Streaming unethical in primary schools

Opinion: Paul Heyward thought he was teaching students the right way decades ago but now realises the ethical approach would have been quite different.

Streaming in schools in Aotearoa is under justifiable attack.

The Tokona Te Raki anti-streaming movement has gathered pace with a number of high-profile secondary schools pledging to cease streaming, and the campaign received teacher union backing.

However streaming is also a practice embedded in the practice of primary schools across Aotearoa. For many people teaching in primary schools, ability grouping is a demonstration of an ethical commitment to learners.

The Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand (TECANZ) Code of Professional Responsibility requires teachers to use practices that support the needs and abilities of all learners. Streaming, also described as ability grouping, can be judged as an ethical choice, as the needs and abilities of learners are supported.

Or are they? Comparing my teaching practice through the 1980s and 1990s and research into the impact of streaming on children has led me to rethink my ethical stance on this.

Although there were clearly achievement gains in the lower groups, and some upward mobility, there was no doubt that the improvement in these groups did not match their higher achieving peers.

The dusty book room in the primary school I worked at was a busy place to be at 3.30 pm on a Friday. When I was a primary school teacher, I spent hundreds of hours jostling with colleagues in the narrow aisles hunting through the vast volumes of school journals, sets of shared novels and junior reader journals to select appropriate material for my instructional reading programme.

There was a certain competitiveness to this end-of-week ritual, with teachers keen to get their hands on the texts most likely to engage their readers. I still remember receiving the curt and public rebuke of a senior staff member for ‘hogging’ a journal beyond the agreed two-week borrowing limit.

The orthodoxy of the time was to group students in ability groups based on their reading age that was arrived at through diagnostic reading assessments. Once students were grouped the teacher’s job was to find reading material that was at their instructional reading level. That is, stories and articles that students could not read independently but could understand with the help of a teacher. I would typically have four or five reading groups and try to see at least three a day for a 15-to-20-minute instructional session.

I took great pride in seeing my students' reading ages increase through the year, and in some cases children moving from being reluctant readers to choosing to read for pleasure. Result!

However, in retrospect I would have to acknowledge that the greatest achievement gains in reading were for those in the middle to higher groups. Although there were clearly achievement gains in the lower groups, and some upward mobility, there was no doubt that the improvement in these groups did not match their higher achieving peers. In fact, if anything the achievement gap between highest groups and lowest groups increased.

Some 20 years later, the practice I have described above has come in for heavy criticism. The world-leading research of Professor Christine Rubie Davies from the University of Auckland into teacher expectations has revealed how harmful such ability grouping can be on those students who find themselves in the lower groups.

When the organisational practice of the classroom stratifies learners, those at the bottom internalise these inherent low expectations and, unsurprisingly, lose motivation to engage in learning. Although I had good intentions in using streaming, there is no doubt some children were further alienated from academic learning by my approach.

When we take a closer look at the Code of Professional Responsibility, it is clear that while a teacher has an ethical commitment to meeting the needs and abilities of all learners, this should be through the promotion of inclusive practices. The research now demonstrates that ability grouping leads to the exclusion of those children who consistently find themselves in low groups.

All teachers face a common ethical dilemma: “How do I distribute my limited teacher time equitably to the 30 expectant faces I see before me?” As a classroom teacher, I resolved this dilemma by dividing time between groups evenly and attempting to ensure the learning material they engaged with was at an appropriately challenging level. It is clear to me, again in retrospect, that my approach, while well intentioned, did not uphold my commitment to all the learners in my care. While my resolution to the dilemma no longer stands up to ethical scrutiny, the dilemma itself remains.

What advice do I have for our graduating primary student teachers of 2022 to settling the perennial teacher time dilemma?

First, whatever classroom organisational strategies you choose to use are going to fall flat unless they are employed in a safe and enabling classroom environment. Your students will care when they know you care.

Secondly, ensure all children are active in setting, monitoring and evaluating their own learning goals, and take responsibility to ask for expert help when it is needed.

Finally, use flexible grouping approaches to ensure students work cooperatively with a range of peers in a range of learning contexts, and avoid the downward spiral of low expectations.

There is no doubt the practices I have outlined above, while eliminating the perils of pure ability grouping, will give rise to other ethical decisions. For example, how do I ensure that students I know are struggling to reach out for the help they need? How do I ensure learning conversations that occur in mixed ability groups are not dominated by more confident and able students?

The answers to these questions are not clear but can be reached by constant teacher inquiry and reflection.

What is clear is that pure ability grouping in primary schools is no longer an ethical option.

Dr Paul Heyward is an Associate Dean and Head of Initial Teacher Education at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Streaming unethical in primary schools, 8 November, 2022 

Media contact

Margo White I Media adviser
Mob 021 926 408