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Why Ability-Grouping Widens the Academic Achievement Gap
Write-in "Doug Mann" for School Board
by Doug Mann, 29 Oct 2004, Submitted to the Star-Tribune for publication 28 Oct 2004
[Extracted from Perfuming the Minneapolis Public Schools by Doug Mann]
Supporters of the ability-grouping model have argued that the practice of ability-grouping merely accommodates individual differences in academic ability between children. This idea is generally expressed in two ways: 1) that the brighter children would be held back in a mixed-ability classroom because the instructor must water-down the curriculum for the benefit of the slow-learners, and 2) that the deficits of slow learners are more easily remediated if they are grouped together for instruction.
However, research on the effects of curriculum differentiation and ability-grouping suggest that these practices reinforce and increase the academic achievement gap between the high and low achievers over time. In practice, students who are separated for remedial instruction in basic academic skills usually progress more slowly than their peers, which puts them further behind, and they do not get as much benefit from lectures and learning activities in the regular, mainstream classroom. [See Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes]
The benefits of ability-grouping to high track students found in some studies can be explained as an effect of following recommendations of gifted and talented advocacy groups for high track and gifted classes: Assigning the most effective teachers to the high track classes; keeping class size down in high track classes; a greater emphasis by the teacher of the gifted and talented on individualized educational assessment, planning and evaluation; and enriching the curriculum for the gifted and talented. Such approaches would benefit children of all ability-levels.
The supposition that the pace and content of whole classroom instruction must be watered down for the benefit of slow learners in the mixed-ability classroom has been disproved by the "untracking" of schools and entire school districts. In many of these untracked schools, scores on standardized achievement tests for the high achievers were quite stable or increased during the untracking process, and the test scores of the slower-learners rose dramatically. [See Crossing the Tracks: How Untracking Can Save America's Schools, by Anne Wheelock]
However, the process of untracking isn't just a matter of integrating the student body and modifying the curriculum. Wheelock noted that teachers must learn to use instructional methods and learning strategies that are highly effective and well suited to mixed-ability groups if the goals of untracking are to be met. This is a big adjustment for most teachers not only because it involves a new approach to teaching, but also because it is a somewhat more complicated way to teach.
Another common justification for ability-grouping is that slower students will benefit from being placed in separate classrooms with other slow learners for at least part of the day because it gives them an opportunity to "experience success." It is assumed that always being around and competing with "brighter" students has an adverse effect on the slower student's self-esteem and motivation to learn.
However, the effect of ability-grouping on the self-esteem and motivation of the "slow" student is actually very negative. Students who are publicly identified and sorted into low ability groups get the message that they are stupid, no matter what is verbally communicated by the teacher.
"Low-ability" children are also placed in a situation where they must internalize the low-ability label, which is often a highly stressful process. Normal psychological defense mechanisms come into play, including maladaptive behaviors which convince the teacher that the label is appropriate, including behavior management problems which contribute to the chaotic and hostile classroom climate typical of low-track classes. There is also a tendency for the teacher to apply additional labels which pathologize and criminalize these problematic children.