Thursday, June 28, 2007

Elitism and the Struggling Student

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?


Zany Mom said...

I've been out of school for nearly 30 years and back then (in those olden days, LOL) they grouped us by ability. A group = college prep, B group = community college/business prep, C group = vo-ag, trades, D group = basic education.

Nobody cried elitist. Though being a member of the A group I found it too constricting and I was forbidden from taking classes that interested me because they were deemed 'beneath' me.

School memories. ICK!

The Princess Mom said...

I was ability grouped in high school also. The groups were honors, academic and general. It ended up like the "smaller schools" programs the Gates Foundation is pushing--I had classes mostly with the same people; I knew the teachers and they knew me, even in a graduating class of 500.

The cries of elitism come when the tracking is too narrow, like yours was. Students are assigned a group and cannot deviate from it. The way I'd like to see ability grouping is exactly by ability. If a student is above grade level in a certain subject, they should be able to take advanced classes in that subject, just like a honors English student could choose to take academic or even general math (BTDT).

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that they used to pitch below the middle level of ability in a classroom - now since NCLB it is more to the bottom third although I can't find my references right now. The explicit *goal* is to have more of the struggling students get it which sounds worthy, if it were not linked to leaving alone those that already know the material or who those who can get it on their own.

The Princess Mom said...

This is true. The one hope is districts who are moving to ability-based testing, so instead of comparing this year's fourth graders to last year's fourth graders, each child progress is measured individually. This gives a better picture of how individual classroom teachers are doing, as well as how the students are doing.

This kind of testing also helps gifted kids. A recent article in the NYT discussed how the additional data from ability-based testing showed one upstate NY district that while their struggling students were doing very well, their most able students were falling behind. This resulted in more funds being allocated to gifted education in their district. Hurrah!

The Homeschool Hip-Hop Mom said...

Hi Princess Mom. I'm really enjoying your blog and this one, in particular resonated with me. One thing that is not being mentioned, and I think not always understood, is that ability grouping is often called elitist because the groups run the risk of being de facto socio-economic divisions. When I was in high school, we had 4 "tracks" as they were called then - honors, college prep, general, vocational. I was in the honors track although many of my friends weren't and I could see the socio-economic divisions on a daily basis just by walking out of my classes and into my social circle. The funny thing is that I knew people who had the ability, but didn't take honors classes because it was a lonely place if you came from my side of town. Then there were others who had parental support and prodding into the honors track, while some didn't because they were to be first-generation college-going students and the parents lacked information and know-how. And let's not forget that in the inner-city, the poor have the least amount of resources outside of the classroom. I think deep down everyone wants to feel like they are getting the best education. If you're in the lowest ability class along with others who coincidentally have the lowest amount of resources, it will seem as though the kids in the higher ability classes are getting a better education in the school. These types of phenomena translate into people viewing ability grouping as a bad thing and then sometimes it actually is a bad thing, and that doesn't help. The bottom line is that ability tracking in theory is a great idea, but when carried out in our imperfect society, it can become another division amongst the classes, no pun intended. Thanks for blogging...keep it up. from The Homeschool Hip-Hop Mom

The Princess Mom said...

Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Homeschool Hp-Hop Mom! This was my experience in school, too. My high school was more than 1/3 students of color, but the honors classes in my year had maybe one or two black students. I believe this is where the teachers and school counselors need to intervene. A child who is clearly able to do the work should be encouraged within the school to transfer to a more academically challenging class. This happened to me with my geometry class. The teacher caught me on the way out of the classroom and said, "You really should be in Honors Geometry." I said something like, "I know but I don't want to work that hard!" (Smart mouth 15yo? Moi?) Now, as a parent, I wish he would have followed up with my mother and pushed the issue. Parental lack of experience with college-track classes can and should be compensated for by the schools.