Sunday, November 26, 2023

Benjamin Macintyre: Class divides streaming in our schools

Many readers will remember being in streamed classes at school. Perhaps you were in a top English class but a lower maths class.

Streaming is commonplace in New Zealand schools and has been for a long time. But recently, influential critics have called for a ban.

Responding to these calls, The Initiative’s new report, Class Divides: The impact of streaming on educational achievement and equality, explores both the local and international evidence on the educational effects of streaming.

We found a lack of data on the prevalence of streaming in New Zealand schools. We know from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data that it is widespread. But, the Ministry of Education doesn’t have specific information on which schools stream, how those that do stream go about it, or its effects in the New Zealand context.

Critics argue that streaming exacerbates educational inequality. In New Zealand, they have claimed that it negatively affects Māori and Pasifika students, who are disproportionately placed in low streams. There is evidence that these critics have a point.

Māori and Pasifika students are, unfortunately, frequently stereotyped as poor learners. Māori and Pasifika students placed in low streams can easily come to believe that the stereotype applies to them, as individuals.

This phenomenon is known as stereotype threat. When students who are subject to negative stereotypes are placed in low streams, it can undermine belief in themselves as capable students. They can become demotivated and disengaged. In this way, a stereotype can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But stereotype threat can be counteracted with clear learning goals and formative feedback.

In favour of streaming, it is easier for teachers to pace instruction to students at similar stages of learning. That is particularly important in subjects like mathematics. For example, before students can understand fractions, they must thoroughly understand division. If prerequisite knowledge is not solidly learned before attempting to build on it, students can become overwhelmed and confused, and be left behind.

Debate about streaming is often emotive. Proponents and critics alike have dug trenches. The debate has been raging for over a century.

In Class Divides, we argue that the evidence on streaming is more nuanced than those on either side of the polarised debate would suggest. Rather than a ban on streaming, our report calls for a systematic study of streaming in New Zealand’s classrooms. Schools could then retain, modify or abandon streaming in the light of evidence.

Benjamin Macintyre is a Research Assistant at The New Zealand Initiative. This article was first published HERE


Robert Arthur said...

Failing students to their level worked remarkably well in the 1920s. Students emerged with much better abilities than today and were not all conned into believing they were as good as the next so were not so discouraged in real life after school. A problem is reinstating those who prove not genetically thick and/or lazy and who are not captured by the attituded of the low acheivers. But a teacher in the higher class only has this tiny promoted subset to consider, not many subsets, many without ability or motivation.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

Most of the attitudinal problem with regard to streaming is the tacit assumption that education is all about teaching everyone the same things using the classes made up of the brightest kids as benchmarks and watering down the curriculum as we move from the brightest to the dullest streams. This is what I call the 'vertical' view of school education.
I would advocate a more 'horizontal' approach whereby curricula are customised for particular groups of learners. We can start giving the academically brightest pupils traditional academic curricula from about intermediate level while devising different curricula for other groups e.g. more 'applied' science as opposed to the more abstract 'theoretical' science.
At upper secondary, students self-stream through subject choices. But we have to get away from seeing all non-traditional-'academic' schooling as second-rate. The European systems do this very well by tracking pupils into subject combinations and curricula depending on not only ability but also aptitude, with an eye on the transition to post-school education and training for a career.
Teachers/schools who do not like streaming can adopt a procedure called differentiated instruction which is effectively streaming within the four walls of a classroom. Hard yakka for teachers, though, but works very well at primary school level in the context of basic skills such as literacy and numeracy.
It's time to start think laterally rather than adhering to outdated vertical models.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek said...

PS I'd like to add that the technical and vocational tracks that arise from curricular differentiation above primary level are as viable as the 'elite' academic track.
The story I like to tell in this context is that of Rudolf Diesel who won a scholarship that could have taken him to the finest German universities but instead he opted for the München Technical College.

Anonymous said...

How racist is it of the previous govt to imply that maori and pacific kids are all likely to he in the lower classes if streamed? What bullocks. Streaming makes sense so that students aren't held back. We were all streamed but they didn't tell us, you are the bright class and you are the thick class. It doesn't work like rhat. Typical socialist garbage to dumb down everyone.