Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom

Previous post refers to this growing trend that synchronous with state trends towards vocational education pathways. -Angela

The New York Times

June 9, 2013

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. 

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 of data collected by the government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress 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. The analysis, by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that 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 Mr. Loveless, 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.” 

The resurgence of ability grouping comes as New York City grapples with the state of its gifted and talented programs — a form of tracking in some public schools in which certain students, selected through testing, take accelerated classes together. 

These programs, which serve about 3 percent of the elementary school population, are dominated by white and Asian 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.) 

Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement. 

When Jill Sears began teaching elementary school in New Hampshire 17 years ago, the second graders in her class showed up on the first day with a bewildering mix of strengths and weaknesses. Some children coasted through math worksheets in a few minutes, she said; others struggled to finish half a page. The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest would become frustrated, give up and act out. 

“My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners,” said Ms. Sears, a fourth-grade teacher at Woodman Park Elementary in Dover, N.H. “I didn’t like those odds.” 

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. 

“I just knew that for me to have any sanity at the end of the day, I could just make these changes,” she said. 

While acknowledging that wide variation in classrooms poses a challenge, critics of grouping — including education researchers and civil rights groups — argued in the 1980s and 1990s that the practice inevitably divided students according to traits corresponding with achievement, like race and class. Some states began recommending that schools end grouping in the 1990s, amid concerns that teachers’ expectations for students were shaped by the initial groupings, confining students to rigid tracks and leading teachers to devote fewer resources to low-achieving students. 

“The kids who are thought of as the least able end up with the fewest opportunities and resources and positive learning environments,” said Jeannie Oakes, author of “Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality,” a popular critique of grouping. “The potential benefit is so far outweighed by the very known and well-documented risks.” 

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

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. Some studies conclude that grouping improves test scores in students of all levels, others that it helps high-achieving students while harming low-achieving ones, and still others say that it has little effect. 

Proponents of grouping argue that without it, teachers are forced to teach to the middle, leaving out both struggling children and gifted learners. They also say there is a “peer effect,” in which high-achieving children do better if paired with other high-achieving students. Done judiciously and flexibly, they say, grouping can help all students. The reasons for the resurgence are unclear. Some experts attribute it to No Child Left Behind, the 2001 law that strengthened accountability standards for schools. By forcing teachers to focus on students who fell just below the proficiency cutoff, the law may have encouraged teachers to group struggling students together to prepare them for standardized tests. 

Technology might have also played a role, Mr. Loveless said, with teachers becoming more comfortable using computers to allow children to learn at different speeds. 

In interviews, several teachers said they believed modern-day grouping was not discriminatory because the groups were constantly in flux. But they acknowledged the additional challenge of tailoring instruction to different groups, as they must produce multiple lesson plans and keep closer track of students’ progress. 

At Public School 156 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which enrolls mostly African-American and Hispanic children, many living in homeless shelters, Cathy Vail randomly sorts her fifth graders at the beginning of the year using lettered sticks. After six weeks of testing and observing them, she shifts them into “teams” of seven or eight. 

Children may be assigned to different groups for reading and math, and can switch groups if they have shown progress, struggle to get along with other students in a group or need extra help with a particular lesson. Ms. Vail uses thrice-yearly reading assessments and a test before each math unit to make sure children do not remain in groups that are too advanced or too slow for them, she said; one student this year, for instance, has moved up two groups in both reading and math. 

Ms. Vail teaches the same lesson, whether it is a math concept or a book, to the entire class, but gives each group a different assignment. Working on each week’s set of new vocabulary words, all four groups draw illustrations and write captions using the assigned words, but she encourages team C, her highest-achieving group, to write more complex sentences, perhaps using two new vocabulary words in the same sentence. She also asks children in team C to peer-teach students in the other groups.
“At the end of the day, they’re learning the same words, but just with different levels of complexity and nuance,” she said. 

When she moves students to new groups, she tells them it is because she can best help them there, and she believes they see the grouping positively, she said. 

“It has to be done properly — you can’t make a kid feel small because they’re in group A,” her lowest-achieving group, she said. “If you don’t have a stigma attached to the group, then I don’t see the problem.” 

In Ms. Sears’s classroom at Woodman Elementary in Dover, the three or four groups of students rotate throughout the day, some being taught on the rug while others work in desk clusters. Before each unit, she groups the 26 children based on initial assessments, takes a few days to observe them in the smaller groups and revises the groups again, sometimes as often as every day.
In the decimal unit, one group might learn to add decimals using blocks they can manipulate with their hands, while another might be able to draw the models on their own. Yet another might practice using the algorithm for adding. The last group might be asked to analyze a word problem and apply the calculation. 

“I can really hone in on their performance and see if they need to move up to a group that will help them access the same content in a way that works for them,” said Ms. Sears, who refers to the technique as dynamic grouping. “Are they an abstract learner, are they someone who needs to draw a picture, are they someone who needs to move their body, are they someone that likes to work alone?”
She said the minority children in her class were more or less evenly distributed among the groups.
African-American and Hispanic children make up about 15 percent of Woodman’s population, its principal, Patrick Boodey, said. More than half of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Socioeconomic factors are a stronger indicator of where a student will end up than race, he said, with minorities spread among groups but with many poorer children congregating in lower-tier groups and remedial programs. 

Ability grouping in reading has been a common practice at the school for at least a decade, and more teachers are beginning to group children in math as well, he said. The school has so embraced the practice that Ms. Sears will go to Maine this summer to train teachers in two districts in grouping.
“Dynamic grouping is the norm, and it’s going to continue to be,” Mr. Boodey said. 

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 12, 2013
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to an analysis of government statistics, and to the statistics themselves. The statistics on grouping, which came from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, were analyzed by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as was stated elsewhere in the article; NAEP did not analyze them. NAEP is run by the National Center for Education Statistics, a census-like agency for school statistics; NAEP itself is not a census-like agency.

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