School streaming: the ‘internal narrative’


Simon Collins asked the experts about why New Zealand’s maths and science scores have gone downhill since 1990 (NZ Herald, March 18 2017).  Professor John Hattie says that streaming or tracking of students into ability groupings is exceptionally common in this country.  The evidence is that this creates low expectations for achievement for certain groups of students. This could explain our disappointing maths and science scores over time.


Other explanations are possible.  The sociology of schooling is powerful, arguably more powerful than the academic evidence about what works best for raising overall achievement levels.


The biggest change in New Zealand since we began participating in international testing (PISA) is the creation of markets in education.  Parents like having choices.  And they like streaming.  In a schooling market, schools must focus on client preferences.


Auckland Grammar School says that to lift each boy ‘to his potential’, classes at all form levels at the school are “streamed at the commencement of each academic year according to attainment.”  This rigid ranking has flow-on effects.


Mid-decile schools stream because elite schools stream; they might lose enrolments if they do not.  Low-decile schools stream, because parents may opt to send top-performing students elsewhere if they do not.


Schools are built on reputation.  Reputation arises from the social capital of families in communities.  Streaming is a classic example of how middle-class parents and middle-class teachers protect practices because they ensure that children are not ‘chained’ to the progress of the slow or the poor.


Academic leaders and school principals have failed to convincingly tell any alternative story.


They don’t need to.  Every government message is about “student achievement”.  Every league table is about “passing” NCEA and getting to standards.  Every setting in our education system encourages schools to shunt students out of “hard” subjects.  In this context, streaming and same-ability grouping makes sense.


The Minister insists that schools must make up their own mind about what makes a difference to student achievement.  So they do.


Sociologists talk about the ‘internal narratives’ that motivate people.   Our market-based system of education incentivises boards and principals to act with middle-class aspirations in mind.  A principal’s internal narrative might go like this: ‘Streaming means that our best students will have the best teachers so we will look good in the league tables’; or ‘We won’t have streaming, except for the special needs class, because everyone is expected to meet or exceed the NCEA standards’; or ‘The parents in the top class will take their children to [the higher decile school down the road] if we don’t stream’;  or ‘My board doesn’t want to abandon streaming’; or ‘We will work with the school down the road to upgrade our maths and science teaching.’


Which of these narratives is most likely?


Markets are about choice.  We should not be surprised when parents exercise it.  Nor when school leaders respond to it.


What can we do about it?  To respond better to the scientific evidence that John Hattie and others show improves learning in maths and science, we must shift the forces that shape curriculum design.  This demands new-generation thinking about the power bases within and across self-managing schools.


The Communities of Learning are a first step towards shared responsibility for educational outcomes.  A crucial missing element is the governance-in-the-middle that holds decisions like same-ability grouping up to peer professional assessment and external public scrutiny.



See also:

New York Times, June 13, 2013:  Vivian Yee  Grouping students by ability regains favor in classroom.