The heterogeneous classroom has been all the rage for the last 10+ years. Mixing children of all abilities into a single class allows social and intellectual benefits, proponents say. Struggling students see those of greater ability as role models and mentors. Gifted children learn to deal with and value those whose abilities don't match theirs. Utopia in the classroom!
Bah! I say. And anyone who has been in a heterogeneous classroom would say the same. Think about it. Remember that one smart kid who always had his hand up before the teacher even finished asking the question? Was he a role model? No, he was Teacher's Pet. Was he a mentor, someone you would turn to if you needed help with homework? Maybe, if it was a group project and he was likely to do the whole thing himself. Otherwise, he was a geek/nerd/egghead, read "outcast."
What about intellectually? We got one kid waving his arm like Arnold Horshack and the teacher repeatedly calls on other kids, sometimes even telling him to "put his arm down and give the other kids a chance." Well, if the teacher says to stop paying attention to the lesson, what's a kid going to do? That's one student out of play. Most teachers in heterogeneous classrooms pitch their lessons slightly below the middle level of ability in her classroom. That means it's too difficult or fast-paced for the kids who are really struggling and too easy for at least half her students. In a classroom of 28, that's nearly 20 students tuned out. This can't be good.
So common sense (and the research) shows that heterogeneous classrooms do not accomplish these grand utopian goals we have for them. Smaller classes, critics say. Yes, smaller classes will lessen the overall numbers of kids who are disengaged. But smaller classes means more teachers and more space needed, therefore more money. Differentiation, critics say. Yes, combined with smaller classes, differentiated curriculum can help keep more students learning. But it requires more teacher-training to effectively implement differentiation, not to mention more money for more teachers and classrooms because no teacher can effectivly differentiate the curriculum for 28 individual students.
There is a less expensive option that can be implemented across the country as soon as next August: ability grouping. Ability grouping is decried as "elitest" when parents and gifted advocates talk about it, but in fact, it works for kids of all abilities. Says 8th-grade math teacher Sam Jow in the Houston Chronicle, "Struggling students are often overshadowed by their more accomplished classmates during the regular school year, he said, but in the summer they are grouped with those of similar ability.
"It's a time they can shine," he said."
Shouldn't all students have that opportunity to shine, all year round?