Variously practiced as ‘ability grouping’, ‘streaming’, ‘attainment grouping’, ‘setting’, ‘banding’ or ‘tracking’, pedagogical practices that group students based on perceived ability or prior achievement are longstanding and widespread world over. Research, however, has long shown that this has negative impacts for students, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic minorities, and Indigenous populations.
Today, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence demonstrating that ability grouping does more harm than good – some of it dating back nearly a century – these practices persist with remarkable stubbornness. What is it about ability grouping that makes it such a resilient part of pedagogical practice? More importantly, how can we organise to end a practice that is ultimately inequitable and damaging for students?
According to PISA 2018, on average across OECD countries 54% of students are in schools that ability group for at least some subjects. In my country, Aotearoa New Zealand, we are well above that, with 83.5% of students in schools that ability group for at least some subjects – making us third highest in the OECD. In this post I discuss some efforts we are making to end this practice. But before I get into that, let me quickly review the evidence for anyone reading who may still have doubts. Below I refer to several studies that support my argument. I encourage you to follow the links. It makes for some sobering reading.
The evidence against ability grouping
Focusing on measurable academic achievement alone, numerous studies have established that overall, no statistically significant beneficial effect can be identified from ability grouping students at all levels. While a marginal benefit to high achieving students can be found in some – but not all – studies, the detrimental impact of ability grouping on lower achieving students is significant and far outweighs marginal benefits at the top. Conversely, improvements in academic performance have been found to result from the introduction of mixed ability grouping.
Arguably more important than any academic measure, however, is the social and psychological impact ability grouping has on students. Students placed in lower groups, even at very early ages, quickly become aware of what it means for them. In Aotearoa New Zealand, among students such groupings are commonly referred to as the ‘cabbage class’, a reference to the unthinking mode these groups are imagined to operate on.
In a 2017 paper, Becky Francis and colleagues argue that ability grouping creates a ‘ self-fulfilling prophecy’ where students in low ability classes identify with and internalise low expectations for themselves and their learning. Unsurprisingly, this has disastrous effects on student self-concept, confidence, and ultimately academic performance. Many students simply give up and disengage, believing that school is not the place for them.
The segregation of students into ability groups is often subjective or based on questionable evidence, leading many to conclude that grouping decisions reflect biases about particular social groups. For example, researchers from the University of Auckland found a correlation between teacher’s expectations of student ability and their ethnicity. They identified higher expectations for Asian and Pākeha (white New Zealander) students, and lower expectations for indigenous Māori and Pasifika students.
As I show in the next section, this has deep roots in colonisation and serves to guarantee negative outcomes for already marginalised groups. In short, ability grouping reinforces social and economic inequalities – it is a pedagogical tool that functions to keep marginalised populations marginalised, and to ensure that the privileged remain privileged. That is why some of us in the education sector in Aotearoa New Zealand have come together to organise to put an end to it.
The colonial legacy of ability grouping in Aotearoa New Zealand
Streaming and ability grouping has been a persistent feature of the education system in Aotearoa New Zealand since the country’s colonisation in the nineteenth century. Assumptions about ‘innate abilities’ were used here, as elsewhere, to segregate students along ethnic and class lines. This might seem archaic to the modern audience however it is important to realise that grouping practices in today’s classrooms have an intimate connection (what we in Aotearoa New Zealand call a ‘whakapapa’) to these earlier ideas.
Aotearoa was colonised in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. As with all colonial projects, this was accompanied by, and justified through, racist assumptions and beliefs about the inferiority of non-white peoples. These white supremacist ideas then fed into the design and establishment of the education system, the legacy of which we still work within.
Māori culture has a deep regard for knowledge. In the early nineteenth century Māori rapidly adopted literacy as well as European printing techniques. By the mid nineteenth century, literacy was significantly higher among the Māori population than among the European settlers. By the middle of the 1930s, over forty Māori newspapers had been published.
Despite this clear passion for higher learning, early on the colonial government sought to suppress the Māori language and control Māori access to education. Streaming and ability grouping are connected to this history. A brief survey of some official comments, which I borrow here from Dr. Hana O’Regan’s powerful research on the whakapapa of streaming, serve to demonstrate this:
1862. “a refined education or high mental culture” would be inappropriate for Māori because “they are better calculated by nature to get their living by manual than by mental labour” ( School Inspector reporting to the House of Representatives).
1880s. Te Aute College produces first Māori graduates in the 1880s, but the College comes under pressure to abandon the academic curriculum and teach agriculture instead.
1915. “So far as the Department is concerned, there is no encouragement given to [Māori] boys who wish to enter the learned professions. The aim is to turn, if possible, their attention to the branches of industry for which the Māori seems best suited.” ( Inspector of Native Schools in the Annual Report)
1931. “education should lead the Māori lad to be a good farmer and the Māori girl to be a good farmer's wife.” ( Director of Education)
Given this history, it perhaps comes of little surprise that ability grouping continues to be taken for granted at the same time as the evidence of its disadvantage to Māori learners continues to mount. Debates over these practices have been circulating in education circles in Aotearoa New Zealand for some time. It might seem discouraging that any change away from streaming and ability grouping is possible. However, NZEI Te Riu Roa are taking part in a project that we believe offers perhaps the best chance yet at putting an end to it for good.
Ending ability grouping in Aotearoa New Zealand
Tokona te Raki, the Māori futures collective, are described by project lead Piripi Prendergast as ‘part think tank, part do tank’. They were jointly approached in early 2020 by the Mātauranga Iwi Leaders Group, a group of education leaders representing Māori tribes from around the country, and by the New Zealand Ministry of Education, and asked to bring together a team to develop a plan to end streaming and ability grouping in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Tokona te Raki were already aware of the damaging impacts of these practices on young Māori learners. Their remarkable 2019 report, He Awa Ara Rau, drew on a massive data set to track the educational and vocational pathways of over 80,000 young Māori. The findings of that report were sobering. They found that the education system in Aotearoa New Zealand ‘still carries a racist legacy where Māori culture is seen as a barrier to success and Māori are channelled into unskilled labour.’ ‘These outcomes don’t happen by chance’, they argued, rather they ‘have been influenced by historical racism in education.’
In 2021 Tokona te Raki formed a ‘design team’ of experts from across the education sector who began meeting regularly from late that year. They have been busy working to release a ‘blueprint’ to end streaming and ability grouping in Aotearoa New Zealand in late 2022. Given the noted resilience of these practices, the design team are under no illusion about the challenge they face. A key insight of their work is that change must come from moving every part of the education sector in an intentional and coordinated way. This means working with students, parents, and communities to understand why making the change is important; working with educators to develop and disseminate alternative practices; resourcing schools with release time and professional development to support the change; having school leaders onboard to lead, as well as the active involvement and support of educational agencies across Aotearoa New Zealand.
Importantly, the design team includes representatives from the country’s two major education unions: the New Zealand Educational Institute Te Riu Roa (NZEI Te Riu Roa) and the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA). Union involvement in the work is vital to its success. Streaming and ability grouping are still strongly supported by some of the country’s most powerful political ideologues, and so the move away from these practices needs to be embedded through the power of union membership, and not as a top-down policy that could be easily overturned. For a practice that so stubbornly persists, it is the power of collective action that will make the difference in the campaign to end ability grouping in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is commemorated annually on 9 August to raise awareness about the rights of Indigenous Peoples globally. This year’s theme, The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge, is an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on the different ways education systems impact the rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly women and girls. On this occasion, Education International is launching a blog series featuring the voices and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and their allies from across the world. The series explores the ways Indigenous education experts, activists, researchers, and teachers, are working to ensure quality education that centres Indigenous knowledge systems.
If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please contact Lainie.Keper[at]ei-ie.org.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.