Dividing Children By Academic Ability Would Hurt the Classroom Environment

Many elementary school teachers have adopted the strategy of separating better math students and readers from their less gifted peers. But this so-called ability grouping tactic fails to teach students the skills they actually need to succeed. 

The ability tactic lost support in the early 1990s, but according to a recent New York Times article by Vivian Yee, teachers are once again resorting to it. A study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 71% of fourth grade teachers reported they grouped students by reading ability in 2009, which had increased from only 28% of teachers in 1998. Similarly, “in math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996.” 

Teachers use ability grouping as a way to offer more specialized instruction where they see fit. The strategy does not only benefit the more gifted learners, but the struggling students who need more attention to succeed. Supporters of grouping students argue that the tactic allows the gifted students to maximize their potential. It may be a way of pushing gifted students to their absolute limits. Jill Sears, who began teaching 17 years ago at a New Hampshire elementary school, said that while some students completed their work quickly and effortlessly, others struggled to finish the same exercises. “The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest would become frustrated, give up and act out,” she told the New York Times.

A Washington Post article argued that when left to work with less gifted students, the higher achieving students receive the message that "they should hit the pause button on their learning until other students catch up." But while pushing students to achieve their highest academic potential is, of course, an important aspect of educational systems, there are equally as important values such as teamwork, cooperation and tolerance that elementary schools must also promote.

The harsh reality is that race and socioeconomic often determine child’s early academic ability. According to the New York Times, “socioeconomic factors are a stronger indicator of where a student will end up than race … with minorities spread among groups but with many poorer children congregating in lower-tier groups and remedial programs.” But the article also acknowledged that white and Asian students dominate most “gifted” groups while African American and Hispanic students tend to lag behind due to economic constraints and parents who tend to be less educated and less able to help with homework. Of course teachers are not separating students by race and socioeconomic status purposely, but in such classrooms it is extremely to propagate tolerance and diversity.

Another Washington Post article argued that when the brightest and struggling students are left together in classrooms, the result is that all students learn and cooperate as social equals. These are the values that elementary schools should be propagating. In addition, the most gifted students should be encouraged to help their peers, thus allowing them to grasp the material in new ways and learn the importance of sharing and helping others. Schools are rapidly becoming more cutthroat, but elementary schools must reinstate the importance of cooperation and teamwork.

A separate issue highlighted in the Washington Post is that grouping students by ability often instills a self-fulfilling prophecy with negative effects on those students deemed less gifted may view themselves as dumb and unable to improve.

One important role of teachers is to help the most gifted students maximize their intellectual capacity and excel academically, but there are more appropriate settings to do so than in elementary school classrooms. For example, separate honors programs and advanced placement (AP) curriculum, which are offered when students are older, more developed, and already exposed to cooperative and diverse settings, are more apt environments for ability grouping.

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Hannah Loewentheil

I am a Senior at Brown University where I am studying international relations and non-fiction writing. Follow me on twitter @hrl792.

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