The XX Factor

Grouping by Ability in Classrooms Is Back in Fashion. Is This Good for Kids?

“Only the most romantic idealist would argue that all children are born with the same intellectual and academic abilities.”

Photograph by Ryan Mcvay/Lifesize

In today’s New York Times, Vivian Yee reports on the supposed re-emergence of elementary school ability tracking, in which teachers split students into smaller groups of advanced, regular, or slow learners, in order to better target lessons to children’s individual needs.

Grouping fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was stigmatized because of its relationship to high-school-level “tracking,” the practice of assigning students at different academic levels to totally different classrooms or curricular programs, such as vocational or college prep. Tracking has a dark history of race, class, and gender discrimination, and grouping was seen as reproducing the same problems in younger children’s classrooms. Though that debate has somewhat cooled as vocational education has largely been supplanted by “college readiness for all,” grouping remains controversial, in part because it pits two of the education world’s favorite buzzwords against each other: differentiation versus high expectations.

Differentiation calls for a teacher to adjust the delivery and assessment of lessons for each student in her class. All students might hear the same introductory lecture on fractions, for example, but in small groups later on, some students would be expected to complete four numeric problems, while others would tackle those same four problems plus an additional two word problems. The teacher would move around the room, providing one-on-one help and instruction geared toward each student’s ability level.

High expectations, on the other hand, refers to the idea that many children will rise to meet the standards set for them by teachers and parents. This rhetoric dates back to the civil rights era. One of the most famous education studies of all time was “Pygmalion in the Classroom,” a 1968 paper by Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal and elementary school principal Lenore Jacobson. Rosenthal and Jacobson told a group of San Francisco public school teachers the names of several of their students who had performed well on the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition and thus were expected to “bloom” academically. In fact, the Harvard test did not exist. Twenty percent of the students, with varying IQ scores and races, were selected at random to belong to this high expectations group, and at the end of the school year, those students demonstrated bigger gains on both IQ and achievement tests than their peers in the same classrooms. Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded that teachers’ lower expectations had damned the control-group students and that this finding had disturbing implications for the education of children from historically discriminated-against groups, whom teachers might assume would be less ready for advanced work.

High expectations is the ideology driving the implementation of the Common Core, the new, more challenging curriculum standards that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. There’s plenty of contemporary research to back this strategy. A 2011 study from Duke found that when mixed-ability groups of kindergarteners and first-graders were taught using curricula and methods traditionally reserved for “gifted” students, twice as many of them—including poor children of color—were designated by their schools as “gifted” within three years.

In the Times article, teacher Jill Sears seems to justify her ability grouping by referencing the theory of learning styles. “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 asks. But while learning styles are frequently taught in education schools and teacher prep programs, more recent cognitive science has discredited the idea that such labels should drive instruction. Cathy Vail, another teacher in the Times piece, says that in one of her lessons she encourages only some of her students to use two new vocabulary words in the same sentence. That made me wonder: How does she know only some of her students can do that? Has she tried giving that assignment to all of them, even if it takes some children much longer to complete?

There are also questions about the social effects of ability grouping. Even if groups are designated with colors or animals, children will know which groups are the favored ones. The “gifted” or “advanced” label inflates the egos of kids who may simply be fortunate to come from privileged homes, while struggling students may be discouraged or embarrassed by being pulled into a separate group. (Vail puts her gifted students on “Team C” and her lowest achieving group on “Team A”—I’m guessing that’s an effort to avoid stigmatization, but I’m dubious that this actually tricks the kids long-term.)

So can high expectations coexist with differentiation in a diverse classroom, without grouping students by ability? Sure, when teachers provide intense extra help to move struggling students forward. But high-quality differentiation requires that teachers have enough time to provide students with one-on-one attention, which can be challenging in an age when so much emphasis is placed on test prep and when class sizes are rising in many budget-strapped cities and states. Critics of mainstream education reform, like Rick Hess, have long complained that since No Child Left Behind became law in 2001, penalizing schools if the test scores of low-performing students don’t improve, gifted students have gotten short shrift. Indeed, some districts have totally done away with formal advanced learning programs at the elementary level. I attended socio-economically and racially diverse public schools in Ossining, N.Y., where I and many other children of college-educated, mostly white and Asian parents were pulled out of class every Thursday for a full day of “gifted” instruction. But when I went back to report on my hometown schools 15 years later, I found that program had been canceled. Now, in order to differentiate learning, “Gifted kids are getting tapped to be teaching assistants” in mixed classes, the PTA president complained.

Only the most romantic idealist would argue that all children are born with the same intellectual and academic abilities. And obviously, by the time kids are in school, some will be ready to race ahead of their peers, in large part because of support they get from engaged parents. That said, there is simply no research consensus on whether children—especially those who are struggling—learn more in grouped or ungrouped settings, or whether advanced learners are held back by interacting with slower peers. In the absence of concrete evidence, social and political pressures will often dictate whether schools embrace ability grouping. Many affluent parents complain if their children are not designated as “gifted” and offered special instruction. Testing mandates often encourage teachers to pursue a back-to-basics approach with struggling students. Those realities mean grouping may, indeed, be becoming more popular, despite the ubiquity of high-expectations rhetoric.