Thursday 6 October 2022

Pressure Towards The Mean: Do We Really Want To Abolish Streaming?

Levelling Down: What will happen when streaming is no more? Will the children of New Zealand emerge from the public education system with the skills and qualifications necessary to foot-it in the modern world? Or, will their education be limited to whatever the least engaged and least talented students allow their teachers to impart? 

ABOLISH STREAMING, that is the demand of the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA). They are not alone in their determination to put an end to the “blatantly racist” practice of grouping secondary-school students according to their intelligence/academic ability. The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, considers streaming “inequitable” and the Ministry of Education agrees with him. With forces as powerful as the Minister, the Ministry, and the Union ranged against the practice, its days would appear to be numbered.

Which leaves New Zealanders with the vexed question of what will happen when streaming is no more? Will their children emerge from the public education system with the skills and qualifications necessary to foot-it in the modern world? Or, will their education be limited to whatever the least engaged and least talented students allow their teachers to impart? If that is the outcome, then all the opponents of streaming will have achieved by its elimination is a society managed by traditionally-educated immigrants equipped with all the internationally recognised skills and qualifications that young, publicly-educated New Zealanders no longer possess.

Although driven by demands for equity, the abolition of streaming in the public secondary system will not make New Zealand a more equitable nation. No more than the students themselves, will parents be fooled by the randomised mixing of individuals of radically different abilities. The mums and dads of highly intelligent and powerfully motivated children will do everything within their power to ensure that their offspring are pushed and extended to the fullest extent of their powers. If they cannot get this from the public sector, then they will turn to private providers or themselves. The reformers’ push towards equity will not end in a narrowing of the class and racial divides, it will force them wider apart.

Māori middle-class parents will be as keen to see their offspring extended as middle-class Pākehā parents. Those who cannot afford the $30,000 per year fees of the leading private schools, will do all within their power to move their families into the zones of the most prestigious public schools, where the strong class bias of the “good schools’” catchments will lessen the impact of streaming’s abolition. Māori middle-class parents are well aware that as diversity quotas are achieved, and the need for positive discrimination declines, social advancement will increasingly depend on having the right credentials. Though they can hardly come out and say so, the drive towards racial equity – of which the abolition of streaming is part – is not in their own children’s interests.

There is, after all, a very powerful justification for streaming. Highly-complex, technologically-sophisticated civilisations, based on science, simply cannot do without the rigid hierarchies of competence that keep them functioning. The streaming process is, therefore, absolutely critical to the social and intellectual winnowing required to concentrate and develop talent. Streaming isn’t just about grouping the smartest students together, it’s about acculturating the smartest students to being smart. Streaming encourages students to value and accept their larger capabilities. In a non-streamed environment, the pressure is inevitably towards the mean – in every sense of the word.

The supposed downside of this meritocratic imperative is its negative impact upon those of lesser competence. New Zealanders, in particular, jibe at the very notion of hierarchies. They tell themselves that they are egalitarians, and fool themselves into thinking that egalitarianism means every person is the same as every other person – even when they know this isn’t true. (Just ask them if they would select an All Black team on that basis!)

New Zealanders have forgotten that their public education system was not conceived as an environment in which every student gets an “A”, but as a place where every kid capable of getting an “A” receives the professional instruction and educational resources he or she needs to be awarded an “A”. It should not matter whether you’re Māori or Pākehā, rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight: if you’ve got the talent, then you should be equipped to go as far as it can take you. And if getting “As” in academic disciplines isn’t your thing, then the education system’s job is to find out what is your thing – and develop it to the fullest extent.

That is what Charles Beeby and Peter Fraser meant when, together, they defined the education policy of the First Labour Government:

“The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.”

Apart from the relentless use of the masculine pronoun, the phrase that most sticks in the craw of twenty-first century educators is: “for which he is best fitted”. The PPTA’s argument is that the cultural logic of colonisation leads racist Pakeha teachers to the view that Māori and Pasifika are “best fitted” to be hewers of wood and drawers of water: a stereotype into which, for the rest of their time in secondary school, the system will do its best to squeeze them. Get rid of streaming, argues the Union, and this evil colonial project is made much more difficult.

Except, of course, transforming secondary school classes into random collections of students of every colour from every background is, itself, a pipe dream. Different races and different classes live in different places. Getting rid of streaming at Auckland Grammar will look quite different from getting rid of streaming at Northland College. And even if the Ministry of Education could magically produce perfectly random collections of students (much as the US Supreme Court tried to do by “bussing” kids from one side of town to the other) the Bell Curve would still not be denied – only those kids at either end of it.

It is a matter for considerable regret that the PPTA, in its determination to overcome the effects of colonisation, shows every sign of establishing a new regime where the “soft bigotry of low expectations” will only end up making the racist outcomes worse.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 6 October 2022.


Anonymous said...

I had a dyslexic friend who was so incensed to be assigned to Set 5 in English (this was at a private school) that he worked his arse off until he got to Set 1 in the final year in all subjects.

It helped that he had an IQ of at least 140.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to your exposition just yesterday in the WSJ no less we have Jason L Riley make the exact same point from a different direction but the point is instructive in both instances. His point quoted below -

"Like any public policy, affirmative action involves trade-offs, but supporters are ignoring that reality because good intentions are what matter most to them. Nevertheless, after 50 years of racial preferences in higher education, we have plenty of empirical evidence that these policies have done more harm than good to the intended beneficiaries, even if the media shows little interest in reporting it... Black students were admitted to schools with academic credentials far below those of the average student in attendance. Subsequently, these black students struggled academically, dropped out at higher rates, or were more likely to switch to an easier major than they originally intended to study. These same students, in all likelihood, would have prospered at a less selective college where the same subjects are taught at a pace that matched their readiness. "

Unknown said...

I was a secondary school teacher, and member of PPTA. Removal of the very mild streaming now in place will increase teachers' workloads markedly, and make it much harder for them to see any job satisfaction.

I fully expect that this will lead to an even greater shortage of secondary teachers than we have now.

Archduke Piccolo said...

I'd be inclined to the view that streaming has certain upsides from the point of view of teaching - and of cooperative learning. But if the teachers themselves see no advantage in streaming - to themselves or to their students - that view ought to be taken at least under advisement.

I am reminded of my old school buddy of the 1960s. I'll Call him ARW. When about to enter High School, he was about to enrol in the 'Trades' course, rather than the 'Professional'. The thing was, he was a maths whizz, even if he didn't quite know it yet (no more did I). The High School really pushed it, so ARW compromised and took the 'General' course.

Probably a wise choice, as the only difference was that the 'Professional' course took French (the only language offered); 'General' took bookkeeping. Later ARW was to score 99% in each of Chamber of Commerce Arithmetic, a National examination in bookkeeping, and NZ Bursary mathematics. Of course, all through high school, ARW was in the top stream.

His was a bit of a specialist brilliance: mathematics and physics. He was no more than average (as far as I can gather) in other disciplines. I just don't think they interested him at all.

My point is, without streaming, how might he have got on? It may have been lucky for him that as the Intermediate school directly adjoined the high school, his ability was the more easily recognised and acted upon.


greywarbler said...

Something that should be taught primarily in NZ is 'reflection. What will be the outcomes of this idea, think! Think with a rounded brain not just the excited emotional top part of it running with today's hares and next year hunting with the hounds. There are absolutes in life and abandoning everything old for something new is not going to produce a great new world, just different barrier to labour over.

Of course university-educated middle and upper class professionals cannot be wrong about anything, smug as most of them seem to be. If they also get paid a lot of money then they can't afford to let the thought they might not be 100% correct stir. There will be competition for their place in their institution also. Terry Pratchett's professors in his magical Unseen University had to adopt the protection of a clear space behind themselves when walking in a group!

How will acceptance for a desired employment placement be obtained if there is no merit level? We already have problems from scams of people who assume the attitudes and vocabulary with falsified qualifications. Will the walls of competence and reliability fall lower? More CTV's crash and deaths, more fake doctors?

I wish these educationalists would immediately take religion from curriculums, and instead study various avenues of philosphy, the European, the ... and have kids as young as 9 and 10 assess what approaches we use today in our own country. Understand ourselves and our society. Also all would learn the principles of Transactional Analysis, which enables self-checking of what thinking stage one is operating in - the Parent; laws and precept-learned authority style, the Adult; thinking and considering style, and the Child; which is the new ideas, the joyful, the impulsive, the emotional one. With that knowledge at their fingertips, so to speak, the students would learn faster, with less trauma from disappointments and clashes with other personalities.
They could learn what they need to know in half the time - a win, win solution. As much information can be accessed from the internet when needed,youngsters at 14 could be releaseto to start apprenticeships, internships and work experience with further block courses to their own requirements in their chosen work.

These new ideas are old has-beens,regurgitated 20th century ideas; academic certainties over known experiential outcomes.

Barry said...

No real teacher wants a non streamed class. The work load is high trying to teach smart and not so smart at the same time. The smart kids get bored and the whole class finish up as educationally disadvantaged.
As is obvious from the soviet union - one system doesnt work.

Anonymous said...

The silencing of dissenting voices within the PPTA is something like I have not experienced before. I suspect that the majority of members are in favour of some form of streaming (most for very good reasons), however they are too afraid to speak out due to being branded with all the usual negative labels. Expect to see union membership fall off after this and maybe even a split occur. Sad.

The Barron said...

The first thing to note is that most schools have long since done away with streaming. The fact that it has not been noticed shows any scare-mongering of NZ intellectual decline is unfounded. NZPPTA is the secondary teachers' professional association, it has weighed the evidence and come to a professional and democratic stance. Last I heard, NZPPTA had almost 90% of secondary teachers as members. I think we should respect the profession commenting on the profession.

Chris Hipkins comes from a background where his mother, Rosemary, is one of NZs most respected education researcher. He has been Education Minister for 5 years and has received the advice of the officials and researchers at the Ministry of Education and those contracted for research. This includes international comparisons. we should respect the Minister and Ministry acting in the best interest of the educational objectives.

It is easy to relate back to your own school experience as a student or as a parent. Educational direction should not be populous but research based. It is after all a profession. Few would decide surgical technic based on being a patient, but rather defer to the professionals. It is strange that educators are not given that respect.

It has been my understanding that streaming has been discredited over a long period. It is inequitable. Every student should be given the same education in the state system and equal access to the specialist subject teachers. The inequity is reflected in disadvantage for Maori and Pasifika, but the disabled and chronically ill also suffer inequity, indeed, anyone who may have a disrupted period or socio-economic disadvantage. If the starting point in education is to stigmatize and isolate, what is the point of education? Pre-conceptions become the outcome.

I note the Beeby quote. That is at the time when students were separated at high school level into technical collages (or Trade Schools / Vocational Schools) and academic schools. These technical schools were integrated into the wider academic system and the Polytech system was advanced for trades to have a tertiary standing. Many fine tradespersons emerged from the system, but equally many working class people were pigeon holed away from university education. A loss of potential. Few argue that we return to technical schools, but rather appreciate that at some time in the students secondary education they made have a program integrated with tertiary technical institutions, while others may join accelerated academic learning programs. It is disingenuous to take Beeby's comment out of this context in which Fraser and Beeby were seeking to ensure secondary education for working class people that were leaving in standard 4 to 6.

The research clearly shows that streaming fails many and that is exasperated through social disadvantage.

I hope those responding do so to the actual NZPPTA paper that became their policy -

Chris Morris said...

Do organisations like PPTA and the proponents of no streaming actually inhabit the real world? Where are their children schooled? We all know that people have vastly different abilities in almost any area. All streaming does is recognise this. We do it with sports teams without problems, why can't it apply to academic ability? Teaching any group of different abilities just drops to the lowest common level. It does not lift the bottom. It flattens the top. There is ample evidence to that - the answer of the authorities is to ban that research.
Our education system turns out a very large number of functionally illiterate and innumerate people. Society suffers and those people have miserable prospects. Rather than address that shocking tail, the leaders want to increase their numbers. Without high achievers, where will the STEM people come from? When Universities have to have remedial maths and English classes, we have real failure consequences.
It seems that the only way to stop the decisionmaker's stupidity is a cultural revolution. The parents are starting to wake up to the issues and making their protests. Where US goes, NZ can't be far behind. Why has home schooling and conservative schools become so popular? And it provides a very fertile ground for popularist politicians to exploit.
Unfortunately, it will all get a lot darker before there is any improvement.

John Hurley said...

A pervasive influence of Critical Theory.
I followed the Twitter profile of a teacher on Stuff she talks about "our sacred indigenous people"

Woke is the sacrilization of traditionally marginalised minorities (and the converse).

Dean said...

Mixing levels of students may be idealogically pure and wonderful but after more than 30 years of teaching in New Zealand high schools and here in France, I can report it only makes the job a lot more work. Somehow this kind of purity of thought and vision pops out of the heads of the folks down at the Minstry of Education much like the words empowering or facilitating to replace the word teaching , these kinds of dogmas usually come from people who have slid out of the class room into Educational Management at the first opportunity or have never set foot in an actual classroom and would have no idea what they are asking of teachers. Talk is cheap but it makes certain folk look very good indeed.

Barry said...

Just thinking through practicality. Smart kids take languages and as they process through school they specialise early into subjectts likephysics etc.
This process automatically streams - so dont think streaming is going anywhere.

Unknown said...

Barron, you make some interesting points.

The problem is that it makes state education useless for me and my children.

They're not born yet, but looking at myself, their (likely) mother, and both sets of parents are likely to be at least moderately gifted.

And I'll be damned if they'll be taught at the same rate as the masses.

Chris' point is salient, without streaming the system fails the bright. Despite attending a private school myself, I would hope that the public school system would be up to the task of giving an intelligent student the tools necessary to excel in the world. Without streaming it limits the potential for it to do so. I'll be able to afford private schools, though I'd rather not pay for it.

But doesn't this touch on the real cruelty of ending streaming? What about bright kids from broken backgrounds? The essence of an egalitarian society is that those kids are able to realize their potential regardless of their background. You remove streaming from the public schools, and that opportunity is lost, and with it any hope of achieving a society built upon equality of opportunity.

Unknown said...

To a degree non-streaming occurs in primary school anyway. There may be some sense for streaming in non-important general subjects like social studies (where viewpoints are a part of the syllabus) but by 5th Form streaming occurs automatically, the bright kids do maths, physics etc and the less 'academically gifted' do PE and arts and crafts... I just wish people would make the distinction between academic and intelligent, I know plenty of people who should have gone to university but weren't into 'study' as kids (and especially writing)..

Ian Baugh said...

I’m writing partly because I went to Northland College in the 1960s. Yes, it was very different to Auckland Grammar — probably better although the contacts wouldn’t have been as valuable. (I went to AGS on section and taught for a few years in West Auckland.)

In the 3rd form I was plucked from the Agricultural stream by the deputy headmaster and posted to 3 Ac. I’d probably be better off if I’d stayed where I was but I’ve always been grateful.

On the other hand I remember streaming as a teacher — the difference between 5 Engineering (I liked those boys) and my Sixth Form history class; the three third form classes that we called the mad, the bad and the sad — taught by the youngest and most inexperienced teachers.

But I do believe, all-in-all, that streaming is better than standardising mediocrity, and that a lot of the downsides are to do with the teachers. My school friend taught his entire career, the most committed and hardworking of men, but got little more credit (IMHO) than the timeservers and layabouts that populate every profession.

But beyond that, thank you for the article, Chris. I did my time reading the Communist Manifesto … bought and tried to digest various Marxist-Leninist tomes … subscribed to the Chinese People’s something … took inspiration from the Red Guards … voted Values… But the School of Hard Knocks has turned me into a Roger Scruton conservative who believes in community, individual responsibility, not denigrating those who came before us, and not knocking down what they accomplished without careful thought. (Roger of course was himself a beneficiary of streaming.)

I stopped listening to you years ago after I heard Kim Hill ask you if you could ever be friends with anyone right wing, and you said no.

I was wrong for two reasons. First, people are only interesting if you can’t extrapolate all their opinions from the one or two you’ve come across, and you certainly pass that test.

Second, how do I know that? Because I’ve come across you in places that most left wing commentators wouldn’t be seen dead in. I’m sure they pick and choose what they republish but it’s a good thing nevertheless.

Most of our friends are reliably leftwing, a couple sometimes feel to the right of Genghis Kahn — but we all get on and that’s the way it should be.

Thank you for being a force for good and for interesting commentary.

I would have emailed my thanks if I could have found an address!

The Barron said...

Unknown 07.10.22 @ 16.05

Good luck to your possible children and their theoretical education. I should ask you to note that there is no scientific acceptance that intelligence or behaviour can be genetically transferred, but it does seem that they may have a socio-economic advantage. This may increase the chance of access to books, travel and electronic media to increase the chance for a start within a streaming system.

Of course, you still have to hope the child does not get a disability, injury or illness that disrupts their education before being evaluated into streaming. Or an emotional issue such as the loss of a parent before being tested for the stream class, or been bullied a the previous school and entering the streaming system based on that school evaluation not a fresh start. Still, "Unknown", support an educating system based on the percentage chance that it will maintain whatever privilege you envision your child may have.

The Barron said...

Oh yeah, and streaming doesn't work -

David George said...

Thank you, Ian, for your fascinating post. Not much to add re-streaming. Perhaps the tendency of the teaching profession, and academics generally, to look down their noses at those "otherwise gifted" is the real problem. An elitism that manifests more generally among our professional managerial elite?

Great to hear from a fellow Northland College boy. I attended from '68 to '71. 'A" stream right through and with genuine interest and ability in science, physics in particular, I was considering engineering as a career. Almost uniquely among my cohort I stayed on in my town; an ad came up in the local paper for an apprentice watchmaker and I took that path. It suited my somewhat autistic proclivities I now suspect but not a great choice as it turned out. Watches became cheaper and cheaper and our skills became devalued and unappreciated. Things are much better now on that front.

The college is no longer what it was, or the community that supported it. A scarcely believable social, economic and moral collapse over the past 50 years. I'm writing an essay around that. Sometimes I have a terrible vision: Kaikohe is the future. Where did it all go so wrong? If that's what progress looks like I'm, like you, with Scruton & Co.


greywarbler said...

While pundits argue about ways and means, life goes on despite.
So in education - this headline is one to bear in mind and also with all the schools in all of the country, Labour, David Lange et al had to bring in diversity to the education system, with local boards having the most say in what is to be taught and how.

So we have I think, Waimea College? enforcing all students to have computers and work on a keyboard. This makes the young ones look to the ubiquitous computer and internet for all they want to and need to learn.

Instead of writing with simple equipment, a pencil, they are bent to think that they must have a machine which needs training to use, which gets replaced by a new machine, and new programs, which need training to use. Talk about barriers to individual thinking; the internet isn't just a tool, it's life and the first stop to participating n it.

How anyone can argue that secondary or university educationalists are right about all matters they profess is not looking at what sort of society their relayed knowledge has led to. Change is needed, and perhaps less science as such, and more understanding on where an obsession with finding out scientific and abstruse knowledge can and does lead us. It seems to me it is down a rabbit hole.

greywarbler said...

This is the direction we are heading in.

With no future that can be envisaged and possible job replacement by mechanical and IT hegemony not as substitutes, why bother to put effort into study. What's the use; humanity seems to be of no interest to the PTB.

greywarbler said...

Lack of streaming means we all get dumbed down.
The ones who don't try and so don't lift their minds above constructing castles in the sandpit, never get to learn the finer engineering and mathematical points enabling them to build something bigger and lasting. The clever ones get bored and fill in their time dreaming up ideas to tantalise their teachers and annoy their fellow students. I went to tech to up my skills, and found myself in class turning and demanding to know what the talkers were there for, as I came to learn. Stunned silence. And we must learn to be curious and keep learning. The absence of this trait leads to the pig's muddle that we are in today and which I do not see a path leading out of. Wherefor education? Caught up in its own spiders web of maintaining its business and keeping up some sort of better salary but being harassed by the half-educated. goal oriented, materialistic pointyheads and box tickers. All ready to be algorithmed into obscurity or the grave.

I like drawings from the cartoonist who envisaged Calvin and his tiger Hobbes. Thanks Bill Watterson:
Calvin looks at test - Question 1.When did the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock?
2. He writes 1620. 3. He writes: As you can see, I've memorized this utterly useless fact long enough to pass a test question. I now intend to forget it forever. You've taught me nothing except how to cynically manipulate the system. Congratulations.
4. He looks up with a grin: They say the satisfaction of teaching makes up for the lousy pay.
1. Test goes to Question 2 - Where is Plymouth Rock?
2. Calvin writes: I am not presently at liberty to divulge that information, as it might compromise our agents in the field.
3. He looks up brightly: I understand my tests are popular reading in the teachers' lounge.

The kids today are full of random interruptive ideas that baulk teachers'
good intentions and firm evidence. How to direct those brains to get the knowledge the young one needs and when and where to apply it effectively I think is the major task.

greywarbler said...

Education as a life-changer which brings out innate skills that people didn't know they had!

I throw this in about Tom Cookson, not regarded as extremely good maths teacher, but in awakening brains ready to think about 'lif' regarded as extremely good. He was also the bulwark of Catherine, who wrote about the things that baulk the children of poverty, condemned often to tragic lives, people severed from a satisfactory life by lack of useful education combined with low pay for the necessary jobs they were fitted for.

The Grammar School was a watered-down imitation of a public school, symbolised in the long black cloaks all teachers had to wear. Cookie, as Tom was known, was not one of the number of teachers who seemed to be suffering from some little mental difficulty. It was not Cookie that drove one of my school-mates to suicide, or forced another to start sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of a lesson until he was led out, never to be seen by us again. You did not have to keep your back to the wall if you passed Cookie in a corridor. And it was not Cookie that took obvious delight in whipping minor offenders with a cane or that sent them home if their hair was an inch too long (that was the violent headmaster George Henshall).

Cookie was one of the handful of staff you could talk to openly, without fear of … something unknown. And the delight of his lessons was that he had almost as little interest in maths as the rest of us. It was difficult to do well in one’s maths exam when your teacher frequently stopped halfway through lessons and started lecturing on the problems of modern society or the closeness all humans should feel towards trees. He could even give us useful advice on playing snooker!...

...Catherine Cookson, born in 1906, was brought up in great poverty, the illegitimate daughter of a Tyneside barmaid. Yet by 1990 she was Britain’s 17th richest woman, and in the mid-90s she was the country’s most-read author, writing nine out of ten of all borrowed library books. When Dame Catherine died, in June 1998, she had completed 103 novels, sold over 120 million books worldwide and had £20 million in the bank – all of which went to charities.

(Tom died 17 days after Catherine; two people who lived very full lives enabled by an education that enabled all their gifts that have enriched the world.

It was only Tom Cookson's care and support for his wife Catherine, that lifted her out of a 15 year depression from the stillborn deaths of their four babies. Tom's support got her started on writing as her career and his contribution to her and the lives of her readers, was above rubies even though he wasn't a superb teacher measured by exam outcomes.

She wrote how learning to read separated one family from its neighbours, and took them on a different and sometimes difficult path in life. Out of basic poverty, up into the often uncultivated upper class, opening up new horizons from the ir previously limited ones that they created for themselves.

D'Esterre said...

I've been reflecting on this article, in light of my own school experience. I've never been a fan of streaming, though an old friend who was a teacher favoured it.

I went to secondary school at the beginning of the 1960s. It was a small private school, the roll too low to admit of streaming. We had "professional" and "commercial" classes, but that was all. Pupils could enrol in either, depending upon what they and their parents wanted. Though in general the more able children enrolled in the professional class.

From this vantage point in my life, I realise that streaming may well have been beneficial to me. I loathed school: I was bored out of my brain sitting in class while the teachers helped the least capable of my classmates. People like me got nothing extra by way of stimulation or acceleration.

It wasn't until I went to uni that I discovered what it was like to be in a group of people who caught onto things as quickly as I did, and who didn't have to be spoonfed by teachers. I loved uni.

Said old friend, now retired, thinks the abandonment of streaming is a dumb idea, being pushed through for reasons of ideology. It's difficult to disagree.