To stream or not to stream

Issue: Volume 100, Number 3

Posted: 8 March 2021
Reference #: 1HAH_o

Students at Horowhenua College in Levin are achieving consistent success in NCEA maths and English either above or on par with the national average. It’s a result the school is proud of, and one they attribute to getting rid of streamed classes in Year 11 maths and English.

Education Gazette talks to students, teachers, school leaders and iwi partners about why they believe inclusive teaching and learning practices serve students better.

Year 12 student, Wiremu*, recalls his experience of being in the lowest streamed class, or the ‘cabbage class’ as he refers to it.

“I was above it, but because I was acting naughty I was put down in that class. There was nothing better to do than play up, I was only acting up because everyone else was, and I just followed the crowd. 

“One time I was really, really naughty and got taken out and put in a high-achieving class. The teacher realised I was capable of doing the work and left me in there… now I’m going to go to university and be an accountant.”

College-wide conversation

That teacher was Misbah Sadat, who was then head of maths at Horowhenua College. 

“That was back in Year 9,” recalls Misbah. “I was livid; he is so clever and that year there was not ONE Māori male student in the top class, so I arranged for him to be moved into the top class for ALL subjects and mentored him. He did brilliantly and was placed in the top Year 10 class on his own merit in all subjects.”

Misbah opposes streaming. In 2017, along with Claire McCormick, head of faculty for English and Languages, Misbah asked principal Grant Congdon and the Senior Leadership Team for support to stop streaming Year 11 English and maths. Everyone backed them. 

Principal Grant Congdon says the move to non-streaming required a complete buy-in from everyone, and the fact that Claire and Misbah achieved that is a significant achievement in itself. 

Grant says the data coming from the non-streamed classes is fuelling a conversation that is needed college wide.

He says there’s a need to provide focused professional learning and development to support non-streaming to succeed. 

Both Claire and Misbah agree that support from the principal, school leadership and board of trustees was essential to making the change.

Both teachers wanted to address the lack of Māori, Pacific and female students in English 1 and Maths 1. Maths 1 leads to algebra and graphing, enabling students to pursue careers requiring the STEM subjects science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Behaviour and streaming

Claire grew up in the UK and says she wasn’t well behaved at school and was put in the bottom class for being naughty. She says she’s seen the same thing happen here, especially for Māori and Pacific students. 

“When I first arrived at the school, there were five different streams for senior English. The top stream was mainly Pākehā and Asian students who did internals and externals, the lower streams did ‘Foundation English’ and just a few internals.

“We had Māori and Pacific students over-represented in there and a lack of engagement, because they realised they weren’t doing what the rest of the students were doing.

“My understanding was, students were streamed into classes as juniors, based on information passed on from their primary schools,” she says.

Claire noticed that streaming was based on behaviour. “So then you have to consider, well why was that? It’s because they’re not doing what the rest of the students are doing.

“When we got rid of streaming, we found our Māori and Pacific students achieved as well as everybody else, and behaviour issues disappeared out the window, because when students were streamed there were no role models in those classrooms. When streaming disappeared, there were role models all around, so we rarely have any behaviour problems and it’s a remarkable difference. 

“We taught everyone all the same programme, every single student – everyone was doing externals – and we’ve had lots of success! Consecutively we’ve had year-on-year improvement with our NCEA results, internally and externally.  We’re now finding we’re getting lots of Maōri and Pacific students taking Level 3 English, and they’re not just taking it, they’re getting Merits and Excellence,” says Claire.

Maths success too

Misbah tells a similar story for mathematics subjects. 

“After we stopped streaming in NCEA level 1 for algebra and calculus in 2017, student numbers continued at Level 2, jumping from 10 the previous year when we streamed, up to 24. Fifteen of those students carried on to Level 3 calculus, compared with six the previous year when we streamed, and of those students, five are Māori and three are Pacific.

“Overall, the numbers of students at Level 2 Maths have more than doubled since we stopped streaming.  This has not just raised the bar for Māori and Pacific achievement and participation, it has raised the bar across the board for Pākehā and girls as well,” she says.

Grant echoes this. “From Misbah and Claire’s work we are learning that non-streaming allows all learners the opportunity to aspire to high grades. Given the option, many choose to do more difficult work because they are allowed to aspire.”

But he sounds a note of caution. “I think removing streaming from courses needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, and with good consultation, PLD and support. If it is removed without the necessary structures and supports in place, then the challenging job of teaching teenagers becomes even more difficult.”

Whanaungatanga is our superpower

Chris Wilton (Ngāti Raukawa and Muaūpoko) co-leads the Rangatahi Ora programme at Horowhenua College alongside Dylan Kiriona (Ngāti Raukawa). Both teachers are Māori Deans, and high-performance sports coaches – Dylan with hockey and Chris with rugby. 

Muaūpoko are tangata whenua in the Levin rohe (region) and have a strong relationship with the college, where many Muaūpoko whānau send their tamariki.

“For Māori excellence and achievement to be the norm, streaming has to be abolished, because straightaway, it makes student’s self-esteem drop, and they think, ‘Oh, I’m not as smart as everyone else’,” says Chris. 

“All Māori learners have unlimited learning potential, and streaming is a direct contradiction to that potential approach.”

He says the assessment models which support streaming also need to change. 

“Take writing for example, mainstream assessment relies heavily on written work, but we are an oral culture. Most of our traditions were passed down through generations orally.”

It’s important for Māori students to come under the Māori curriculum, because indigenous knowledge isn’t embedded into mainstream core subjects. Chris says as a young Māori student he struggled to feel connected and engaged at school, and his options were to either fit into a Pākehā box or drown.

Connection and whanaungatanga

Fast forward to 2020 and Te Puna o Te Mātauranga – the school’s wharenui, is living up to its name, providing not only a spring of knowledge for ākonga, but also a strong sense of hononga (connection) and whanaungatanga through activities like Tikanga Tuesdays, Wānanga Wednesdays, shared kai on Thursdays, and regular Te Reo Māori and tikanga classes.

“Whanaungatanga is our superpower. When we’re Māori and we work together, nothing’s impossible.

“We’re planning a Rangatahi Ora core class for 2021, and are taking the year plans for each subject, transforming them to represent a Māori world view,” says Chris.

Dylan agrees that streaming is at odds with what works best for Māori. 

“Māori learning relies on the tuakana-teina, buddy system approach, and on peer support with senior students nurturing the juniors. It’s an essential dynamic of Māori education and achievement, but streaming keeps us in isolation and silos,” he says.

Both teachers say the Rangatahi Ora programme, supporting Māori to achieve as Māori, is key, and breathes life into Ka Hikitia (the Māori education strategy) at the same time. 

Rangatahi Ora was a finalist in the 2017 Prime Minister’s awards for successfully engaging Māori learners with school, and many students say it was the only reason they stayed.

Grant Congdon says as well as the successful Rangatahi Ora programme and tuakana/teina approach for Māori and Pacific students, another positive alternative to streaming is removing internal pre-requisites. 

He says pre-requisites are, in essence, a form of streaming, because they stop students from continuing with course options, and removing pre-requisites opens the career pathway door for all students.

Grant believes that stories which highlight streaming are important, because they have the capacity to challenge thinking and provide better outcomes for all students.

Experiences stay with us

Muaūpoko iwi chief executive Di Rump says as well as supporting the community and college initiatives, there are plans underway for a Muaūpoko Kura ā Iwi in the future. Chris’s sister and a former pupil herself, Di remembers her own experience of streaming as a Year 10 student. 

“I always did well at school but was streamed into a low class in Year 9, then moved up in Year 10 and again in
Year 11. In Year 10, my maths teacher stood me up in front of the whole class and accused me of cheating because I got a good mark in the test. He didn’t believe I could have achieved it by myself. I still remember his words: ‘I’ll give you 28 per cent, but I’m not even sure how much of that is yours’.

“That was 42 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday… where I was standing, the way the light came through the window, and looking around at the class wishing I was dead. I couldn’t breathe,” she recalls.

“On my mid-term report I had 81 per cent in English, 78 per cent in history and 28 per cent for maths.

“To this day I’ve always thought I’m bad at maths, but actually I can’t be, because I’ve had a career dealing with corporate finance and banking,” says Di. 

Pacific perspectives

Science teacher Jessica Foster runs the Pacific students’ after-school homework centre at Horowhenua College. Born in Fiji, her family emigrated to Huntly where both of her parents took up teaching positions.

A first-year teacher, Jess is recognised by the students as someone they can trust, and the school has appointed her as the new Pacific Dean for 2021. She says streaming combined with Covid has been tough on Pacific students, as lockdown meant working longer hours for parents who were essential workers.

“Some kids weren’t sitting down to study until 10pm when their parents walked in the door. Plus they had extra responsibilities like looking after their younger siblings and helping them with schoolwork.

“In quite a few families, there was no wifi or devices to support online learning. Students couldn’t connect with other learners let alone teachers, and many of them were set back academically,” says Jess.

Some subjects are still streamed and students in lower streamed classes who had fewer assessments didn’t have anything to fall back on if they didn’t pass, she says.

“Many Pacific parents won’t question streaming or their child’s grades because they think it’s disrespectful, or because they’re not confident with their English.”

Unconscious bias

Jess says she’s seen well-behaved Pacific students ‘play up’ to fit in, in low-streamed junior classes where there are no other positive role models around them.

“School is a bit of a release for some juniors, like ‘I can come to school, there’s no expectations on me [in a low-streamed class)], I can be naughty and even stuff like notices and reports won’t reach my parents.”

Streaming is for the benefit of teachers, says Jess, who argues that doesn’t work because teachers have to differentiate anyway. She agrees with the Māori deans that assessment tests for streaming are fraught with unconscious bias and are a problem.

“I think it’s also the way we test students to put them into streams. For example, some Pacific students are so quiet, the teachers assume they can’t speak English at all, and if they actually can’t, all of the testing is only done in English anyway.”

But Jess says her biggest concern around streaming is racism. Seeing students constantly getting worn down from having to explain and defend ‘who they are’ as Pacific people, plus figure out their studies at the same time, is something she can relate to.

“When I was 11, I was asked ‘what are you?’  In Fiji I never had to explain what I was, I never had to say I was Fiji/Rotuman – no one asked. But here, I was always having to say what I am, where I’m from. New Zealanders are bad for that, they have to put you in a box. 

“I realised in primary school, that being a ‘Pacific Islander’ was really bad. They are always on Police 10/7, always on the news, and every time I went into shops, I always got asked to show my bags. The last thing I wanted to be as an 11-year-old was a Pacific Islander,” says Jess.

Damaging for Māori

Jess’s concerns about streaming and racism are real, says Piripi Prendergast from Tokona te Raki, the Ngāi Tahu Māori Futures Collective.

Piripi is a secondary school teacher and researcher with over three decades of teaching experience, working alongside schools and teachers like Misbah and Claire, who are wanting to bring streaming to end.

He says He Awa Ara Rau, a research report released mid-year, highlighted the devastating impact of streaming on Māori career options. 

“The report evidences streaming as being fraught with racism, bias and deficit thinking and this is seen in top classes and groups being largely European, and bottom classes and groups being over-represented by Māori and Pasifika,” says Piripi.  

Piripi says kura kaupapa students are particularly affected when moving into kura auraki (mainstream schools). They might be brilliant at maths, but because they’re unfamiliar with the English terms, they score low on the testing, and are placed incorrectly in the bottom band or group, causing damaged self-esteem, loss of confidence and restricted career options. 

“Streaming is a relic of colonialism, why are we still doing it?” asks Piripi. “This is an issue, like corporal punishment, where it’s blatantly wrong.”

“We also have some science and maths teachers who are invested in the status quo of streaming, because it’s how they learnt, how they were taught at Teacher’s College, and how they’ve been teaching ever since. 

“Streaming is incredibly damaging for Māori and Pacific students and puts a glass ceiling on their careers,” he says.

Campaign to end streaming

Piripi points to NZQA statistics from 2018, showing almost a third of all Year 11 Māori maths students were not entered in a full NCEA maths course.

“Not even entered! They can’t even get Level 1 maths. And science is similar,” says Piripi. 

He says this is just one of the consequences of streaming and there are other causes, such as poor culturally responsive practices. 

Piripi says Tokona Te Raki is working on a campaign to end streaming because it’s an issue that impacts all New Zealanders.  

“We will release a research report soon and invite stakeholders to join us in making the change away from streaming. As a nation we are blessed with a growing, youthful Māori and Pacific population, but if we squander this rich resource, everyone loses,” says Piripi.

Senior students support this sentiment. Oliana*, for one, has loved the move away from streamed classes. 

“When there’s no streaming, we mix with all different kids from all different backgrounds, not just our own group, and learn off each other in class. It’s awesome, we never would have done that before,” she says.

Student kōrero

Streaming puts your confidence down, it doesn’t make you want to go for things that you should go for. Everyone looks down on you when you’re in the low classes. They think you’re dumb but you’re not, you’re just in the wrong environment. Joe*, Year 11. 

I hate streaming because it’s in levels, dumb to smart. For me, I was in the low classes, and I was surrounded by Māoris and Islanders and naughty white kids, so it influenced me to act naughty and not try my hardest. I asked why I was in there and was told to stop asking questions. My parents didn’t question it because it [streaming] has been going on for ages.
Manaia*, Year 12.

And then there’s stereotyping. I’m proud of performing [at kapa haka] and getting noticed, but it’s the only way I’m seen or perceived. When you get an academic excellent, they act surprised. Some teachers only notice you for your performing side, not your academic side. It makes me feel like giving up. My grades are good, but I’m not getting put up – there’s no point. Moana*, Year 12.

Even if you are a high academic achiever, kids of colour lower their expectations to fit in so they don’t lose their friends – even if it means you go through an identity crisis. I’ve seen so many brown students not care anymore; they don’t wanna try because it means being in an all Pākehā class.
Anahera*, Year 12. 

*Names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.

Misbah Sadat is now an assistant principal at Onslow College.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:15 am, 8 March 2021

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