by Vince Bielski
There’s a world of difference in the abilities of elementary school students in the Trotwood-Madison City School District, outside Dayton, Ohio. Some low-performing fifth graders are only capable of reading first-grade picture books with basic words like dog and cat, says Angie Fugate, a district specialist focusing on gifted education. In the same classrooms, the aces read at a sixth-grade level, devouring thick novels that adults also enjoy, including the Harry Potter series.
“It’s like we have gone back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse,” Fugate says. “The gap is really huge and yet we are supposed to teach them all the same curriculum. It’s a very difficult thing to do. For some teachers, it’s just overwhelming.”
This remarkable learning gap of about five grade levels exists today in many if not most K-8 classrooms in the U.S., according to researchers. They say it makes teaching everyone in a classroom extremely difficult and may help explain the poor performance of many public schools.
The gap partly reflects reformers’ decades-long push against grouping students by ability that’s only intensifying now in a renewed clamor for diversity in classrooms. Although much attention has focused on dropping selective admissions at academically competitive public schools, the diversity movement has also rolled back gifted programs and honors classes at more schools, from New York to Seattle.
Even educational experts who support diversity warn that the dismantling of accelerated instruction will likely add to the learning gap problem as advanced students are increasingly tossed into general education classrooms.
The learning gap already exists in big cities, suburbs, and small towns. A 2021 study found that in about 70% of fourth-grade classrooms, student performance varied widely, with pupils placing in four or more different math benchmarks from low to advanced – or from about the second- to sixth-grade levels.
The pandemic lockdowns widened the spread even more. It was particularly harmful to low-income students of color who spent more time in remote instruction and dropped even further behind their white peers, according to a 2022 study.
Diverse, but at What Cost in Learning?
To learn, students need challenging instruction calibrated just beyond what they already know. But the wider the learning gap in a classroom, the more likely that a teacher won’t provide everyone with appropriate levels of instruction, says Scott Peters, a senior research scientist at school assessment group NWEA who focuses on the achievement gap.
“What schools are doing today is so inefficient and ineffective,” Peters says. “Equity should be about giving every kid what they need to grow. But we are teaching every kid the same thing, despite the big achievement gaps among them, and that’s the definition of inequity.”
For diversity advocates, the priority is integrating classrooms of high-achieving whites and Asians with more blacks and Latinos despite the disparity in skill levels that often exists among these students. They argue that mixed classrooms are essential in a country with a population that’s become much more diverse over the past two decades.
Halley Potter at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, says that while ability grouping almost always produces classrooms skewed by race and class, mixed classrooms create “learning environments that build empathy, reduce racial bias, and prepare students to thrive in a diverse world.”
But what about academic performance? Years of research to find out if mixing students from different economic backgrounds improves the performance of low achievers is “inconclusive,” according to a review of the studies by Sarah Cordes at Temple University.
Several studies suggest that struggling students do see gains in more prosperous schools â€’ but a few studies suggest they don’t. The bigger issue, Cordes points out, is that it’s unclear what’s causing the improved performance: Is it the exposure to high-achieving peers or the family background of the struggling students?
If mixed-ability classrooms work, it’s not reflected in the nation’s report card. The national testing scores of fourth and eighth graders in math and reading showed almost no progress from 2009 to 2019. More telling, the divergence between the high and low performers widened significantly. Scores for the weakest students fell in both subjects and in both grades.
But researchers who say lumping students together isn’t working and it’s time to consider new approaches sometimes face a hostile reception in today’s racially charged fight over public education.
“If you want to be called a racist, go out and say that you’re for ability grouping,” says Jonathan Plucker, a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University who studies and consults with schools on this issue. “And people will say it to your face. But I’ve spent my career trying to help every kid grow academically, and I think the research says that ability grouping is a better way to do it.”
The learning gap takes shape even before kids enter kindergarten. A 2022 study looked at math and science skills among kindergartners of different races. Researchers found that about 16% of white students and only 4% of blacks and Latinos showed advanced abilities, a spread that they attributed mostly to differences in family income and early educational opportunities for children.
As students move through elementary school, so does the learning gap. In a study of sixth graders, researchers examined math and reading test data from two large and racially diverse urban school districts with more than 22,000 students in the 2014-2015 school year. They found that 59% of math classrooms and 82% of English classrooms had a gap of five or more grade levels
Tracking and the Reformers’ Track Record
School reformers have arguably helped to maintain if not widen the gap by dismantling ability grouping practices like tracking, according to Tom Loveless, a former senior fellow at Brookings Institution who wrote a book on tracking. This system that typically places students in low-, average- and high-performance classrooms for most of their schooling was the dominant way to organize students in the late 1980s, when it first came under attack by liberal-minded educators and academics. They were inspired by the work of Jeannie Oakes, an educational theorist at UCLA whose research focused on school inequalities and social justice.
While research showed that top students benefited from the high tracks, those in the lower tracks, composed of many black and Latino students, were being neglected. Oakes found that the low tracks were filled with less-experienced teachers, ineffective rote instruction, and unruly behavior that undermined students’ ability to learn.
Reformers succeeded in sharply reducing tracking in English, history, and social science courses across the county, but not in advanced math, according to Loveless. They also rolled back remedial education, in which struggling kids were pulled out of class and placed in groups for special interventions in subjects such as reading.
Since then, the opposition to tracking has expanded into a broader movement that has toppled other forms of ability grouping in several cities.
San Francisco was among the early cities to target advanced programs, ending accelerated math in middle school and early high school in 2014. Seattle abolished honors programs in 2020 in middle schools, stirring protests from parents who want advanced classes for their kids.
In October, New York City went much further. It eliminated grade- and test-based admissions in most middle schools after years of pressure from advocacy groups. In one prominent Manhattan district, a majority of parents had urged the superintendent at several community meetings to retain selective admissions to ensure their children would be in challenged in class. The superintendent rejected those pleas from parents, some of whom are now considering leaving public schools.
The Learning Gap Loss
To see how the learning gap can hamper education, consider a typical third-grade math class. The focus is simple multiplication and division.
Peters says struggling third graders are probably working at a first-grade level and still learning single-digit addition. Multiplying 7 x 5 will be a leap too far for them. The best students mastered multiplication tables a year or two ago and are ready for fifth grade work, with fractions and decimals. But they are stuck in third-grade math.
Making matters worse, teachers nationwide are given a one-size-fits-all curriculum for general education students in the same grade, no matter their skill level.
The upshot: It’s often next to impossible for teachers to hit the educational sweet spot where instruction is most effective for each student. This target is based on a theory by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who wrote that instruction needs to be just slightly beyond the grasp of what students can learn on their own if they are to progress.
But teachers are missing the mark by a wide margin today. Students who are several years behind are exposed to lessons and assessments that are too advanced in the push to bring them to grade level. So they don’t learn the skills they need and struggle year after year until they become too discouraged to push on and they give up, according to researchers.
Advanced students, on the other hand, are bored in class because they are not being pushed enough. While teachers are often less concerned about top students since they are already beyond grade level, the boredom they experience can have serious consequences, including a loss of interest in learning and even behavior problems in class, according to Richard Cash, a former teacher and administrator and now a consultant for public schools.
A 2021 study led by Karen Rambo-Hernandez shows the harm to high achievers. The study found that above-average third graders, who might be three years ahead of their peers, didn’t progress as much as average students in reading during the school year. Average students charged ahead apparently because they were properly challenged while advanced students slowed down because the material was too easy.
“We are losing our brightest students who rarely develop their full potential because we’re not giving them intellectually stimulating experiences,” Cash says. “And the long-term effect is the loss of intellectual capital for the country.”
Four Classes in One
In the Trotwood-Madison City district and around the country, teachers use what seems like emergency triage to get closer to that sweet spot.
At the start of the school year, teachers assess their students’ grade-level proficiency and then break them into as many as four smaller ad hoc groups within a classroom, according to the district’s Fugate. It’s a kind of informal ability grouping on the low-down, without enough teacher training and curriculum development to make it work.
On their own, teachers tweak the curriculum with materials from the Internet to create somewhat distinct assignments for each group – a contortion called “differentiation.” For a lesson about finding evidence in a story to support a theme, each group will be given very different readings and worksheets appropriate to students’ abilities. It’s the near equivalent of an instructor trying to teach four different classes at once.
To make the job more manageable, something must be cast aside. That would be the advanced students.
Teachers say the best students are typically given independent study projects and must fend for themselves with little instruction on the assumption that they already understand the lesson or can figure it out on their own. This allows teachers to spend most of their time with the lower achievers who are failing to reach grade-level proficiency.
Although teachers are often judged on how many students reach grade-level â€’ a goal enshrined by the No Child Left Behind Act of the early 2000s â€’ it’s an ill-suited approach for addressing the learning gap. It incentivizes teachers to focus on students with the best chance of hitting that mark, at the expense of those who have already surpassed it and those who don’t stand a chance of reaching it.
Lisa McNally, a former New York City ninth-grade teacher, estimates that she spent at least 75% of her time with weaker students to help them pass a state-mandated exam that was a priority of the Department of Education. “I focused especially on the students that were on the borderline of passing the exam,” McNally says. “And yes, the advanced students were essentially being cheated. But teacher performance was tied to the exam pass rate.”
In a sign of the desperation in today’s mixed-ability classrooms, teachers sometimes ask their top pupils to help instruct the kids who don’t understand the assignments â€’ a questionable practice. “Just because a student understands a lesson doesn’t mean they know how to teach it or want to teach it,” Fugate says.
In the Trotwood-Madison district, the triage isn’t producing strong results. The overall test scores for elementary grades began to drop before the pandemic and continued their decline after students returned to classrooms, Fugate says.
“What we are doing in this district and country is not working, and the data keeps proving it,” she says. “But the system doesn’t allow schools and educators to make changes and try new approaches.”
Halley Potter at the Century Foundation understands the difficulties of mixed-ability classrooms, but says that schools shouldn’t give up on them. In Potter’s calculation, the benefit to students of learning from peers of different racial and economic backgrounds is worth the struggle.
“If differentiation sounds challenging, it is,” she says. “But it’s at the heart of what great teachers do.”
A Third Way
Researchers say a newer approach to grouping students by abilities overcomes the problems with tracking, which could lock students into lower levels, while allowing teachers to more easily find the right level for each pupil.
It goes by the jargony name of “schoolwide cluster grouping.” A small number of schools are trying the method, which divides students into about five ability groups and gives them the opportunity to move up a notch every year, providing motivation for strivers.
Each classroom has both above- and below-average groups, providing the benefit of role models for weaker students and avoiding the stigma that came with tracking them together in separate classes.
Here’s the most important piece: Each classroom has either a narrower learning gap of only perhaps three grade levels, or fewer grade levels represented. Teachers then can better engage all students in their classroom, with the support and resources of their administration.
Researchers shows that schoolwide cluster grouping can pay off in the classroom, particularly by motivating lower achieving students to advance to higher levels. The approach is also backed by an important paper that synthesized the results of 13 meta-analyses on ability grouping.
Co-author Matt Makel of Johns Hopkins University said the evidence is clear that the practice, including cluster grouping, improves the performance of students at all levels. “The conversation needs to evolve beyond whether such interventions can ever work,” the authors conclude. “There is not an absence of evidence.”
The challenge, Peters says, is breaking through the resistance of schools to approaches such as cluster grouping. Over the past five years, Peters has been to dozens of meetings in about 10 states to talk with administrators and teachers about the learning gap in their schools. Although staffers are well aware of the problems it presents in educating students, so far none of the schools have made any changes to how they group students.
“There is such a big concern in schools today that instructors must teach all students the same thing and can’t deviate from grade-level standards and pacing, despite the fact that some students are three years behind and others are three years ahead,” Peters says. “It’s illogical and it’s a substantial barrier to making any changes.”
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Vince Bielski is a contributor to RealClearInvestigations.