Streaming in Classrooms

Is streaming beneficial or harmful to students?

Inquiry Questions:

What is streaming?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of streaming?

What regions use streaming, and which don't?

Is streaming beneficial or harmful to students?

Prior Knowledge:

Going into this inquiry project, my prior knowledge was limited.

As a student in both elementary and high school, I always wished there was a classroom for the more advanced students and the less advanced students (because guess which one I pictured myself in...).

However, on the rare occasion when I would get the nerve to ask my teacher about this sort of situation (I think I asked 2 teachers at separate times), they simply replied back to me that "we don't do that here in Saskatchewan".

Finally, in grade 9 when I moved from elementary school to high school, I was given the chance, only to have it smashed from my grasp. The IB program at Campbell required that in order to take the advanced IB classes, you HAVE to be enrolled in French for grade 9 - which was something I definitely did not want to do. So, from then on, I was in the 'normal' classes, wishing I had the chance to participate in the higher esteemed IB classes.

My next encounter with streaming came in either grade 10 or 11 when my German teacher was explaining the school system in Germany and Switzerland, where they stream the students during the last few years of school to determine:

1) if they were going to need further education after high school,

2) if they needed a more hands on and practical education, or

3) if they were on the route to typical university style academics.

I thought that this was great - why do other countries not do this? It seems so simple, and like it would be beneficial for everyone to have their unique needs catered for.

Other than this personal experience, I had very little knowledge of streaming, its benefits or disadvantages, etc. So this inquiry project was completely new!

Resources I used:

Also known as tracking, or sometimes ability grouping, streaming refers to the educational practice of separating students in groups or separate classes with differentiated curriculums, on the basis of academic achievement.

Students with similar achievement levels and capabilities are placed together in a class to learn at their specified pace and information relevant to their capabilities.

**Both streaming and ability grouping (see below for definition) are closely "tied to fundamental, often conflicting, ideological positions. These are reflected in strong differences of opinion about the merits of selective schooling, which have kept debate alive throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries" (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.1).

The term 'ability grouping' is sometimes used interchangeably with 'streaming' or 'tracking'. For the purpose of my summary and conclusions, I will refer to ability grouping as a way teachers differentiate their teaching of a heterogeneous class (a class with students of all abilities) for group work. Teachers put similarly capable students together in a group for a specific amount of time so that they can work with each other and boost each others achievement.

As Tom Loveless phrases it, "Ability grouping is the practice of dividing classes into class instructional groups, especially for teaching reading" and I would add math (Loveless, 2013).

The (American) National Education Association points to two common forms of ability grouping:

1) Within-class grouping: small groups usually for reading or math instruction;

2) Between-class grouping: school's practice of separating students into different classes, courses, or course sequences based on their academic achievement.

This second "ability grouping" is what is more largely referred to as streaming, which is why the two terms are often used interchangeably.

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With this definition in mind, my inquiry project was focusing on streaming, not ability tracking, which is widely used in classrooms all over the world as a form of differentiation and student interaction within classrooms.

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Table 1.1 (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.10)

Frequently Found Information:

Information found over a wide selection of resources (not specific to any one):

  • There is a huge debate about whether streaming is beneficial or harmful to students - there is no clear conclusion.
  • The practical application of streaming takes different forms all over the world, so it is difficult to compare systems set up in the United States to systems in Scandinavia or Germany (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725); (Collins & Gan, 2013, p.10).
  • Streaming was popular in education in the 1960s, but after about a fifteen year "boom", the system started to be criticized and regions have gone through processes of "detracking" or "destreaming".
  • Most sources are still against the idea of streaming because of the wide range of disadvantages. (See 'disadvantages' section).
  • Recent predictions proclaim that streaming may be making a comeback, but likely more in the form of advanced ability-grouping (see definition), rather than full streaming.
  • Many researchers point out the fact that streaming is beneficial only to those in the high-streamed classes, while fundamentally harmful for those in the low-streamed classes.


Binary of Streaming:

Most resources I have examined point to streaming being more harmful than beneficial for students in the practical application in schools. Having examined my research, I have created my own two distinctions of streaming to form conclusions on:

1) Practical Streaming:

- More harm than good being done

- Unqualified/tired/unsupportive teachers

- Students have low self-confidence

- Low-stream classes become a "dumping ground" for unwanted students

- Minority and low-income students have a higher representation in low-streamed classes.

2) Romanticized Streaming:

- Streaming is more student-focused, so teachers can better plan for their students

- Working with peers of similar abilities is beneficial

- High achieving students can continue to move forward and challenge each other

- Low achieving students can work on fundamentals needed for real world application

This binary of streaming shows me that the romanticized streaming ideal is the reason why it was brought into schools in the first place. Only the benefits of streaming are pointed out, and it assumes that all aspects of schools and school politics are clean. However, the 'practical streaming' shows more what streaming ends up looking like in schools, where politics stream lower qualities teachers into the low steamed rooms, and where low-achieving students are bullied for their skill set.


1. Personalization of education:

  • Research of Kulik and Kulik (1992) "report mainly positive effects of streaming on students' achievement, because it allows teachers to tailor their teaching to the particular requirements of the students" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725); (National Education Association); (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.1).
  • "produces efficiency gains for teachers in the way that they are able to structure their classrooms and pedagogy. Sorting [streaming] allows teachers to narrow their instruction to a particular group of students and to tailor their teaching styles to meet the needs of those specific students" (Collins & Gan, 2013, p.2)
  • "streaming reduces the spread of ability within the class, making it easier for teachers to match their teaching to pupils' levels of academic ability" (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.10).

2. Students gain confidence:

  • "Students in the higher streams become motivated, because they gained recognition and status" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725).

3. Higher performance levels with like-minded peers:

  • "High-achieving students tend to perform better when they are assigned to high-level groups than when taught in mixed ability classes" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.726); (Gamoran, 2010); (Kulik and Kulik, 1992).
  • "Selecting and grouping pupils by ability ... is effective in raising pupil attainment" (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.17).

4. Low-streamed students are no longer at the bottom of the class:

  • In a study of a positive low-streamed class in Denmark, students felt feelings of freedom, feelings of belonging, and feeling comfortable with learning at their own pace and in non-traditional ways (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.732).

5. More academic learning takes place with fewer interruptions or slowing questions:

  • "If classes are too heterogeneous, there is a risk that this peer learning will not occur due to fragmentation of the social learning environment in the class" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.734).
  • "Dividing students into more homogeneous groups allows teachers to direct their focus to a more narrow range of students and meet the needs of their particular classroom more efficiently" (Collins & Gan, 2013, p.20).
  • "The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest would become frustrated, give up and act out" (Yee, 2013).
  • "Heterogeneous classes will either leave slower students behind or force quicker ones to wait" (Burris & Garrity. 2008, p.viii).

6. Studies show improvements in reading and math in particular:

  • "Sorting [streaming] is found to produce significantly positive effects in both reading and math - and for both high and low achievers" (Loveless, 2013); (Garelick, 2013).

7. Especially helpful for ESL students who need extra help:

  • "Researchers found that when the discourse in reading groups, for example, was similar to the talk that children experienced at home and in their communities, reading achievement went up. As a result, they argued for a differentiated curriculum [streaming] in reading so that children felt comfortable with the talk in the classroom" (Lockwood, 1996, p.26).

8. Student attainment and graduation levels increase:

  • "Students' stream allocation positively relates to their educational attainment and ...this relationship can be explained by a stream-specific staff culture" (Stevens & Vermeersch, 2010, p.268).
  • With students who feel more "at home" and comfortable in their classrooms (no longer being pegged the 'slow' one in the room, students are more likely to continue on with education because it continues at their own pace - thus, raising graduation rates.

9. Mixed classrooms just aren't the answer:

  • "Meeting different individual needs is not accomplished with an undifferentiated, teach-to-the-middle curriculum [as in a school that is not streamed]. The inadequacies of a teacher-centered class that emphasizes rote memory and separate subjects become very conspicuous in untracked schools" (Pool & Page, 1995, p.1)

10. Higher-level academics taught, rather than behavior to those who know how to behave:

  • With the traditional trouble-makers streamed into the low-streamed classes, teachers of the high-streamed classes are lifted of the burden of teaching for better behavior in the classroom, and thus have more time to focus on true academia in the classroom (Page, 1991, p.33).


1. Streaming causes systemical racism:

  • Streaming "was believed to sustain social inequalities and prevent the educational progress of children from less privileged families" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725).
  • Streaming in schools "channel poor and minority students to low tracks where they receive a lower quality of instruction than other groups" (National Education Association).
  • "Lower tracks include a disproportionate share of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minorities" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725).
  • "Since a disproportionate number of minority students are assigned to low-track classes, how can schools combat resegregation?" (Lockwood, 1996, p.14). --> However, Lockwood goes on to support the streaming system by pointing out that "the low-track placement for minority students - although admittedly disproportionate - has less to do with overt prejudice than with low scores on standardized tests" (Lockwood, 1996, p.14).
  • "Rather than honoring the differences that exist between people, critics content that through curriculum differentiation [streaming] we are simply reproducing an inequitable social order and violating out ideals of equality" (Lockwood, 1996, p.22).
  • "No other schooling practice leaves children behind more systematically [than streaming does]" (Burris & Garrity, 2008, p.vii).
  • "Even when it is not intended, whole-class stratified groupings [streaming] promote elitism, de facto racism, and classism" (Pool & Page, 1995, p.1).

2. No one benefits from streaming - harmful effects on everyone:

  • "Negative effects for students in the low tracks and few or no gains for students in the high tracks" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725).
  • "Research on streaming in secondary schools indicate that it tends to widen the spread of attainment by slowing the progress of the lower ability groups" (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.28).

3. Students are made fun of and excluded from the school community:

  • "Students in the lower streams tend to become stigmatized and feel excluded from the wider social community in schools" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725). This is then perceived as a threat to students creating subcultural communities of social undesirables.
  • "Students are given labels that stay with them as they move from grade to grade", examples of these may include 'stupid', 'slacker', 'brain', 'geek', etc. (National Education Association).
  • "Tracking leads students to take on labels - both in their own minds as well as in the minds of their teachers. ... Because of this, we end up confusing students' pace of learning with their capacity to learn" (Scholastic Teachers).
  • "They may be labeled and stigmatized by staff and by other pupils, and become disaffected with school" (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.11).

4. Difficulties in deciding how to measure achievement levels:

  • "Teachers can have biased perceptions of students' motivation, behavior and appearance, which can have an influence on placement" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725).
  • "The criteria we use to group kids are based on subjective perceptions and fairly narrow views of intelligence" (Scholastic Teachers).

5. Underqualified teachers to the low-stream class:

  • "Schools tend to assign teachers with lower academic qualifications, who set lower goals for learning, are less engaged, and employ less challenging forms of teaching to the lower tracks" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.725-6).
  • In a study that observed a low-stream classroom, Anne Turnbaugh Lockwood made the observation that "everyone in the school knew he was not one of the better teachers, and worse, he could sense that he knew it himself. As a result, a certain dispirited quality permeated the class) (Lockwood, 1996, p.3).
  • "Despite the fact that some teachers welcome teaching low-track classes, the majority do not", which leads to a constant need for qualified teachers to teach the 'undesirable' students (Lockwood, 1996, p.14).
  • "Lower expectations leads to a low level of motivation toward school" (National Education Association).
  • "We associate students' placement with the type of learners they are and therefore create different expectations for different groups of students" (Scholastic Teachers).
  • "A rich body of research on streaming or tracking conducted mainly in the USA and UK suggests that teachers have lower expectations of students in lower education streams and adapt their curriculum and pedagogy in line with such expectations" (Stevens & Vermeersch, 2010, p.267).
  • "Tracking often results in dull, unimaginative, uninspired teaching, particularly (though by no means solely) where low-track students are concerned" (Pool & Page, 1995, p.1).

6. Low-streamed students are less engaged when all together:

  • "The grouping of all the less engaged students in one class carries a major risk of reinforcing their lack of engagement" (Tanggaard, Nielsen, and Jorgensen, 2015, p.730).
  • "In addition, tensions existed between minority and majority students in the low-track classes, and then classroom focus was on discipline rather than academics" (Burris & Garrity, 2008, p.6).
  • "Lower-track teachers worry persistently about keeping control, yet control is of uncertain warrant. ...They expect lower-track students to be 'out of control' yet also notably passive" (Page, 1991, p.35).

7. Impossible to move out of a low-streamed classroom:

  • "Once students are grouped, they generally stay at that level for their school careers, and the gap between achievement levels becomes exaggerated over time. The notion that students' achievement levels at any given time will predict their achievement in the future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy" (Scholastic Teachers).
  • "Confidence falters as [students are] repeatedly assigned to low groups or demoted from a high group to a low group" (Lockwood, 1996, p.2)

8. Low-stream classes being taught less-than-adequate information for life in society after school:

  • "Tracking promotes 'dumbed-down', skill-drill, ditto-driven, application-deficient curricula. It contributes to the destruction of student dreams and the production of low student self-esteem" (Pool & Page, 1995, p.1).

Streaming Cartoon


After conducting the research for this inquiry project, I have come up with a kind of convoluted conclusion of my own. In terms of my own binary of the term "streaming" (practical versus romantic), it is my conclusion that the practical version of streaming is not beneficial to students, whereas the romanticized version is beneficial to students. Unfortunately, in the practical reality of schools, there are too many obstacles that must be overcome in order for streaming to be effective for all. These obstacles include (but are not limited to): selecting students to be put into streams (how do you measure achievement?), expectations of teachers, students, and parents, the ethos at the school (how people are treated in the community), and the equity in which students are placed into the streams (no prejudice in proportions).

I agree with the many scholars that have pointed out that streaming is most beneficial for the high-achieving students, while the overall effect on the low-achieving students is negative.

Having said this, I support the idea of having IB and AP classes offered at some of the higher-ended high schools in a city as an option for those high-achieving students who feel like they would benefit from further education. Where I do NOT want to see streaming, is the creation of a low-streamed class, where systemic racism and bullying can thrive in an already too negative society.

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My school-aged self would be disappointed with this result. I honestly thought that I would set out into this inquiry project and prove that streaming is beneficial for all and that I would be a strong advocate for having it in our school systems. Systemic racism always scares me, and this might be one of the main reasons why I have turned my opinion more against streaming than for it. As social studies educators, we need to be advocates for social equality and social justice for all - so being a part of (and even worse - a supporter) a system that oppresses the voices of people, is something that I just cannot fathom.

This project has surprised me, and I am thankful for having been given the chance to explore this topic.

However, I will still be on the look-out for any information regarding how streaming effects the 'normal' students who are streamed neither to the high-end or the low-end. If you have any suggestions, let me know!

Re-Evaluation of Inquiry Questions:

What is streaming?

  • The segregation of less-achieving students from the high-achieving students and the body of 'normal' students.
  • Students are taught a differentiated curriculum focused to their needs and their learning levels, as well as to their possible futures after school.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of streaming?

  • There are many advantages and disadvantages of streaming, however, the evidence and backing for the disadvantages seem to outweigh the evidence and backing for the advantages.
  • *See my distinction between practical and romanticized streaming.

What regions use streaming, and which don't?

  • Saskatchewan does not have a formal system of streaming, but streamed classes are seen in high school math classes, IB classes, and AP classes.
  • Countries in Scandinavia (evidence of Denmark and Finland shown in this research), as well as Germany and Switzerland have established streaming systems.
  • The United States has a history of streaming, but since the 1990s the system has been undergoing years of "detracking", which is trying to establish a new system in it's place.

Is streaming beneficial or harmful to students?

  • *See "Conclusions"
  • It is my opinion that streaming is more harmful to a greater number of students than it is beneficial to a minority of people.

Issues in Research:

Overall, I would say that conducting the research for this inquiry project has been rather troublesome. The following are the main reasons why researching the topic of streaming is so difficult:

  1. "There has been no clear definition of what has been meant by "effective" in relation to educational outcomes" in any research or in my own mind while conducting the research. "Those favoring structured grouping have tended to stress its effectiveness in terms of pupil achievement whereas those against have stressed the inequity of the system and its social and personal consequences" (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.202).
  2. The peak of streaming popularity was the 1960s, so much of the positive research is now outdated and difficult to use in an academic paper. Thus, finding new and relevant information proved to be a difficult task.
  3. The systems and types of streaming that occur around the world are so different that it becomes difficult to track the success and methods of each one and then compare it to another. This is especially evident when comparing the old systems of the United States, which have gone through decades of attempted detracking, and comparing it to the time-tested systems in Scandinavia and Germany, where streaming has continued without major reform.
  4. Most of the new and updated publications are against the idea of streaming, so in order to create a well-rounded summary of my findings for this inquiry project, it became extremely difficult to find publications that were in favor of streaming, and yet were new enough to be reliable in academia.
  5. Across the world, different regions have different words and phrases for the same thing. For example, streaming, tracking, ability grouping, setting, banding, differentiation, etc. are all used interchangeably throughout publications. This made it difficult to do my research because separately, each of these words carries slightly different meanings.
  6. In confronting and trying to work with older source, I have also come across issues with the definitions and views of what intelligence is and how it looks in students. Traditionally, intelligence is "viewed by many as a single entity which can be measured quantitively by IQ tests" (Ireson & Hallam, 2001, p.203). However, over the past two decades or so, this view of intelligence has gone through a major change, where educators are recognizing the different types of intelligence and the different ways that students learn. There has been a general acceptance of these different styles, and as a whole, this is not reflected in the research on streaming relative to the "success" of the policy.
  7. In conducting the research, there is a notable empty gap in material. All of the publications that I found either focused on the high- or low-streams classes - none of the data focused on the 'normal' streamed classroom and how those students did when the high and low end of their classes were separated. This represents a gap where I am not able to make any conclusions, because I found zero information.

Collaborative Library Exercise Part I