Sorting kids at school: the return of ability grouping

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  • terra nova Park City, UT
    April 28, 2013 10:16 p.m.

    My 1st grade teacher was old and irritable. The bun on the back of her head so tight it made me hurt to look at it. I regularly faked long naps. I didn't like her. She told my mother, "that boy will never learn to read."

    My mother smiled wanly and said, "We'll see." She spent the summer paying me a nickle for each Dr. Seuss book I read to my younger sister.

    Next year in public school, Miss Robinson, a new, bright and beautiful blonde that a 2nd grade boy would do anything for put me in the slow reading group. Top of the pecking order were the "Bluebirds." Next the "Robins." If "Crows" were next, my people were "Magpies."

    Due to my mother's summer intervention (and a young boy's crush on his beautiful blonde teacher), I was tested and re-tested and moved to the highest reading group. By the end of the year I was reading three grade levels above the mean for second grade.

    Grouping can work if re-testing is used often.

    Thanks Mom. Thanks Dr. Suess. (And.. sorry sis.) And thanks Miss Robinson, wherever you are.

  • RBB Sandy, UT
    April 28, 2013 8:32 p.m.

    I have had this debate numerous times with my sister. She was all-state in multiple sports. For some reason it is bad to track kids by ability/achievement in the class room but not on the athletic field.

    I took algebra in 6th grade with 10 classmates. The next year we advanced to "general math." We were constantly in trouble as we were bored out of our minds.

    While placement by achievement is important, so is ability. Many gifted students fail due to boredom. Fortunately in high school one of the honors teachers let me take her class even though I did not have the grades to take the class. One day she called me in and chewed me out for not doing my best. She was not impressed with my defense that I had an A in her class.

    Three years later, I had a bachelor's degree with honors - mostly because a teacher saw ability and then demanded that I live up to it. Teaching to the mean is mean.

  • Cauthon75 Deering, NH
    April 25, 2013 7:50 p.m.

    Let's not get too hung up on the fact that whatever we try to do, there will be a way to do it wrong and fail. Back in the 50's, our school would list students by performance; #1 would go to one room for the next year, #2 to the other (right, only 2 classrooms per grade), ensuring a mix of abilities. Then the teachers would divide us by performance for instruction. By mixing all ability levels in each classroom, the teacher's difficult job was made much harder. Even then, one of my best teachers was Harvey White, an MIT professor who came to us on 16mm film; we were too poor to afford a DVD player:-) With his ability and MIT's enormous resources, he taught us a lot about physics. That was not much fun for our teacher, but today, if some of the students can get most of their instruction from computers (which can tutor each student individually at their own pace), and most of the rest can at least get some, the teacher can focus on giving attention wherever it is most needed, which is probably just what a lot of teachers would like to do.

  • nhsaint PETERBOROUGH, NH
    April 25, 2013 2:53 p.m.

    I have never forgotten the story told to me by my high school French teacher. He was a wiseacre kid from Paris, always cutting up in class and fooling around. Tracking was done at 11 years old, and as the class clown, he was doomed. So, he was relegated to the vocational track, from which he graduated with an apprenticeship in carpentry ('with straight D's!) at age 16. While working in Paris at age 18, he decided to save money and come to the USA. He got a green card upon arrival (much easier in those days!) and went to work as a carpenter in Boston. One day, he heard one of his co-workers talking about his courses at the community college. He was incredulous, and did not understand how a carpenter was allowed to go to college. When he learned that he could go, too, he immediately signed up for some things that interested him. Long story short: he ended up with a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University! He never returned to France- opportunity would never have found him there. He taught high school and college and raised 10 children who ALL went to college!

  • Nan BW ELder, CO
    April 23, 2013 3:17 a.m.

    I taught in an SLC school where we grouped students according to their achievement, and it worked very well. Our own children attended the school and because they were high in math achievement, they were in high math groups, though one was in the low level reading group. Sometimes students became lazy and didn't stay in the group suited to their ability, and sometimes students worked very hard to move up, and did so. It was a system geared to helping students do their best.

    At this school, we did not see much benefit from standardized testing. I see it as largely a waste of time. There are many things that could be done to improve school and grouping according to a student's performance is one of them.

  • EJM Herriman, UT
    April 22, 2013 6:54 p.m.

    I rarely agree with Carolyn Sharette but her statement about grouping based on achievement is spot on. Too bad too many parents could care less about what their students have learned and more about the grade. And too many of our students only want to do the bare minimum for a grade. Plus, they only want to show up for the fewest days possible. Learning for the sake and joy of learning rarely exists in our schools today.

  • Carolyn Sharette Sandy, UT
    April 22, 2013 5:55 p.m.

    I just want to point out the very important distinction between achievement grouping and ability grouping.

    I don't believe children should be placed in any groups based upon their perceived "ability". Often times high-potential kids perform far underneath their abilities and it is very challenging to motivate them.

    When you place kids in groups based upon their ACHIEVEMENT - they really work hard to be in the highest group they can be.

  • Western Rover Herriman, UT
    April 22, 2013 5:28 p.m.

    I heartily second Redshirt1701. I attended a private school that didn't use the traditional numbered grades, and grouped kids separately for each subject. If you excelled at math but struggled with reading (or vice versa), you would be studying with other kids near your same ability in each subject.

  • Redshirt1701 Deep Space 9, Ut
    April 22, 2013 11:19 a.m.

    As the article, and some of the comments show, segregating kids based on ability levels is good. The only thing that is bad that comes out of it is how the ability levels are perceived.

    Those that are in the slowest learning group are perceived as "dumb", while those in the advanced group are thought of as the "smart" kids. I think that much of this is eliminated when the segregation is done on a subject by subject basis. You may have a child that excells at math, and struggles with reading.

    If the teachers take the small effort of labeling the groups properly, the stigma will be minimized. Yes the kids will figure it out, but the example of the teachers would remedy the problem.

  • donquixote84721 Cedar City, UT
    April 22, 2013 10:35 a.m.

    At the age of five, I received burns, that would leave me with scars over 50% of my body. All the way through school, I was treated as if I was "slow." Imagine my surprise, when I was called into my Company Commander's, while I was serving with The Army of the United States of America, in Korea, and being ask why I did not go to West Point, the prestigious Army College. I told him that I knew nothing about going to West Point, and he said that my entrance scores showed I should go. I did apply but was due to my low High School grades. On the aptitude part of the entrance exam, I knew that I did well, because when I ask what my scores showed I should go into, I was told passing was 70 and my lowest score was 78. In 1980, at the age of 35, I entered college, and received a BA degree, in Human Service, in 1985. I have suffered from extremely low self-esteem for over 60 year.

  • Carolyn Sharette Sandy, UT
    April 22, 2013 10:11 a.m.

    There is a significant difference between "tracking" and achievement grouping for the learning of skills.

    Tracking is traditionally meant to judge a student's "ability" (very tricky to do) and place him/her on a trajectory. Still practiced in many countries, tracking is less common in US schools.

    Achievement Grouping is a very effective way to ensure that students learning new skills (reading, mathematics) can learn at the maximum pace possible, and not spend time re-learning things they don't need, while at the same time being given the proper level of challenge. In elementary schools, achievement levels are very effective when done properly.

    Students remain in their mainstream classroom for much of their academic day, but when it comes time for the foundational skills to be learned, they are divided into groups so they can receive instruction at their precise instructional level.

    There is an important distinction between "ability" grouping and "achievement" grouping. One makes a judgment about a child's future anticipated performance (like I said, tricky) and one simply takes them where they are currently performing and ensures their instruction matches that level. Too bad the article didn't distinguish between these very different approaches.

  • Older Mom Roswell, GA
    April 22, 2013 9:15 a.m.

    In the early 1970's I attended sixth grade in Utah. I had a teacher, that for his time was very progressive in his teaching methods. He let the class learn with reading packets, each one at his or her own pace. If one wanted to progress faster, it was fine. He was there if we needed help. He made school interesting. Our school was what most would consider lower middle income. He encouraged us to learn on our own and to make our own future. He was an excellent role model. When the end of the year testing came around, his class on average in English tested on an eight grade level. The self confidence I learned from his class gave me the courage to keep going with my education. Years later I attended the University of Utah on full scholarship. I will be eternally grateful for his influence.

  • gramma b Orem, UT
    April 22, 2013 8:54 a.m.

    What is "mean" is making the obviously able kids sit and twiddle their thumbs, wasting their ability and denying them the opportunity to excel, while waiting for others to catch up.

  • one old man Ogden, UT
    April 22, 2013 7:39 a.m.

    I still say that allowing little girls to start school at age 5 and letting little boys have another year of growing would solve about 80% of the problems in our schools.

  • Say No to BO Mapleton, UT
    April 22, 2013 6:25 a.m.

    Can we at least admit that grouping students by year of birth has been a failure?

  • My2Cents Taylorsville, UT
    April 22, 2013 3:29 a.m.

    If there should be any tracking and accountability it should be done on the system and the incompetent system that permeate the education system.

    The human brain is not like a Intel chip where intelligence and ability is built in, and the human development is never predictable or track-able or traceable. Intelligence cannot be measured by dumbed down adult teachers and politicians and this grouping is depriving children of the most valuable assets when growing and developing, each other.

    Like siblings who help and educate each other with individual skills, so do the peers in class and class room setting. Every child and person has a hidden key that can trigger intelligence, learning, and understanding of their environment and knowledge. Peers and siblings understand each other more profoundly than any devised testing or evaluation of adults will ever understand.

    It is not the authority of education to label children for any reason, education has one objective, equal informatory and equal rights and equal opportunity. Leave the role of god to god.

  • the old switcharoo mesa, AZ
    April 21, 2013 6:47 p.m.

    Tracking is mean unless you give children a chance to change it based on their desires. Don't secretly track a kid to mediocrity and not going to college when most of the time it isn't any deficiency of the child that is the problem.

    Kid wants to be a pilot. Nope, you wear glasses and your math scores are low.

    So... that's it? He's tracked to be something else? Or should you help the kid achieve his goals? What's the point of education if it isn't that?