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Education Reform and Ability-Grouping
Subj:      Re: [Mpls] Re: education reform and ability group tracking
Date:     11/12/2001 6:17:25 PM Central Standard Time

In a message dated 11/11/2001 5:59:15 PM Central Standard Time,
[e-mail address deleted] writes:

> So, from my experience in my children's schools, and my own efforts at
>  classroom management, I do not see how on earth we can expect, from one
>  person in a room with 20 (or at higher grade levels), 25 kids -- a customized
>  program that fully addresses the needs of each child.  I really cannot
>  suggest any practical way around a broad "teach to the middle" with some
>  additional effort made to support the kids who real outliers...

For a couple of months (several years ago), my son was enrolled in a
Montessori preschool.  More recently I spent a few hours observing a
Montessori classroom for kids who would be assigned to grades 1, 2, or 3 in
the public schools.  The teachers don't assign their students to groups by
age or ability, or by any other criteria.  The students group themselves as
they see fit.  The teacher is a facilitator of learning activities.  By
comparison to a traditional (20th century) classroom teacher, the Montessori
teacher seems to provide a lot less direct instruction, and to do a lot more
active observation, assessment, planning, and evaluation.  

The traditional 19th century common school (public school) also assigned K-8
students to mixed-age, mixed-ability classrooms.  Cooperative learning
strategies, including peer / cross aged tutoring, were widely utilized.  Peer
tutoring was carried to the extreme with a system of instruction that came on
the scene in the 1840s, which I believe is referred to as the Lancaster

The traditional 20th century school system is based on the factory model.  The
little neighborhood K-8 schools scattered across the city of Minneapolis in
1890, for example, were replaced by elementary schools, which became larger
and fewer in number as time went on. Elementary school students were assigned
to same-age class rooms and a lockstep curriculum was introduced.  Junior
highs were invented as a mechanism to bring together students from different
neighborhoods, then sort them, and assign them to different curriculum tracks.  

Diane Ravitch does a pretty good job of describing how the public school
system was overhauled during the progressive era, 1890-1920, in her book,
"Left Back."  I did a short review of Left Back, which can be found at my web
site, <> (scroll down to the Heading "Urban
Education" and hit the link for "recommended reading")    

There was some experimentation with "ability-grouping" within same-age
elementary classrooms around 1900 onward, but it wasn't commonly practiced,
even in urban centers until the 1960s.  Resistance to ability-grouping from
parents and teachers at the elementary school level was strong because it
involved people who resided in the same neighborhoods and were more or less
part of the same social class.  The segregation of neighborhoods and
elementary schools by race and class was also a progressive era reform.

During the 1950s, ability-grouping became the preferred model for elementary
school education of the US department of education and the departments of
education in all 50 states.  Most of the states in the Deep South mandated
gifted education programs by the early 1960s.  The prospect of "race" and
class mixing in the elementary schools was the stimulus.  Ability-grouping
was the response.  


I was enrolled as a student in the South Washington County, MN school
district from 1962 to 1973, grades 1 to 10.  There was no ability-grouping /
curriculum tracking at all prior to the 9th grade.  Most kids took algebra in
the 9th grade, and geometry in grade 10.  Others took algebra in grade 10 and
geometry in grade 11.  

When I transferred to Murray High (St. Paul Public Schools) at the beginning
of spring quarter, 1973, the high school counselor asked me if I took
advanced or regular classes in math and English.  I said, "Regular, I guess."
 So he assigned me to the "regular" classes.  

By the start of Spring quarter, the "regular" geometry class had covered less
than half as much ground as the geometry class that was offered at Park High,
THE high school in South Washington County at the time.  Several weeks
passed before I raised this concern with the school administration.  At this
point I discovered that "advanced" math and English classes in St. Paul were
equivalent to the classes that everyone took in the So Washington County
school district.

Almost all of the Murray High students who took "advanced" courses resided in
North St. Anthony Park, one of St. Paul's better neighborhoods, and / or
attended the elementary school in that neighborhood.  Almost all of the
students who took "regular" courses resided in much poorer, white working
class neighborhoods outside of the SAP elementary school attendance area.  

I didn't think that there was basically much difference between students from
the wrong side of the tracks / freeway / fairgrounds who I went to school
with in St. Paul and the kids from the wrong side of the tracks / freeway who
I went to school with in South Washington County.  However, the kids from the
wrong side of the tracks / freeway in South Washington County got a much
better education.  

It is also noteworthy that the first black family moved into South Washington
County in the early 1970s.  There is a much larger black community there now.
Parents my age and somewhat younger who currently reside in South Washington
County have complained that the kids aren't the same as when we were public
school students.  "They are harder to educate, more disruptive, and so
forth."  I suspect these changes coincided with the introduction of gifted
and talented programs and ability-grouping in the elementary schools.  No
doubt, black kids are concentrated in the "low-ability" groups, and the high
schools are now offering "regular" and "advanced" math classes (just an
educated guess).  

See "Why ability-grouping widens the academic achievement gap" at the Doug
Mann for School Board site.  

-Doug Mann, King Field

Doug Mann for School Board Web site:
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