It’s a hot potato topic but let’s just have a look at it.

Is the amount of time and effort spent putting students into ability groups worth it?

The short answer is NO.

Numeracy research doesn’t support all the effort and angst it takes to create the groups, especially when it has a negative effect on students’ results.

Not to mention the negative effect it has on their self-esteem.

I’ve seen students as young as Year 1 devastated by their inclusion in the ‘dumb’ class. Their parents were embarrassed too. Unfortunately, once a student is graded into a lower-ability class they generally don’t ‘graduate’ out of it.

There are those that think that when a child is put in a lower class it makes them work harder to be ‘promoted’. But what about the child who works ‘their socks off’ and still can’t do well enough to meet the cut-off allocation for the next group up? They come to believe that they are 'no good' at maths or worse that they are just 'dumb' or that effort doesn't pay off...

Arbitrary cut offs are made to stream students into maths classes. There are only so many teachers and classrooms available in a maths time slot. When the ‘top’ class is full the next few children, who may be only 1 or 2 points away in their marks, still have to go into the next class. They aren't generally told how close they are to the ‘top’ group. Alternatively, some may be 'lucky enough' to be put int the 'top' group just to fill the numbers quota. And they are 'lucky'. Research shows that if the teacher believes that a student is more capable than they may actually be then they expect more of them and the students can achieve more! The student is also likely to have a higher expectation of their own ability if streamed into a a 'top' group.

Due to class numbers and the limitations of available teachers even 'graded' classes will have a wide range of student ability levels. Teachers still need to differentiate for the students in these classes. There is only so much ‘grading’ you can do to put a child in with a ‘homogenous’ group.

There are also questions to be asked about the legitimacy of grading students to place them into groups.

What assessment tools or results were used?

Do they provide a true indication of the child’s ability level or understanding?

Will the teacher be programming their lessons based on the areas of weakness &/or strength identified in the assessments?

Are the teachers going to follow a different program within the ‘streamed’ classes?

Are students still going to be expected to sit the same assessment at the end of term and year as their peers?

On a very practical level consider the following:

It takes school leaders a massive amount of time to coordinate the rooming and teaching timetables to implement ability grouping.

How much teaching time is lost as students move from room to room… (not to mention the loss of time for the ones that haven’t got all their equipment with them?)

It’s frustrating for parents when their child’s classroom teacher can’t comment on their mathematics progress (or lack thereof) because they don’t teach them Maths.

Taking a child out of their ‘everyday class’ also raises an interesting discussion about numeracy and mathematics … That is, to be numerate you have to be able to take your maths skills out of the maths lesson and apply them in everyday life. It stands to reason that if the classroom teacher knows what is being taught in the maths lesson then they can make the links between maths and other subjects and other activities and thereby help primary school students to consolidate their numeracy understanding.

Back in 2008 the Commonwealth of Australian Governments commissioned a review of the available international and national research on what would improve the numeracy teaching and learning of Australian students. One of the reccomendations, of this unfortunately not well known report, was:

“That the use of ability grouping across classes in primary and junior secondary schooling be discouraged given the evidence that it contributes to negative learning and attitudinal outcomes for less well achieving students and yields little positive benefit for others, thus risking our human capital goals.” Recommendation 9 (pp45-47)

Another strong and passionate voice to listen to in this debate is Professor Jo Boaler (Stanford University) who believes streaming “is not only very damaging but also incorrect”.

In her book, “Mathematical Mindsets” (Chapter 6: “Mathematics and the Path to Equity“) Professor Boaler says, by separating students we perpetuate the myths that:

‘There are those that can and those that can’t do maths’ and

‘Maths is a more difficult subject to learn than other subjects’ and

That ‘some students are just not suited to higher-level maths’.

Go to youcubed.org to read more about this.

Is there an ALTERNATIVE to streaming?

Fortunately, there are alternative ways (based on research evidence) to help both the classroom teacher and all the students in the class to make progress in numeracy.

And, NOT streaming students into ability groups can actually help both student and teacher enjoy the ‘journey’.

We need to know what the research says and to put into place evidence-based practices that will work to improve numeracy results for all the students in our schools.

The best alternative with the best results is the: Response to Intervention Model. (RTI) and explicit instruction for all students at all levels in the RTI model.

It’s interesting to note that when teaching practices are put in place to meet the needs of the students in the bottom 25% of a class the results of all the students tend to rise!

If you’re interested in exploring the alternatives to meet the needs of the students who are struggling then check out the Professional Learning (PL) options, Teaching & Learning Resources provided by LYNZ EDUCATION.

Let’s help ALL students to ‘get’ Maths and enjoy the journey.