Monday, June 10, 2013

NYT sees no evil in ability grouping; but I wonder if it enables boring curriculum

According to a piece in yesterday's New York Times, ability grouping in elementary school is seeing a resurgence.  The article gives very short shrift to the potential problems with tracking, so it might be worth pointing them out. In general, kids in higher groups like tracking; those in lower groups don't, so most of the problems with ability-grouping are obvious Matthew-effect issues: kids in lower-level groups might feel ghettoized; kids in lower-level groups might learn less. But there's one problem that is less obvious, and that affects students at all levels: tracking may allow teachers to get away more easily with less-interesting curriculum that they might otherwise have to rethink.

The Times article describes one teacher's practice:

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.
The teacher doesn't see any problems here ; I see three:
  1. There is probably, despite the teacher's assurances, still a stigma attached to the lower groups.  How can she really know?  And how can she know what the long-term effect of always being in the lower group might be for some kids? It could be pretty harmful, and she would have no idea.
  2. Even if there were really no stigma, there might be harm done to the lower-level kids if they aren't exposed to the more interesting work done by the higher-level kids.
  3. Vocabulary study may well be largely pointless, so there is a large potential opportunity cost here: the kids could be reading instead of doing vocab work.  This is especially important for the kids in the lower groups, who are much more likely to essentially never read.
This last point may seem the least germane to the debate, but is actually potentially very important. Ms. Vail's vocabulary lesson strikes me as pretty tedious, but by adapting it to different levels, she makes the boring lesson workable. Tracking, then, may enable boring curriculum, by allowing its weaknesses to be masked by some made-to-measure tailoring. To offer another example: a curriculum that mimics a standardized test won't work with a heterogeneous group, because the test questions will be too hard for the less able students and too easy for the highly skilled.

My theory is that to make heterogeneous classes work well, you need to do more interesting curriculum. The more meaningful the activity, the more it will allow students of different abilities to engage with it in their own ways. An open-ended discussion can be joined in by students of all abilities, and a mini-lesson on Modernist poetry may be appreciated by everyone as well. If you really want to do vocabulary, why not have every kid write something meaningful (a story, a book review, an argument) using the words? That way each kid could write at his or her own level, and stories tend to be less boring than isolated sentences. If you want kids to push themselves, ask all kids to write the piece using and reusing as many words as possible, or offer variations adapted to the meaningful assignment.  In any case, the more the assignment fits into a larger purpose, the better: instead of isolated sentences, have students use the vocab words in the book reviews they are writing of their independent reading books after having read a bunch of book reviews pulled from a variety of publications, with the eventual goal of putting together a class magazine modeled after the London Review of Books--or whatever.  The point is, meaningful tasks can almost always be done at a wide range of levels; meaningless tasks depend on teacher-created difficulty levels, and if you don't have those levels the meaninglessness is perhaps more exposed.

So though I don't actually know if tracking is always a bad idea (though I'm sympathetic to Jennie Oakes's arguments), I think as a general rule we should have whole-class lessons that aren't tracked, have individual work that is appropriate for the individual kid, and have group projects that are mixed-ability.

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