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Erickson on Ability-grouping / curriculum tracking
Subj: J Erickson on Ability grouping / curriculum tracking
Date: 6/19/2002 12:46:06 AM Central Daylight Time
I am disappointed by Joseph Erickson's comment about ability grouping.
Forgive my crude translation of JE's comment from professorese to plain English:
JE approves of 'ability grouping' on educational grounds if the groupings are based
on observable differences in mastery of a particular subject.
Now, you might wonder why JE says ability grouping may be useful in math
and not in the physical sciences, reading, writing, social studies and so forth.
I think it is safe to say that it is generally best to learn certain concepts and
skills in a certain order. For example a certain level of mastery in adding is
desirable before a student concentrates on learning how to multiply numbers.
A student should be able to recognize at least a small set of letters before
concentrating on how to sound out words. And it is best for a student to learn
something about atomic theory and chemical reactions before studying cell
structure. If ability-grouping is useful in math, it should also be useful in other
However, it doesn't necessarily follow that 15 students and a teacher will be more productively engaged in learning activities if divided into 2 or more curriculum tracks. Students in millions of classrooms around the world move on together from one skill or concept to another on a common curriculum track despite big differences in mastery levels and without holding back the more advanced learners or losing the least advanced students. That's because the teacher and students in a one-track classroom can use their time more effectively than if divided into ability-groups. That's why nearly the entire population of students at some schools and school districts in the Twin Cities area can be on the same college-bound academic track as the small minority of kids who are assigned to the gifted and talented programs in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis School Board Candidate
Joseph Erickson writes,
In general, I am against ability groupings merely on equity grounds. It
creates haves and have-nots and will stigmatize children, even at early
ages. That being said, there are specific situations in which grouping of a
sort may be useful. For example, research suggests that grouping students by
mastery level assists students in making smooth progress through various
levels of math work by focusing instruction on work that will be
productively engaging for learners at various levels of complexity. Of all
the basic subjects, math might be the only area in which grouping of one
sort or another may be justified.
"There may be other specific situations in which ability grouping is
justified, but the justification should be empirically based, not merely for
efficiency or out of habit."