Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Does Ability Grouping Harm Students?

Does Ability Grouping Harm Students?

Over the past few weeks, several publications have written about a new University of Sussex study purporting to show that ability grouping in math harms students.

This is news to those of us who follow education research. One of the biggest analyses of ability grouping to date (from James Kulik of the University of Michigan, surveying 23 major studies on grouping) found that when high-ability students receive accelerated classes, they advance as much as a whole year more than students of similar age and intelligence left in regular classrooms. Kulik's analysis found that specific subject grouping also helps slower students; low-achieving fourth graders put in a very focused group gained as much as two-thirds of an academic year over control subjects.

But the University of Sussex research, done by Prof. Jo Boaler and associated grad students, claims otherwise. The team followed 700 students over five years at three high schools. The press release states boldly that grouping kids by ability harms education. You can read an article about the research here. You can also read the report directly here.

Or you can read my take on it, rather than wading through the whole thing. I am always amazed, reading educational research, at how much the concept of "equity" excites some professors. Boaler studies math, and undertook her study to show that math classes could be used to advance the cause of democracy and caring for the least among us no differently than, say, civics class. She compared group-oriented, mixed-ability classes at a school poetically referred to as "Railside" (since it was near the railroad tracks) with two more suburban schools. The suburban schools used ability grouping. Though the students at Railside entered the school behind the suburban students, at the end of their four years, 41% of seniors were in advanced calculus or pre-calculus, v. 27% at the other schools.

That seems like a pretty clear win. But reading deeper, it becomes clear that the suburban schools were employing what I call the "boring" method of teaching mathematics. Teachers would lecture for 21% of the class; students would then work alone on problems in their textbooks for about half the class. Since this is the same thing they'd do for homework, I would not be surprised if kids spent whole periods watching the clock. When problems were discussed, teachers only spent about 2 minutes on each of them. There was very little opportunity for open-ended problem-solving.

At "Railside," on the other hand, when the teachers did discuss problems, they'd spend 5.7 minutes on a problem, and Boaler describes the process as far more interactive. The kids did a lot of group work -- approx. 70% of the class. There is nothing wrong with learning in groups. Math problem solving can often benefit from a shared approach. Of course, Boaler, being so into "equity," finds this very satisfying for a different reason. Students receive group grades! And best of all, they feel "responsible" for unmotivated students in their groups, rather than feeling that they are a "burden." The political implications are clear.

But I digress. What struck me, reading this study, is how well-trained the teachers at Railside must have been to make this set-up work. Since Boaler talks about "teachers" I am assuming that multiple ones employed this same group-work strategy. That means Railside had fairly strong quality controls in its math department. Teachers settled on a strategy and were committed to its implementation. They asked open-ended questions, and explained topics in depth. They roamed between groups during the problem solving sessions, meaning they were energetic enough to stay on-task for the entire class period. The beauty of the "traditional" approach (as Boaler refers to it) is that it allows the math teacher to read a copy of US Weekly for the 48% of the time the students are doing problems alone in their workbooks.

It begs the question. Given that Kulik's meta-analysis of major educational studies found that, in general, ability grouping helps both slower and faster learners learn more, isn't it possible that the better results achieved at Railside are the result of energetic, committed teachers, rather than the lack of ability grouping? Great teachers are highly correlated with great results.

Unfortunately, they're also rare. As I've written about ability grouping before on this blog, the benefit to that approach is that it fails better. Given a choice of a mixed ability class with a great teacher, and an ability grouped class with a lousy one, I'd take the former. But that is usually not the choice. This study compares intense, analytical, teacher-directed group learning with the "boring" method of teaching math. The former also happens to be heterogeneous in this case; the latter homogeneous. But when there are two big differences between things you're comparing, it's hard to know which one causes the results.

Two other quick critiques. First, while I think the teaching is more responsible for the gains seen at Railside than the ability grouping, the general type of ability grouping employed in American schools isn't finely tuned enough to challenge bright kids anyway. Creating three reading groups in a standard neighborhood school is slightly helpful. But it's far more helpful to create a gifted magnet program that draws students from, say, five counties. Then you can actually create classes for the top .1%. It wouldn't surprise me to find that most students in the 85-115 IQ range can do OK in a math class together. But if you try to throw, say, a Nate Bottman (2007 Davidson Fellow, topic: Analytically Determining the Spectra of Solutions of the NLS) in to a group-learning, mixed ability class, you will quickly find a problem with the approach. At Railside, "If they found that one student was standing out, by, for example, being faster in their mathematical thinking, they would find aspects of the work that the student was less good at and for which they needed more practice," Boaler writes. But a child who's learned calculus on her own at night is not going to need to practice more on any aspect of algebra.

And second, I assume the University of Sussex, and Stanford, where Boaler has also taught, aren't letting just anyone in these days. Their graduate programs and professorial hires are very much grouped by ability. This research was a group project between Boaler and her grad students. But this was hardly a true "mixed ability group." If Boaler really thinks ability grouping is harmful and inequitable, she should have pulled three people off the streets and asked them to work with her instead. I'm sure the results would have been just as good, and Boaler wouldn't have had to carry any extra weight in the computations at all...


Kevin said...

Nice analysis for why this research comes to the opposite result from previous research in the field. Have you sent a letter to the editor of the journal that published the original report?

Of course, bad research that supports a prejudice gets much more
press and sticks in people's heads much longer than good research that
goes against a prejudice, so I think that this Univ. of Sussex report
will be used as evidence against ability grouping for years after it
is debunked.

Anonymous said...

The author of the study concluded that the mixed-ability group was more successful because a greater percentage of students were placed in high level classes at the end of their high school careers. Many high school students complete courses labeled college prep or honors only to be placed in remedial classes in college. I want to see a comparison based on SAT scores or other standardized tests between the different groups before I believe that one group did better than the other.

Anonymous said...

I have also serious reservations about the study report attributing the success of Railside to mixed ability grouping.

It is a basic requirement that for any study to draw clear conclusions is having only one variable between the groups. Laura has pointed out the significant difference in the quality and method of teaching between Railside and the other two schools.

I would venture to add an observation that the characterisitcs of the student population in the schools is also a significant factor - in Greendale and Hilltop, there are few if any Asian students. I don't know enough about California, but in my part of the country, Asian students have generally been very focused in academic achievement, particularly in Maths which, in comparison to other academic subjects, does not require a high proficiency in English which is often not the language spoken by the Asian students at home. I don't have the stats to find out how much the 16% Asian Railside students accounted for the extra 14% of seniors in Pre-Calculus/Calculus classes, but my local magnate school is 90%+ of Indian or Chinese descent. If this study was designed to be objective, the two other schools should have similar ethnic make-up in the student population. If Railside was chosen with prior knowledge that their seniors have always had a high percentage of enrolment in advanced classes, this study cannot be taken seriously; rather, a much ado about advancng an "equitable" educational phiolosophy.

Know what? I chuckled while reading page 13 of the report. "At the end of Year 1, ... at Railside, there were no longer significant differences between the achievement of White and Hispanic students, nor Filipino students and Hispanic and Black students. In subsequent years the only consistent difference that remained was the high performance of (East) Asian students who continued to significantly outperform Black and Hispanic students, but differences between White, Black and Hispanic students disappeared." This sounds like the Asian students maintained their high achievement DESPITE the mixed ability grouping, while the White students have become "equalised" with the Black and Hispanic students, possibly due simply to the group marking system. My follow-up question is, whether those who got equalised were the ones who have assimilated the collective responsibility and relational equity philosophies and who have spent their learning time teaching the slower students!

To me, the fundamental consideration where gifted education is concerned,is whether being held back for the sake of
"relational equity" is indeed conducive to later "success in life" for the gifted children, and therefore a worthwhile price to pay. Until that is proven, I hope the researhers will focus their energy on how to help highly/profoundly gifted individuals maximize their exceptional potentials, which more likely lie in the pursuit, application, synthesis and (hopefully) advancement of knowledge, than in human relations and social cohesion.

Having said that, I'll be all for the UK trialling this mixed ability grouping and group marking system in their sports academies.

Anonymous said...

I have not yet read the detailed report and thus respond with caution. If the claims of the critic regarding the facts of the research are accurate then the critique seems very valid and consistent with other studies that suggest that it is the poor teaching rampant in low track courses that significantly explains the achievement deficits. A good examination of this interrelation of tracking with low quality curriculum/instruction is found at
. What is unfortunate and undermines the critiques credibility is the ad hominen attack attack at the close. While perhaps emotionally satisfying it demonstrates an underlying motivation based in something other than an unprejudiced attempt to arrive at the truth of the matter.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever been ability-grouped during school?


I am an undergraduate student in my third year and developed an online questionnaire (on ability grouping) for my dissertation (approx. 10 min. to complete). I've got problems to find participants (so far only 3 fully completed it).

I know the criteria are not easily met (that's the main problem). The criteria for participants are: (1) being over 18 years (2) having been assigned to a middle/medium or low/bottom ability set/group during school (3) been on an English school.

It would be really great if you could fill out the online-questionnaire or forward this link to friends/acquaintances.

Here's the link:

Thank you SO much!!!

Kathi said...

Boalers results have been questioned thoroughly and been contested. The testing of the Railside students does not appear legitimate. I saw sample questions from the tests which were supposedly geared toward 9/10 th graders and they were at a 6-7 grade level. In addition, when the Railside students were followed in college, a significantly higher percentage of them required remedial classes as compared to the 2 other schools AND as compared to all California college students in the CSU system. I think her study is bogus.