Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Segregation, Ability Grouping and the Challenges of Fairness

Yesterday, Bill Garfinkel, in response to my post on a new segregation study and my reference to ability grouping raised the question  of whether we hurt our strongest students and society overall by not offering some form of ability group that offers them the most challenging work they can do. And if so, how do can we deal with this issue in a way that is fair to all?  His question is sufficiently important and complicated that it warrants a full explanation.

At the highest level of abstraction, ability grouping is not per se bad or good.  It comes in many different forms, good and bad.  Thus, the issue may be more one of implementation and form than ability grouping versus non-ability grouping.  As to form, ability group can start at various different stages in school.  Some elementary schools begin informally grouping students within classrooms and labeling them as rabbits, turtles, etc. as early as kindergarten.  Grouping students, even if only within classrooms, is problematic at this very early stages, for reasons further suggested below.  

The most explicit ability grouping, however, can happen in middle school, where there are explicitly three or more different ability groups.  Each ability groups take classes in their own silos so to speak for the entire day, save maybe physical education, music, etc.  This rigid form of grouping would be based on a student's score in one particular subject.  A student who did well in math, for instance, would be in the high ability group regardless of how he scored in other subjects. The obvious problem here is for the student who is good at everything but math and who is placed in a lower level group.  The other version would be ability grouping students in each subject.  This is more pedagogically defensible, and it inherently involves some mixing among students.  Thus, it does not necessary stigmatize or label students as just a high or low ability student.  Too many middle schools fail to follow this nuanced route.  

When students are ability grouped based on a single subject, it can also promote self-fulling prophecies good and bad in other subjects in middle school and later in high school.  The differential exposure to curriculum in middle school will perpetuate itself.  For instance, high schools do let students "select courses" and, thus, individual students are not per se grouped, but as a practical matter, the students in high ability groups in middle school are the only ones who can access high level curriculum in high school.  Thus, the group a student was placed into in 6th grade based upon math can determine their entire academic future.

Age groups are also a form of ability grouping, albeit less obvious or troublesome.  Due to natural variation and the fact that students in a single grade span 12 months in age, there is a lot of difference among young students.  Reading most obviously emerges very differently among students, regardless of their age.  And the pace at which it emerges is not really an ability issue, but a function of emotion, maturity, and experience.  Nonetheless, grouping students by age makes a good deal of sense.  After all, we have to put them into separate classrooms somehow and a student's age does roughly correlate with certain skills, particularly in the earliest grades, even if it is not a hard and fast rule.

Montessori schools, however, throw a huge counterexample into the foregoing assumptions.  They put pre-k and kindergartern students in a classroom together.  First grade through third grade together, and fourth grade through sixth together.  The first working assumption is that all students are individuals and different.  None really fit into a reasonable group, so why try?  The key is to focus on each individual's ability.  The second working assumption is that younger students can learn from, model after, and be motivated by older students, who on average are probably ahead of they younger students.  In other words, it is really good for students, who are on average weaker, to be surrounded by stronger students.  Likewise, the older students may be motivated by having this senior role.  The third working assumption is that, in this context, it is easy to progress the higher achiever to higher work and to allow lower achievers to work at their own pace without being stigmatized by low ability level.  Based on what I have read and directly experienced as a parent, Montessori's premises are correct.

All of the foregoing is simply to say that ability grouping or the complete inverse of ability grouping can work.  The problem arises in those schools that deal with racial or socioeconomic tensions by adopting a rigid form of ability grouping.  It may be stated as a facially neutral policy, but it may really be an indirect means of achieving other goals.  Moreover, even if they think they are ability grouping students, data reveals this is not necessarily the case.  A good deal of bias gets cooked into the judgment of whether a sixth grade middle school student is high ability and thus should be entirely separated from others.

Bill's excellent question, I think, really raises an issue that is not about ability grouping but about access to high quality curriculum that challenges high achieving students.  I agree with him that these students must be challenged, both for their own good, and that of society.  Challenging curriculum can be delivered within or outside of ability grouping.  I stress the word "can," however, because the truth is that in schools that ability group it is rarely offered outside of the high ability group.  And therein lies the problem, ability grouping breads inferior and superior curriculum--and equally important, differential access to high quality teachers.  If all students were challenged and given high quality curriculum, ability grouping might not be that problematic (although there are still potentially lingering stigma issues).  Yet, if all students were challenged and given quality curriculum, I suspect we would see fewer calls for ability grouping and might also see more recognition of the types of benefits that Montessori type education might offer to older students.  Consistent with that, some school districts with strong Montessori elementary schools are pushing to offer more Montessori middle schools.

This post could go on much further, but it will stop with a short direct reiteration of my response to Bill's questions.  Yes, we hurt high achieving students by not challenging them with high quality curriculum.  And yes, we can be fair to all without depriving high achieving students of access to those opportunities.  Ability grouping is not per se the answer or roadblock to achieving either of those goals.  The roadblock is society's unwillingness to provide those some quality opportunities to other students--or a belief that other students would not benefit from those opportunities.

Equity in education, Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink


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