Campaign to stop schools streaming students by perceived ability grows

A growing number of schools are working to progressively remove streaming from their classrooms as the campaign for ending the model that groups pupils based on their perceived abilities builds support.

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A growing number of schools are stopping the practice, which they say reduces inequity. Source: 1 NEWS

Onslow College student Rhiannon Maccreadie was part of the student group who shared their views on streaming as part of a hui seeking feedback from rangatahi at the high school in 2018.

"I saw that my friends in the higher classes, they got to do things like calculus and things really early on and I felt like they had an advantage school-wise above us," she told 1 NEWS.

Maccreadie explained how in the first assessment she completed as a Year 9 student, which would be used to determine which class band she would be placed in for mathematics, she received a score of 48/50.

"I wasn’t put in the higher class, but people who I know who got the same score were. So, that’s why we immediately thought back to sort of a race thing, or an opportunity thing, or maybe a school thing where they’re talking to Rāroa (intermediate school)," she said.

"I wasn’t taught with the rest of the class cause I already knew what the class was learning so I always had my own book in the back of the class doing my own work."

Maccreadie asked, alongside another student, to be placed in the highest streamed maths class and was eventually moved.

Onslow College student Rhiannon Maccreadie. Source: 1 NEWS

"I think that we found that it kept people in a box, like people who were in, what we called 'foundation' or what is more widely called 'cabbage' … they would stay in that sort of class, they would never grow out of that class and it was the same in the middle classes," she said.

"I’ve learnt more with people who are smarter than me being around me."

A group of Māori students took the issue to principal Sheena Millar and later spoke at a teacher-only day.

"They said: 'Think differently about the way you’re doing things cause it impacts on us'," Millar said.

She said, as a result, the school started reviewing what different courses were being offered and what would make a difference for Māori students, which would then affect the standard for everyone.

Banding classes based on the perceived abilities of students was stopped in Year 9 maths classes.

"Brave staff took on the professional learning, wanted to learn more and are working really hard on that and they’ve done that for two years," Millar said.

The school is now planning to stop streaming Year 10 maths classes next year and to progressively review other year groups after that.

She said the school doesn’t want any student to not be challenged but is aiming to cater to the needs of every student in each class.

"Cause even if you looked at a class that was perhaps called a 'top stream', there’s a great difference in ability in there.

"You still want all of those students to have their needs met and addressed," Millar said.

She said research has shown a transition to high school sets back a child’s learning.

"What you actually need to do for students when they arrive at school is help them to feel really good about themselves [and] feel really good about their learning.

"And if they’re getting messages about what they’re not good at, it’s going to impact their ability to be able to quickly come to terms with the new setting … and build the relationships with teachers that they need to build to be able to be successful here."

Misbah Sadat, an advocate for removing streaming in schools and assistant principal at Onslow College, has been trialling two Year 11 NCEA Level 1 maths classes where students are part of the conversation on how the class is run and what they individually want to learn.

Students are assessed when they feel ready to take a test.

The approach has changed student Pip Cowley’s perception of maths and her abilities.

"I feel like I have a lot more strength to being able to continue throughout the years to have maths because I never enjoyed maths for like the past three years of my life but ever since I got to this classroom space area, I felt like I can push more and continue to bring it on," Cowley said.

The school is being supported by Tokona Te raki researchers who are campaigning to end streaming in New Zealand schools.

Executive director Dr Eruera Tarena has launched a petition calling for the Government to collect data on the streaming practices of schools and its impact on student achievement, rewrite legislative policy, and provide support to schools who want to stop streaming their students.

"This disproportionately affects Māori and Pasifika youth and so this has a really toxic impact in terms of our rangatahi, really locking them out of opportunity and in particular jobs that haven’t been invented yet in terms of the future of work and also reinforcing the stereotype that Māori are only good with their hands and not good with their heads," Tarena said.

Last year, the thinktank produced research which showed Māori were more likely to enter tertiary education and have a sufficient income if they were successful with NCEA Level 1 algebra and maths, he said.

This year, a report released on schools that have stopped streaming maths classes showed academic NCEA achievement improved particularly for Māori and Pasifika students, who also continued with the subject for longer, and the self-belief and motivation of students increased.

The report also found all schools experienced resistance to the change from staff and some whanau and that professional development for teachers to make the change and be culturally responsive was key in a successful transition.

"Streaming has more to do with stereotypes and bias than data and ability," Tarena said.

"What we know from the research and talking to our rangatahi is that our young people internalise these views so when we see that the teacher lowers their expectations of them, they feel that that’s a signal that the teacher thinks they’re dumb so therefore they are dumb and they lower their dreams and expectations of themselves and their future."

Tarena said the model has a "winners and losers" element, with the winners being students in top-streamed classrooms and their parents, who are likely to support streaming.

"Those that are in those higher streams have the highest expectations, get more time with the teachers and are really boosted on the trajectory and the opposite happens with those that are streamed into those lower-level classes."

Tarena said researchers are sensing a growing movement of pakeha educations that believe streaming is discriminatory.

"People are rallying around this, building momentum and trying to make this shift because it’s about what’s fair and right for our kids."

Chris Hipkins. Source: 1 NEWS

In a statement, Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government set expectations for the education sector through the Education and Training Act 2020 and Statement of National Education and Learning Priorities.

The Act says school board of trustees are required to give effect to the Treaty of Waitangi in schools by achieving equitable outcomes for Māori students.

Hipkins said streaming is inconsistent with the priorities of ensuring schools have high aspirations for every learner and reducing barriers to education.

"Teachers informally group students all the time in perfectly acceptable ways," Hipkins said in a statement.

"For example, they may focus their efforts more intensively with a small group within the class who need more attention in a particular area like reading or arithmetic.

"But streaming students into classes where lower overall expectations are set for some groups of learners isn’t acceptable practice."

A spokesperson for the Minister said officials are investigating streaming to see if any further action from the Government is required.

Deborah James, the executive director for Independent Schools of New Zealand which represents 47 private schools, said there are different views on streaming students throughout the sector.

"The sector does not have a uniform approach to streaming, with each school free to structure their student classes as they see fit and in the best interest of meeting different students’ learning needs," she said in a statement.

James said some private schools stream classes in some subjects and some don’t.

Dr Kevin Shore, chief executive for the Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools, said he believes that streaming can widen inequities in students but that it is each school’s decision and not a subject that members have raised with the organisation.

Shore said there is strong support from streaming in some communities, with parents used to the model and wanting to see it continue.

He said some schools believe streaming allows teachers to effectively meet the learning needs of students and that it’s easier to teach students at the same perceived ability level.

Shore said there is a perception among some schools that top-streamed students can be "pushed a bit harder" through the approach.

A 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study that involved over 5000 Kiwi 15-year-old’s showed over 95 per cent of New Zealand students attended schools where streaming occured in at least some of their school’s maths classes, compared to 76 per cent on average for OECD nations.

There were more students who attended schools where all maths classes were streamed in New Zealand in proportion to Singapore, Canada and the OECD overall but less than in the United Kingdom and Australia, the 2012 report stated.

PISA stated in the report there is "no evidence to support a positive relationship between ability grouping and maths achievement".