Why Streaming Kids According to Ability Is a Terrible Idea (Oscar Hedstrom)


Oscar Hedstrom is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne, [Australia]. He is interested in creative and critical thinking in education. This appeared in Aeon , May 3, 2019.


Mixed-ability classes bore students, frustrate parents, and burn out teachers. The brightest will never summit Everest, and the laggers won’t enjoy the lovely stroll in the park they are perhaps more suited to. Individuals suffer at the demands of the collective, mediocrity prevails. In 2014, the UK Education Secretary called for streaming to be made compulsory. And as the former British prime minister David Cameron said in 2006: ‘I want to see it in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works.’ According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 98 per cent of Australian schools use some form of streaming.

Despite all this, there is limited empirical evidence to suggest that streaming results in better outcomes for students. Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, notes that ‘tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects’. Streaming significantly – and negatively – affects those students placed in the bottom sets. These students tend to have much higher representation of low socioeconomic backgrounds. Less significant is the small benefit for those lucky clever students in the higher sets. The overall result is relative inequality. The smart stay smart, and the dumb get dumber, further entrenching social disadvantage.

In the latest update of Hattie’s influential meta-analysis of factors influencing student achievement, one of the most significant factors – far more than reducing class size (effect: 0.21) or even providing feedback on student work (0.7) – is the teachers’ estimate of achievement (1.57). Streaming students by diagnosed achievement automatically restricts teacher expectations. Meanwhile, in a mixed environment, teacher expectations have to be more diverse and flexible.

While streaming might seem to help teachers to effectively target a student’s ZPD, it can underestimate the importance of peer-to-peer learning. A crucial aspect of constructivist theory is the role of the MKO – ‘more-knowledgeable other’ – in knowledge construction. While teachers are traditionally the MKOs in classrooms, the value of knowledgeable student peers must not go unrecognised either.

It is amazing to watch a student explain an idea or skill to her peers in ways that their teacher would never think of. They operate with different language tools, different social tools and, having just learnt it themselves, possess similar cognitive structures. There is also something exciting about passing on skills and knowledge that you yourself have just mastered – a certain pride and zeal, a certain freshness to the interaction between teacher and learner that is often lost by the expert for whom the steps are obvious and the joy of discovery forgotten. As a teacher, I often find I do a better job teaching material that I am not overly familiar with. In these circumstances, we hit authentic learning snags where I am not an expert-knower, but become an expert-learner, and we all have to negotiate the learning together.

Having a variety of students of different abilities in a collaborative learning environment provides valuable resources of relative-experts who are able to help each other meet their learning needs, never mind the benefits to communication and social skills. Look to the old adage: the best way to learn something is to teach it. If so, streamed classrooms reduce authentic opportunities for peer-to-peer teaching and learning, with both less and more capable students disadvantaged. And today, more than ever, we need the many to flourish – not suffer at the expense of a few bright stars. I go on a hike with a motley array of student once a year. It is challenging. The fittest students realise they need to encourage the reluctant. There are lookouts who report back, and extra items to carry for others. The laggers – who have never walked more than a kilometre their entire life – struggle, blistered, chafed and out of breath. But they also inevitably surprise themselves. We make it – together.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

15 responses to “Why Streaming Kids According to Ability Is a Terrible Idea (Oscar Hedstrom)

  1. Andy S

    Thanks for this. The date of the original article is at the foot of the article: 3 May 2019

  2. An interesting topic, thanks for sharing this piece. My quibble is that the author quotes Hattie’s effect sizes as if they have validity. Hattie’s methods of combining meta-analyses without rigorous evaluation of study quality result in unbelievable effect sizes. If I recall correctly the studies involving teacher estimates of student achievement are exactly that – teachers are highly accurate in predicting student achievement, but they are not studies of how teacher expectation affects student achievement. Although I personally favour mixed ability classes I can imagine situations in which small class sizes of low ability students taught by a very good teacher could result in better outcomes for those students.

  3. I see great interactions and learning take place among students in my pre-AP high school Spanish class in which heritage learners and non-heritage learners are mixed for the first time in our program. Most of our heritage learners are from a poorer working class background whose parents did not attend school beyond 6th grade. Most of our non-heritage learners come from well-resourced families who went to college. I create structures to build community and respect between the students, particularly at the beginning of the year. The curriculum is made up of big ideas, as well as pragmatic life skills, that hopefully motivate all as they work through problems and issues together. It’s a fantastic journey for many, and many of the heritage learners come a long way academically throughout the course of the year as they are pushed up by their peers to give concrete examples, use new academic vocabulary, analyze deeply, and use their creativity. My non-heritage learners are forced to hone their listening and speaking skills fast, and ask their friends in the class how to say things in order to “make sense” to a native speaker.

    – [ ] While I have tried my best to cultivate a rich social environment in which the students are engaged and level each other up, there are always groups of students that I wonder about- students who may have needed more time with their learning group -heritage or non-heritage – to build confidence. For some of my heritage learners, the academic dexterity of the non-heritage learners can be seen as another blow to the struggling self-perception and academic identity that that says that they are not as capable as their peers. It’s an incredibly tricky social and academic balance, and I have to acknowledge that it may not be best for everyone.

    Another issue that has come up in recent years is the wave of Central American refugee students who come into our school system at 13, 14, 15, 16 with very little schooling and we now designate as Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). Trying to accommodate for their lack of academic experiences, the Spanish teachers have advocated for a lower level of heritage Spanish for when they first arrive in order to immediately give them a teacher with bicultural and bilingual competence and who can address their limited literacy with elementary school informed reading and writing strategies, as well as basic computer skills, such as how to type an email address, the space bar, capital letters, email, internet navigation, document types, and how to create a presentation with font sizes, colors, images and videos.

    To meet the needs of this special population we have worked with the ELD teachers to strongly advocate for this “streamed” Spanish heritage class as they are unable to keep up with the content in our mainstream heritage speaker classes. We would like to get them mixed in with our other Spanish classes as soon as possible after they arrive, but their needs are radically different and with large numbers of these students coming throughout the school year, we have been able to meet their needs much more efficiently by separating them into a class designed for them.

    For the most part, I believe in radical heterogeneity, that is, mixing up ability levels, ages, and social groups, much more than is the standard in our schools, while also offering some times in which kids segregate for some specific academic purpose or even social affinity group. I am encouraged to read about the positive effects of heterogeneous groupings, and I hope the research and teacher/student anecdotes can inspire more of our schools to eliminate the number of “tracks” available to students whose choices are often defined by their parents’ aspirations and their social /educational class and language test results- particularly in middle school where much of this begins at the same time that kids decide who they are academically, socially, ethnically, and linguistically and which group they “belong to”. Thank you for continuing this conversation on your blog.

  4. I am glad to see that there is empirical evidence for something that seems to me to be a more just type of classroom. My daughter’s school after having been streamed for years, recently started a new program to do away with streaming and have mixed ability classrooms. I was thrilled to see this happen and it seems that the teachers were excited about implementing this new model. I had experienced tracking myself in highschool into upper level classes and felt that it put extra pressure on the upper level students while dumbing down the lowest levels. It also meant I didn’t have opportunities to socialize with lower level students. In my senior year I took several AP classes but wanted a break from pressure in all my classwork and took a lower level language course. I was a shy quiet kid throughout highschool. But in this class where I was able to relax, I made amazing friends who taught me social skills I was lacking and I started to come out of my shell. We have so much to learn from each other and it’s not all academic.

  5. School was horribly boring for me until tracking started in high school. I loved my Level 1 classes. The only plus side of non-tracked classes was that I got a lot of reading done, feeding my book-a-day habit.

  6. Chester Draws

    It’s not a binary option.

    You can track out the very fastest or the very slowest and leave the bulk in place. Our school does that, so that 80% of students are unstreamed, and it works well. The very fastest students don’t sit around bored, and the bulk of students don’t get to feel like they are useless.

    One thing though — when we stream out our bottom classes we give them the best teachers, not the worst.

  7. Pingback: 2019 Medley #10 | Live Long and Prosper

  8. Eduardo Capocchi

    This is a topic well worth revisiting, after the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have stabilized. Extended remote / online education is bound to create differences in groups which were previously well intertwined, providing yet more challenges for educators. Another salient overtone of class composition is that the decisions revolving adopting one mode or another seem to be not- capital-intensive. i.e., given sufficient/able teachers (which should be there in the first place), decisions can be made regardless of major budgetary impacts. Am I misguided?

    • larrycuban

      I see it differently, Eduardo. Other than extensive professional development for teachers doing online instruction,budgetary considerations are paramount.During this recession states reducing funds that they send to districts means that teachers will be let go as they were during the Great Recession of 2008. When that occurs then fewer teachers will have larger class loads for online instruction should the pandemic continue through the 2021-2022 school year.

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