Ability Grouping Debate, Research Will – and Should – Continue

Although grouping students by ability has been used in schools for more than thirty years, this month marks a resurgence in the debate over the practice as published research arguing both for and against it has been making the news in the edu-sphere. It's a timely debate, especially in light of the fact the number of schools that practice ability grouping is on the rise, according to the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education released this March.

Ability grouping is supposed to allow teachers to better tailor their lessons to the skill level of their students. Although used without controversy for many years, starting in late 1980s, grouping – or "tracking," and sometimes "sorting," as it is also called – came under fire for leaving behind students from chronically underperforming groups like those from low-income families, African-Americans or Hispanics.

How schools and teachers approached tracking was examined in How Schools Work by Rebecca Barr and Robert Dreeben, a book which celebrates this month thirty years since its publication. Tom Loveless, writing on The Brookings Institution's Brown Center Chalkboard, explains that by tackling the subject in an empirical rather than qualitative manner, the book had a profound impact on his own practice of teaching.

That is what made How Schools Work so refreshing. The book honors teachers in a profound way, not in a "you are all saints and we love you" way, but in a manner much more meaningful—by studying teachers' work. Barr and Dreeben followed a group of Chicago first grade teachers as they taught reading. A wealth of data was collected so that hypotheses could be tested empirically. In How Schools Work, readers discover that first grade reading groups operate within a grand organizational scheme: groups nested in classrooms, classrooms housed within schools, schools situated within a big urban district. Seemingly routine tasks of teaching are transformed into thoughtful, important activities. Teachers do not appear to be stupid or evil. They appear to be professionals engaged in purposeful activities.

Loveless argues that much of the bad reputation that surrounds grouping is unearned, and with the practice gaining favor in schools around the country, it's a positive step that researchers are approaching it with open minds and robust research techniques.

An example of efforts to fully understand whether grouping is helping or harming students is a working paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research authored by Courtney A. Collins and Li Gan, which looks closely at how sorting students by ability is working out in Dallas schools. The NBER paper is not without its critics; the research review advocacy group Think Twice panned NBER's conclusions about ability grouping in a recent release of their own.

The study joins a long line of research dating back to at least the 1920s. The overriding concerns have been to determine whether tracking and ability grouping are good or bad (whether they produce positive effects) and whether they are equitable (even if some students benefit, is it at the expense of others). The evidence on these questions is mixed. To adequately summarize the literature would require a series of posts, and I will return to this topic in the future. The main point I would like to make in concluding this post pertains to the renewed popularity of tracking and ability grouping, not to whether either practice is warranted by research.

04 4, 2013
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