likely to be allocated to a lower level English class than White students.

In other words, streaming reinforces racial and gender achievement gaps and racist stereotypes, going against the idea that all children get a fair go in our public education system.

Research from Aotearoa also reflects these trends, showing that teachers underestimate the achievement of Māori students and overestimate the achievement of Pākehā students in primary, intermediate, and secondary schooling.

When teacher expectations are low, the students are placed into low-level ability groups or streams, often completing mundane, repetitive tasks. Certainly, their learning activities are very different to those of students in the top groups or streams.

This creates a visible gap between the higher and lower achievers. As students go through school, the gap gets wider. Students become disillusioned, lose self-esteem, motivation and engagement when they are continually told through grouping and streaming that they are “not good enough”.

Yet, when students from lower-level groups or streams are given the same opportunities as those in the top groups, they do just as well as those who supposedly had more ability.

Proponents of streaming argue that all students are equal but learn differently, however, the very structure of the streaming system communicates a different message.

Is the proposal to end streaming by 2030 realistic?

So what needs to happen to make the PPTA’s new policy a reality?

It is very possible for streaming and ability grouping to end in Aotearoa by 2030, but it will take a massive and coordinated effort.

Moving away from streaming and ability grouping will work best if everyone works together – including teachers, principals and others working in schools along with government agencies like the Ministry of Education, New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the Teaching Council.

Iwi (Māori tribal) groups and the wider community have a role to play as well.

It is essential that we have a shared understanding of why the change is important and a shared plan for how to get there.

If streaming and ability grouping is to be removed from our schools, then something needs to be put in its place. We need to keep developing and sharing effective ways of teaching without streaming.

Successfully moving away from these practices is a multi-year project for a school. Transitions that are not well planned can lead to the failure of de-streaming initiatives, and strong leadership is vital to support sustainable reform.

Teachers are already under huge workload pressure, so this needs to be supported with time for them to learn and plan.

With brave leadership, careful and coordinated change, professional development and – most importantly – government investment to support schools through the change, by 2030 we might very well be living in a streaming-free Aotearoa.

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Media contact:

  • Email: media@canterbury.ac.nz Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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