Tuesday, December 15, 2009

National Journal: Education Tracking Continues to Stir Debate

As long-time readers of Gifted Exchange know, "ability grouping" or, as I like to call it, "readiness grouping" is a very important part of meeting the needs of gifted students. The narrative of a gifted child being bored in a heterogeneous classroom -- and being asked to serve as an unpaid teaching assistant because of it -- is so common it's a cliche. It's incredibly difficult to teach a classroom full of kids with wildly differing abilities in a way that challenges all of them. Excellent teachers can do it, sometimes. Unfortunately, excellent teachers aren't quite as bountiful as we'd all like.

Nonetheless, ability grouping or, as opponents like to call it, "tracking," remains controversial among people who aren't trying to raise bored gifted kids stuck in heterogeneous classrooms, and so people continue to study the practice. National Journal recently highlighted a new study from Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution claiming that schools with more ability grouping showed better results than those with less ability grouping.

Some folks agreed with him, and some didn't, but I was particularly interested in a quote by Kevin Welner, a professor of education at the University of Colorado. Per the article, "The research on tracking is as clear as anything in the field of education," Welner said. "It is a destructive practice that has the undeniable effect of lowering expectations and opportunities for students who have already fallen behind." In Welner's estimation, National Journal reports, the body of research documenting the harmful effects of tracking speaks for itself, the debate is over and it's time to move forward.

Since Welner is so against ability grouping, I assumed that his classes at the University of Colorado must be open to all comers of all abilities. But it turns out that the University of Colorado at Boulder's School of Education is very proud of how "ability grouped" it is, in the sense of being very selective to get in. As this profile page notes, GRE scores for doctoral candidates in the School of Education ranked 6th out of 190 schools around the country. I think one needs to take with a grain of salt the idea that young people should be subjected to completely heterogeneous classes when it comes from people who have put themselves in professional environments where everyone has done well on standardized tests.


Paula said...

Excellent point!

Anonymous said...

Why is it seen as subversive that children be grouped according to ability? You see it in children's sports teams all the time. Is it that schools depend on the unpaid labor of gifted "junior teachers" in the classroom? Why would any professional educator think it's the best use of a gifted child's education to be an unpaid teacher to the rest of the class?

pulnimar said...

How easy is it to group by ability as opposed to what normally seems to happen - grouping by achievement?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

If only grouping by achievement were common! What is common is grouping by age.

Grouping by ability is difficult, as ability is difficult to measure. It is also rather irrelevant, as most instruction requires some prerequisite material as well as ability to understand the new material.

What we want is grouping by level and pace, but there are often very few who benefit from a fast pace, so we settle for grouping by level, with frequent changes of level for those moving at a different pace.