To Track or Not to Track

I have been reading Jim Delisle’s new book Dumbing Down America. I have to tell you that I can’t put it down. There is so much in his book that I could react to that its unreal. I really hope that you get it, and read it.

I have been thinking about one of sentences in his book for a few days.

As Stephanie Tolan, an advocate for highly and profound students, has stated, “you don’t have the moral right to hold one child back to make another child feel better. (page 62-63)

Let me give some context to this statement. This section of his book Jim is discussing the issue of tracking. Today in our schools we call it ability grouping. He makes the case that using ability grouping helped scores of high and lower achieving students (Collins & Gan, 2013). In an other case study (Bui, Craig, & Imberman, 2013) showed placing non-gifted students who were on the margin of being gifted in gifted programs and compared them to those marginal students not in gifted programs. Their data shows that their test scores were no better than those who were not in the gifted program. This is “contradicting the popular belief that lower ability students ‘rise to the occasion’ when surrounding by higher achieving classmates.”

As a teacher in the trenches, I have found that what Jim was saying is true. In my district we started out our program with gifted and non-gifted students in the same pull-out program. We did this in the effort to help our non-gifted students get more exposure to a topic they may be very interested in. We called these students “Revolving Door” students. We no longer do this practice because, we found that the gifted students were being held back.

I guess because of those students, who were very good students, who worked hard, just didn’t fit into the class; I can see how the statement above by Stephanie Tolan hit home for me. I think when I read that sentence, what I experienced as a teacher became real. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed all of the students I had regardless if they were gifted or not. I could see the difference in ability in the way my gifted students thought things through as compared to my non-gifted students.

As a teacher, I can see the pros and cons of having a class that is ability grouped. I personally feel that I ability grouping is one of the best things students can experience when it is done correctly, and with sensitivity. It is easy to see who would be in the top and bottom of the ability grouping classrooms, which means the middle is probably the biggest group. But teachers need to be sensitive to make sure that none of the groups feel less because of the group they are in. Let me explain.

My first year, I taught in a self-contained classroom with very low functioning regular education students and high functioning learning disabled students. Their I.Q.s were not that far apart. Since we ability grouped my class was one of the low ones. My co-teacher and I worked hard to make sure our students felt special. As a class we did many of the same activities and used the same curriculum that the other classes used. We would do just a few things differently like have a class mascot, decorate our door, and we created a short theme song when we met some classroom goals just to make them feel special. Being near the bottom wasn’t a big deal for them. We never really pointed it out.

Curriculum-wise, (a pro in my book) I feel that each student needs to be challenged. They need to be challenged where they are to help them move forward. It doesn’t matter what ability group they are in. There is so much help for those at the bottom. There is help for those in the middle, but not so much at the top. I guess people have a hard time justifying spending extra money on a group that is on the surface of things already showing signs of being successful. If these students are being challenged, then they are being successful.

Going back to the opening quote, teachers need to think about the placement of students in the ability groups. We have an obligation not only to our students parents, but to students to make sure their placement is right. We have several ability groups in my school. We have one that is for Algebra students, one that is a mixed group of students from 7th and 8th grade in a math class, we have my gifted pull-out program; we also have Read 180 classrooms and System 44 classrooms, along with Title reading and math classrooms. I am sure that larger middle schools have more than what we have.

How do you feel about ability grouping?


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