Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Classrooms Grouping Students by Ability

I have really mixed feelings about grouping students. On the one hand, it seems nuts to have kids many grade levels apart being taught together. On the other, I have zero doubt that: a) there’s a lot of discretion about which kids get put on which track – and that poor and minority kids get screwed; b) that kids tend to live up to or live down to whatever expectations are set for them; and c) that kids in the lowest track classes get the worst teachers. How’s this for a solution: parents and students in the lowest track classes get the first pick of teachers. That might fix it. Reminds me of the rule in my family growing up: my uncle, who was notorious for cutting the dessert unfairly so he’d get the most, became the most fair cutter in the world once he was made to pick last…

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.

Now ability grouping has re-emerged in classrooms all over the country — a trend that has surprised education experts who believed the outcry had all but ended its use.

A new analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Census-like agency for school statistics, shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. In math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996.

“These practices were essentially stigmatized,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who first noted the returning trend in a March report, and who has studied the grouping debate. “It’s kind of gone underground, it’s become less controversial.”

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