Student Grouping in a PLC

We received a message from a school that had concluded assigning students to academic classes based on their ability was the best way to promote differentiated instruction for students. While we enthusiastically endorse the idea of differentiated instruction, we do not endorse the idea of tracking students as the best strategy for promoting differentiation for 4 reasons:

1. Research advises against it.

The question of the effects of ability grouping have been examined throughout the past 25 years, beginning when Jeannie Oakes and John Goodlad concluded:

a. Students in the lower tracks receive an education that is qualitatively and quantitatively inferior to that provided to children in the upper tracks. Whatever schools distribute that matters educationally, lower-track students get less of it.
b. Students in the lower tracks learn less than those in the upper tracks and what they learn is of less value.
c. Students in the lower tracks are held captive in them. There is very little opportunity to move to more advanced tracks.
d. Minority and low SES students are disproportionately assigned to lower tracks, whereas teachers perceived as the "best" teachers in a school are rarely assigned to the lowest track.

In short, there is almost nothing in research to say students in lower tracks benefit, and a great deal that says they are harmed by this structure.

2. It is misaligned with the goal of closing the achievement gap.

It is illogical to argue that the way to close the achievement gap is to assign some students into curriculum that is less rigorous and moves at a slower pace than the standard curriculum. Evidence and common sense says this strategy exacerbates rather than closes the gap each year.

3. Tracking sends the wrong message to students.

One of the most consistent findings in research of high performing teachers and schools is that they have high expectations for student success. Tracking sends the message to students in the lower tracks that their schools and teachers have diminished expectations for them. Furthermore, students internalize that message. Oakes found that students blame themselves for their lack of success in school. They embrace the implicit message their school is sending: "The rich curriculum is reserved for the ’smart’ kids." Students conclude, "I can’t be successful here because I am not smart." We support Jonathan Saphier’s premise that schools should espouse "effort-based achievement" rather than "ability-based achievement." The most successful school will send the message, "You can be successful here if you work hard. All of you will learn, but some of you will need some extra help and more time, but you all will be successful."

4. When schools create multiple ability groups, they typically respond when students experience difficulty by dropping them into a lower group.

This option becomes the path of least resistance for both educators and students. Instead of intervening with more time and support to help students achieve standards, schools simply lower the standards. Students come to recognize that "the less I do here, the less I have to do."

Therefore, we advised this principal to create heterogeneous groupings for homeroom placement and for most of the students’ day. We also recommended that teachers in the school work in collaborative teams to gather information from frequent common, formative assessments to determine which students need more time and more support to acquire the intended essential skills & concepts and which students are ready for a deeper application of those skills/concepts. Students could then be assigned to flexible, fluid, homogenous groups for intervention and enrichment -- student-by-student, skill-by-skill -- for a brief, designated portion of each day. Each member of the team, as well as other human resources the school might employ, could then be responsible for providing extra time and support for intervention and enrichment during that designated period each day.

There is a significant difference between differentiated instruction and differentiated curriculum. Tracking is dedicated to the later. Differentiated instruction is not just clustering all students with similar learning needs into one group and providing them with different curriculum, but rather it requires giving students who are struggling to learn the essentials more time, more support, and new learning experiences with different strategies and different structures such as small-group instruction and individual tutoring.

We are not opposed to providing middle school students with access to an accelerated program in mathematics or high school students with access to advanced placement programs, but we would advocate that the programs be open to any student willing to pursue the challenge. Schools could then serve as a bridge to the advanced curriculum rather than a barrier. PLCs at all levels attempt to meet the needs of students by building strong systems of intervention and enrichment rather than relying on remedial programs.


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We level people in our society all the time. One does not have to go to college to be a farmer or rancher, so many people look down on them yet they are jacks of all trades. As a society, we track people all the time. In business, people move up in pay scale by importance to the company. Is that not tracking? We create tracks with our colleges. From community colleges, to trade schools, to Universities, all come with a stigma. Students in special education are tracked all the time.

I believe that the problem does not lie in the leveling or tracking of students, but in the teachers that change their expectations because of it. As a teacher, we have to expect the best out of our students. That means that you may have to teach the same thing 20 different ways but all students can learn and we must teach them that. We can not expect less because a student is falling behind—we just need to find a way to pull them up.

I am a agricultural teacher and I see it all the time where a student will perform in one class but not another. Usually it is because one teacher has reached out time and time again to help. While another says, "I taught this, there for you should know it." My theory is to get students in classes that they can succeed in and challenge them to do more. Cross the hall and help that student struggling in Science that does well in your class and show them success. We should be committed to our students, not the curriculum.

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As a third grade team in our school, we have worked hard to differentiate instruction for all of our students. We have a high population of students that speak Spanish and Russian at home. This can make it difficult to reach all students. We tried ability grouping our students for reading twice a week. This was difficult as we didn’t know the students in our rooms during this time very well, and we didn’t feel we were able to be as effective as we were in our own rooms. Our fourth grade team, in our school, does walk to math. The teachers take turns teaching the different levels of learners. They change rooms everyday during math time. They have seen a lot of success with this model. We are thinking of trying it in third grade, but are hesitant as our reading time was not very successful. Our principal is pushing us to give it a try this coming year. Personally, I feel I am successful in my classroom with reading and math using small grouping as well as scaffolding. I teach to the highest level students and then small group with all students. This can be very time consuming and is difficult to always make happen. Does anyone else do walk to math or walk to read? Any thoughts or suggestions on how it is working for you? We are always looking for new ways to make learning the most effective for our students.

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The school I work in is continually working towards a true PLC system. It is a process that takes time and is difficult to accomplish in a district with high turn over rates in teachers. I have often wondered why many districts are for walking to read but not walking to math. I have always felt as if walking to read was an absolute must based on the powers that be, but also the opposite for walking to math. The reason behind NOT walking to math is give students the opportunity to communicate and have models. I do not understand why this is not the same idea for reading. Any ideas?

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Thank you for the information provided on student grouping. I do have a question. A great deal of information was presented detailing how grouping adversely affects students in lower tracks. Is there also research available on how inclusion/mainstreaming affects higher performing students who share classes with lower performing students? As a teacher who has taught courses that included both LRE students as well as top 10 students sitting in the same classroom, I know it is a challenge to reach each of these students on their appropriate level of comprehension. From my experience as an instructor, it is a struggle to not bore one student while also attempting to not leave another student behind. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

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In the 3 schools, in the 3 states I have worked in, the elementary schools consistently performed well. There are a number of reasons why students generally do well in elementary school. The biggest is that the students are in heterogeneous groups. And now that teachers differentiate within the heterogeneous classroom, elementary school instruction, when done well, has never been better. I see teachers working in large groups, scaffolding instruction for all learners. I also see small intervention flexible groups that target specific skills.

The other strong piece in elementary schools is that they have the time to get to know their children and to integrate instruction across disciplines. Elementary schools are not restricted to 45 minutes periods. If had I had to guess, most schools that embrace tracking also embrace the short period schedule.

Clearly, I am an elementary principal. I have seen so many great middle and high schools that have moved to eliminate tracking and embrace creative scheduling. Most of these schools were trying to capture the dynamic that exists in an elementary school.

Finally, I get frustrated when accountability forces school leaders to embrace philosophies we all know do not work. I don't blame this principal for being creative in trying to find a better way to help the children. You can almost hear the desperation in his/her voice as she asked the DuFours this question.

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