New Zealand is one of the last countries in the OECD to stream classes based on ‘ability’, and mounting research shows how damaging it is – especially to Māori and Pasifika students. Yesterday marked a big step on the path to abolishing it, reports Charlotte Muru-Lanning.
Whether you were in the cabbage class for maths, the accelerated class for English or somewhere in between for science, most of us who have been through the education system in Aotearoa will have experienced streaming in some way, shape or form. Around 90% of schools in New Zealand stream their students into classes or groupings based on perceived ability. The pervasiveness of the practice lies in the belief that it helps both students and teachers progress at a pace that works for everyone.
But there are a growing number of voices in education questioning this approach. That shifting thought is based on an expanding body of research which says the practice actually does more harm than good, especially to Māori and Pasifika students.
Yesterday, at the Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) annual conference in Wellington, around 150 PPTA delegates representing 20,000 secondary teachers around the country voted unanimously to adopt a policy to end streaming by 2030. With it they acknowledged the historic and present harm caused to Māori and Pasifika students by the practice and agreed to advocate for more resourcing to enable schools and teachers to move away from streaming.
“The fact that secondary teachers have voted to end a racist policy is historic,” says Piripi Prendergast, convenor of Tokona Te Raki, a social innovation group that has spearheaded the movement. “This will be more change, more hard work for them,” he says, “but they’re taking it on the chin.”
In a statement released yesterday afternoon, PPTA president Melanie Webber explained that streaming had been masking under-staffing across the school system. “Lack of adequate staffing has led to large class sizes and streaming or banding is used to make that situation more manageable. Māori and Pasifika students bear an inequitable burden of this ‘workaround’ and this must not continue.”
The policy paper that was voted on pointed to research which found that streaming “creates and exacerbates inequity” and “helps to perpetuate influences from the social class background, by segregation of students from different social classes in different streams”.
Streaming has been on the radar for Tokona te Raki, the Māori Futures Collective, since their 2019 report He Awa Ara Rau tracking two huge cohorts of Māori rangatahi (a total of nearly 80,000 individuals) in their journeys through the education system. In 2020, they collaborated with the NZ Association of Mathematics Teachers to have a closer look at streaming by researching four North Island secondary schools that had stopped streaming in their mathematics programmes.
The research found that academic achievement improved as a result of ending streaming, especially for Māori and Pasifika students, with an increase in NCEA merits and excellences, higher student motivation, reduced social and ethnic barriers and Māori and Pasifika students studying mathematics for longer.
Streaming impacts for life
Overall, international studies show that Aotearoa uses ability grouping far more often than most OECD countries. Meanwhile, we also have some of the largest gaps between our highest and lowest achievers.
Opposition to destreaming is often based on the fear that higher-achieving students will be unfairly “stunted”. But Auckland University education professor Christine Rubie-Davies says evidence shows the opposite appears to be true: those “high-achieving” students in fact gained socially, and did not suffer academically, from being placed in mixed classes.
Rubie-Davies has been researching teacher expectations for almost two decades and says she’s found “a lot of evidence that shows teacher expectation is lower for Māori and Pasifika students with the same achievement level as Pākehā”. The problem is that once you’re put into a tier based on your perceived ability, it becomes almost impossible to shift upwards as time goes by – and that has an ongoing impact even beyond school. It means that “these decisions made really early in kids’ lives have ongoing impacts for their futures”, she says.
Rubie-Davies says the damage really begins in primary school, where children are clustered into ability groupings in which some will do challenging learning activities, while others do repetitive and mundane tasks. “As soon as you put some kids in the high group and some in the low group you’re teaching different things,” she says. “And so these differences are exacerbated over time.”
Fairfield College in Hamilton stopped streaming students two years ago. The school’s principal Richard Crawford says yesterday’s vote was “a brave and courageous decision” and he is hopeful it will encourage more schools to follow suit.
He’s been a principal for 15 years and says it took him most of his career to see the arguments against streaming. “We’re often so busy as principals we don’t even know what the literature is saying,” he says. It was when the local iwi, Waikato-Tainui, expressed their opposition to streaming that Crawford realised “something had to change”.
Because the practice is so entrenched in secondary schools figuring out how best to teach without streaming is still a work in progress, Crawford says. The transition involves challenges for management and governance at schools who must learn local iwi perspectives and get everybody on board, including concerned whānau and teachers already struggling for time and resources. “There’s leadership required to challenge the status quo,” he says. “Principals need to provide an ‘aha’ moment for everybody”.
In a 2020 interview on current affairs programme The Hui, minister of education Chris Hipkins acknowledged it was Māori and Pasifika who were most disadvantaged by the practice and for that reason in itself it shouldn’t exist. “All of the international research is very clear: streaming does more harm than good, it isn’t justified, it’s wrong, it’s discriminatory, it’s unfair,” he said.
Already, the ministry’s position is that both fixed-ability grouping and streaming are not recommended. The practices are inconsistent with the ‘high expectations’ principle of the national curriculum which aims to empower all students to learn and achieve personal excellence, regardless of their individual circumstances. Streaming has also been described as incompatible with the provisions of Te Tiriti o Waitangi that education is meant to uphold.
In February, Tokona Te Raki will release a collective action plan that will outline what every organisation they’ve got on board will do to end streaming. “The big challenge now is implementation,” says Tokona Te Raki’s Prendergast, himself a former teacher. “Both the ministry and the government need to provide resourcing.”
With the mounting evidence of the damage the practice does, there’s palpable urgency to the cause. “Every year that we continue, we’re damaging students, especially Māori and Pasifika, so we need to make haste,” Prendergast says. But, he adds, “we have to give teachers the time, training and resources to adapt.” Like copies of Hairy Maclary, school discos and Jovi crayons, streaming is bread and butter to education in New Zealand, but it seems in the near future the practice might be relegated to the past.