Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ability Grouping: Proceed with TLC

In 2010, I presented my final portfolio for my Master's in Differentiated Instruction. During this presentation to colleagues and administrators, I spoke to successes I had with using like-ability grouping. I remember a colleague commented that she was surprised to see like-ability grouping could work as it was deemed a big "no no".

Low and behold, two years later, along comes this article from +The Huffington Post this week, Student Tracking Gets Another Look After a Decade of Criticism by Phillip Elliott and I am jumping up and down with joy that educators are reconsidering the use of ability grouping.

I am a tinge disappointed that ability grouping is being referenced as tracking. Tracking indicates that this is something teachers do to students regardless of student choice.  Ability grouping is a collaborative process that requires a tremendous amount of TLC. If done correctly, students will be able to grow from their own levels of readiness.  If done incorrectly, students will be humiliated and believe they are limited in what they can learn.  I speak from experience as I have had both successes and failures regarding ability grouping.  

Seven years ago, I was at my wits end with reaching students in my class.  I had the highest fail rate ever that year and I was on a PIP (Professional Improvement Plan).  The pressure was on and with very little tools in my tool box, I did what one should never do, I placed students in the back of the room that were failing and students in the front of the room that were succeeding (succeeding only due to their own will and determination).  I then announced to the class that I placed individuals in the front of the room that were willing to learn.  I further stated that if any students in the back of the room wanted to join us in learning they could, otherwise they just needed to do minimal work without behavior problems and would pass.  I KNOW! HORRIBLE! (You can shame me, but trust me when I say that there are no words you can have for me that I have not already had for myself.)

This is an extreme example of ability grouping (tracking) at it's worst!  Actually, to put it simply, this is teacher bullying.  Do you think the kids in the back suddenly decided they wanted to learn? Heck no, they gave up which is no surprise as I gave up on them.

So see, when I see the phrase ability grouping I want to throw up a yellow flashing neon sign that says "Proceed with TLC"!  There are just so many ways it can go wrong, but when done right student successes are limitless.

Another incorrect way to forge ahead with ability grouping is to neglect examining the whole child in regards to student interests, learning styles, educational experiences and home life.  Without digging deeper, ability grouping can be just another practice that is done to kids instead of with kids. If an educator lacks seeing the whole child then ability grouping will become another way to track students.

I personally found success with ability grouping after I started differentiating instruction to better meet the needs of my students. This means students are taught from the first day of school that:
  • fair is not always equal
  • the teacher will provide the tools for learning to occur
  • both teacher and student work together to determine student needs
  • students always have the choice to work in a way that supports their learning needs
  • the teacher is always open to new ideas or ways for students to demonstrate understanding
  • students always have the option to try as many times as needed in order to improve understanding
In addition, students frequently are given choices in assignments based on what they think they need in order to learn more.  Very rarely do students go for something easier as it is human nature for us to want to do better; especially when there is a positive role model rooting them on. Once all of these practices are in place and I personally know each student, ability grouping can occur.

I highly recommend students be allowed to choose the level of practice they need.  Then allow them to work with students who choose the same level of practice.   One little trick I came up with is for the basic ability groups to have more support in process/skill building while the mastery/advanced groups have very little support.  When the mastery/advance groups hit a road block they quickly turn to me for help.  I in turn, tell them to seek help from individuals in the basic group (remember the basic group has more support embedded).  This means individuals in the basic group can reference their support/guided notes to give information to the the mastery/advanced group.  This does two things:  1) it encourages collaborative relationships among students and 2) it empowers individuals in the basic group by allowing them to be experts for mastery/advanced groups.  Seeing both of these occur in my classroom not only fills my bucket, but I am certain it fills theirs too.

Finally, it is imperative to be absolutely transparent with students in regards to every practice you implement.  Be it 4th graders or high school teenagers, students know when and how they are being grouped.  However, if you have well defined levels of understanding explained to all students for each unit of study this allows them to be in the know.  It removes the hidden agenda that students so frequently feel is impossible to figure out.

As you can see, there are good reasons why there are both critics and proponents of ability grouping.  In truth, ability grouping should never be something done to students.  It should be done in tandem with students with a whole lot of TLC.