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Mix and Match


They say diversity is the spice of life—and apparently it’s also the key to greater achievement in the classroom, according to recent studies. Research conducted by professors at the University of Sussex, in London, found that children placed in mixed--ability math classes outperformed those grouped by ability.

One four-year study followed 700 U.S. teenagers in three high schools, and examined the results of different math-teaching methods. The approach that gave students a “shared responsibility for each other’s learning” saw significant improvement among both high- and low–achieving students. The mixed grouping also saw improved social skills, such as good behavior and respect among the group members.

Another Sussex study found that social class was more important than perceived ability and prior attainment, in determining a student’s ability grouping, and that working-class students are more likely to be placed in low-ability groups, than middle-class students with the same test results. This finding emphasized the necessity of mixed-learning environments, researchers said.


Did this study take a look at how placement in mixed ability classrooms impacted the higher achieving students?

This study goes against all research done for high ability/gifted students. High ability students learn more and faster when they are with kids who are more like them.

This study sounds like it was not very specific on what high ability means versus low ability. The experiment probably brought all students to the middle rather than challenge them to go further.

This is one reason I seldom read Education News. There is waaaay too much time spent on talking about low ability and learning disabled students. It sounds silly and dumb and is almost enough to make one quit teaching.

I am very tired of the whining about "high ability" students being neglected. I was an underachieving "high ability" student myself. I was never slowed down by the "low" students. I was just lazy, and so were some of my teachers. I am now a special education teacher and I have learned that all students can work to higher standards with good teaching practices. There is a place for AP classes, and some students can take College classes. The point behind this article was that schools aren't even very good at discovering students' true abilities. Really,there are no "low ability" students--just bad educational practices.

I taught where there were a mixture of high to low learners and most of them passed our State High Stakes Tests, very few (3) fell Far Below on the test. Now I am teaching in a District where abilities grouping is done. Soon after starting I learned that the grade level that I was teaching had the lowest scores on the previous year's State tests. I do not belive in abilities grouping and I will have to wait until this year's State Tests are completed to know if what I preceive as unjust and detrimental to students actually proves itself through the test scores. For those who do not abilites group and for those who do, ask yourself one thing, "Is this good for students?" Then look at your student's state test scores and decide.

I'm 50 this year and was one of the first gifted students identified in my community's "middle and above income" school district. I was one of the low middle class kids whose dad worked two jobs for a number of years. Because they had never had gifted students before, I don't think they quite knew what to do with us. As a result, we stayed in regular, mainstreamed rooms with "all the other" kids, and from 3rd grade to high school, had some extra learning opportunities added (usually outside the school day). We were also all pretty much "tracked" in high school into the more demanding classes, i.e., advanced English classes and math classes, as opposed to "regular" or "remedial." The assumption that we were gifted in all areas was a frustration. I was placed in self-paced (read: self-taught) algebra classes, and my parents always had to go in and ask that I be transferred to "regular" algebra. My friend, Steve, who was gifted in math but not English, had the opposite problem. I've done fine in life. I was never bothered by having to help other students, in fact, it developed compassion in those of us who helped others. We weren't used as daily teacher replacements -- just sometimes. I, too, am a little bugged by the "the gifted aren't served" fuss. I think good teachers can help motivate gifted students to reach beyond the limits of the assignment and do a little (or a lot) more for the sake of their own learning. But we know motivation is really intrinsic. Gifted students need to find their own reasons for pushing themselves. What I'm more concerned about is whether we feed students' individual intelligences and interests. I'd like to see all students who are interested in art, or poetry, or nature, or sports science have the opportunity to fill those needs.

Special needs students need an environment designed to meet their educational needs. This applies to slow as well as fast students. Teaching to the middle cheats everyone but the middle students. Core classes should be tuaght at the level of the students' abilities and achievement and disregard race and social class. However it takes good teachers to avoid degrading their classes to "drill and kill" when they are teaching slower students and challenge them to do research and be creative. With accommodations such as word prediction software and other technology, slow students can develop good quality skills. At the same time, it is important not to just turn the bright kids loose to teach themselves. Projects and seminars have their place, but they stil need a good teacher to provide direction fore their projects and provide rules and format. They also often need to learn to appreciate the abilities and skills of those who are less able academically. Remember after Katrina everyone needed a plumber. No one needed an accountant. And unemployed Orleans teachers were gutting houses and doing security for FEMA.

I had a friend in Atlanta who had trouble reading anything but a schematic (like a blueprint for an electrical circuit) but could fix anything. He just had extremely smart hands. He was as valuable and professional as anyone who has ever gone to college. Sometimes what you need is a person who can straighten the frame of a wrecked car with nothing more than a chain and a tree. His ex used to put him down, because he had not been to college and worked at pick up jobs. But guess who she called when her car needed repairs! And guess who fixed his other ex-wife's bathroom sink one Thanksgiving while dressed up and did not spill a drop of water on the floor or even get his hands dirty. She liked to put him down too.

I was AP in English and LD in math. It was embarrassing not to be able to udnderstand math at all and there was no special ed or accommodations in the 1960s. Had I been grouped by abilty I might actually be able to do a little algbra today.

I too was in those early "gifted" tracks in the 1960's. I recall that we were able to avoid things like memorizing the state capitals (which most likely would have labelled me as slow). I do recall one English class in which the teacher taught the same curriculum to everybody (my older brother had copied the same notes off the board that I was required to). Being in a class with other "gifted" students was not much help there.

My brothers--who most likely match me in IQ--didn't generally get all the good stuff I got, if fact my younger brother today would probably be labelled LD (or ADD or ADHD).

Even though I enjoyed being a "special" kid (my daughter by the same token hated it), it was really the curriculum enrichment that was helpful. I frequently see projects that are performed by the "gifted" students and wonder why these things are not made available to ALL the students.

I remember a PBS piece several years ago that looked at mixed ability groupings in a California school. One of the interviewed teachers (previously taught the advanced classes) was opposed, saying things like his students wanted HIM to be their teacher, not to have to teach others. Another teacher who embraced the change pointed out the advantage to one of her "gifted" students working together with one of the "regular" students. She said, "he has to not only understand the material, but to explain it in a way that doesn't make him an obnoxious twit."

Those who champion tracking (and I have been fighting for years to get my son with special needs more included with the curriculum, as well as having fought to get greater recognition of my daughter's intelligence) might want to think about what kind of world they are preparing kids for. In the working world, no one cares anymore if you are gifted or special. What matters is whether you can utilize your skills and abilities--most of the time in conjunction with other people.

It's not a zero sum game. We can enrich the curriculum available to "gifted" kids without robbing (or leaving behind) the other learners.

Two words: Differentiate Instruction.

I teach a lot by asking increasingly tough questions. For example, in basic arithmetic, the students are expected to give me their (often eyeball-to-eyeball) answers -- right or wrong.
Many of them are also directly involve in our reviewing and teaching/learning efforts.
I like to teach relatively large classes of students (youngsters or adults) with rather broad range of achievement levels.
John Shacter; Kingston, TN 37763, USA

M Andresen - Yes, it did: ""[M]y recent study of a new system of grouping in the US showed that the system benefited students at high and low levels and the high attaining students were the most advantaged by the mixed ability grouping, because they had opportunities to learn work in greater depth." (Click the link above to read the published article.)

Donna Hoffman - I would appreciate references to the research you cite, so I can learn more about these studies. Thank you.

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Recent Comments

  • Brian Lawler: M Andresen - Yes, it did: ""[M]y recent study of read more
  • John Shacter: I teach a lot by asking increasingly tough questions. For read more
  • Amy: Two words: Differentiate Instruction. read more
  • Margo/Mom: I too was in those early "gifted" tracks in the read more
  • Rhonda: I was AP in English and LD in math. It read more




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