It’s that time of year when many primary and middle school leaders are spending precious hours on sorting students into maths ability groups ie. streaming students. It’s time to STOP and reconsider this. Numeracy research doesn’t support all the effort and angst it takes to create the groups, especially when it has a negative effect on students’ results. There are also questions to be asked about the legitimacy of grading the students to place them into groups.

What assessment tools or results were used? Do they provide a true indication of the child’s ability level or understanding?

Will the teacher be programming their lessons based on the areas of weakness &/or strength identified in the assessments or is there a disconnect between the results and the teaching? On a very practical level, don’t forget the time it takes school leaders to coordinate the rooming and teaching timetables to implement ability grouping.

And then consider how much teaching time is lost as students move from room to room… (not to mention the loss of time for the ones that haven’t got all their equipment with them?) How frustrating is it for parents when the classroom teacher can’t comment on a student’s mathematics progress (or lack thereof) because they don’t teach them that subject? That raises another interesting discussion about numeracy and mathematics … to be numerate you have to be able to take your maths skills out of the maths lesson and apply them in everyday life.

Therefore, it stands to reason that if the classroom teacher knows what is being taught in the maths lesson they can continue to reference it quite naturally during the school day and help students to consolidate their understanding and make the links between maths and other subjects and other activities.

Consider Recommendation 9 of the COAG (Commonwealth of Australian Governments)

National Numeracy Review Report 2008 (pp 45 – 57)

“That the use of ability grouping across classes in primary and junior secondary schooling be discouraged given the evidence that it contributes to negative learning and attitudinal outcomes for less well achieving students and yields little positive benefit for others, thus risking our human capital goals.”

This was one of 15 recommendations made in the COAG report which was based on the significant research available on how to improve the teaching and learning of numeracy for the students in our Australian schools. Each of the recommendations is worthy of further consideration by school leadership yet unfortunately, in my experience, it is a report that is not well known. Another strong and passionate voice to listen to in this debate is Professor Jo Boaler (Stanford University) who believes that the identification of students for particular classes “is not only very damaging but also incorrect”.

She elaborates in her book “Mathematical Mindsets” in chapter 6: “Mathematics and the Path to Equity” that by separating students we perpetuate the myths that ‘there are those that can and those that can’t do maths’, that ‘maths is a more difficult subject to learn than other subjects’ and that ‘some students are just not suited to higher level maths’.

You can access further inspirational resource on this from the Stanford University website. Fortunately there are alternative ways (based on research evidence) to help both the classroom teacher and all the students in the class to make progress in numeracy without streaming students into ability groups… and that help both student and teacher enjoy the ‘journey’.

We must acquaint ourselves with what this research says and put into place evidence-based practices that will work to improve numeracy results for all the students in our schools. Interesting to note, as teaching practices improve to meet the needs for the students in the bottom 25% of a class the results of all the students tend to rise!

If you’re interested in exploring the alternatives, I’ll be continuing to add content of interest on my website . Let’s continue to engage further in what other options you have to meet the needs of all your students in mathematics.