Doug Mann LPN, LNC
Unequal Educational Opportunities in the Minneapolis Public Schools
What is "ability-grouping"?
Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]
requires evaluation of ability grouping practices
Supporters of the ability-grouping model have argued that the practice of ability-grouping merely accommodates individual differences in academic ability between children. This idea is generally expressed in two ways: 1) that the brighter children would be held back in a mixed-ability classroom because the instructor must water-down the curriculum for the benefit of the slow-learners, and 2) that the deficits of slow learners are more easily remediated if they are grouped together for instruction.
However, research on the effects of curriculum differentiation and ability-grouping suggest that these practices reinforce and increase the academic achievement gap between the high and low achievers over time. In practice, students who are separated for remedial instruction in basic academic skills (such as reading) usually progress more slowly than their peers, which puts them further behind, and they do not get as much benefit from lectures and learning activities in the regular, mainstream classroom due to academic skills deficits. [See Keeping Track: How Schools
Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes]
Ability grouping as practiced in the Minneapolis schools involves a watering down of the curriculum for a majority of students.
An argument commonly advanced in support of ability-grouping is that "gifted students," are held back academically when place in a mix-ability classroom, and that the education of gifted children should not be sacrificed for the benefit of other students. That argument echoes the argument advanced in a 1983 report entitled "A nation at risk," which warned of the dangers of a rising tide of mediocrity in our public schools. The achievement gap between blacks and whites had been narrowing for more than a decade at that point. By implication, the gap between high and low achievers was supposedly being closed at the expense of high achievers, and the black-white achievement gap was being closed at the expense of whites. However, data compiled and broken down by the Sandia National Laboratories indicates stable and fairly steady gains by high achievers in the public schools during the 1970s and early 1980s. (The Sandia Study was commissioned by US President George HW Bush, and released during Clinton's first term).
School reforms widely adopted since the mid-1980s include more widespread use of ability-grouping in early elementary grades and adoption of neighbor school plans that make schools less racially integrated (and less equal).
While it appears that the highest achieving 20% of the student population has continued to make gains since the late 1980s, the gap between low and high achieving students, and between black and white students has been steadily growing.
In my opinion, school reforms designed to produce greater equality won't necessarily hold back high achievers. Education reform doesn't have to be a zero sum game where one group's gains can only come at the expense of another group.
A question for supporters of the ability-grouping model:
Should the needs of the few (the gifted) for special help to actualize (realize) their learning potential outweigh the needs of the many (the large majority of students) to also actualize their learning potential?
See: Why ability-grouping widens the achievement gap