In New Zealand secondary schools, students are often funnelled into mathematics classes that seemingly match their abilities. While, on the surface, this approach seems like a logical way to tailor learning to individuals, previous research has found racial bias in how students are streamed. Studies have also shown that the concentration of Indigenous and students of colour in low streams keeps achievement gaps firmly in place.
Now, new research has found that streaming in mathematics also has profound emotional consequences that disproportionately affect Māori and Pacific students.
One of the Year 13 students we spoke to during our research summed up the problem with maths streaming when he told us: “It was like the Sāmoan, like the brown kids in the lower class, and then, you know, I don’t want to sound racist, but the Pālagi, Pākehā kids in the smart classes, and it just made me feel so down.”
Math streaming operates by segregating students into classes with different levels of perceived aptitude. However, the unintended impact on students’ emotions is a significant concern.
This is especially true for Māori and Pacific students, who often grapple with feelings of shame and inadequacy when placed in lower streams. The perception of failure and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes contribute to a cycle of negative emotions that hinder their academic progress.
We heard from students who spoke of feeling “belittlement and shame” when their stream placement denied them opportunities for advanced learning and extension work. One Year 13 calculus student asked: “Why do they [teachers] look down on us? As you can see, there are a lot of brown, Māori, Pasifika faces and a lot of us have bad experiences with streaming, and why is that?”
Another student reflected: “When I came into college, I had such a low self-esteem when it came to math because, with the streaming, I was in, you know, the dumb class, and a lot of my peers around me were my Pasifika brothers and sisters, my Māori brothers and sisters.”
On the flip side, white students in higher streams often experience a sense of entitlement and confidence. Positive feedback and societal expectations shape their emotions, reinforcing their belief in their mathematical abilities. Unfortunately, this dynamic perpetuates an environment where white students feel more at ease and empowered in academic settings. A Pākehā girl in a top stream class told us: “I don’t want to be lower. I guess everyone likes to be, you know, at the top. You don’t really say that you like to be at the top, but you always like it when you are.”
‘Being out of place’ — Māori students in higher streams
Māori students in top streams face a different emotional dilemma and often feel out of place or are made to feel out of place. While they aspire to succeed and embrace their position, they also battle self-doubt and feelings of otherness. The racial dynamics in the classroom play a significant role in their emotional experiences. They often find themselves questioning their legitimacy, which further underscores the racial disparities embedded within math streaming.
A Māori academic shared his experience with us of gaining a top mark in School Certificate mathematics.
“When results were posted, my maths teacher, an elderly white man, for the first time all year, made his way down to the back of the class where I sat. He pulled up the chair next to me, leaned over, and said: ‘You really surprised me!’
“He may have intended it as a compliment. It just didn’t feel like one to me. At the time I wasn’t sure what it meant or how I really felt about it. Now, looking back, it seems obvious. He had utterly no clue who I was or what I was capable of, but he had made assumptions based on (I can only assume) what I look like, how I behaved, and probably where I sat and who I chose to associate with (the other four Māori students in the class).”
Beyond surface-level solutions: A mirror to structural racism
These emotions aren’t isolated occurrences. They are reflections of deeper structural racism within the education system. The emotional toll of math streaming mirrors broader societal inequalities, emphasising the interconnectedness between students’ emotions, educational practices, and systemic racism. It’s vital to recognise that addressing these emotions requires tackling the root causes of systemic racism.
Rather than treating racism as a problem of individual ignorance or unconscious bias, these emotions reveal how structural racism permeates education, entrenching systemic inequalities. To address this issue, it’s imperative to examine not only the intent but also the impact of educational practices. This includes scrutinising the systemic factors contributing to unequal outcomes and then creating strategies that dismantle these disparities.
Policies emphasising cultural awareness and recognition often fall short in addressing deeply ingrained structural discrimination. To truly challenge the status quo, a more comprehensive approach that acknowledges the role of structural inequities such as streaming is required. Simply increasing the diversity of students in high streams is insufficient — the focus should shift toward transforming the educational system to be equitable for all.
Charting a path to equity
The practice of streaming, while seemingly neutral, has far-reaching implications that perpetuate racial inequalities, including the role it plays in shaping Māori and Pasifika students’ perceptions of their own mathematical abilities.
Our research has shown how Māori students experience shame while white students experience entitlement through mathematics streaming. Recognising that these emotions are not just personal but deeply rooted in historical and structural racism is crucial to transforming an unjust educational system. It’s only through dismantling such discriminatory practices that we can pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable education for all students.
We are cautiously optimistic that we may be living in the final years of streaming in Aotearoa. Māori Futures Collective Tokona te Raki has been organising and implementing a national strategy to end streaming in our schools by 2030, at the request of the Mātauranga Iwi Leaders Group and the Ministry of Education.
The efforts of Tokona te Raki have shown that addressing this issue requires a comprehensive reevaluation of the educational system — one that emphasises equity, recognition, and systemic change, supported by a growing social movement.
For a personal account of the impact of streaming, read Dr Vanisi Prescott’s Doctor from the ‘dumb class’ here.
Mahdis Azarmandi (tauiwi of colour/she/her) is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Studies in Leadership at the University of Canterbury. She co-coordinates the Bachelor of Youth and Community Leadership and is a social justice activist. She teaches classes on social justice education, politics and sociology of education.
David Pomeroy (Pākehā, he/him) is a Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education at the University of Canterbury and a former high school mathematics teacher. He currently co-leads Pāngarau Unleashed, a collective of researchers and teachers learning about effective transitions away from streaming in mathematics.
Sara Tolbert (Tangata Tiriti, she/her) is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Canterbury and a former science and ESOL classroom teacher. Her scholarship focusses on the intersections of social and environmental justice and education. She is a lead researcher with Pāngarau Unleashed.
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