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Flexibility and ability grouping

For many years, the word “tracking” has been taboo in American education. The general consensus has been that separating the “Bluebirds” from the “Meadowlarks” imposes a class system in the classroom. Everyone points out that kids know what the groups are, whether or not euphemisms are used: the smart kids and the stupid kids. The rich kids and the poor kids. The white kids and the black kids.

But recently, lots of people—including pretty much everyone who advocates for gifted education—have been revisiting the idea of ability grouping. The writer of Should it be OK to place students in ability groups? points out that ability grouping today doesn’t have to be what it was in the past. I agree—as always, I think that the best education is the most flexible.

My son was in a public charter school for first and second grade where he was in a mixed-grade classroom. This type of classroom is definitely harder for the teacher—she could never just relax and give all the kids the same assignments. The great thing about it was that because all the kids started the year knowing that they were at different levels, there was no animosity to being put into separate groups based on their abilities.

At the beginning of the first year, my son was a novice reader. By the middle of that year, he was reading Harry Potter. As a novice reader, he really appreciated the fact that the teacher read aloud (to all the students, reading and pre-reading) and that he was never made to feel like there was something “wrong” with him because he couldn’t read. As an advanced reader only a short time later, he was thrilled to be put with the more advanced readers so that they could read a book together that challenged and interested them.

Because being at different levels was a reality in the classroom, there was never any idea that a) the kids in the advanced group were better in any way, or b) that kids were destined to stay in the group they were in. Most of the first graders were reading an easy book for their reading group, but none of them assumed that they’d still be in that group by third grade. That idea wouldn’t make sense.

This is where traditional schooling ideas clash with the reality of what’s good for kids’ education: Most kids in our country are age-segregated, making fluid ability-grouping harder. When you do leveled reading groups in segregated classes, there’s a much higher possibility that the students are going to see the grouping as “tracking”—sticking them in with the slow kids or the smart kids “forever.”

Although I agree that this is a problem, I don’t agree that because this is a problem, there should be no ability grouping. Kids who are voracious readers when young shouldn’t be tortured into reading JEasy books because it makes their classmates feel better. This is simply not a choice that is any fairer than making slower readers feel dumb.

So how can a traditional school fulfill the needs of its different readers? First of all, the teachers can work hard not to convey even a hint that slower readers are in any way “less smart” than their fast-reading compadres. Any adult can tell you that the age at which they learned to read had no bearing on whether they became a functional, successful adult. But adults who were made to feel stupid because they didn’t learn to read on someone else’s schedule can certainly tell you that they felt the attitude of the teacher, which bled over into the students and their parents. Everyone knew who the “stupid kids” were.

The next thing teachers can do is to construct more fluid classrooms. If they do ability grouping for reading, they could make sure to mix the groups up for an activity that doesn’t need to be differentiated, or is in some way naturally differentiated. For example, elementary school science projects can involve kids of different levels if the project is open-ended enough so that the more advanced students are able to — and encouraged to — do more.

Another thing the teacher can do is to devote some time each day to reading out loud. This allows the children who are still stuck in stiflingly boring leveled readers to hear good writing and good stories. (Now, we could also argue about using stiflingly boring leveled readers at all, but that’s another argument altogether.) I have actually never been with a group of students of any age who didn’t appreciate a good book read out loud, but teachers often leave reading out loud for kindergarten only, as if they’d never heard of the bustling market for audiobooks for adults. On top of that, if teachers encouraged students to write in their notebooks or doodle during reading out loud time, the kids who need to fidget would get as much out of it as the kids who need to need to keep their brains busy.

Finally, ability grouping works best when the schools themselves are more fluid. For some reason, it’s assumed that younger kids can’t deal with more fluid classrooms, moving from one space to another or in with different groups of children. But of course they can—we already stigmatize the gifted kids and the kids who are behind in some subject areas by doing “pull-out” programs. So what if every student were in a pull-out program? Ability grouping doesn’t have to stop at separating out only the outliers.

This article in Education Week sums up the pro’s and con’s of ability grouping. “Emerging research suggests that, in some cases, flexible ability grouping can in fact benefit students.”

The key here is flexible: All children’s needs can be served as long as the system is flexible enough to accommodate those needs. The past bad reputation that ability grouping got was because of its inflexibility: it was used to track low-performing students permanently into another educational sub-class. But that is not a permanent feature of ability grouping, but rather a predictable result of inflexible education.

Posted in Culture, Education.

5 Responses

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  1. Iris Seitel says

    Dear Suki, Great article……it makes sense.

  2. Suki says

    Thanks! Hug those grandchildren for me….

  3. Gigi k says

    Valencia and rio are using the RTI model for reading. It makes good sense and keeps kids motivated. I can’t say if there is stigma, kids just go to their different reading groups. In the upper grades, there’s also math groups.

  4. Janette says

    How naive.
    The reality is that “flexible groupings” are rarely flexible. Oh, one or two kids might go up or down a group, but most kids stay in exactly the same group all year, with the same kids and the same teacher doing exactly the same thing. And I don’t care what spin the teacher puts on it, the kids know who’s in the “high group” and who’s in the “low group.”
    Not only do the “low group” kids get the most boring and repetitive work, they get the daily message that they are stupid. Even the most motivated kids in the “low group” are never told what they need to do to move up. (It’s always a big secret.) Pretty soon theses kids realize that no amount of work or achievement will get them to the “average’ group, much less the “high” group. And that’s when kids stop trying at all. .

    • Suki says

      The fact that you’ve seen a method implemented badly doesn’t mean the method is the problem. Of course, teacher training has to address these concerns, and teachers need ongoing support that few receive in this country. But to say that just because some teachers don’t implement it fairly for some learners isn’t a reason for making kids on either end suffer. One-size-fits-all education fails for most kids.

      Here’s an example of a situation in which ability grouping worked: My son was in a multi-age public school classroom, which made it necessarily to have ability grouping in some activities. Because it was necessary, the kids didn’t think of each other as “dumb kids” and “smart kids” – it was just accepted that some of the kids were readers and some were not yet. Some of the groupings had readers paired with non-readers, and some of the groupings had the strong readers reading longer, more complex books, while others read books appropriate to their levels. The first year, my son was a pre-reader. The second year, he jumped into the strong reader group. There was no stigma attached to any of the groups – just a simple acknowledgement that it would have been unfair to expect the early readers to tackle a novel, and that it would have been unfair to make strong readers sit and practice reading in simple early reader books. And not only would it be unfair, but these sorts of situations are the root of many of the behavioral problems we see in one-size-fits-all classrooms. Teachers often have to be forced to differentiate their curriculum for different learners, but they’re usually amazed that the result of doing that is not just educational. Kids who were acting up or checking out out of boredom become engaged. Kids who were acting up or checking out because their needs weren’t being addressed are also happier.

      Yes, I agree with you that it’s not easy to implement fairly. But no, I can’t agree with you that just because ill-trained teachers have not implemented it well, we should make all kids suffer through curriculum that is either too advanced or too remedial for them. It simply makes no sense to keep following an educational model that assumes that children of one age are the same. All people develop at different rates and have different abilities and challenges. If we simply acknowledge that and remove the value judgment from it, we can figure out how to best educate every kid who walks through the door.

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