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Differentiation Debacle


A Connecticut middle school’s attempt to create mixed-level, integrated classes is facing a backlash from parents, according to The New York Times.

Traditionally, Cloonan middle school in Stamford, Conn., has tracked students and put them in separate classrooms based on academic performance, with students ranked as zeros for highest achievement and ones and twos for medium and lower levels respectively. According to the Times, the system has created an “uncomfortable caste” system in which classes are segregated predominantly by race and socioeconomic level. “Black and Hispanic students … make up 46 percent of this year’s sixth grade [class], but are 78 percent of the twos and 7 percent of the zeros.”

In an attempt to address that disparity, the school launched trial mixed-ability grouping last month by combining zeros with ones and twos in its 6th grade science and social studies. There have been reports of fewer behavior problems and better grades for struggling students in the mixed classes, but there have also been reports of high-performing students being under-challenged.

Over 300 parents signed a petition opposing the mixed-level classes saying they are unfair to gifted students and making threats to put their children in private school. The school says it plans to keep a top-honors level, but integrate most other classes in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades over the next three years.

For the students themselves, the numbered tracking system creates social and academic stigma. Jamiya Richardson, a 6th grader at Cloonan, is a two and says that students all know their own number and their classmate’s numbers. “I don’t like being classified because it makes you feel like you’re not smart.”


This is a very complicated issue that has been discussed for as long as I have been teaching. It seems that you hold back the more gifted students if you put them in with the 1's and 2's (although there is evidence that helping these students may help the honors students understand the subject material better), and you may overwhelm the 2's with material aimed at the honor students. I do know that grouping students tends to make the teacher's life simpler ... but I'm not sure that is reason enough to continue doing it.

As for knowing their number, perhaps this is just a fact that students have to acknowledge if they are to improve. In many cases, it just means that they learn differently (more auditory/tactile/visual?) than honor student who tend to learn more from listening/notetaking/reading. Failure to recognize this may actually inhibit learning for the 1's and 2's.

As I started this with ... it's a very complicated issue.

Yes indeed this is a very sensitive "quest". Teaching to a classroom of students with multiple learning styles is achievable. By generating an environment where no child is left behind. Meaning that each student becomes aware of the fact that they each learn differently, but that they are respectfully willing to pull together to assist one another for the greater cause of learning. When that is achieved, learning becomes two-fold; the student then becomes sensitive to the issues of differences (socioeconomic) of his/her peer, and they begin to understand the importance of learning.

I read the article. I wonder why such an experiment was undertaken so late in the school year. I think that decision was ridiculous. Tracking does present stigmas that lead to other problems in school than reduced learning. I was tracked as a child up until Grade 8. Then we were heterogenously mixed. Learning did lessen because the lower students did not know some basics. Was that the students fault or the curriculum? Is work "dummied" down?
This article, in my opinion, gave a good case for both sides. My experience as a teacher makes me vote for mixed groupings, but its integration has to be properly timed. Most surprising to me was that this district, right next door to mine, is still doing tracking. I have been teaching for 35 years; I do not remember when students were tracked last. Get with the times. To be honest, the brighter kids will learn no matter how they are tracked. Maybe a good lesson for them to learn would be helping each other for greater success for all.

To wait so long in the school year to embark on this type of research is not a good idea. However, schools in NYC have been doing this for some time and have lots of documentated research around the success of these types of classrooms. The whole idea around differentiation of instruction is based on the notion of having children with varying ability levels in the same classroom together.

A friend of mine stated that "Teachers should teach, and students should learn" in response to the ongoing fiasco surrounding multiple intelligences. I feel him on that. A good teacher subjects all of his/her students to the highest levels of achievements, and expresses his/her expectation of success. "We're going to climb to the top of Mt. Everest, just follow me", is the attitude of a good teacher. The most precious of resources, that most teachers have to work with, are the students. As the Mt. Everest guide calls on his/her crew of followers to lend in on the journey, so too does a good teacher. He/she monitors the flow of subject matter and guides students from one unit to the next. Students on the journey, begin to pitch-in on doing their part, they ask the right questions, take the right notes, participate in the right debate, and contribute their assistance to his peers at the right time.

I agree with Moses Lewis. The Mt. Everest allegory is apt; no entirely homogenous group ever summitted.

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Recent Comments

  • Lynn Solis: I agree with Moses Lewis. The Mt. Everest allegory is read more
  • Moses Lewis: A friend of mine stated that "Teachers should teach, and read more
  • Guen Pieters: To wait so long in the school year to read more
  • Diane Trezza: I read the article. I wonder why such an experiment read more
  • Moses Lewis: Yes indeed this is a very sensitive "quest". Teaching to read more




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