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Is ability-grouping widely practiced in Minneapolis Public Schools?
Mpls issues list
Subj:      Re: [Mpls] Why is "culling" so bad?
Date:     9/24/2004 7:26:11 PM Central Daylight Time
From:     Socialist2001@cs.com
To:     mpls@mnforum.org

In a message dated 9/23/2004 11:29:38 PM Central Daylight Time, Mark Snyder writes:

<< We've seen Doug Mann make this claim repeatedly, but other than the story about his kid, I can't really recall anything else he's said in this forum, nor did I see anything on his campaign's web site to actually back up this theory of his that ability-grouping is occurring so rampantly throughout the MPS, though I remember other parents of MPS students disputing it.  >>

In this post I review some evidence of ability grouping in the Minneapolis Public Schools that Mark Snyder can't recall and can't see. I can't respond to the unspecified contentions and argumentation of unspecified parents that Mark says he remembers having disputed my "theory," but not well enough to recite.

My theory is that the school system in Minneapolis has a big racial learning because it is designed to create a big racial learning gap. In my opinion, two of the major institutional factors that serve to widen the gap are 1) a high concentration and high turnover of inexperienced teachers in schools with a high concentration of low-income and minority (non-white) students due to the bidding process and excessive layoffs at the end of each year, and 2) ability-grouping practices.

In my opinion, the most effective and efficient way to close the gap would be to create positions for probationary teachers and distribute them evenly through the district's schools, stop laying off excessive numbers of teachers (which increases turnover and burnout) and phase out "low-ability" classes and
intra-classroom groupings, which reportedly has been done in some school districts without "teaching to the middle," i.e., watering down the curriculum for "high ability" classes (Ann Wheelock has written at least a couple of books on this subject, including "How untracking can save Americas schools").    

Dave Heistad and Carol Johnson have said that the MPS administration does not condone "ability-grouping," however, as the following quote will show, Heistad and Johnson do not dispute that what I call "ability-grouping" is standard practice in a large majority of schools.

[Quote from SW Journal] << David Heistad, the Executive Director of Testing Evaluation and Student Information for Minneapolis Public Schools, said they don't uniformly test student IQ levels but do separate students in the elementary grades into groups by reading abilities.

"Most teachers in the world, at least in the United States, do some sort of reading groups. We certainly wouldn't call that ability grouping, because those reading groups are based on whether students are sounding out the basic words... or whether they are really struggling with the basics and don't have the
phonemic awareness down," Heistad said.

"Typically, the teacher in first grade will divide [students] into a couple groups so each student can work at their own pace. But those groups are very flexible and teachers assess them throughout the year. That's a big step from ability grouping," he said.>>
http://www.swjournal.com/articles/2002/10/22/export5473.txt

Ability-grouping as Heistad defines it has been illegal since the 1970s. Students may not be assigned to separate classrooms for the entire day based on a single test of academic or cognitive ability, but may be assigned to classrooms in various subject areas on the basis of assessed ability (what they can do,
scores on achievement tests, etc.)  "Ability-grouping" is allowed if the groupings are "flexible," which means that students are periodically reassessed, and may be considered "flexible" even if there is absolutely no movement from group to group over the course of a year, even several years, and even if ability-grouping practices result in greater differences in education-related outcomes between racial groups. - (Source: Equal Educational Opportunity and Nondiscrimination for minority students: Federal Enforcement of Title VI in Ability Grouping Practices, Equal Educational Opportunity Project Series, Volume IV, A Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, September 1999, heading: OCR's enforcement activities, subheading: Title VI compliance standards, pages 60-61.)   

In the fall of 1997, first grade students at Audubon Elementary school (now Lake Harriet) were ability-grouped into separate classrooms for reading instruction within 2 weeks after school started, and students in the low and medium ability classrooms were further subdivided in instructional groups according to perceived ability. This part-time tracking was particularly objectionable because the rest of the curriculum is reading based. I went to the teachers, then up the chain of command to seek corrective action: to the principal, the
superintendent, then the board of directors, which sets the policy. The result: No action. Why?

The first grade teachers at Aububon were following the district's policy, as set forth in the curriculum content standards for English Language Arts, reading and writing. I requested and received a copy of every (teachers edition) curriculum content standards booklet for grades K-12. The booklets for K-6 Language Arts, reading and writing, dated July 1997 recommend assigning students to instructional groups according to ability. Carol Johnson was the head of curriculum development for a year prior to leaving the district for the superintendent gig in St. Louis Park.

Also in 1997 the district requested and received a matching grant from the state to do testing for gifted programs. The district also mandated gifted programming at any school where at least one parent requested that their child be placed in a gifted program, provided that child meets the criteria for placement in a gifted program. About half of MN school districts did not apply for the 1997 matching grant for gifted testing, which was appropriation specifically earmarked for gifted education since the early 1980s. In the early 1980s about
half of MN school districts did not have gifted and talented programs and did not condone "ability-grouping" as I have used the term.

When I was a MPS parent during the 1980s (in relation to the children of my companion of that era), I spent many hours in early elementary classrooms and saw no evidence of ability-grouping at Longfellow and Marcy Open. Students received reading instruction together, were engaged in tutorial activities together, and were not "ability-grouped" in any way. However, the district had a pre-IB program that some could get into (all students could apply for, but not all who wanted to get into the IB program could do so).

I wrote a research paper in the Spring of 1994 titled "K-12 education on the wrong track: gifted education and ability grouping in America's public schools" It's on my web site. It answers questions like: When and why was ability-grouping widely introduced in the US? How many Minnesota school districts did and did not ability-group at any grade-level in the mid-1980s? Do people become less intelligent as they get older?, etc.
http://educationright.tripod.com/id39.htm

-Doug Mann, King Field
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