Imagine a single exam stripped your workplace of its best performers.
They're so good, they're no longer permitted to share expertise alongside you anymore. Last month, they played for Team Everyone. This month, they're playing for Team Genius. Some of them have worked very hard to get there; others may have been born with talent.
This is what happens in most Kiwi schools around Year 7. What once was an egalitarian system, where brainiacs sat beside average and struggling children, has developed into a more rigid hierarchy for students at around age 11. Children who pass a rigorous test are separated into one or more gifted and talented classes per school, leaving less-gifted and talented peers in "regular" classrooms.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last month launched a "national education conversation" to learn what children and their parents want the system to look like over the next 30 years. This parent says scrap academic segregation – the kind that filters out the brightest children from their peers, like straining egg white from yolk.
Former University of Auckland professor John Hattie, who now heads the Melbourne Education Research Institute, told the New Zealand Herald last year the practice of streaming is helping drag Kiwi students' learning below other countries. Hattie said students placed into lower-streamed classes can never catch up because they're not given challenging lessons. He claimed we have more streaming than any other country in the world.
This blows my mind. It messes with the notion of Aotearoa's flattened cultural strata. Why, in a country where we pride ourselves on equality and fairness, do we start installing walls between our kids as they're skidding into puberty?
Education Minister Chris Hipkins agreed with Hattie, saying streaming was harmful. But he said schools would remain free to decide whether to continue the practice, or not.
Some schools in the Bay use streaming, others don't. At least one local intermediate requires accelerant students at the end of Year 7 to re-test for Year 8. Imagine the pressure – on the child, on parents, on tutors who are paid to ensure Johnny doesn't lose his place in the gifted collective.
Neither of my children made the accelerant class. Maybe I was slow to procure extra reading and maths help; drank too much coffee while pregnant; failed to read them the right texts as toddlers. Diamonds may be forever, but they're no match for Mother Guilt, which is stronger than any clump of bonded carbon atoms and lasts longer, too.
My point is, if your child has been relegated to flock status because of tests or past classroom performance, he/she may be missing the influence of very bright peers. The kid who always wins first prize at the science fair - gone. The student who takes top awards in speech and writing - outta there. They've become a passing face in the schoolyard or at assembly. Friendships crumble beneath shifting scholastic fault lines.
Special classes are good for gifted learners, the thinking goes, because they're pushed to excel. You've heard about children whose misbehaviour is attributed to genius? Jane plays up in class because she's bored. On the other hand, she might be stimulated and engaged by sharing her knowledge and passion with less-talented, less-resourced peers.
No one wants his child in a class with students who fight, throw chairs or reek of cigarettes or marijuana. Many of these kids don't want to be in school, but the law says they must stay until age 16. Some are angry, hungry, lack parental love, supervision, safe housing, self-control – or all of the above. Children with behaviour problems appear in gifted classes, too. However, it's unlikely a similar degree of misconduct would occur.
Our education system has resulted in one of the widest gaps in the world between top and bottom-performing students, according to international test scores released at the end of 2016. Numbers from the Programme for International Students (Pisa) test revealed New Zealand 15-year-olds' maths scores have dropped by more than any other developed nation since Pisa surveys began in the year 2000.
What happens when we remove role models from the classroom? We shift the goal posts. One of my children is especially competitive. Master 12 works harder in school, runs faster in races and tackles more in football when matched with higher-skilled peers. Stripping top-place earners creates an excuse to cruise. Victories are hollow.
Hipkins has said personalised learning is where our schools should head, but it requires smaller class sizes and more money.
Meanwhile, all schools could, and should, scrap streaming in favour of another model already employed by some local institutions: funnelling students to higher-level classes for subjects where they excel. This means an hour here and there in maths, art or writing instead of wholesale segregation.
Let's quit the educational caste system, and inspire students in the murky middle to aim higher.