The Reasons why Streamed Ability Classes don’t help Students

One of the basic principles of school-based education is that all children should be given an equal opportunity to learn. It is this principle which lies at the heart of the streaming, or tracking, debate. Proponents of streamed classes, in which students of roughly the same ability are grouped together, argue that teachers face an uphill battle in trying to present courses to students of mixed-ability, and so opt for a middle-ground approach which neither stretches those with great learning potential, nor caters for those who are well behind their peers. They claim that streamed classes would allow for course differentiation, so that children of high, middle, and low learning ability could be taught material best suited to their needs.

Increasingly, however, educators are seeing streaming as a facility which causes more problems than it cures. Schools in many English speaking countries are moving away from the practice, claiming that the effect of labelling lower-end children as somehow inadequate or ‘slow’ can cause long-lasting damage to self-esteem, social mobility, and overall achievement. They cite studies which show little improvement in test scores for upper-level students, and much worse scores for children condemned to the bottom groups. Opponents of streaming also claim that peer groupings based on ability serve to highlight socio-economic and racial differences among students, which may lead to stigmatization or prejudice.

One of the biggest problems with streaming is the notion that the groups will somehow be homogenous. Although it is fair to say that they will be more uniform than non-streamed classes, in practise what happens is that, over time, differences in achievement will begin to appear, as they do in any other class. Some students will try harder than others, or relate better to the pedagogy, or they will simply ‘grow up’. Every teacher can tell stories of the student who suddenly blossomed, or the one who began to flounder.

As young people grow more mature and develop their own interests, or they are affected by the myriad concerns of adolescence, their ability to make real progress can be profoundly affected. Differentiation of outcomes may occur across a range of subjects, depending on the teacher or what interests them, or there may be a shift in achievement across the whole curriculum.

Allied with this is the unavoidable stratification which occurs in any class grouping. A student who was a high achiever in a mixed-ability cohort may suddenly find that they are being outpaced by their new classmates, or a student who was earlier perceived as a struggling learner may now be at the top of their class. How might either of these children be affected by changes such as these? And isn’t this what happens in mixed-ability classes, anyway?

None of this might really matter if there was fluidity to the system, so that students could be promoted or – horror! – demoted. In reality, though, it seems as though there is little movement between levels. Once a child has been assigned a label and has been taught courses specific to their perceived ability, they will find it exceedingly difficult to transition to another group.

Opponents of streaming also point to the likelihood of a bias in which teachers are assigned to certain groups. High achieving classes are more likely to get the better teachers, they say, and less able or less experienced teachers might find themselves facing up to the bottom end classes. How might the expectations of these teachers be influenced by the group they have before them? In all likelihood, the labelling inherent in streamed classes will impact on the teachers as much as it does on the students.

The raw evidence about the efficacy – or otherwise – of streaming is inconclusive, and often contradictory. For every study which seems to show academic improvement – at least, as measured by test scores – another study suggests that the outcomes are negligible, or even counter-productive. Those who argue against streaming say that it is the responsibility of all classroom teachers to differentiate their syllabus, and to offer special help to those students at either end of the learning spectrum.

Perhaps the real problem is not so much in the ability of children to learn, but in the way that they are being taught. Streaming does not take multiple intelligences into account, for instance, and it does not reward equally for effort. It is a product of an international obsession with test scores which has been around for generations, and it favors those with particular skill sets. A child who is a skilled artist or who has a flair for fashion may find that they are placed with less intelligent students, simply because they do not flourish in Math or English.

In the end, what streaming does is forget to treat each child as an individual. Although it may in time be shown that stratifying class groupings does indeed lead to better test scores, is that the only way – or the right way –  to be judging the worth of any young person? If education is to serve its true purpose in preparing students for a complex world, might it not be better to treasure a multitude of abilities and personalities, and mix them together? Streaming tends to create cultural and socio-economic barriers; mixed-ability classes may be one way that schools can help to break them down.