On grouping students according to ability

April 15, 2013 § 5 Comments

It was my first year teaching. I had auditioned 100 kids for the lead role in the school musical. I chose a shy girl with an amazing voice who simply had no idea just how good she was. An hour later, I was approached by a peer of hers telling me in no uncertain terms I must seriously reconsider my choice and give the role to her instead, that she was the better singer and the role was meant for her. Minutes later, the door to my room burst open again and the girl I had given the role to approached me in tears begging me to give the role to the other girl. I told her that I had chosen her because of her voice, because she fit the role perfectly, because I believed in her. She didn’t then tell me that she thought herself less able, instead she sobbed that she wasn’t one of the smart kids, it wasn’t her place to be in the limelight.

The village where I taught in Switzerland

The village where I taught in Switzerland

That year, I was teaching in Switzerland and in charge of 8 classes at an “Orientierungsschule” (orienting school – a type of middle school that acted as a feeder into the different types of further education from apprenticeships to vocational schools to college) where my classroom overlooked a series of snow-covered mountains. The classes were divided according to ability based on a test the students had sat while still in primary school. Those in the bottom tier were continually frustrated with me because, coming from a country where this kind of system is not in place, I wouldn’t accept that they couldn’t achieve as highly as my students in the top tiers. They would tell me again and again that there was no point in teaching them because they couldn’t learn and everyone knew that. “Frau Martin”, they would admonish, “you are wasting your time”.

 A recent article in The Atlantic entitled Let’s go back to grouping students by ability started me thinking about this topic again. In this article, the author, Garelick, suggests that by insisting on inclusion within our classrooms, we have potentially disadvantaged students claiming, “inclusion has resulted in an elimination of achievement”. He opines that by getting rid of the ‘tracking’ system of the 1900’s, which was largely based on IQ when not based on race and ethnicity, we can allow the curriculum to be tailored to the needs of students at any level which, he says, will get students up to speed more quickly. Garelick cites a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research on sorting students by ability which found that sorting by ability is “beneficial for both high and low performing students”. He continues by stating that, “if ability grouping manages to make a comeback, education may benefit significantly”.

 Looking at the fact that countries, which have long embraced ‘tracking’ practices are now moving towards inclusion and my own experiences with the children who are put into these tracks, I wonder how globally applicable these statements can be. I agree that the current model of inclusion in the states (and elsewhere) requires a great amount from our teachers to ensure that each child can learn supporting their individual level of ability. The current model can also be responsible for teaching towards the middle of an ability grouping, leaving some struggling and others bored; addressing those high and low performing students mentioned in the study above. However, in the same way as we are seeing a return to grouping by ability in the states, other countries, like Germany, are expressly starting to move away from this as they discuss inclusive education and shutting down special education units in favour of a single school. In the case of Germany, a country that doesn’t allow students to be kept back a year if necessary, this has the potential to create problems moving forward. Especially as this decision has been made by the relevant education ministries and not yet filtered down into all teacher training centres, not to mention in the form of further professional development that would, dare I say it, be inclusive for all teachers.

We are all aware of the fact our industrial era model of schooling, lumping children together according to year of make, is not the most intuitive solution to support learning. You would have had to be hiding under an enormous stone to miss the Ken Robinson’s declaration that we need to change the paradigms of education. However, and as most of us in education are aware, these changes are more easily preached about than implemented on a large scale.  Coming from a different angle, Gladwell, in his book Outliers’, discusses the phenomenon of success and ability as he explores the potential dangers of grouping by perceived ability. Using the example of entrance into various competitive sports teams, Gladwell emphasizes the importance of timing for success, cautioning that strength, ability and knowledge are all reliant on the time during which these have been able to develop.

So I wonder whether grouping students according to ability whilst actively ensuring we are not grouping them together according to birthdate or ‘grade’ levels raises even more questions than true solutions. I wonder:

  • What scale we would use to measure ability considering IQ tests are known to not be the most reflective test for all levels of competency, especially for plurilingual students (which the majority of students globally are)?
  • How we can facilitate the proper administration of this implementing a proper ability feeding system?
  • When should each child test? How often?
  • How do we avoid the pitfalls mentioned by Gladwell thus ensuring we are not disadvantaging certain students by the timing of the testing?
  • How do we move students through their schooling system according to the new groups without still disadvantaging certain student groups (those not falling into the high and low performing groups)?
Me singing in the interval as part of the school musical

Me singing in the interval as part of the school musical

On the opening night of the school musical, I sat back and had goosebumps as the lead girl who stood on that stage stood there with an amazing pride and a sense of self she had not had 6 months earlier. She had started questioning whether she could transition out of her class because she now wanted to go to college after all, wanted to pursue music. Yes, the kids I taught in the top tier classes were a pure joy to teach. They wanted to learn and were bright, creative, responsive and studious. However, my kids in the bottom tiers were my best achievement. I guided my top tier kids, but my bottom tier kids made me the better teacher. My favourite part of teaching was making sure that I had addressed everything in a way that would mean I was leaving no student behind. The day I finally had all of them so excited to learn from me was worth more to me than the straight A’s my top tier students were destined to receive if they applied themselves. Contrary to what they believed, I never thought I wasted a minute on my bottom tier students. How sad, though, that they were the ones admonishing me about challenging them, so convinced that, because of their ranking, their achievement was predestined, that my students had been taught that there was nothing else for them. That the system didn’t support them achieving beyond the ability they were told they had when they completed a test at age 8. Indeed, shouldn’t we be trying to get our students to challenge themselves, their abilities, rather than telling them where they belong, which mould they should fit into?


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