Ability Based Grouping: No Child Left Behind and No Child Held Back

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M. Bryan Strain

Utah State University

20     March 2012

Ability Based Grouping: No Child Left Behind and No Child Held Back

                Education has been, and is currently, one of the most hotly debated topics in politics. Utah’s largest single budget expense is education spending.  The Utah State Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget shows that 49.4% of the total budget allocation is directed toward public education. (State of Utah)  In politics and law, the most money gets the most attention when it comes to budget negotiations and law suits.  Recent testing shows the United States is not competing very well compared to other nations in preparing students to enter the work force.  The National Center for Education Statistics shows that 15 year old students in the United States tested in 2010 rank 23rd in science, 31st in math, and 17thin reading literacy among reporting nations. (The National Center for Education Statistics) These statistics leave politicians and citizens plenty of fodder for the debate.  The debate is often heated because many want to reduce costs, while others say we need to add more money to improve education for a better future.  These two positions often seem to be completely opposite. However, I will show you it is possible to both reduce spending and simultaneously make our nation more competitive in preparing students for the work place.

                The solution to our education woes is to adopt an ability based grouping system for our primary and secondary schools.  What is that, you say? An ability based grouping system would eliminate the current age/grade system in favor of advancement based on student ability.  For some unknown reason our children have been grouped by age in the current school system.  When you are five years old, you enter Kindergarten.  When you are 18 you graduate from high school.  Only during these years do we teach children that their age means more than their abilities.  The current school system makes it very difficult for a gifted child to move beyond their age peers.  It’s only a little less difficult to have a struggling child stay behind their age peers when it is time to move on to the next grade.  This is the root of many of our challenges in the current education system.

How would you feel if you are the most qualified for the new manager’s position made available by your employer, but since you are only 28 years old, they are going to hire someone much less qualified because they are 40 years old?  This is exactly what we do in our schools every day.  If we are to prepare our children for the real world, why don’t we make their education simulate the real world? In the real world shareholders of a company would be furious if they found out the best persons to make their company profits were not being promoted to critical positions because of an age based promotion policy.  So, why is this policy considered acceptable in education?

The major problem with age based education is the constant over thinking of what is fair.  Our laws say that everyone should have equal opportunity to participate in a free public education.  This is good law.  However, we should be careful not to confuse equal opportunity with equal education.  Equal opportunity means we have the same chance to succeed as every other person.  Equal education means we all receive the same information.  This second interpretation of the laws effectively keeps all students together regardless of the student’s ability to move past their peers or the need to stay behind when their peers move on.

There are many problems with our current approach to primary and secondary education.  The most controversial is the cost of education.  Special education is the most expensive per student education cost.  According to the Utah State Budget 8.14% of the public education expense is allocated to special education. (State of Utah) The total number of students receiving special education funds was 67781 in 2009. (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION OFFICE OF SPECIAL EDUCATION AND REHABILITATIVE SERVICES) On average, it costs about twice as much per special education student as that of all other students.  Gifted students receive slightly more than average students if they are identified as gifted students. (State of Utah)  Since gifted children are often as far above the average as special education students are behind, proponents of gifted and talented programs often complain they do not get a fair amount of allocated funds.  All three groups of children are taught in the same classroom.  This means teachers must develop and teach curriculum to all three ability groups in one classroom, which means teachers cannot teach as many students.

The average ability child can do well in the current classroom setting because the curriculum is not too difficult and not to easy.  The lower ability child struggles in a normal classroom.  They often develop behavioral problems and low self-image because they are frustrated with a curriculum that is too difficult.  Students with higher ability often show the same behavioral and low self-image symptoms.  Whether a child is gifted or delayed, behavior problems and low self-image are often symptoms of a curriculum that does not fit the child’s ability.  There are other causes for behavioral problems related to specific physical or mental disabilities, but these students will need special education regardless of the type of grouping used.

Many children develop a low self-image and exhibit behavioral problem because they become aware they are different from their peers in ability.  Martin V. Covington said, “According to a self-worth analysis, the reluctant learner is already motivated, driven by circumstances to protect his or her self-esteem” (Covington 17).  In other words, if a child feels they are substantially different from their peers, they begin to think there is something wrong with them.  A celebrated researcher on education for gifted children, Dr. Miraca Gross confirmed this concept with regard to the gifted when she stated,

Highly gifted children are frequently placed at risk in the early years of school through misidentification, inappropriate grade-placement and a seriously inadequate curriculum. Additional factors are their own early awareness, that they differ from their age-peers, and their consequent attempts to conceal their ability for peer acceptance (Gross, Small Poppies).

What do these facts have to do with cost?  There are a few reasons an ability based system is less expensive than age based system.  My wife currently teaches first grade and I have spoken to her and a number of different teachers over years.  Many of them agree the most difficult part of their job is trying to create lesson plans for students with a wide variance of ability.  This problem limits the teacher’s ability to effectively spend time at each ability level for all students to make efficient progress.  What if all the students in a class were on the same level?  In a university setting teachers often handle class sizes that go into the hundreds.  How is that possible?  It is possible because students have been placed in classes by placement exams that test proficiency sufficient to prove they are ready for the class.  They’re all on the same level.  I’m not suggesting that one 1st grade teacher should teach hundreds of little kids.  I am saying I’m sure if children in primary and secondary schools were also given regular proficiency exams and allowed to move on when they were ready, teachers would also be able to increase the number of students in the class room.  More research is needed to tell us how many students a teacher can effectively handle using this format.  More students per class would clearly reduce per student expenses.

Since teaching reinforces subject knowledge (Grote), and student interaction across all ability levels is important, students should be required to participate in student teaching groups and tutoring of lower levels.  Where appropriate they will also participate in special education activities.  These activities will provide role models to lower ability students and simultaneously teach higher ability students how to appropriately build relationships with lower ability students.  If this feature were to be included in an ability based system the need for teachers aids and tutors would be reduced and again, the per student expenses would fall.

Schools of higher learning operate on an ability based grouping system.  Students are given choices and counseled about careers they are interested in and where their talents may lead them.  They only advance when prerequisites are met or proficiency is proven.  This is how the adult world works.  So why are we not modeling this environment in the earlier education of our children?  Students should be able to make choices about the path and the curriculum they wish to pursue.  Teachers should be able to provide the student and parents with data showing the child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Parents and students would be more motivated to tackle weakness in a subject when progress through difficult subjects is prerequisite to courses a student wants to pursue.  This will raise test scores and reduce time spent on behavioral issues related to a lack of motivation.  Changes in curriculum focus should always be allowed along with the natural consequences of additional time to complete the course requirements.

Many tests have been done on ability based grouping.  Some of the implementations were found to be racially biased. (Haller)  Some fear that all ability grouping will thus be racially biased. Others fear that ability based grouping would lead to an elitist society and unfairly limit entire groups in the population. These fears have made ability based grouping dirty words in politics and law.  Many feel that grouping by ability will cause psychological problems for children placed in the low ability group.  This certainly does happen even in the current school systems where children are placed in remedial groups.  If we avoided the age based system altogether, there would be no label of advanced, gifted, remedial, & etc.  Instead there would be an environment where it is acceptable that everyone progresses at their own rate in each subject taught.  This would make it socially acceptable to be in a class at any level thus reducing the negative psychological effect ability grouping and age grouping currently has on some children.

Gifted and talented proponents have been fighting for more ability based gifted and talented programs for years.  They are often met with resistance by a number of myths on the topic including the fear of elitism.  The Gifted and Talented Association even created a YouTube video attempting to debunk these myths.  On the topic of elitism, the video points out that by denying gifted students their educational needs they are effectively pushing them down and saying their education is not as important as everyone else. (Gifted and Talented Association)  I would also point out that pushing some students down has done nothing to stop the spread of elitist groups in our society, nor is a higher academic ability a common trait of today’s elitists.  The more likely effect would be that children would find a likeminded peer group with whom to associate.

Research has shown that all students benefit from a non-graded ability based program.  Karen B. Rogers confirmed this principle when she said, “Slavin’s syntheses of grouping research on cross-grade grouping in reading and mathematics for elementary students reported substantial academic gains in reading and some evidence of similar gains in mathematics for students of all ability levels (Rogers 105).” Teachers know that ability based grouping works.  Almost all if not all higher learning institutions use the method.  Primary and Secondary teachers use the method for reading groups and math groups in class and also in pull out groups.  Yet resistance to an ability base system remains in politics and law.

In a journal report titled Inequity in Equity, Dr. Gross retold the story of a principal, Mr. Palcuzzi, who met with the school PTA to propose his intent to create a gifted program.  In this program he would give the gifted student’s special coaching in their specific areas of talent.  The age-grade barriers would be removed and an accelerated curriculum would be developed.   The PTA was disturbed by the idea.  They said it sounded elitist, and worried about time tables for advancement.  They asked where the funding for such a program would come from.  Mr. Palcuzzi was prepared for their remarks.  He told them funding would come from the parent body.  He said parents would be happy to put up the cash for the prestige associated with the program.  He told them students would travel and participate in competitions with other schools that had similar programs.  “The PTA members were horrified.  They thought the program was anti-democratic.  They felt the program was against the spirit of American education.  They feared such a program would divide the school and bring it into disrepute.”  Mr. Palcuzzi then pointed out the fact that the program structure was not new.  He told them they already had these programs for gifted basketball players. (Gross, Inequity in Equity)

I’m certain the resistance to this kind of change comes from the same place that causes fights to break out between parents at little league baseball games.  Parents have the same mechanism to protect their self-image that children in mixed ability classes have.  If we want our children to have better self-images and be better academic performers, we need to start teaching them at the earliest ages that it is okay to excel at something and not excel in another.  We need to teach children that competition is a good thing.  It fosters innovation and excellence.  Competition motivates us to move to the next level.  One of the claims against gifted grouping in the YouTube video mentioned earlier is that all children are gifted at something. (Gifted and Talented Association)  It’s true, but rather than be offended by the fact that all people are not created with equal abilities, we should be helping our children to find, explore, and exploit the talents they do have.  We can teach them to excel in subjects they enjoy from the earliest ages and put a positive spin on our diverse talents.

So what does the world look like when ability based grouping is the standard in all branches of education?  Students start school when parents and doctors feel the child is ready and a developmental exam is passed.  Some parents may need to be coerced into having their child tested.  Classrooms rotate to all the various subjects appropriate for the child’s ability.  Teachers become specialized in teaching different subjects at different levels.  Class sizes grow because teachers can focus on one lesson plan that includes simple variations for different learning styles.  Children with disabilities will still get some special education curriculum that is not required for other children, but they also integrate better into the normal classroom in regular subjects at their level.  By allowing students to have choices with regard to the curriculum at every age, and allowing them to advance as they prove proficiency, we build into the system a reward mechanism that encourages advancement and fosters interest in education. Costs go down and every child gets a “Goldilocks” education that is just right for them.

So how do we responsibly make such a drastic change in our primary and secondary school system?  We start by contacting our state legislators.  We tell them we believe there is a better way to improve our education system based on proven research without increasing spending.  We ask them to start with one school.  We then monitor the results of our efforts with scholarly observation in this school and work out potential bugs.  Once the results have proven to be beneficial and practical, we adopt the program for all our primary and secondary schools.  For myself I plan to make this change a big focus of my teaching career.  Please help me in this venture by contacting your state legislator today.

Works Cited

Covington, Martin V. Making the Grade: A Self-Worth Perspective on Motivation and School Reform. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1992. Print.

Gifted and Talented Association. Top 10 Myths in Gifted Education. n.d. Video. 22 February 2012.

Gross, Dr. Miraca. “CRITICAL DIALOGUE: Inequity in equity: The paradox of gifted education in Australia.” Australian Journal of Education 43.1 (1999). Print.

—. “Small poppies: Highly gifted children in the early years.” Roeper Review 21.3 (1999): 207-214. Print.

Grote, Jim. “Learn by Teaching.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 37.5 (2007): 69-69. Print.

Haller, Emil J. “Pupil Race and Elementary School Ability Grouping: Are Teachers Biased against Black Children?” American Educational Research Journal 22.4 (1985): 465-483. Print.

Rogers, Karen B. “Grouping the Gifted and Talented: Questions and Answers.” Roeper Review 16.1 (1993): 103-107. Print.

State of Utah. “Governor’s Office of Planning & Budget.” n.d. Utah.Gov. PDF Document. 22 February 2012.

—. “Governor’s Office of Planning & Budget Agency Summaries.” n.d. Utah.Gov. PDF Document. 4th April 2012.

The National Center for Education Statistics. “Digest of Education Statistics 2010.” n.d. NCES.Ed.Gov. Web. 4th April 2012.


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