kitchen table math, the sequel: Ability Grouping makes a comeback

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ability Grouping makes a comeback

From the New York Times: Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom
It was once common for elementary-school teachers to arrange their classrooms by ability, placing the highest-achieving students in one cluster, the lowest in another. But ability grouping and its close cousin, tracking, in which children take different classes based on their proficiency levels, fell out of favor in the late 1980s and the 1990s as critics charged that they perpetuated inequality by trapping poor and minority students in low-level groups.
NYC is struggling with how to teach GT students.
Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker who is running for mayor, has proposed expanding the number of gifted classes while broadening the criteria for admission in hopes of increasing diversity. (The city’s Education Department has opposed the proposal, saying that using criteria other than tests would dilute the classes.)
And teachers?
Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement.
Elementary School teacher Jill Sears:
My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners,
The comments are interesting.

Commenter SGC:
You need not "teach to the middle". If you aim high with your expectations and impose rigor and high standards in the classroom, most students can achieve and succeed regardless of "so-called" ability.


momof4 said...

I was reading a recent article from the WaPo (link at Joanne Jacobs)about the dismal results on the Montgomery County, MD (next to DC) HS countywide math exams (and the results in other subjects weren't much better). The comments by those identifying themselves as HS math teachers were interesting; (1)the county has been pushing acceleration, to get as many kids as possible into algebra I in 7th or 8th grade-because that's the magic bullet- and many aren't ready, (2)the honors classes aren't really honors because the county lets kids who took regular algebra I and geometry into honors algebra II, so the honors aren't allowed to cover anything not in the regular classes, (3)no grade less than 50%,even if work is missing or earned a 0, (4)enough partial credit demanded on assignments and class tests that kids can get Cs or Bs without getting a single answer correct, and (5)admin/county push for grade inflation. Result; kids with As and Bs in the math classes were failing the countywide tests. It will be worse: (1)all honors level classes in math-maybe others too?- will be removed; all classes heterogeneous and (2)county is starting a new curriculum, in partnership with Peterson publishers, beginning with algebra I next year - and I think in ES-MS as well. I've read that it's terrible.

SGC; I don't believe that most teachers can make that work in a heterogeneous class. They may think they do, but I'm betting that the top kids, and perhaps the upper middles, would disagree - particularly if the ability/motivation span is wide. I'm betting they are unchallenged and bored.

Anonymous said...

"If you aim high with your expectations and impose rigor and high standards in the classroom, most students can achieve and succeed regardless of "so-called" ability."

Someone needs to spend more time with kids taking Algebra who have not yet mastered long division or fractions. High expectations and rigor in the Algebra class aren't going to help. The kids need to be in a different class. Next best would be to ability group within the current class, but the kids in the lowest group (the one's who need to work on long division and fractions) won't be doing Algebra.

Taking an average little league player (or a bottom third little league player) and putting him on an elite travel team is going to suck. Even if the coach has high expectations and lots of rigor.

Dropping a kid who reads at 5th grade level into a class reading War and Peace isn't going to go very well either.

I wonder if people who believe what SGC is claiming have never worked in/with a field with skill dependencies.

-Mark Roulo

momof4 said...

I agree with Mark and I like the sports analogy. It reminded me of the time that friends sent their rec-league-only 12-year-old to an overnight soccer camp designed for elite travel players (which my kids had attended). There were two on-field sessions, one classroom and one video session on Sunday afternoon/evening and my friend had to take her son home before breakfast on Monday. He didn't have the conditioning to do 4 2+hour practices, the skills to do the drills or play the games, the tactical background to understand the classroom and video sessions and he wasn't willing to spend every waking hour on soccer. It was a disastrous decision; I have no idea how his parents could have looked at the daily schedule on the application brochure and not understood that. What is so well-understood and well-accepted in athletics and the performing arts is a complete unknown to the ed world. That's how you end up in the situation I described in the MoCo schools; no matter what the course description might be, the kids who aren't prepared to do the work really aren't taking that course.

Auntie Ann said...

I agree with the sports analogy too.

We've been back and forth with our boy's school in both areas. We have a kid who's talented academically, but who the school won't accelerate. They say it would be inappropriate for him to get ahead, and actually argue that it would be damaging to him not to be tracked with his classmates.

However, when it comes to their sports teams (which are the only after-school activity the school endorses) it is all about the accelerated kids, kids who have played on clubs, and kids with more physical ability; meanwhile our kid sits on the bench or is never thrown the ball. In sports, they believe that the talented kids should get all the attention and the coaching, while we were told we had to teach our beginner outside of school. (To make it more galling, sports are automatically included in tuition.)

We have called them on this inconsistency repeatedly, and they basically don't care.

Why can they understand instinctively that accelerated kids are different and have different needs when talking about sports, but just the reverse when talking about academics?

momof4 said...

AA: That situation is exactly why I would prefer to see schools drop all non-academic extracurriculars. They force competition, both in making the team and in playing time, between kids of vastly different talent and experience. If not for the school team/band etc., kids would simply seek out clubs etc. that matched their abilities and the amount of time they wished to commit. I've known many kids on my DD's swim team who never swam a meet; they simply swam in the non-competitive groups, for exercise, because their major extracurriculars were elsewhere. I've also known a few top athletes who have chosen not to do HS competition, thus earning social ostracism, and many who would have preferred not to, but who bowed to that pressure.

BTW, all my kids were very young for their classes - the younger ones often over two years (lots of redshirting); two had birthdays just before the deadline and two had birthdays just after the deadline, who were advanced. None of them had any problems, academic or social and three were boys. Admittedly, the fact that they were elite athletes was a big help, but there are exceptions to every rule.

SteveH said...

"It was once common for elementary-school teachers to arrange their classrooms by ability, placing the highest-achieving students in one cluster, the lowest in another."

I was in the Bluebird reading group in first grade. With differentiated instruction, my son was occasionally grouped with kids of his own ability.

I never remember any schools that did tracking or pull-out in elementary grades, but all of the very low ability kids were sent to other schools. They held kids back a year or required them to go to summer school - a fate worse than death for kids and parents too. We now lack any proper level of expectations in K-6. Educators expect kids to learn when they are ready, so the trust the spiral. This is a huge copout.

When I was young, there was no real acceleration in K-6 (it wasn't necessary), and today, the homogeneous groupings are more for enrichment, not acceleration. The mixed-ability groupings are more for social purposes than academic ones. I've seen the benefits of that at our school, but you don't get it for nothing. It requires a fuzzier definition of education that talks about critical thinking and understanding rather than skills and knowledge.

If you are talking about TAG/GATE programs, they are not necessarily a solution. The questions are how and when you select who gets into those programs and whether those programs are acceleration or mostly enrichment. There is also a big range between 'T' and 'G' and schools will have a lot of pressure to lower the 'T' cutoff.

"... dominated by white and Asian students. "

It takes help at home from parents to know about and get kids onto these tracks. While educators might think that all of this could be somehow natural, many parents know better.

"So she completely reorganized her classroom. About a decade ago, instead of teaching all her students as one group, she began ability grouping, teaching all groups the same material but tailoring activities and assignments to each group."

This is classic. She sees it only as her problem, not a systemic one. She just assumes that the kids' levels are all where they could be. She doesn't think to ask the parents what they did at home.

"... the practice inevitably divided students according to traits corresponding with achievement, like race and class."

The social justice crowd wants equality, and the IQ crowd thinks that everything is just fine if only people would see reality. Still, nobody is asking parents what they do at home to teach basic skills and knowledge to their kids and what they do to identify educational opportunies. It always struck me when I saw parents who loved the intense focus on basic skills in sports, but who got all weird about "drill and kill" in academics.

SteveH said...

"Though the issue is one of the most frequently studied by education scholars, there is little consensus about grouping’s effects."

Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. Ask the parents of the best students. Why do educational systems fight against charter schools that do what many good parents do - set high expectations and emphasize skills and knowledge? A STEM-focus charter school project (K-12) in our area is being fought by educators in our state (they get to decide on all charter schools) because it will separate kids by willingness and ability even though it has to use a lottery.

"Some studies indicate that grouping can damage students’ self-esteem by consigning them to lower-tier groups; others suggest that it produces the opposite effect by ensuring that more advanced students do not make their less advanced peers feel inadequate."


Look at El Sistema. Students of all levels are grouped together when they start, but they start as early as 3 or 4 years old. Everyone helps everyone else and learning is done in groups. They emphasize both skills and musicality. They spend hours a day on music. The "conductor" and helpers are in charge. It's group learning, but there is definitely a sage-on-the-stage. Pedagogy is driven from the earliest grades by experts in the field, not educational process pedagogues. It's orchestral group learning, but nobody slips through the cracks. The orchestra is only as good as the weakest link. For math grouping in the US, weak students slide by while the teacher sees only "active learning" and not results.

By 7 or 8, the better musicians are separated into advanced orchestras by audition. (They also begin private lessons!) This is a huge motivating factor. This audition and separation continues through many levels until you get to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. A large portion of the kids in that orchestra are from the barrios, but this is not just a decent orchestra for poor kids. As Jose Antonio Abreu says: "Music for the poor should not be poor music." Contrast this with the highest US PARCC level ("distinguished") in math that hopes to get kids to pass a course in college algebra. There is no path to AP calculus for the poor. This is obscene.

How is it that kids from the barrios of Venezuela can get to Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms with astounding acclaim? While some are worried about feelings and others smug about how IQ answers everything, El Sistema is diving right in and bringing everyone up to extraordinarily high levels. They will give you the trade-offs and answers to issues of separating students.

My only issue is that people will think this is just something special with music. Music IS special, but their results go far beyond music. It reflects on the incredible waste of human potential that is taken for granted in education because nobody can think outside of the box. How incredibly ironic. People are too worried about feelings and hard work.

Many claim that we only want the math we had when we were growing up. No^5. We want something more, but setting the top PARCC level at college algebra is so incredibly wrong. It's obscene. There is a huge systemic problem in education and too many just look at what walks into a teacher's classroom. Education, from the earliest grades, needs to be put into the hands of content experts who know what it takes to get to the top levels. There has to be well-defined paths, and educators need to push. Separation is required, and I'm not talking about GATE enrichment.

Expect to hear a lot about El Sistema in the future, but I expect US educators to get it completely wrong - seeing only what they want to see (the process) and never seeing the critical content and skills. Tocar y luchar. They won't get past tocar. They won't look at El Sistema. They will only look in the mirror.

Jen said...

Marcia Gentry at Purdue has come up with a model for "total school cluster grouping" based on ability. Because the groupings can change each year, it isn't considered "tracking" per se, because no child is permanently in a group.

If you google Gentry ability cluster grouping, you will see some PDFs outlining the basic idea and the research support.

The main idea is that you group enough that no teacher is differentiating to more than two groups. Highest achievers (group 5) are not put with the next highest group (4). That way those 4s are now the highest achievers in their classroom group. That tends to increase their performance. Middle (3) kids are usually clustered with the 5s, so that teacher has no below level kids and can spend differentiation time on acceleration or enrichment for the 5s. The teacher with the 1s group, which is comparable to an "inclusion" group is supposed to have a learning specialist in the classroom, to help with differentiating for that group.

Not perfect, works best in a school with 3 classrooms at each grade. But, when done according to her plans, the schools that have implemented it have seen gains across the board.

Now I'll go read the article -- and see if I've just repeated some of it here!

lgm said...

AA: That situation is exactly why I would prefer to see schools drop all non-academic extracurriculars. They force competition, both in making the team and in playing time, between kids of vastly different talent and experience. If not for the school team/band etc., kids would simply seek out clubs etc. that matched their abilities and the amount of time they wished to commit.

Why eliminate the highest levels of acheivement in sports? The community has JV, travel, and rec leagues available for those that don't make the varsity.

One of the purposes of the clubs is improving one's abilities. I don't see kids joining clubs where there is nothing new to learn.

momof4 said...

lgm: Your comment implies that travel leagues are less competitive than the HS varsity. Perhaps, in some locations, that is true, but I have lived in three states during my kids' HS years and that was completely upside-down; the top division of the travel league was far more competitive than HS; the talent is far more concentrated. The 18 players on each of my sons' travel soccer teams were likely to attend as many as 15 different high schools (I really did count, on my old rosters). A HS having a small group of kids from top-level clubs can ride that to state championships; I saw that happen 7 times, in two states and two sports and I'm sure there were more in other sports and in years when I did not have HS kids. My DD's HS won two consecutive HS swimming championships because virtually all varsity swimmers were members of the same state-championship USS team. It should also be noted that it is common for top club players to play only one year of JV and a significant number make the varsity as freshmen. In MN, kids can play varsity in some sports as seventh-graders; one MN tennis player was undefeated for six straight years. She was a high-ranking USTA club player. Football is an exception, but many, if not most, sports have club structures leading all the way to the Olympics; HS and college play is not necessary. Michael Phelps never swam college; the USS clubs cover everyone from the u-8s upward. (my DD swam some of the same meets as the early-adolescent Phelps). I know that's true for soccer, swimming, tennis, gymnastics and track and I think it's true for others - so kids joining clubs where there is nothing new to learn.

momof4 said...

Sorry - the last line should be "kids are NOT joining clubs where there is nothing new to learn".

That is the situation in HS sports; there's no time to teach skills and tactics; it's a matter of putting the right kids in the right places and letting them play, because they have already acquired the skills and tactics in club competition. BTW: one top-level Baltimore club soccer team had kids from 4 states on its (18-kid) roster; MD, PA, NJ and DE. That's how competitive club play can get.

momof4 said...

lgm: I just realized that you are probably thinking of club sports at the HS level as equivalent to the club sports in college, which do tend to fall between rec league/intermurals and the JV/Varsity level. One of my sons played club soccer in college, on a totally-student-run team, with many kids who didn't want to commit the time to the varsity team, so I'm familiar with that level.

I am referring to club sports as those which are directly run by that sport's national governing body: US Soccer, US Tennis Association, US Swimming, US Golf, US Gymnastics, US Lacrosse etc; and which have teams at all ages. All of our Olympians were members of their sport's association. College-run club sports are not part of that system, although all of my son's teammates had played travel soccer, under US Soccer, through HS - and options beyond HS exist.

lgm said...

Momof4 I agree with you that some high school sports in some areas are just riding off the success of the club sport. Very few athletes here play Club sports at the preOlympic level or better and also Varsity. the V here tends to be higher level than club.

Our super eliminated middle school sports for two years. That decimated the high school teams when those students became jrs and srs, because they weren't affluent enough to develop their skills in private club during the years when there was nothing at school. The running coach for ex ended up borrowing soccer players to round out his team (same season) and have a few guys with V times.
So yes I agree that in an affluent city/suburb area, there really are enough options that the high school can do without a sports program. In rural areas though, the travel time for meets and practice is considerable, and the price makes it prohibitive for many free/red lunch families. Far easier to meet at the high school right after school.

Anonymous said...

WRT the difference between the treatment of top athletes and the difference of top scholars, that sounds awfully familiar to me. Decorate the halls for the top hoops shooter, but the top math geek can't even have a class at his level, let alone be celebrated for his prowess.

I have long wondered how much of this phenomenon can be attributed to resentment. We know that teachers tend to come from the bottom third of their classes at college. Education is the least demanding (and most cheat-ridden) major. Do not these dim bulbs resent the bright student? Are they repaying the humiliation they felt as children for not being terribly smart?

As with everything in education, this resentment is couched in the euphemisms of compassion. It wouldn't be fair to others for children to be allowed to pass up a grade. Allowing some select students to have higher-grade classes destroys community feeling for the group. Making too much of one student's academic achievements would make others feel bad.

All of these same things are standard practice for the athletically gifted. With athletes, the same rules don't apply. What is the difference? Why do teachers and administrators easily accept that some students are more athletically gifted than others, and encourage them on this path, but do everything they can to impede the progress of those more intellectually gifted? It's a strange and unfortunate tradition.

SteveH said...

AA said:

"They say it would be inappropriate for him to get ahead, and actually argue that it would be damaging to him not to be tracked with his classmates."

Is this for high school? It sounds like K-6 talk. High school is all about different levels for each subject. We have general, college prep, honors, and AP. The problem could just be that they don't want special cases. Sports is set up to cater to the best.

When my son was in fifth grade, his school specifically did not tell us that he qualified to take a test to enter Johns Hopkins' CTY program. I found out that it was because they did not want to have to deal with parents asking for special arrangements.

Schools cannot help students far beyond normal levels (even though I think these levels are possible for most kids in some area), so parents have to find resources outside of school. My son has been taking private piano lessons since he was 5. Schools cannot possibly offer him anything like that, but they could provide guidance or allow private teachers to give lessons at the school. If a school does not provide an orchestra, they should allow non-educators to come in to provide that on an after-school basis. Local artists should be allowed to come in to form after-school groups.

Schools could take this into account to form or point to local, state, regional, and national opportunities for students. Unfortunately, there are often walls between organizations controlled by educators and organizations controlled by non-eduators.

In music, the education world is controlled by NAfME and their associated state organizations. They are the ones who provide the all-state and all-region opportunities. In our state, they also offer a solo & ensemble honors recital.

There is also the world of the private lesson teachers, many of whom belong to MTNA, a music organization that has few ties with NAfME. My son is involved with opportunities on both sides and it is interesting to see the differences. Many students never hear about outside opportunities because their world is dominated by the educator world. It takes involved parents to find these other opportunities.

I think that this educator/non-educator divide is a problem. Schools can't do everything for all students, but they really have to provide clear paths of opportunity, even if it involves non-educator organizations.

I also think it's unreasonable to expect schools to get out of the sports or extra-curricular world. Our high school has one of the best theater groups in the region because of the efforts of a few teachers. However, it could be even better if it aligned itself with outside theater organizations. The program develops many talented kids and there are only so many parts to go around. If a school does not offer any extras in some areas, they should be willing to form connections to organizations that do - and then offer use of their facilities.

momof4 said...

The argument that kids should stay with their agemates, for social reasons, ignores the likelihood that kids who are far enough ahead of their agemates to make acceleration possible are NOT fitting in well with said agemates. I know; I was one of them and all my friends were one or two grades ahead.

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