Linda Bendikson: Schools need courage to abolish a practice that doesn't work

Strong, knowledgeable and ethical leadership is required - at the school and system level - to build trust while pursuing the best outcomes for students. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Strong, knowledgeable and ethical leadership is required - at the school and system level - to build trust while pursuing the best outcomes for students. Photo / Brett Phibbs

• Linda Bendikson is the director of the University of Auckland centre for educational leadership.

A continuing downward trend in New Zealand PISA results was highlighted in the Herald recently. Education researcher John Hattie suggested streaming was a key reason.

The negative effects of streaming have long been known from research and are well documented. I do not think changing that practice alone will be the solution, but it would certainly be a positive step. So why do secondary schools not embrace and apply the research?

I will put forward my theory based on observations and discussions with many secondary schools. Firstly, the Government has been very successful in promulgating a target of 85 per cent of students achieving NCEA Level 2.

This policy is soundly based in goal theory and research which tells us goals are effective when they are absolutely clear and important to all. The National Government has got this 100 per cent right - everyone knows that one target. Further, secondary schools generally believe it is achievable even though for many it is challenging.

This drive for 85 per cent achievement in schools in low socio-economic communities is tough when they may suffer from poor student attendance, high transience, challenges in retaining students at school and poor prior levels of literacy and numeracy. But these schools in my experience are committed to achieving the target.

So they respond to get the result in the best ways they can. They put a great deal of energy and creativity into close monitoring of results and to creating pathways to allow as many students to succeed as they can. Unfortunately, in the effort to get more students across the line schools sometimes provide students with pathways that may limit their academic learning by using standards that do not require a high level of literacy.

For example, recent New Zealand research has indicated that students in schools in lower socio-economic areas (many of whom are Maori and Pasifika) are being provided with fewer opportunities to read texts, are reading shorter texts, and are experiencing significantly less explicit teaching of literacy skills than students in wealthier areas.Thus their opportunity to reach high standards is being severely impeded.

This problem, which the Herald called "dumbing down" learning, is strongly enabled by streaming. The belief that some students can't cope with higher levels of learning and must be separated from those who can, means some students are taught less and have less opportunity to learn.

I have heard schools call this "differentiation", meaning one class is an "excellence" class, another is a "merit" class and the other is an "achieved" class, indicating where teachers are pitching their expectations and teaching. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The same occurs in primary schools when fixed ability grouping is used; the message to students is that you have a certain level of ability, not that you can learn and achieve if you put in the effort.

So why do schools persist in these practices? The first reason is to get as many students to achieve the level 2 target as possible, the second reason is social pressure. My sense is that schools feel parents of high-achieving students like it and that a move to mixed classes would be seen as "dumbing down" as opposed to the reverse.

It is as though school leaders are conflicted because though the evidence points one way, they feel many of the influential people in the community point the other way. And the support of the community is critical because roll numbers drive a school's staffing levels. So there is great risk for schools in changing a long-held practice that is familiar to parents.

A third, often-reported reason for maintaining the status quo is that teachers do not feel confident in teaching more heterogeneous classes. But can educationalists be committed to improving outcomes for all students and yet blithely carry on with practices that sustain the status quo?

This is a leadership issue. Do school leaders have the courage to stand up and defend research-based practices to their communities? And is the ministry going to publicly support this move?

This type of structural change cannot happen at this time of year, which is why planning ahead for the next year is so important. If leaders believe change is needed, now is the time to talk about it and to pave the way for substantive changes in 2018 which could make a huge difference, if leaders can take teachers, parents and students with them.

Strong, knowledgeable and ethical leadership is required - at the school and system level - to build trust while pursuing the best outcomes for students.

- NZ Herald

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