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.

The case for ability grouping

Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students By Ability writes Barry Garelick in The Atlantic. The drive for equity in the ’60s and ’70s eliminated tracking. Most K-8 schools now ask teachers to teach students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom, using “differentiated instruction,” writes Garelick, who’s starting a second career as a math teacher. In high schools, what used to be “college prep” is now called “honors.” Courses labeled “college prep” are aimed at low achievers.

Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are “student-centered” — even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis.

Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.

Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.

A recent analysis of Dallas students found sorting by previous performance “significantly improves students’ math and reading scores” and helps “both high and low performing students,” including gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools are reviving ability grouping and tracking, according to Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

He suggests a few possible reasons for the reversal: The emphasis on accountability, started by No Child Left Behind, may have motivated teachers to group struggling students together. The rise of computer-aided learning might make it easier for them to instruct students who learn at different rates.

Differentiating instruction for students of widely varying abilities — not to mention motivation and English fluency — is exceptionally challenging.  The “2008 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher reports that many teachers simply find mixed-ability classes difficult to teach,” notes Garelick.

Teacher, differentiate thyself

Barry Garelick thought this animation was satire. It’s not. It was made as an ed school project.

This one from TeachBad is satire.

What matters is what we call it

There’s a really great article on differentiated instruction that came out in the Washington Post yesterday.  It’s great in the sense that it tells the truth, even if it doesn’t really mean to.  The reporter pretty clearly approves of differentiated instruction; the article has exactly two sentences out of three pages that are critical of the practice.  The rest is a very informative puff piece.

My favourite part is a short but vivid description of a teacher who breaks her class apart for math instruction:

The first group to approach her half-moon table sat down with small whiteboards and markers. The five students drew pictures to help them think through the subtraction problem in front of them. Using squares, lines and dots to represent hundreds, tens and ones, they solved the problem by crossing out the symbols that corresponded to the number.

Rather than teaching formulas, the curriculum emphasizes lessons on place value and number sense so students can learn why formulas work. Students often use blocks, number lines and charts to solve problems and talk through the answers.

The second group, a little more advanced, practiced a different strategy. They broke each number into hundreds, tens and ones and solved it in three steps.

The third group moved on to practicing multiplication tables. Carter also squeezed in a short lesson from the third-grade curriculum on how to round numbers up or down.

I can’t help feeling that what’s going on is just a less efficient, less effective form of tracking.  Bottom line: it’s still separate classes — they’re just in the same room with the same teacher.  Galway Elementary, where this is taking place, has seven second grade teachers.  So instead of having seven different teachers each teaching a separate math class (imagine seven different levels of differentiated instruction!) and giving those tightly defined groups their full attention, what we apparently have is seven different teachers each teaching just three separate math classes, with each class necessarily getting one third of a teacher’s attention.

In what universe is the latter considered the superior option?

The real issue here (of course) is race, which does indeed get passing mention:

The shift in math instruction in Maryland’s largest school system is the latest example of a move toward more mixed-ability classes that is mirrored in Fairfax and Arlington counties and across the country, with greater inclusion of special education students, more open enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and the elimination of some honors-level courses.

It’s all part of an effort to lift the performance of all students and overturn a legacy of sorting children into perceived ability tracks that often divided along racial lines.

That last sentence is a masterpiece of misleading rhetoric — both halves of it.  Sure, it’s an effort to “lift the performance of all students”, but from where to where are we “lifting” performance?  One might think that student performance will improve without schooling at all, as their brain matures.  It may not improve very much, but it will improve.  So what, exactly, is the goal here?  It doesn’t seem to be maximizing every student’s performance, because if it were you’d split the classes up so that every teacher was giving a group of students their full, undivided attention working through math that falls directly in their ZPD (or which is appropriate to their ability, if you disdain technical jargon).

Maybe what we want is to lift everyone to some level of parity… but as nice as that might sound to some people, it’s simply not going to happen; the variety of human capability is simply too great.  I ask again, to where shall we “lift the performance of all students”?  There’s no real answer, of course, because it’s not a real goal: it’s a political slogan.

It’s also impressive how the reporter sneaked the word “perceived” into there, qualifying the terrible legacy of tracking, as if to imply that in that vague, mistaken past of ours, we were filled with folly and illusion to think that some kids were smarter than others.  Yet I wonder if Michael Alison Chandler (the reporter) thinks that Elise Carter — the heroine of his story — is breaking her class up, if she is “differentiating”,  based on “perceived” mathematical skill, or whether she’s actually latching on to real distinctions between her students.  Bets, anyone?

Of course the teacher is recognizing real ability differences.  No one (except perhaps the most extreme sort of communist conformists) really cares if we track students by ability, at least within subjects.  After all, even the people who seem to be against it seem to be for it, as the article demonstrates; and it’s intuitively the best way to teach a subject.

But people care tremendously what we call it, and what it looks like from a distance.

UPDATE: Rachel Levy says in the comments that my comments above might be unduly harsh.  Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been to harsh, and if Rachel says you’re being inappropriately judgmental, it’s probably a good idea to stop and ask yourself if that’s so.  So I did.  And upon reflection, the only thing I’d backtrack on is the attribution of deliberate intent to mislead from my critique of that the very unfortunate sentence I singled out.  It could very well just be a recitation of other parties’ stated motivations, related from their own point of view.  (Which doesn’t stop it from being misleading, mind you, but does put the author in a better light.)  I think the article is a fine piece.  It’s well-written, well-researched, and informative.  It still seems to me, though, that it’s written with a strong underlying opinion, one that is wrong-headed.  Now, I could be misreading the article, and to a certain extent reporters are probably inclined to write nice things about schools that give them access to the classroom.  It’s thus also conceivable that the approval implicit in the article is not genuinely the reporter’s own, but an artifact of the craft.  But that doesn’t make it any less biased.

Beyond tracking

To eliminate bad tracking — dumping some kids in dead-end classes — reformers have eliminated honors classes and dumped “all agemates in the same class” regardless of their preparedness, writes Mike Petrilli on Education Gadfly. He hopes to get beyond tracking by customizing instruction.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a cognitive scientist—to know that kids (and adults) learn best when presented with material that is challenging—neither too easy so as to be boring nor too hard as to be overwhelming. Like Goldilocks, we want it just right. Grouping kids so that instruction can be more closely targeted to their current ability levels helps make teaching and learning more efficient.

Online-learning technologies and more targeted assessments should enable schools to “pinpoint exactly what students know and serve up instruction that meets them there,” Petrilli writes.

At School of One, a middle school math program in New York City, students are placed in specific learning modules based on their performance the previous day, and on a sophisticated algorithm. Some kids are sent to small-group instruction with similarly-abled peers; others head to one-on-one online tutoring; others work independently on a computer; others get more traditional classroom instruction. It’s all customized to match the students’ needs and abilities. (Read more about School of One and other models of individualized instruction in this excellent Education Next article.)

Teachers are struggling to “differentiate instruction” to meet the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, performance levels and English fluency. Half the teachers in high-need schools say they’re not able to do it well, according to the MetLife survey. I think this is a major cause of teacher burn-out.

Teachers struggle to aid ‘diverse learners’

Ninety-one percent of public school teachers say schools need to do more to prepare “diverse” learners for success after high school, according to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher.  A majority said this should be one of schools’ highest priorities, notes Ed Week.

Fifty-seven percent of parents agreed, but only 31 percent of business executives surveyed said teaching diverse learners was a priority.

Asked in the current survey to identify specific resources or initiatives that would have a “major impact” on their abilities to address students’ varied learning needs, the teachers most consistently pointed to opportunities for collaborative instruction (65 percent); access to interactive, personalized learning programs (64 percent); better tools for understanding students learning strengths and needs (63 percent); and instructional strategies for working with English-language learners (62 percent).

In the 2008 survey, almost half of teachers said the “learning abilities of their students were so varied that they didn’t feel they could teach them effectively.”

In the new survey, 61 percent of the teachers said they can differentiate instruction to address their students’ diverse learning abilities. But only 46 percent of math teachers and 50 percent of teachers in schools that send few graduates to college said they were able to differentiate effectively.

Successful students say their teachers do a good job of meeting students’ different needs and abilities. But those with the greatest needs are the least satisfied.

Students who have considered dropping out of school or who do not expect to go beyond high school, however, tended to give their instructors much lower grades in this area.

. . . The survey found that, among students with diverse learning needs, low income students and students who had been told by a teacher or other adult that they have a learning problem or disabilities were the least likely say their needs are being well-served by their schools.

Teachers, parents and business leaders agree that all students should be prepared for college, according to part one of the survey. However, college readiness is a higher priority for parents than for teachers and executives.

Fads trump effective teaching

Differentiated Instruction — grouping students by abilities, personal interests and “learning styles” — is a time-wasting fad that is backed by no evidence of effectiveness, writes education consultant Mike Schmoker in Ed Week.

. . .  I saw frustrated teachers trying to provide materials that matched each student’s or group’s presumed ability level, interest, preferred “modality” and learning style. The attempt often devolved into a frantically assembled collection of worksheets, coloring exercises, and specious “kinesthetic” activities. And it dumbed down instruction: In English, “creative” students made things or drew pictures; “analytical” students got to read and write.

In these ways, Differentiated Instruction, or DI, corrupted both curriculum and effective instruction. With so many groups to teach, instructors found it almost impossible to provide sustained, properly executed lessons for every child or group-and in a single class period. It profoundly impeded the teacher’s ability to incorporate those protean, decades-old elements of a good lesson which have a titanic impact on learning, even in mixed-ability classrooms . . .

No research supports DI’s effectiveness, Schmoker writes. Cognitive scientists have debunked the “learning styles” theory that underlies DI. But it is now the reigning orthodoxy.

We know a lot about how to teach well, he argues.

First, we need coherent, content-rich guaranteed curriculum — that is, a curriculum which ensures that the actual intellectual skills and subject matter of a course don’t depend on which teacher a student happens to get.

. . . we need to ensure that students read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes, for hundreds of hours per school year, across the curriculum.

Finally, students learn when “lessons start with a clear, curriculum-based objective and assessment, followed by multiple cycles of instruction, guided practice, checks for understanding (the soul of a good lesson), and ongoing adjustments to instruction.”

In the comments, teachers argue that Schmoker’s definition of effective teaching is differentiated instruction. If so, there’s nothing “differentiated” about DI.

Willingham on learning styles

Check out Dan Willingham’s article on learning styles in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet.”

Have you been told that you should teach to children’s individual learning styles? Well, research has not supported that theory.

The data are straightforward too: It doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work–not only for the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory, but for many other learning styles theories that have been proposed and tested since the 1940s.

Researchers have been conducting experiments on learning styles for 50 years. They’ve been tested with the sorts of materials that kids encounter in schools. They’ve been tested with kids diagnosed with a learning disability.

There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence that kids learn in fundamentally different ways.

Willingham goes on to explain that children do learn differently, but those differences cannot be simply attributed to learning styles. They may have to do with a child’s “knowledge, interest, or other factors.”

Differentiating for learning styles “makes a teacher’s job much more difficult with no benefit to students,” he writes. “Yet teachers are still asked to do it.”

Let’s hope school districts start coming to their senses on this matter. It is silly, distracting, and taxing to differentiate instruction in so many ways at once–especially when it doesn’t work.