Commentators still in Dickensian era

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I have been shocked and horrified at the lack of understanding of many commentators in relation to the (always vexed) question of streaming in schools.

I get it that this is an anxious subject for the children of middle class parents who do not want to see their children’s advantage reduced by placing them in a classroom of people of mixed ability.

But, forgive me, the notion that there is an effect called ‘pulled down to the mean’ by putting people together is so much poppycock.

Notions of human intelligence were forged around 120 years ago within the context of theories of eugenics. Look up Francis Galton, for example. Eugenicists were essentially Nazis (or became Nazis), based on the idea that intelligence was fixed by birth, and by racial and ethnic characteristics.

Māori in Aotearoa were subject to eugenic judgements.  From the start, Māori students were provided with an easier curriculum, fewer years of education and less access to examinations and qualifications then pakeha.

While justified on the basis of lower ‘native intelligence’, of course what happened was that the sparsity of education actually caused the gaps. The only basis for judging Māori to be of lower intelligence was that they were brown, and as a people had not experienced the technological revolutions of the northern hemisphere.

These people, who could find their way around the Pacific Ocean with little more than the stars, the winds and the tides, were deemed insufficient for the higher education honours.

As my Māori friends tell the story, from day one they were told they were stupid and, if girls, that they would only go and have babies at 13 so what’s the point of an education, eh hine? And, guess what, for generations this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Many of the Māori women working now in high level jobs left school at a very early age and then ‘caught up’ later.  One woman described her social work degree to me:  “it was all about pakeha learning how Māori families live their lives, and judging them”.

And a huge shift has taken place within a generation, where the gate has been opened, and least to an extent, for Maori into higher learning.

Streaming is such a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is based on the Dickensian and certainly Galtonian notion of fixed intelligence – we are born with only so much grey matter (and, yes, they did used to try and weigh it – fancy that) and there is a maximum level to which we can achieve.

And it is poppycock. Most of the barriers to school achievement lie in a complex mix of social, cultural, economic and educational factors.  The reality is, the stuff which is taught in schools is, by and large, readily accessible to 95% of students – those who do not face complex issues of intellectual functioning that make learning much harder – all else being equal.

The struggle needs to be to get the rest equal.  And streaming is a barrier to that.

The gaps that exist can be overcome.  But streaming simply institutionalises and cements these gaps. Streaming mandates a very old-fashioned and right wing theory into our school system – that we have limits, that they are racially and ethnically formed and there is nothing that we can do about them, and the kindest thing we can do is lower expectations for the have nots.

Well, excuse me, but bugger that!  So a massive thanks to the PPTA for its work in this field, and for forcing the system to move towards a non-streamed future.

The three biggest predictors of educational achievement in NZ are, in order, the number of books in the home (300+ is the gold standard). Mother’s educational achievement and Father’s educational achievement. We can shift all of these, over time, to take away the sheer injustice that the fate of our children is based, far too often, on their background rather than their dreams and aspirations.

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About Insight Aotearoa

Most of the blogs published here will either respond to initiatives elsewhere or will be ‘newsmaking’. Some will also be reflective in more general terms. The blogs will be topical and interesting. I like to inject some humour into my blogs.

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