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Ability Grouping: Better for Students or Easier for Schools?

"I truly believe that it is my job not to discover the limits of what a child can do, but actually to give them ways of breaking through those limits,"                                                                                           ~  William H. Johnson, Superintendent, Rockville Centre School District

 

All of my students (9th graders) were more than two years behind in math when I began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools in 1993. (This was based on students' 8th grade test results and confirmed by my own assessment.) Even more challenging for me was the range of students' deficits--2nd grade through 6th grade levels--within the same class. 

I addressed this challenge in many ways including heterogeneous groups based on math skills, homogeneous groups based on behavior, whole-group instruction targeting middle and/or low students, and independent work on differentiated assignments. But nothing worked, as reflected in students' lack of learning, off-task behavior, and feedback form comments including: 

I do not like class because he's always giving us stupid work. 

Maybe it will be better if the work were a little more challenging for me. 

All the good students and bad students should sit together because a bad student can probably do better if not provoked by other bad students. 

The following year was even more challenging for me because, while most of my students (also 9th graders) were again more than two years behind, some were performing at 7th or 8th grade levels. My solution: divide each class into two groups--high and low--based on skill levels. In other words, what is commonly referred to as ability grouping.

I never worked harder in or out of the classroom than I did when preparing and presenting two lessons per class. Yet despite my diligence, ability grouping was as ineffective as anything I tried the previous year, and students once again let me know this through their actions (misbehavior and lack of learning) and words:   

Sitting in groups is what I don't like. It makes certain people think they're not as smart as others. 

You are too bogus Coach G. You know Group A is not that smart and Group B is smart, and you separate us so we look dumb. All of us should be in the same group to help each other out. 

If you are only going to teach one part of the class, what do you expect the other kids to do, sit and look stupid. We're supposed to talk man, I thought you knew that. 

I don't feel right being split into different groups because it makes us feel like we don't amount to anything and sometimes I feel uncomfortable about that.

Coach G, you make it seem like it's a smart and dumb group in math because you put people that know how to do math together, and people that don't know how to do math and that's not right.

These and other similar comments from students helped convince me to stop using ability grouping. This feedback was particularly compelling to me because it came from students in low and high groups. It's also important for teachers to notice what students don't say. And in this case, not one student spoke out or wrote to me in favor of ability groups.

Though students were grateful to me for scrapping ability groups ("Thank you for understanding and not putting us in that group."), I still didn't know how to address their diverse learning needs. But through research, workshops, conversations with colleagues, trial and error, ongoing feedback from students, and relentless reflection, I developed the student-centered approach that I've shared on this blog. An approach characterized by high expectations of all students, and classroom structures and strategies that enable students to meet those expectations including: 

  • Assigning students to heterogeneous groups with the expectation that, per my Hierarchy of Help, they first work through academic tasks independently at their own pace using all available resources; then consult with group member(s) if necessary; and finally, seek the teacher's help when all members of a group are stuck.
  • Ensuring all students have a meaningful and challenging academic task at all times, including early finisher activities for students who complete an activity while their peers are still working on it.

As always, I evaluated the merits of this approach based on its effects on students. This included increases in engagement and learning among my least advanced students such as those in my "Encore Algebra" class. It also included positive responses from advanced students, who many people believe are shortchanged when schools forgo ability grouping (and/or tracking): 

This experience that I had in this class was like no other experiences I've had. But it's a cool thing... You make us want to think and want to learn. It's not just a copy problems from the book routine but it's like a help me, help you thing.

I worked hard, and learned a lot of new and interesting math.

Out of all of my math classes I learned the most out of this class.

You taught me a lot of things that I thought were very hard for me to learn.

I recognize that ability grouping may meet the needs of diverse groups of students in some instances--an example being well-run guided reading where teachers create regular opportunities to assess and address all students' needs rather than isolate themselves with the guided reading group. But as I used it and as I've most often seen others use it, ability grouping is flawed for many reasons including these misguided presumptions:

  •  Ability is defined by students' past performance (usually on a test) rather than their potential.
  • Students' past performance (again, usually on a test) is strictly a reflection of their ability, without regard for other factors that may affect learning or students' ability to demonstrate what they've learned.

  • Ability--again, defined by past performance--is a more reliable predictor of success than effort is.

  • Learning has more to do with intelligence than with self-reliance, resourcefulness, persistence, and other non-cognitive qualities.

  • It's more important for teachers to assist struggling students than to assess all students.
  • Teachers should plan lessons with the goal of preventing students from making mistakes rather than preparing for their mistakes.
  • Students need teachers to be their primary source of information. (I'm not sure this was ever the case, but it certainly isn't now when students have the world at their fingertips.)

  • Differentiated instruction requires different tasks for different students.  

In Detracking for Excellence and Equity, Carol Corbett Burris and Delia Garrity share why and how their district, Rockville Centre in New York, eliminated tracking in favor of heterogeneous classes with equal and high expectations of all students. They not only explain why detracking is necessary, but also how to build support for it among teachers and parents, how to revise curriculum to "level-up" instruction, and how to support teaching and learning in heterogeneous classrooms. 

Burris and Garrity provide an inspiring and practical model for school leaders seeking to bring excellence and equity to their districts. But they also acknowledge that Rockville's transformation took "years of steady and thoughtful work, with parallel attention to adults' and students' learning needs," as Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton point out in the foreword of Detracking for Excellence and EquityMaybe that's why there's been a resurgence of ability grouping in recent years: not because it's better for students, but because it's easier for schools. 

 

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