Over at Education Next, Michael Petrilli has an interesting article called All Together Now, which looks at the practices of tracking, ability grouping, and in-class differentiation. He starts off with this controversial, but I think correct thesis: "The greatest challenge facing America’s schools today isn’t the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or “teacher quality.” It’s the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom."
As many readers of this blog know, a given third grade classroom can feature children who are still figuring out how to read and those zooming through novels normally assigned in high school. Schools will do some "readiness grouping" (as we like to call it here) for math. There may be differentiated reading groups. But in many cases, elementary school teachers are expected to deal with incredible ranges of academic preparation.
Very good teachers and principals can make it work. Petrilli highlights Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, which serves an incredibly diverse group of both middle class families and new immigrants. Piney Branch does some grouping for reading, with the "best practices" approach of moving kids quickly between reading groups based on constant evaluation. Math also features ability grouping, but most of the rest of the subjects do not. Within the first few years of the new principal arriving, the percentage of African American 5th graders passing the state reading test rose from 55 to 91 percent. "And there’s no evidence that white students have done any worse over this time," Petrilli writes. "In fact, they are performing better than ever. Before Mr. G. arrived, 33 percent of white 5th graders reached the advanced level on the state math test; in 2009, twice as many did. In fact, Piney Branch white students outscore the white kids at virtually every other Montgomery County school."
But, as any education reformer knows, replicating a Mr. G is a difficult task. As Petrilli points out, one recent Fordham Institute survey found that 8 in 10 teachers say that differentiation is "very" or "somewhat" difficult. Great teachers can handle difficult tasks. Less great teachers cannot. And so what often happens in classes is that the differentiation doesn't happen, or happens in the sense of the teacher letting the advanced kid read a book when she finishes her assignment early. While this is a great way to work through novels, it's not quite why we force children to go to school.
The reason I support extensive readiness grouping is that it works best for kids of different levels in the education system we have, not the education system we hope to have. A childhood can't be repeated, and squandering a bright mind in the name of future utopia is not justice. Petrilli's piece broadly seems to agree with this point, and is the most thorough discussion of it I've seen in a while. It is definitely worth a read.