Given the mixed nature of international evidence and the relative lack of New Zealand-specific evidence, it should be up to schools to decide whether to separate pupils by attainment
Opinion: Imagine you’re the CEO of a major company. One of your advisors comes running to you. They say we should change the way the company operates. The changes suggested aren’t minor – they involve sweeping away what your company has done before. What would you do?
You would ask for some evidence. After all, you’re hardly going to make big changes without having some hard data to back it up. Now, what if the advisor told you they didn’t have any hard data, but they did speak to some colleagues who thought it was a good idea. What would you do then? Presumably, you’d ask them to gather some quantifiable evidence before mandating for any changes.
This seems like a basic standard. Big changes need strong evidence. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education does not even apply a standard as simple as this one.
Streaming – separating students by attainment – has come under fire from a recent publication, Kōkirihia by Tokona Te Raki. It calls for a ban on streaming by 2030 in schools because it says it is unethical and racist. The ministry agrees and wants streaming banned.
It is important to stress that this report was well-motivated. Tokona Te Raki is an advocacy group for Māori issues, particularly in education and employment. Its mission is to end inequitable outcomes for Māori in these two spaces.
These are worthy aims. There has been a gap for decades between the educational attainment of Māori and Pasifika students and their Pākehā and Asian counterparts. Tokona Te Raki’s mission to end this is important.
Unfortunately, this paper has two fundamental flaws: the original research relies entirely on dubious qualitative evidence; and it seriously misrepresents international findings.
Qualitative evidence has very limited reliability. It usually draws on interviews and focus groups interpreted by the researchers. Qualitative research conclusions can lack scientific rigour and are subject to bias. There are ways to minimise that bias, but it’s unclear that Tokona Te Raki researchers did so.
Interviews with teachers and students holding a negative view of streaming form the main evidence base for Kōkirihia. The views expressed by the research participants are no doubt sincerely held. However, they are just opinions.
We asked [the Ministry of Education] about streaming according to year groups, subjects, type of schools, etc. The answer can be summarised curtly: it has nothing.
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the evidence presented in the report was cherry-picked to represent the conclusion preferred by its authors.
Citing data from the OECD, Kōkirihia claims that New Zealand streams more than any other country except Ireland. It also highlights New Zealand’s relatively wide disparity between the highest and lowest achievers, suggesting these things are connected.
This argument is weak at best. Ireland streams more than New Zealand, yet has one of the smallest achievement gaps between the highest and lowest achievers in the OECD in key subjects. If New Zealand’s results suggest that streaming increases disparity, do Ireland’s suggest that streaming decreases disparity? Once again, the suspicion of cherry-picking is difficult to avoid.
A vast body of literature examines the impact of streaming on academic and sociological outcomes for students from many countries but Kōkirihia’s bibliography contains only 19 sources – hardly an adequate survey of the impacts of streaming.
The authors claim “The research evidence is unequivocal that fixed-ability grouping in any form does not work”. But that is not supported by the research reviewed in the report.
Streaming is not a monolithic practice. Whether schools separate by attainment is important, but then how these schools instruct these different groups even more so
For example, Kōkirihia cites a large-scale study by Professor John Hattie. It is true that Hattie is not pro-streaming and points to qualitative evidence finding inequitable outcomes. However, he found that streaming has no impact on academic outcomes at all according to empirical evidence. He concluded that the quality of teaching and student interactions are much more important than the composition of the classes. Much international research that uses large-scale, quantitative methods is also cited. But these studies had mixed findings.
Yet they are supposedly evidence that the literature is “unequivocal” in saying that streaming doesn’t work. It is not.
Good intentions cannot make up for poor research. It is possible the assumption that streaming is harmful is correct. But the report does nothing to substantiate this.
But what does this have to do with the ministry? Well, in our initial analogy, the ministry is the CEO and Kōkirihia is the advisor. You would hope the ministry would ask for stronger evidence before taking a position.
We asked the ministry, via an Official Information Act request, what data it has on streaming in our schools. We asked about streaming according to year groups, subjects, type of schools, etc. The answer can be summarised curtly: it has nothing.
What they did have, however, were links to reports by Tokona Te Raki, including Kōkirihia. Yet reports such as Kōkirihia are not substantive enough to mandate for major changes.
The ministry has no idea if, where or how our schools use streaming. It is thus basing its position on the findings of reports such as Kōkirihia, which use dubious qualitative evidence and misrepresent the international literature.
What we need is to know not only that streaming occurs but also where, at what age, and in what subjects.
Once we have all the data, we need a large-scale quantitative study on the effects of streaming on learning. That study, and not what we currently have, should shape future policy.
Is it unethical to separate students by attainment, or is it unfair to enforce a one-size-fits-all approach when we know students learn at different rates?
What should we do in the meantime? International findings are mixed. Some major quantitative studies found positive outcomes, some found negative outcomes, but no statistically significant impact is one of the more common findings.
Streaming has been debated in education for decades and is unlikely to be settled soon.
Defenders of streaming argue it allows for the coursework to be tailored to an individual’s needs and creates homogeneous classes which are easier to instruct and manage for teachers. Critics of streaming argue that it restricts the potential future attainment of students placed in the lower streams, increases disparity between the higher and lower achievers, and reinforces existing socio-economic divides.
Neither side has evidence conclusive enough to settle the debate. Often, both sides will find research studies that supports their argument, but these are limited by their contextual nature.
Analyses of school implementation of streaming reveals more layers. Streaming is not a monolithic practice. Whether schools separate by attainment is important, but then how these schools instruct these different groups even more so.
Some studies suggest if you give lower-attainment groups less experienced teachers with fewer resources and less instruction, they will perform worse.
However, others found that homogeneous classes with increased and more appropriate instruction are likely to produce positive academic outcomes across all levels. Does this mean you should do away with streaming, or give the lower streams more experienced teachers and more resources?
Furthermore, is it unethical to separate students by attainment, or is it unfair to enforce a one-size-fits-all approach when we know students learn at different rates?
Ultimately, considering the mixed nature of international evidence and the relative lack of New Zealand-specific evidence, it should be up to the schools to decide.
They are best placed to determine whether streaming is appropriate given their respective student bodies, school culture and resources. In some schools it will be appropriate, in some others it will not. In effect this is the system we have in place now. Currently, a ban is not warranted.