The Case against Streamed Ability Classrooms

Educational practices have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Through pilot programs, research, and trial and error, educators have a handful of tools that have withstood the test of time and deliver consistent, measurable results. One instructional practice that has withstood intense scrutiny is differentiated instruction. Ironically, an alternative practice gaining traction in some schools is streamed ability – or ability based – classrooms. Though streamed ability classrooms are found worldwide, ability grouped classrooms have no place in modern, research-based educational practice.

Questions of Effectiveness
The theory behind ability grouping is simple. When students are streamed, students are placed into classrooms with others who have similar learning needs. Teachers are thus able to deliver instruction that better targets their respective students. The teachers, the thinking goes, will not be wasting class time attempting to target the spectrum of instructional abilities, learning preferences, and deficits apparent in a typical classroom.

An elegant theory, to be sure, but one not grounded in any evidence. In fact, a paper published by the Scottish Council for Research in Education found no evidence of any academic benefit for streamed ability classes at the secondary level. Similarly, no benefit was found in primary or elementary classrooms, with the lone exception of in-class ability grouping in mathematics. Simply put, streamed ability classrooms do not deliver.

Social Ramifications
Even if streamed ability classrooms did deliver results above and beyond those of traditional classrooms, there is a good subjective argument against them: social stigma. When students are grouped, lower achieving students become painfully aware of their status. Generally, these students tend to disrupt more often and spend less time on task. Given this, placing all low-achieving students into one classroom would likely increase the rate of disruption and time off-task, leaving these students to fall further behind.

Likewise, students in the lower ability classrooms will be woefully lacking in peer role models; there is social little pressure to improve. These students may also be teased by classmates, develop an ambivalent attitude regarding education, and suffer from teachers’ low expectations. This last point is not to be taken lightly, as teacher beliefs about student ability are among the most important factors in student achievement.

An Alternative: Differentiated Instruction
Fortunately, there is an alternative to streamed ability classrooms: differentiated instruction. The idea of targeting each student at his or her own instruction level is a good one, but one that can easily be achieved in mixed ability classrooms. At its essence, differentiation is the process by which students in the same classroom receive assignments designed to challenge them individually, based upon interest or ability. Basic examples include reading groups or giving groups of students spelling words of varied difficulty. This is only a very brief description of differentiation; a more in-depth look is beyond the scope of this brief article. 

In conclusion, streamed ability classrooms, like many other educational practices, belong in the ash heap of history. While the goal of meeting each student at his or her instructional level is a noble one, streamed ability classrooms simply have not proven more effective than other long established methods. And, even if streamed ability classrooms were effective, there is a negative stigma associated with being a in the lower ability groups. Ultimately, teachers looking for effective teaching tools can skip over streamed ability classrooms and experiment with other, more successful, teaching practices.