Ability Grouping

Doing Ability Grouping Right || John Merrifield || June 12, 2013

A June 9 NY Times article on the resurgence of ‘Ability Grouping’ is good news, and it illustrates why this resurgence in our public school system will yield much smaller benefits than if ability grouping by subject results from schools’ need to be choiceworthy within the needed dynamic menu of schooling options as diverse as our schoolchildren. Indeed, as the Times article points out, ability grouping was politically incorrect for a long time, resistance continues. And now that the resurgence has surfaced in a big way in the Times, it may prove to still be politically incorrect. The resurgence may be temporary, or forced to ‘stay under the radar’ that tends to detect and destroy anything that smacks of unequal treatment in our public schools, even if differentiation is needed to engage children with different subject-specific abilities.

I highlighted ‘by subject’ and ‘subject-specific’ because it is a crucial element of ability grouping, and it is something not explicitly noted in the Times article, though it did note that ability grouping is similar to, but not identical to ‘tracking’, which I would argue should be politically incorrect. ‘Tracking’ means assuming one-dimensional student ability; students are uniformly brilliant, average, or slow. Rare!! Most children have strengths and weaknesses. Strengths probably correlate with interest/talent, so in a system of genuine school choices, parents recognizing those interest/talents would tend to enroll their children in schools specializing in those strength/talent areas, so they’d be in classrooms with children that would be similarly passionate and able to progress at similar, faster rates. And, likewise, for necessary subject matter in which they are not as adept, again, they’d be in a room and school building full of kids a lot like them; potential grouping stigma gone; no self-esteem threat.

We can’t achieve that in a traditional public school because the children enrolled there don’t have a common level of ability in particular subjects or means of instruction. They only have their neighborhood in common. You can see the effect in the photo in the Times article.

We need greater relative uniformity of subject ability in each classroom, but in traditional public schools, ability grouping means dividing classrooms into sets of kids with different abilities for the subject matter at hand. The teacher has to circulate between the tables with the children of similar abilities, dividing her time between groups and finding the time to differentiate lesson plans; something that taxes time and requires more talent than many teachers possess. The kids are aware, perhaps ‘painfully’ so, when they’re among the dummies, hence the political resistance to ability grouping and tracking in traditional public schools.

Ability grouping by subject is central to a high performing school system. Our current public school system cannot pursue ability grouping the way that would maximize benefits, including reduced teaching burdens, and minimize teacher prep and student self-esteem costs.

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