Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ability grouping works - and is essential in middle school and beyond

Why is ability grouping off the menu in so many school districts? What is so wrong with letting children learn among peers who grasp concepts at the same pace and with the same degree of complexity?

One of the biggest limitations of ability grouping is that it is equated with tracking  - and tracking has become a dirty word in education circles.

Tracking, of course, is an antiquated system where, at its worst, students were placed in different ability level classes and prevented from transitioning out of them. And sometimes the least experienced, least skilled teachers were assigned to those students most in need.

The rigidity of this model was wrong. The absence of resources for at-risk students was wrong. The assumption about human potential was wrong.

Yet, rather than create more fluidity, flexibility and vertical movement within the system, rather than place brilliant teachers with the most at-risk students, rather than insist on regular assessment to ensure that children do not slip through the cracks, many districts have chosen to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As a result, ability grouping has been eliminated from many school districts, especially from their middle schools, where it may be needed most.

This one-size-fits-all trend has been hailed as an antidote to the evils of tracking, a salve to the achievement gap, and the best shot at equity for all children. Mixed ability classes are prescribed to offset any potential insecurity students might feel if placed in a less challenging class, and presumably to inspire them to attain the same level of achievement as their higher ability classmates. Some students, who were perhaps overlooked and unfairly placed in less advanced classes, have risen to this challenge and demonstrated improved grades in heterogeneous, mixed-ability classes. Success stories like these have led to a widespread dismantling of ability grouping, despite the absence of sound research* to support this trend.

Here's how it works:

School districts that promote mixed-ability classes typically offer the following rationale:
1. Less advanced students will benefit from and strive to improve in the presence of high ability students, who should serve as role models;
2. All students will "learn from each other." Interactions with an intellectually diverse group of students is just as important as the curriculum.
3. Gifted and high ability students will "do just fine," regardless of the curriculum, and "differentiation" should provide sufficient academic stimulation. 

Have these proponents spent much time with middle school children? 

Do they really think that academically struggling students view intellectually advanced learners as role models, and that placement in such a class won't breed resentment, apathy and the low self-esteem they claim it will reverse? 

Do they really believe that advanced or gifted students will truly "learn" from academically struggling peers, and won't feel frustrated with the class, and compelled to mask their abilities so they can fit in? 

If they are honest with themselves, do they truly believe that any teacher can adequately differentiate instruction on a daily or even weekly basis?

Why make middle school even more stressful?

Middle school students struggle enough already. The social demands are enormous, the challenges of puberty, hormonal changes, and pressure to conform are overwhelming. Why create an even more stressful environment, where academically at-risk students are confronted each day with a sense of inadequacy, and where gifted students are faced with the choice of either "dumbing themselves down" to fit in or standing out as a "nerd" and risking ridicule? Most schools eventually offer advanced opportunities at the secondary school level, in the form of honors, AP or IB classes, but the academic needs of highly able middle schoolers are often viewed as less important.

Heterogeneous grouping and de-tracking are a well-intentioned, but perhaps misguided attempt to support academically struggling students. In an attempt to eliminate a culture of low self-esteem and low expectations, the "cure" may create more emotional hardship and fewer academic benefits than expected. When faced with a classroom full of high ability peers who grasp academic material at a faster pace, at-risk students may be forced to confront their skills deficits and suffer feelings of shame, inadequacy, and even lower expectations - exactly what proponents had hoped to avoid. Sound research (using control groups), rather than speculation based on wishful thinking should inform policy decisions.

Gifted children's academic needs are sacrificed for "the good of the whole" when ability grouping is eliminated. While some may adapt, many gifted students experience frustration arising from chronic boredom, and may respond by masking their abilities, underachieving, and becoming apathetic about school. Gifted children have an opportunity to interact and learn alongside students of differing abilities all day long - through sports, in extracurricular or non-academic classes, and on the playground. But it is unrealistic to assume that they will benefit academically when expected to suppress their intellectual drive for the good of the whole in large heterogeneous classes. As Fiedler and colleagues aptly noted:
"Can it be that our school systems are actually giving tacit approval to create underachievement in one ability group so that the needs of the other ability groups can be served? This, indeed, is egalitarianism at its worst."

What needs to change 

It is time to institute ability grouping, particularly at the middle school level. This approach not only improves academic scores for children at all levels, according to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research studybut may offset some of the social and emotional turmoil these students experience. Recent studies, including meta-analyses, have supported the advantages of ability grouping in secondary schools, have attested to its social/emotional and self-esteem benefits, and have shown that de-tracking efforts do not always provide the desired outcomes educators seek.

Flexible ability grouping is effective, equitable, and based on what students truly need. As Olszewski-Kubilius has stated:
"When used properly, ability grouping does not affix permanent labels to students and does not prevent students from moving - either up or down - during their educational careers. Rather, flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student's readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time."
Flexible ability grouping within a classroom, through compacting or clustering, can be a viable option in elementary schools. But separate classes may be necessary in middle school and beyond for academic subjects (e.g., math, reading/language arts, science) to ensure that students receive the education they need. Ability grouping is a cost-effective solution that supports students' academic and social/emotional needs, as long as all children are treated fairly, their progress is routinely assessed, they have equal access to exceptional teachers, and can transition to different groups and classes when indicated. Let's be realistic about the needs of all children - especially those on both ends of the continuum - and reinstate ability grouping.

What are your thoughts about ability grouping?

* Many studies on de-tracking are confounded, for example, by the following problems: 1. an absence of control groups comparing students in ability grouped classes with those in heterogeneous classes; 2. lack of clarity regarding criteria for entrance into different class levels; 3. lack of long-term follow-up; 4. assessing only a few variables; and 5. studies comparing at-risk students in "lower track" classes taught by less than adequate teaching staff, who then transitioned into classes with highly skilled staff.

This blog is part of Hoagie's Gifted Education page blog hop on educational options. To see more blogs, click on the following link:

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