Those against academic streaming point to the stigmatising effect on children of being placed in a lower ability class. But now a study by researchers in Singapore has found that in the long-term, streaming may actually protect the academic self-esteem of children placed in lower ability classes.
In Singapore, children are separated into ability streams based on their performance in public examinations they take before starting secondary school at age 12. Liu Woon Chia and colleagues recruited 495 boys and girls who were beginning their first year at secondary school (284 were in higher-stream classes, 211 in lower stream). They asked them to complete questionnaires about their academic confidence (e.g. by rating their agreement with statements such as “I am good at most of my school subjects”) and their academic effort (e.g. “I study hard for my tests”) on four occasions over three years: at the beginning of their first term at secondary school – about two weeks after the streaming process –and then at the end of each academic year thereafter. Scores from the two test dimensions were collapsed to form an overall score of academic ‘self-concept’ or self-esteem.
Children allocated to lower ability classes started off with lower academic self-esteem than children allocated to higher ability classes, a difference that disappeared when only boys were considered. Girls appear to be more sensitive to the stigmatising effect, the researchers said. But after three years, although academic self-esteem had fallen across the sample overall (adolescence is a difficult time), it was now children in the lower ability classes who had the higher academic self-esteem.
The researchers suggested children in lower ability classes may benefit from a ‘big fish in a little pond’ effect relative to their peers in high ability classes who face more pressure and stiffer competition from their classmates. Also, in Singapore, lower-stream children are given a limited chance to jump streams, which could have a motivating effect.
Liu, W.C., Wang, C.K.J. & Parkins, E.J. (2005). A longitudinal study of students’ academic self-concept in a streamed setting: The Singapore context. British Journal of Educational Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1348/000709905X42239.