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Chris Trotter - Pressure Towards The Mean: Do We Really Want To Abolish Streaming?

ABOLISH STREAMING, that is the demand of the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA). They are not alone in their determination to put an end to the “blatantly racist” practice of grouping secondary-school students according to their intelligence/academic ability. The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, considers streaming “inequitable” and the Ministry of Education agrees with him. With forces as powerful as the Minister, the Ministry, and the Union ranged against the practice, its days would appear to be numbered.


Which leaves New Zealanders with the vexed question of what will happen when streaming is no more? Will their children emerge from the public education system with the skills and qualifications necessary to foot-it in the modern world? Or, will their education be limited to whatever the least engaged and least talented students allow their teachers to impart? If that is the outcome, then all the opponents of streaming will have achieved by its elimination is a society managed by traditionally-educated immigrants equipped with all the internationally recognised skills and qualifications that young, publicly-educated New Zealanders no longer possess.


Although driven by demands for equity, the abolition of streaming in the public secondary system will not make New Zealand a more equitable nation. No more than the students themselves, will parents be fooled by the randomised mixing of individuals of radically different abilities. The mums and dads of highly intelligent and powerfully motivated children will do everything within their power to ensure that their offspring are pushed and extended to the fullest extent of their powers. If they cannot get this from the public sector, then they will turn to private providers or themselves. The reformers’ push towards equity will not end in a narrowing of the class and racial divides, it will force them wider apart.


Māori middle-class parents will be as keen to see their offspring extended as middle-class Pākehā parents. Those who cannot afford the $30,000 per year fees of the leading private schools, will do all within their power to move their families into the zones of the most prestigious public schools, where the strong class bias of the “good schools’” catchments will lessen the impact of streaming’s abolition. Māori middle-class parents are well aware that as diversity quotas are achieved, and the need for positive discrimination declines, social advancement will increasingly depend on having the right credentials. Though they can hardly come out and say so, the drive towards racial equity – of which the abolition of streaming is part – is not in their own children’s interests.


There is, after all, a very powerful justification for streaming. Highly-complex, technologically-sophisticated civilisations, based on science, simply cannot do without the rigid hierarchies of competence that keep them functioning. The streaming process is, therefore, absolutely critical to the social and intellectual winnowing required to concentrate and develop talent. Streaming isn’t just about grouping the smartest students together, it’s about acculturating the smartest students to being smart. Streaming encourages students to value and accept their larger capabilities. In a non-streamed environment, the pressure is inevitably towards the mean – in every sense of the word.


The supposed downside of this meritocratic imperative is its negative impact upon those of lesser competence. New Zealanders, in particular, jibe at the very notion of hierarchies. They tell themselves that they are egalitarians, and fool themselves into thinking that egalitarianism means every person is the same as every other person – even when they know this isn’t true. (Just ask them if they would select an All Black team on that basis!)


New Zealanders have forgotten that their public education system was not conceived as an environment in which every student gets an “A”, but as a place where every kid capable of getting an “A” receives the professional instruction and educational resources he or she needs to be awarded an “A”. It should not matter whether you’re Māori or Pākehā, rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight: if you’ve got the talent, then you should be equipped to go as far as it can take you. And if getting “As” in academic disciplines isn’t your thing, then the education system’s job is to find out what is your thing – and develop it to the fullest extent.


That is what Charles Beeby and Peter Fraser meant when, together, they defined the education policy of the First Labour Government:


“The government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.”


Apart from the relentless use of the masculine pronoun, the phrase that most sticks in the craw of twenty-first century educators is: “for which he is best fitted”. The PPTA’s argument is that the cultural logic of colonisation leads racist Pakeha teachers to the view that Māori and Pasifika are “best fitted” to be hewers of wood and drawers of water: a stereotype into which, for the rest of their time in secondary school, the system will do its best to squeeze them. Get rid of streaming, argues the Union, and this evil colonial project is made much more difficult.


Except, of course, transforming secondary school classes into random collections of students of every colour from every background is, itself, a pipe dream. Different races and different classes live in different places. Getting rid of streaming at Auckland Grammar will look quite different from getting rid of streaming at Northland College. And even if the Ministry of Education could magically produce perfectly random collections of students (much as the US Supreme Court tried to do by “bussing” kids from one side of town to the other) the Bell Curve would still not be denied – only those kids at either end of it.


It is a matter for considerable regret that the PPTA, in its determination to overcome the effects of colonisation, shows every sign of establishing a new regime where the “soft bigotry of low expectations” will only end up making the racist outcomes worse.



This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 6 October 2022

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