Novice teachers challenged by ability grouping contrary to evidence

By Matthew Clarke

In Australia across most school systems there is no informed, explicit and coherent policy approach to ability grouping. There is in fact a federal and state government policy silence in relation to the issue.

That has not stopped systems, schools and teachers from grouping students according to their perceived ability. The unintentional, ‘ unsanctioned’ or ‘ unconscious’ growth of ability grouping practices in Australian education raises questions of the relationship between policy and practice. Specifically, we usually think of policy as something that leads to practice. But as far as ability grouping is concerned the burgeoning practice across Australia has in effect become policy by default.

The phenomena of ability grouping may place teachers in an invidious position, insofar as they are often required to work with ability grouping practices that may well conflict with personal and professional beliefs about teaching methods or commitments to equity.

There is a large body of research that suggests ability grouping brings no overall gains to any schooling system and most importantly, that students from already marginalized groups are disproportionately disadvantaged by ability grouping practices. They are put into the lower ability groups where expectations and learning experiences are diluted.

Teachers who are committed to equity and being a caring collaborative professional have difficulty reconciling their personal identity as a teacher to the role expected of them in a system that asks them to be publicly accountable for test results and to make sense of ability grouping practices.  Many don’t and leave the service.

I explored the dilemmas these contradictions posed to a novice teacher in my article, Dialectics and dilemmas: psychosocial dimensions of ability grouping policy.

Brenda is a pre-service teacher whose own schooling had been in an academically selective high school in Sydney, something she was ambivalent about. Reflecting on the sense of competition that characterized her school, and that was reflected in official and unofficial ability grouping practices, she acknowledged, in an almost confessional register, that ‘I kind of benefited from them quite a lot’.

Australian schooling has witnessed a resurgence of ability grouping practices in education in response to pressure on schools to achieve superior results in high-stakes tests, such as Australia’s National Assessment: Literacy and Numeracy  (NAPLAN) tests.

Not surprisingly ability grouping was a significant topic of discussion in the schools where Brenda undertook her practicum placements during her Education degree. Referring to one of these schools, she described how ‘there was quite a hefty debate going on’ around ability grouping ‘ because they were talking about creating an alternative stream and basically singling kids out in Year 9 and putting them into this alternative stream because they really weren’t going to go anywhere’.

While her supervisor at the school ‘thought it was really unsound’ Brenda was also exposed to the influence of other voices at the school that emphasized ‘the benefits of getting kids on the same level to be able to work with each other and also the pragmatic elements of that’.

Brenda was clearly influenced by each of these views, both those advocating and those critical of ability grouping, and noted that she was still struggling with ability grouping as an issue in education:

‘It’s still a debate which I’m sitting on the fence with’.

‘I think it was really humiliating for them to turn up to school every day because there was such a sense of being the stupid class’.

As she put it later in the same interview,

‘the only problem is that it’s humiliating to realise that you have extra needs … I think that streaming practices alienate half the population from schooling’.

Each move Brenda makes in her thinking about the dilemma involves an implicit critique of her previous position; she never arrives at quite the same place she inhabited before, but is always transfigured by the journey. Such constant critique is vital if teachers are to do more than merely acquiesce in Australia’s state and federal policy silence in relation to the dilemma of ability grouping.

As a pre-service teacher, Brenda has the luxury of time and is able to enjoy a space of repose and reflection. But this is a luxury of limited duration and, assuming she takes up full, part time or, more likely, casual teaching work, her capacity for detached deliberation will be curtailed by the pressures and realities of life in schools in an educational era characterized by the pressures of national testing and governed by the ethics of public accountability.

Like so many other teachers, her professional identity will be squeezed between current education policy’s hyper-rational symbolic straightjacketing, represented by its penchant for statistics, standards and standardization, and its imaginary fantasmatic illusions of reconciling this competitive and self-focussed world with visions of social harmony and unity.

While a national or system-wide policy on ability grouping is unlikely to ever be articulated, much as we might like it to be, it is just one of the many contradictions and spaces Brenda will continue to face as an Australian teacher.

With this in mind it is critical that teachers see themselves as ‘policy workers’, rather than as implementers of a ‘teaching by numbers’ version of education, and that they thus retain the capacity of engaging in dialogue and reflection around the dilemmas of education as they pursue their careers.


 Matthew Clarke  Matthew Clarke

Matthew Clarke is currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales, where he is a member of the politics and policy research group. His research interests include the interface of political and psychoanalytic theory as a space for critical policy analysis, particularly in relation to the implications of neoliberal education policies for equity and for teachersprofessional identities. His forthcoming books include: The other side of education: A Lacancian encounter with education policy in 8½ words, published by Sense, and; Teacher education and the political: The power of negative thinking, co-authored with Anne Phelan and published by Routledge. From 2015 he will be taking up a position as Chair and Professor of Education at York St John University in England.

Find Matthew Clarke’s paper Dialectics and dilemmas: psychosocial dimensions of ability grouping policy  HERE

12 thoughts on “Novice teachers challenged by ability grouping contrary to evidence

  1. Tomaz Lasic says:

    Good piece Matthew

    And yet, I completely understand the knee-jerk response by many schools. I wrote about this recently, a number of paralleles there: http://human.edublogs.org/2014/07/17/which-students-should-i-care-about-less/

    Sadly, the visions of harmony and unity seem more phantasmic than the the uber-competitive, acquisitional, performing (and performative) individual. And we know where that’s coming from. We all swim in it, imbricated.

    Charged with ‘getting the best out of kids’, we, teachers (yes, I am one, high school) need to seriously ponder the question what are we here for? Not what do we add to but rather what do we drop from the ‘care for’ menu? That’s the policy work.

    Best but also hardest to do when say a bunch of teens run riot and say “we’re the dumb class Sir, didn’t you know that?”

    Just a straight from the hip reply, got a bunch of behaviour records to write. Yeah, you guessed it – about the kids who a colleague refers to as ‘why does she have to be in my class?’.

    Schools are weird places, let’s never forget that.



  2. Matthew Clarke says:

    Thanks for your response, Tomaz. I agree that teachers are in a difficult position (although, as the post you provide a link to above shows, teachers can always resist in one way or another), not least because of the dominant line of reasoning in policy that places the teacher at the centre of everything, conveniently shifting responsibility for any problems in education away from systemic and structural factors, from policy decisions and political issues, and onto the shoulders of the individual teacher.



  3. Kelli McGraw says:

    Thank you for sharing these views Matthew.

    When I challenge pre-service teachers to find research that supports ability grouping, all they can ever find is research that shows gains in academic performance for gifted/talented students. They can never find any evidence to support ‘streaming’ in general. And yet many of them then head out to schools and are told that this is the most effective and efficient way to teach. They quickly learn that challenging this paradigm will earn them the mantle of ‘troublemaker’.

    One of the worst things about creating classes based on ability grouping is that it gives teachers the wrong impression that they can then deliver a one-size-fits-all curriculum to the 30 students in front of them, as the students will supposedly work at the same pace and be capable of the same things. Frustration and teacher burn out quickly ensues when inevitably this doesn’t happen!

  4. Matthew Clarke says:

    I share your frustrations, Kelli, regarding the ‘grip’ that ability grouping seems to have on preservice teachers. I wonder if, in part, this is because it appears to offer an orderly, systematic and structured approach to the ‘management’ of learning. Unfortunately, this grip is being reenforced at a policy level, where ability grouping serves as the ‘dark underbelly’ of the ideology of choice, prompting schools to offer, for example, ‘opportunity’ classes as a way to attract mobile middle-class parents and thus compete more effectively in the education market that has been created. The policy silence in relation to ability grouping seems a clear triumph of ideology (choice) over notions of ‘evidence-based’ policy making.

  5. Anne At Home says:

    Hi Matthew, I am a parent of a year 3 student whose school streams from kindergarten. I’ve been uncomfortable with this but am now searching for evidence to back up this practice. I’m a medical doctor and my daily practice is governed by evidence. I would be interested in some citations on your statement that there is mounting evidence against streaming. I am considering starting a dialogue with the school and would like to read the research that’s out there. Are you able to point me in the right direction? Many thanks in advance

  6. Kelli McGraw says:

    Here is an older review of research on streaming, from a centre in the U.S.:
    ‘The Disadvantage of Tracking and Ability Grouping – A Look at Cooperative Learning as an Alternative’

  7. Thanks for the article. I agree there is a lot of evidence showing that ability grouping isn’t effective. Like most areas, there are some subtle nuances and interesting asides in that same research.

    Sadly, there is also lot of evidence showing that many popular teaching practices aren’t very effective. It would be nice to see more focus on evidence-based approaches in teacher training courses.

  8. Andrew Calvert says:

    “Australian schooling has witnessed a resurgence of ability grouping practices in education in response to pressure on schools to achieve superior results in high-stakes tests, such as Australia’s National Assessment: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.”

    Has it? My school has gone the other way. I’d love to see some evidence for the assertion. I accept the research at the basic philosophy of mixed ability grouping. The greater problem is how we define “mixed”. Most teachers have no problem with mixed ability but they do have a problem dealing equitably with THROW IT ALL TOGETHER AND CLOSE THE DOOR grouping. Some students are very combative or have intensive needs. We need an actual solution for that problem besides the vague and inconclusive “engagement” argument before mixed ability will work. We need a whole lot of things. Different learning spaces, assisted supervision across these spaces for more individual teaching.

    Next problem is your unsupported assertion that a majority of new teacher are going into classrooms wanting to teach mixed ability and getting the opposite. You guys run teacher training, you say mixed ability is good. Then you ask for “reflective essays” that force people to agree with you if they want the marks or passes. I would not use that as evidence that all graduating teachers and those in the profession for a year or so desperately want mixed ability and are offended by streaming. Again, show me the evidence of this.

  9. Anne At Home says:

    Hi Kelli, thanks so much for the article, I’ll read it asap. I’m curious if this is a practice that most teachers support or whether it is coming from principals or school boards in response to real or imagined parental pressure and the need for better results in NAPLANs. Is it one of those things that divide teachers – you are either for it or against it? It seems to me there is very little evidence to support the practice in primary school so I’m wondering why it is so widespread (and whether its worthwhile agitating for change within my school by a concerned group of parents?). Thanks again, I’d be really interested in the opinions of any teachers reading this blog.

  10. Andrew Calvert says:

    Anne at Home: I can only speak for my own high school which, like many in NSW has a selective stream of two classes each year that we teach, but is under different control for the most part. The classes the school executive have the choice to stream, or not stream, are around 5-6 a year.

    Last year we still had some streaming in yr9&10 of these classes. It wasn’t purely based on test results. In some cases it was to put girls together because of the over -representation of boys in our, and most, public schools. A number of things really. But overall, yes, you would say the classes were streamed on general ability across non-elective subject areas – so, really, it was still a broad mix as some students excel in English or science etc. This year we abandoned streaming at the behest of a new principal who is going on the research and the social inclusion agenda largely behind that research. She is definitely a forward looking person who uses the current research and writing as a compass. From my experience that is pretty usual in the public system.

    In the staff room today the topic came up and the 3 (different subject) teachers discussing it all had the same view: “Meh”. All three of us could see the arguments, and evidence, either way. For most teachers the only real concern is the lack of options and help out there for students who are hostile, combative, abusive, actively non-compliant, chronically absent etc. Now generally you are going to see more of them in the “low-ability” class in a school that streams. But that is definitely not always a result of their abilities. Largely I think the resistance from head teachers and possibly principals worried about lagging in external tests wouldn’t come so much from a view that streaming is great, but that mainstreaming has inherent risks when there are not effective programs out there right now that recuperate students with really disruptive tendencies. Sure Snr. researchers say “be engaging” “differrentiate” etc and believe me teachers hear that A LOT and try REALLY HARD, but the researchers have no evidence or substantive research firstly to say that engagement is a quantifiable phenomena, and secondly any concrete suggestions for what that looks like on a day-to-day lesson-to-lesson classroom. When you accept that fact you also have to accept that it only takes 1-2 disruptive students to seriously impact on a learning environment and have a large flow-on effect. If counselling and everything else isn’t working and mainstreaming means you have 2-3 of these students in every class in some years… Well then streaming can seem the least bad option.
    Besides that I’d say most supporters of streaming say it fosters a competitive environment with high standards. Personally it can just as easily lead to coasting because “hey, we’re in the top class.” But this is even more true when you have a separate selective stream that lasts til the HSC from a a test done by yr6 students…

    I can’t comment about primary. It does seem odd to think abilities could vary quite as much in primary but I’m sure people are a lot more arationally protective of their children at that age too. Some streaming in primary may be the result of trying to match LBOTE students with specialist teachers too. Not to mention the “opportunity class” mentality.

  11. Anne At Home says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to reply Andrew, and for your detailed response. It is so interesting to hear the teachers side of things. I don’t for one minute think I’m going to be able to change school policy – we have a new principal who seems to have been tasked with improving academic results. Unfortunately I don’t think their selection criteria is working (I know of at least one case where a very bright girl has been missed and placed in a lower class) and there have been instances of the school succumbing to parental pressure and allowing students into the “gifted” class. Also there are examples of students who are receiving private coaching to get into and stay in the gifted class, potentially bumping the non-coached but naturally talented students out of a place. As with the research I have read, our school is allocating the least amount of resources to the students who need it most in the lower classes. And this is just the 8 year olds! I take your point about separating the disruptive students, but as you say, they often end up in the lower class which has the most inexperienced teacher and doesn’t seem fair on the other students in that group. It’s certainly a vexed question. Seems to me if schools are going to go against the research and stream, it needs to be done REALLY well. Again, thanks for your insights.

  12. Tomaz Lasic says:

    Insightful comments Andrew, thank you. Kept nodding throughout. Context, context, context …

    Best wishes with your efforts.

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