No, I do not support “streaming”

One of the most accessed courses on my Conscious Inclusion Bundle is “Mixed Ability Grouping for High Ability Kids” and there is good reason for that. Grouping confuses teachers and parents.

If you have been following any New Zealand media, you will have seen the headlines that the key teacher unions in NZ (NZEI and PPTA) are rejecting streaming. What may surprise you is that I agree with them.

The concern I do have is that people are associating all forms of ability grouping with streaming and this is not the case.

Streaming, as it has been done across Aotearoa, is where students sit one form of testing (usually on Maths and/or English and sometimes Reasoning, in a secondary context) and then they are placed in a class with students who scored similar on that particular test. They then stay in that class for at least one year if not more. Some schools move students down if they feel that they are not “performing well enough” to be in the higher levels. This can happen at the once a term or after school tests or examinations. If we go back into history, at least one well known NZ school used to publish the “top student” in the school to the “bottom student” in the school in their annual School Magazine. The impact on of all of this on students’ self-efficacy is detrimental.

So why is streaming a problem?

The PPTA state “streaming creates and exacerbates inequity” and “Māori and Pasifika students bear an inequitable burden” as part of the problems with streaming. The single data selection, coupled with it being testing based means that only your ‘high achievers’ (note I am deliberately not using the word gifted) who test well end up in the “top classes”.

We miss many, many gifted students in streamed schools – simply because they are not high achievers who test well. Think of our multi-exceptional kids (those who are gifted plus have a learning issue e.g. dyslexia, dyscalculia, autism etc.), they often end up in the “bottom classes” despite the level of their cognitive ability being beyond same aged peers.

Another problem is that the streamed classes are often decided by one or two subject areas. So if they are tested in English and Maths and ranked on that, it is automatically assumed that they will be at the same level with Science and Social Studies – and this is often not the case.

I have completed a substantial number of reviews of gifted and inclusive education across the country and I know from the qualitative data collected that there is less differentiation happening in streamed classes. Yet, there is still the range of abilities in a “top class”. I have also seen more advanced work given to students in a lower class compared to a “top class” simply because the teacher was using pre-assessment and responding to the needs of the child. This was not happening in the “top class” where there was still the one size fits all model.

The Conversation states “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.” This is the argument I hear frequently and it is a valid argument.

In the same way that “class size makes a difference” is a valid argument. But with both of those arguments it actually not about the system (streaming or class size), it is about how the teacher teaches. Hattie’s research on class size says that it does NOT make a difference… unless the teacher teaches differently. That is the detail in the meta-analyses. If the teacher teachers differently due to the class size then there is a big difference.

It is the same with supporting students to learn at the appropriate level. That can happen in mixed ability classes with greater success than streamed classes – provided our teachers know how to find the zone of proximal development of the students and know how to provide qualitative differentiation.

If they don’t… then streaming sounds like a preferable option for many parents and whānau but there are issues I have seen in streamed schools:

  • Less identification and catering of gifted students beyond the top class. There is an underlying belief that only those in the top class can be “gifted”
  • Lack of differentiation across the board. Reliance that the class itself is a homogenous ability and a one size fits all is the way to go
  • Severe issues around the gifted identification numbers with girls and Māori/Pasifika being lower in their representation
  • Lower self-efficacy issues from gifted students who did not “make” the “top class”
  • More behaviour issues from gifted underachievers.

Key point to remember – streaming is only one form of ability grouping

The removal of streaming does not mean the removal of ability grouping. As I said earlier, teachers need to find the Zone of Proximal Development (or Goldilocks Zone – not too easy, not too hard) to have the students make “at least one year’s progress for one year’s input” (my favourite John Hattie quote).

Within classes, we need to use flexible grouping. In the same way, we are flexible in our adult education pursuits. If I am enrolling in a new yoga class, I want it to be in my Goldilocks Zone. If I am taking a painting class, I want to be learning with people at the same level of me. But if I am out doing a tour of Zealandia, I am more than happy to be with people of the mixed content knowledge and ability.

Carolyn Coil, a specialist in differentiation, uses this key question to group students:

What are my learning outcomes, and how can I group students in order to accomplish them?

Sometimes this will be in ability, and sometimes it will be mixed. It will always be flexible.

So how does that work in systemic organisation?

With schools that I work with, we look at clustering students according to class organisation in years 3-10. In clustering, you are aiming to have mixed ability classes but only four levels (which span cognitive levels) within that class so that it can support the planning and pedagogy of the teacher.

This is not a simplistic system and people often see it on the surface as streaming – it is not. It is about identifying four cognitive abilities from a range of data points and ensuring that there is not too wider range of abilities in one class. This makes it easier for the teacher to target the specific learning growth of students. So when the teacher plans, they know the zone of proximal development that they are planning for. Students are able to work with a range of abilities (when that is associated with the learning intention) and there are no “top” or “bottom classes”.

What about extension classes?

On some occasions I do work with large schools to set up extension classes for gifted students – these are not a “top streamed class”.  In these classes, we use triangulation on multiple data points to find 30 students who have increased, as Gagné would say, “ease and speed of learning” and that need to go much harder, faster and deeper in their learning.

I prefer that these classes are not known as the “gifted” class as then there is an assumption that there are no other gifted students in the school. The reason that I only do this in large schools, is because of the larger sample size. It means that there are 30 students who need something so profoundly different that it cannot be given in the regular classroom.

We use Passow’s criteria for these classes:

  • Would every child want to do it?
  • Could every child do it?
  • Should every child do it?

For all planning in extension classes, the answer to the above question needs to be “no”.

If you would like to know more about mixed ability grouping for high ability students or clustering grouping, I have online courses on both of these. Or, as always, feel free to drop me an email.