A continuing downward trend in New Zealand PISA results was highlighted in The New Zealand Herald recently. John Hattie suggested streaming was a key element in sustaining these negative results.
The negative effects of streaming have long been known from research and are well documented. I do not think that changing that practice alone will be the solution, but it would certainly be a positive step. So why do secondary schools not embrace and apply the research?
I will put forward my theory based on observations and discussions with many secondary schools. Firstly, the government has been very successful in promulgating a target of 85% achieving NCEA 2. This move on the part of government is soundly based in goal theory and research which tells us that goals are effective when they are absolutely clear and important to all. The National government has got this 100% right – everyone knows that one target. Further, secondary schools generally believe that it is achievable even though for many it is challenging, and they are committed to that target.
This drive for 85% NCEA achievement in schools that are situated in low socio-economic communities, is a tough ask when they may suffer from poor student attendance levels, high levels of student transience, challenges retaining students at school and poor prior levels of literacy and numeracy achievement. But schools in these more challenging settings are nonetheless, in my experience, committed to achieving that 85% target.
So they respond to get the result in the best ways they can. They are committed so they put a great deal of energy and creativity into close monitoring of results (an effective strategy) and to creating pathways to allow as many students to succeed as they can. Unfortunately, in the effort to get more students ‘across the NCEA 2 line’ schools sometimes provide students with pathways that may limit their academic learning by using standards that do not require a high level of literacy. For example, recent New Zealand research has indicated that students in lower SES schools (many of whom are Māori and Pasifika) are being provided with fewer opportunities to read texts, are reading shorter texts than students in higher SES schools, and are experiencing significantly less explicit teaching of literacy skills (Wilson, Madjar, & McNaughton, 2016). Thus their opportunity to reach high standards is being severely impeded. This problem is “aided by the unintended consequences of the flexibility of the curriculum and assessment systems" (Wilson et al., 2016, p. 19).
This problem of, what The New Zealand Herald called ‘dumbing down’ learning, is strongly enabled by ‘streaming’. The belief that some students can’t cope with higher levels of learning and must be separated from those who can means some students are taught less and have less opportunity to learn. I have also heard schools talk about these efforts as being ‘differentiation’ meaning that one class is an ‘excellence’ class, another is a ‘merit’ class and the other is an ‘achieved’ class, indicating where teachers are pitching their expectations and teaching. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same occurs in primary schools when fixed ability grouping is used; the message to students is that you have a certain level of ability, not that you can learn and achieve if you put in the effort.
So why do schools persist in these practices of fixed grouping? The first reason I have already alluded to; it is the short term aim to get as many students to achieve the level 2 target as possible. In a genuine and well-founded effort to do that, some schools provide ‘less demanding standards’ that water down the academic focus of school in their effort to do the best for the student.
The second reason is social pressure. Secondary schools have streamed for a long time, despite the negative-impact evidence being around for many years (e.g., Oakes, 1987). My sense is that schools feel that parents of high-achieving students like it and that a move to mixed classes would be seen as ‘dumbing down’ as opposed to the reverse situation. It appears as though school leaders are conflicted because though the evidence points one way, they feel that many of the influential people in the community point the other way. And the support of the community is critical because roll numbers drive a school’s staffing levels. So there is great risk for schools in changing a long-held practice that is familiar to parents.
A third, often-reported reason for maintaining the status quo is that teachers do not feel confident in teaching more heterogeneous classes.
But can educationalists blithely carry on espousing being committed to improving outcomes for all students and yet carrying out practices that sustain the status quo? This is a leadership issue. Do school leaders have the courage to stand up and defend research-based practices to their communities and is the Ministry going to publicly support this move? This type of structural change cannot happen at this time of year which is why annual planning is so important. If you do believe change is needed, now is the time to talk about this need and to pave the way for substantive changes which can make a huge difference, if you can take others with you i.e., teachers, parents and students.
Strong, knowledgeable and ethical leadership is required – at the school and system level – to build trust while pursuing the best outcomes for students. Courage is required to make some important changes in ways that build community trust in schools and their leaders.
If you are interested in exploring these issues further with your colleagues, and would like to learn more about ways you can almost immediately enhance the trust and efficiency of your organisation, you may like to consider the programmes and bespoke leadership PLD options offered by UACEL. In particular, our newly developed LITHE™ (Leaders Influencing Teachers’ High Expectations) series will be of interest to those who are ready to challenge the status quo. To find out more about LITHE™ or other leadership development options, contact our PLD facilitation team or visit our website.
Oakes, J. (1987). Tracking in secondary schools; A contextual perspective. Educational Psychologist, 22(2), 129-153.
Wilson, A., Madjar, I., & McNaughton, S. (2016). Opportunity to learn about disciplinary literacy in senior secondary English classrooms in New Zealand. The Curriculum Journal
The University of Auckland
Centre for Educational Leadership