kitchen table math, the sequel: mixed-level classrooms in high-SES districts

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

mixed-level classrooms in high-SES districts

During her workshop on "Project Based Assessment," one of the presenters at the misnamed "Celebration of Teaching and Learning" made a comment that struck me.

She said she had been a teacher in an affluent community, and as a result she had had an extremely wide variation in her students' instructional levels. The reading levels in her 6th grade class ranged all the way from first grade to college level.

That enormous range made group projects more or less a requirement, in her view. When students whose reading level ranges from 1st grade to college work together, the differentiation handles itself. (Her actual words may have been: "They differentiate themselves," perhaps. Unfortunately, my iPad erased my notes.)

It had never occurred to me that affluent districts might have substantially more variability inside the classroom than less affluent districts, though as I think about it, it makes sense.

If it's true that teachers routinely see extremely wide variation in ability and instructional level in high-SES schools, this is another case where the use of group means as the only measure of success is particularly deadly in affluent districts.


Anonymous said...

I think it's more likely to have been "the differentiation handles itself". In my youngest's 9th-grade science class, in a very affluent district, the teacher forcibly placed a spec ed student, who refused to do anything, in a group with the 3 honors kids. She,of course, was given the same A as the rest. When the honors kids asked for her to be reassigned for the second semester, the teacher refused. Pushed, he admitted he didn't want to deal with her. Left to themselves, the honors kids would have segregated themselves completely. Fortunately, most classes had separate honors sections.

Catherine Johnson said...


The workshop was extremely disheartening.

In theory, it was about project-based assessment, so I thought the presenters would talk about group grades vs. individual grades, etc.

Coming out of the workshop, I had the sense they hadn't talked about assessment at all (but I have to check my handouts).

Both presenters did talk about the more advanced kids teaching the less advanced kids.

That was a big theme.

btw, I do understand that teaching a topic makes you understand it (& possibly remember it) better.

But there didn't seem to be any measurement of learning at all, and certainly no measurement of learning in terms of a student's potential & ability.

"Learning" is the goal.

Not learning up to your potential.

FedUpMom said...

Catherine, in paragraph 2, did you mean to say "She had been a teacher in an affluent community?

SteveH said...

" an affluent committee, and as a result she had had an extremely wide variation in her students' instructional levels."

Affluence caused the variation? More likely, the natural learning full-inclusion environment caused it. Add to that the fact that some parents figure it out and push their kids further ahead at home.

"That enormous range made group projects more or less a requirement in her view."

It sounds like she is talking about her own problem, not the problem of education in general.

"...the differentiation handles itself. (Her actual words may have been, "They differentiate themselves.""

The goal of full inclusion is not to put all kids in the same room and then divide them by levels. You could then put up walls between the groups and claim that you group kids by ability. I once joked that you could separate kids by ability, but then put them all in one big open room. One charter school in our area talks about a full inclusion environment, but the core academic courses separate kids by ability.

The end result is that teachers are forced to break up this natural level grouping. In sixth grade, my son was in several groups with very low performing students. On one art project (in science!), his group had a member who insisted upon cutting their work up into tiny pieces. The teacher told them to deal with it, and of course, they all got a group grade.

How many K-6 teachers are so pedagogically idealistic that they can't see the magnitude of the problem? Perhaps they just happily pump the kids along and let others deal with the big high school and college filters.

"But there didn't seem to be any measurement of learning at all, and certainly no measurement of learning in terms of a student's potential & ability."

They think that learning is natural by definition. I kept hearing that "They will learn when they are ready." I don't hear that in high school. I used to hear things like "All kids average out by fourth grade."

The current agenda is testing and the CCSS standards. This should help somewhat at the lower level, but it won't change what's in the hearts of educators. You still need to support your kids at home if you expect to get them to an honors level in high school.

How many high school honors or AP teachers were at this conference? The real world of teaching and learning goes on outside of these "celebrations".

Anonymous said...

The project is the assessment, Catherine. Graded under a rubric.

It is a mistake to substitute test for assessment. The term assessment was deliberately created as part of the Eight Year Study in the 1930s to obscure the non-academic focus.

Which is why it was put back into use as part of Goals 2000 and the New Standards Project in the 1990s and with Common Core now.

Student of History

Catherine Johnson said...

Fed Up Mom --- I am LAUGHING!

oh my gosh

my unconscious is showing!


Catherine Johnson said...

How many high school honors or AP teachers were at this conference?

Boy, I don't know, Steve.

The conference is HUGE.

There was a whole delegation there from Irvington. One of the people from Irvington used to be an AP statistics teacher. Now he's Technology Coordinator.

Catherine Johnson said...

Student of History --- Tell us more!

It is a mistake to substitute test for assessment. The term assessment was deliberately created as part of the Eight Year Study in the 1930s to obscure the non-academic focus.

Very interesting!

This observation jibes with what I heard at the workshop, .... (unless I wasn't taking everything in).

At one point the 3rd grade teacher said that (this is COMPLETELY from memory, not notes): when the topic of project based assessment came up, she had thought, "I don't do very much assessment."

Then she realized that since she had done projects with her students she had in fact been doing a lot of assessment.

I'm fairly sure I've got the gist correct there -- because it jumped out at me.

How could you be doing "a lot" of assessment and not realize you're doing assessment?

Now, btw, I do think it makes sense to say that you've just realized you'd always done a lot of 'formative assessment' without realizing that's what you were doing.

I agree with that statement: I think teachers in the 'olden days' did lots of formative assessment when they graded homework every single night for hours on end. (I assume many of those teachers then adjusted their instruction accordingly, whether they had a data team on hand to oversee the proceedings or not.)

But that's not what this teacher said.

You may be right.

The premise of the workshop may have been that the project **was** the assessment ---- (?)

Anonymous said...


I am sure it was. The paper, the project, the poster, the powerpoint, the film. Those artifacts are assumed to constitute proof of learning.

We are moving away from the transmission of knowledge in the sense that most of us associate with school. Academics accentuate differences among students in disproportional ways.

We are going to a uniformity of skills, beliefs, and knowledge and the knowledge is not really content. More "Know" in the sense of knowing how to do.

Economic catastrophe funded with our own tax dollars.

More to come.

palisadesk said...

I’m not surprised that a school in an affluent community would have a wider spread of achievement in a particular grade. One of our sixth grades might well have a spread from first grade – but not up to college level, more like to a ninth grade level. You would have more kids in an affluent community who are cognitively advantaged, both by genetics and by virtue of a stimulating home environment, even without possible tutoring or parental tutelage. Kids with absolutely no knowledge of English (more common in low-SES schools), even if intellectually gifted, take some years to catch up in their ability to understand and use formal academic English, and kids with mild learning challenges rarely have the needed support to hang in on an equal footing with their same-age peers, because they lack the extra support available in better-off schools..

Nevertheless, I’m surprised an “affluent” sixth grade would have a first-grade level student, unless this means an included student with Down’s Syndrome or other developmental disability. Higher-SES schools have more staff for remediation and academic support (didn’t you say, Catherine, there are something like 5 “reading teachers” at the elementary school in Irvington – for about 220 kids? We have .5 reading teacher for 700 kids!)

Amen to what you said about group means – one of the best features of NCLB was its requirement to disaggregate the data on specific subgroups. IIRC some data clearly show that bright students are not getting appropriate challenge, as well as the fact that minority groups and low-income students are doing poorly in many affluent districts (or schools).

A propos of the wide variation/full inclusion set-up making “group work” a necessity, did I ever cite this:
(sorry, Blogger not accepting embedded links, you have to copy/paste: )

by Dr. Don Crawford (now with NIFDI, the National Institute for Direct Instruction, and author of successful programs like Rocket Math and Problem Solving Made Easy). It was written in the ‘90’s but still rings sadly true today.

palisadesk said...

Both presenters did talk about the more advanced kids teaching the less advanced kids

The research on peer teaching/coaching is pretty clear that having the advanced kids teach the strugglers is not effective.

What *is* effective -- but probably NOT at all what is referenced here -- is having a dyad composed of a lower-performing student and a *slightly* higher performing (not advanced!) student. Advanced kids should be working with each other -- each pair should have one kid who is slightly more adept at the skill in question than the other.

That way, both are practicing new learning, or consolidating previously taught material, in their "ZPD" -- their own learning zone.

This is the model behind Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (you can Google it) and is used at such high-performing charter schools as the Charter Day School in North Carolina.

kcab said...

palisadesk, re peer teaching and dyads, I have to say that my experience with advanced kid pairs (via my kids' interactions) is not so great. I've seen the more verbal student generally over-ride the other student, regardless of which one is more adept at the task at hand.

Maybe a school that does a lot of pairing could teach students not to cave in to whomever is louder & more insistent though.