About a month ago Charlie Boss wrote an article in The Columbus Dispatch: Students benefiting from new measures, which talked about a school using “flexible ability grouping” successfully. The school uses data from standardized testing to try to match up students and teachers.
The ability grouping idea is an old one: it is as lot easier to teach a group of kids if they are all at about the same level and need to learn roughly the same things. This was the original impetus for having kids in separate grades, rather than mixing 3rd graders and high schoolers in the same classroom. Over the years, it became popular to group kids first by age (a rough predictor of academic level) and then by ability level (a method called “tracking”).
In the 1970s, it was noticed that the grouping by “ability” often relied on very subjective or distorted estimates of ability and resulted in fairly severe discrimination by race and social class. This resulted in a “detracking” movement that grouped kids purely by age, independent of ability. In recent years, this movement has dominated educational policy, resulting in “mainstreaming”, where even kids with severe emotional and cognitive disabilities were thrown into the mix.
Teachers have been expected to “differentiate” instruction across an ever wider span of ability and prior achievement. An 8th grade teacher might have in the same classroom kids ready for college-level work and those who can barely read at a 1st or 2nd grade level.
Some educational policy makers are trying to eliminate the impossible demands on the teachers by clustering the kids so that the kids in a class have more closely matched instructional needs. They need to do this without bringing back the racial and cultural prejudices that killed off tracking.
The solution is fairly simple and fairly obvious, nicely summarized in one sentence:
Hannah Ashton also allows students to move up or down through the groups, depending on their needs and abilities.
The problem with tracking was that kids were classified once (often wrongly) and then kept in the same “track” forever. Ability grouping (or, as I prefer to view it placement by achievement) results in kids moving from group to group as they progress. Some kids will race through the material, changing groups often, while others will take longer to master the material.
Each subject should have independent grouping, so that a kid who struggles with math while racing through literature does not have to be held back in the English classes, and vice versa.
The Hannah Ashton school does one other thing—trying to match the teachers to the students. Some teachers excel at teaching the slower learners, having the enormous patience and multiple teaching approaches needed to get through to them, but would flounder when faced with a class full of very bright kids who perpetually challenge the teacher’s authority and knowledge. Similarly a teacher with the deep content knowledge and quick wits needed for the very fast students might lack the patience and pedagogic techniques needed for the slower ones.
It isn’t a matter of assigning the “best” teachers to the slowest students or the fastest students, but of trying to match the strengths of the teachers to the needs of the students. There is no global “best”—the best teacher for my son may be the worst one for yours.
Of course, I have no idea how good a job of matching teachers to classes the school administration does, but I’m impressed that they are trying it at all. Even if they don’t get the matching quite right, the simple act of clustering kids into groups with roughly the same needs should make the teaching much more effective for all the students.