I have always believed that ability-based grouping is beneficial, but I never thought that failing to do so could be tremendously detrimental for students. As readers of this blog know, I have been helping my daughter's second grade by teaching math once a week to a small group of gifted kids. A few weeks ago, the homeroom teacher and I decided to try the supplementary material with the entire class. It is our opinion that the experiment was a complete failure despite every effort to choose problems carefully. I believe the reasons are the same reason that cause large, mixed ability classrooms to fail the majority of students.
The normal bell curve, or some variation thereof, has a funny way of manifesting itself despite loud proclamations by skeptics that ability-based grouping hurts education in general. My observations so far this year in my daughter's classroom have matched academic theory so closely as to be shocking! There are a few very smart kids, a few disengaged due to boredom, many of average ability, and a few clearly requiring special attention. Math is best learned by doing it. Hence, I always design my lessons as sets of carefully chosen problems. The idea behind my approach is to explain a few key concepts at the beginning of each lesson and then let the students learn the material by discovering the math while working through the problems. Unfortunately, this approach -- which is optimal for teaching mathematics -- fails miserably in a mixed-ability setting because the distribution of skill sets quickly interferes with everybody's learning process. The failure arises because learning speed and comprehension varies widely. Some kids cruise through the materials, while others work on it at the expected pace. Finally, a few struggle to the point where it becomes clear they do not even understand one-digit addition. My method calls for students to work independently, raising their hands when they get stuck. Unfortunately, many get stuck simultaneously in completely different places of the problem set. This puts such high, simultaneous demand on the teacher's attention, that no kid really benefits much from the session. Is my teaching method to blame, or is the organization of the classroom the real problem? I believe the latter is.
Today, my daughter's home room teacher and I decided to cluster kids according to ability starting in January. We will split the 24 students into three groups: one requiring additional help, one capable of average achievement, and one whose members are "gifted" learners. I write "gifted" in quotation marks, but my daughter is the only one in the class who has been for IQ or subject-specific aptitude. All we know is that the "gifted" group seems to learn faster, finish problems earlier, and work farther into the problems than the rest of the class. The key observation here is that we are grouping after assessing the kids. We did spend a ton of money getting everyone tested. I will report back in a few months on how this new experiment turns out. I am optimistic because things worked out very well earlier this trimester when I only taught the "gifted" group. Hence, I expect few problems when we come back from the holidays because I also have experience and have been successful with other levels of achievement.
One thing bothers me more than anything else. Why don't public schools group based on ability? There is no incremental cost over a mixed-ability setting. Take my daughter's school as a example. There are six second grade classrooms. This means that each could hold 16.7% of the second grade student body. Why is it so hard to dedicate 1 classroom for students with 130+ IQ and one for pupils requiring additional attention? Wouldn't these two populations perform better in classrooms designed to meet their intellectual needs. Bear in mind that this is a problem affecting not only gifted children but also those with modest intellect. I am not advocating a room for highly gifted kids (i.e. 145+). I am merely asking that we group together students of similar intellectual capabilities. Why is it so hard to realize that kids requiring additional help should be taught using appropriate methods and curriculum? The same goes for gifted kids. One argument against my idea is that it costs a lot of money to test for aptitude or IQ. Recall what I wrote above? We are grouping according to ability in my daughter's class without spending a small fortune on testing. The problem with the cost argument is that students are much better behaved and require less supervision then they are properly matched to the curriculum and the teaching methods (i.e. larger classrooms) and they are properly challenged. Hence, re-organizing schools around ability-based grouping could save money. In fact, small schools could be merged into larger campuses with five or six classrooms per grade, eliminating redundancies and providing a population big enough to exhibit clear distribution of abilities along a significant portion of the spectrum. It makes little sense -- other than political -- to ignore mountains of sound academic research as well as the clear evidence in our children's own classrooms.