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 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 teachers’ professional 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