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Grouping By Ability Is Back

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You wouldn't put a beginning swimmer in the deep-end advanced butterfly class, so why in the world would you force a bad reader to learn alongside an advanced one? It's a bad analogy but one that a lot of proponents of classroom tracking or "differentiation" use to defend the practice of grouping readers and math learners by skill level. The practice fell out of favor in the '80s and '90s but, according to a recent New York Times article, is reemerging. Several surveys found that nearly half of classrooms, if not more, used some form of grouping regularly.

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Education experts, in general, are opposed to grouping, arguing it perpetuates achievement gaps in the long-run—start behind, stay behind—and that there's been no clear evidence that it works. Proponents of grouping believe it allows teachers to tailor lessons to different levels to maximize everyone's day at school. Without grouping, they say, teachers have to teach to the middle, leaving some learners behind and boring the pants off the smart kids.

In broad strokes, grouping seems to make so much sense. A lot of people aching for the good old days of education argue for its place in schools. Parents of advantaged kids—those who were read to in the womb, went to preschool, have educated parents that talk to them—also often love the idea of grouping, especially if their kids goes to a socio-economically diverse school. Chances are, their child IS a better reader than her peers. But does that mean she needs to be cordoned off in her own English language arts and/or math group in order to meet her potential? Do the lower-level readers need to be separated from the rest in order to learn?

Education writer Dana Goldstein, responding in Slate to the fairly slanted piece in the Times, says, "No." Goldstein points out research that concludes grouping for different abilities—or even different learning styles—hasn't proven to be effective. She also links a Duke study that found that when curricula and methods used to teach "gifted" students were used on a mixed-ability kindergartners and 1st graders, "twice as many of them—including poor children of color—were designated by their schools as “gifted” within three years." Grouping may have kept some of those kids from this higher achievement. (That study should also get us to question the giftedness of so many of today's "gifted" students.)

Ability is subjective, and kids are very aware of their (and their peers') group placement.

The potential harm of grouping is even greater in the big picture. Achievement gaps between differently advantaged groups are a real problem in the U.S., and reinforcing that gap already in the early elementary years would do nothing to help close it. Still, what about the distance between low-ability students and those who already know it all?

Goldstein writes that grouping and maintaining high expectations for all students, regardless of skill level in a particular subject, is possible, but requires time and resources of teachers to give those students extra time and attention. It also means providing some other activity for those who get their work done fast and well.

I think smaller class sizes would also help. And I like the idea of pairing students who can teach each other—learning is reinforced for the expert in the pair and the learner gets individual help. Grouping seems like such an easy solution, and it's probably really efficient for teachers. But ability is subjective, and kids are very aware of their (and their peers') group placement. There's also the risk that the low-level group is simply a repository for English-learners or where you stash the kids who can't sit still. You also have to ask whether the high-level group is truly only for solid readers or also for those whose parents complained enough to get them there?

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I was dumped in the lowest-level reading group in 2nd grade, even though I went into kindergarten knowing how to read. But the teacher, an old-world Russian Catholic who thought left-handed people were possessed by the devil, stuck me in there for my lefty ways. My parents complained, and I was reclassified. Teachers in urban schools, even old-world Russian ones, have to face many more of their prejudices every day, some they may not even be aware of.

Tracking went out of favor for good reason—it held kids back more than it pushed them forward. It sorted by factors unrelated to potential. It reinforced historical prejudices and widened achievement gaps. Strictly teaching to the middle brought few gains, too.

What's the answer?

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