The return of reading (and math) groups

In the late 1950s, we read Dick, Jane and Sally in our reading groups, the Robins, Bluebirds and Cardinals. My group — the Robins? — got to move on to the more sophisticated Robert and Susan before the end of first grade. Read, Robins! Read, read, read!

Grouping students by ability and performance — once the norm, then verboten — is now back in style, reports the New York Times

Education professors and civil rights advocates attacked tracking in the 1980s and 1990s, arguing that low-income, non-white students often ended up in low-level, low-expectations classes. “The kids who are thought of as the least able end up with the fewest opportunities and resources and positive learning environments,” wrote Jeannie Oakes in Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality.

Education schools told teachers to group students of different abilities together, so the “fast” kids could teach the “slow” kids. Teachers tried to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction for children of very different achievement levels, English fluency and ability (or disability). That proved to be very difficult.

At Public School 156 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which enrolls mostly African-American and Hispanic children, many living in homeless shelters, Cathy Vail randomly sorts her fifth graders at the beginning of the year using lettered sticks. After six weeks of testing and observing them, she shifts them into “teams” of seven or eight.

Children may be assigned to different groups for reading and math, and can switch groups if they have shown progress, struggle to get along with other students in a group or need extra help with a particular lesson.

. . . Working on each week’s set of new vocabulary words, all four groups draw illustrations and write captions using the assigned words, but she encourages team C, her highest-achieving group, to write more complex sentences, perhaps using two new vocabulary words in the same sentence. She also asks children in team C to peer-teach students in the other groups.

“At the end of the day, they’re learning the same words, but just with different levels of complexity and nuance,” she said.

At a New Hampshire schools, teachers have used reading groups for at least a decade and now are creating math groups. Teachers call it “dynamic grouping” to emphasize that students can move to a higher group as they improve.

We had math groups in fourth grade. I built two kinds of fire clock, using a candle and rope, one boy built a sun dial and another created a water clock. We whizzed through fourth-grade math, skipped fifth grade and learned sixth-grade math, which we had to do again in sixth grade.

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  1. Patti W. says:

    Another method of grouping, which I find forces you to be fluid about it, is skill grouping. Students who struggle with fluency aren’t always the same ones who struggle with background knowledge or spelling. You group kids based on what they know about the particular skills that are under focus at that moment.

    You’d think that math groupings would be much more stable, but I find that depending on the topic being covered different kids come to me already knowing different things depending on what previous teachers taught them. It’s amazing how one kid can come to me knowing how to graph but not multiply decimals and vice versa. While there are a few kids who always catch on quickly, my enrichment groups seem to change quite a bit with every topic.

    Anyway, grouping by skill rather than general ability means you do have to do frequent formative assessment but it also means that you can avoid unintentional, permanent tracking.

  2. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, except for the peer tutoring. By that, I mean the expectation or demand that the more advanced kids teach the less advanced ones; it builds resentment and frustration on both sides and tags some kids with the socially-fatal tag of “teacher’s pets”. Kids who instinctively “get it” are very likely unable to explain the “how” and it’s not their responsibility; it is the teacher’s responsibility. The most advanced kids should be given more-advanced work. Anything else is a waste of their time.

    • If the more-advanced students are expected to teach, shouldn’t they (or their parents) receive compensation the way grad-student TAs do?  Say, a rebate of their school taxes?

  3. Florida resident says:

    Steve Sailer reacted on June 9
    to the NYT article of June 9:
    “Education fads: What goes around comes around”,
    From there:
    … Thus, there isn’t much institutional memory in education. All the incentives are set up to flatter the latest messiah that everybody who came before him was an idiot.
    Not surprisingly, with no incentives for remembering anything, there is a lot of hamster wheel churn in education policies. For example, tracking frequently gets denounced as racist, but then after a few years of not tracking, teachers and schools start it up again because it’s clearly less stupid than the alternatives.

    But, will anybody learn anything permanent from the latest failure of anti-tracking? How long until the next cycle in which civil rights lawyers make a killing suing school districts for disparate impact in tracking? Currently, the […] Administration is persecuting school districts for disparate impact in suspensions, so it’s only a matter of time.
    With fascination of persistent work of Ms. Jacobs,
    your F.r.