By STEVE RIVKIN and CATHERINE SANDERSON
Published on December 11, 2009
At entry to kindergarten children differ widely in academic preparation, in part because of differential access to enriching early education programs. Such gaps evolve with age, as families use resources to support children in ways that tend to widen differences and schools devote resources to academic support to lessen these differences. By the time students arrive in middle and high school there is substantial variation in proficiency and interest in various subjects. Such differences present a considerable challenge for schools and teachers in their efforts to differentiate education in ways that intellectually engage and challenge all children.
One option is to group students in classrooms on the basis of skills, thereby narrowing the range that teachers must address in a single class. Such grouping tailors the level and pace of the curriculum on the basis of academic preparation, but it also evokes concerns about potential adverse effects on self esteem and academic progress for children assigned to lower levels and/or the fairness of the mechanism used to group students.
An alternative approach is to maintain heterogeneous classrooms but attempt to differentiate instruction based on academic preparation. Although this avoids the need to determine which class is appropriate for each child, it also places substantial demands on teachers who must teach at multiple levels or risk losing some portion of students by either progressing too quickly or too slowly.
Although the Amherst schools use both approaches to differentiate instruction, compared to other Minority Student Achievement Network districts our middle and high schools are much more likely to maintain heterogeneous classrooms. For example, there are no separate honors or AP English classes in the high school, and there is no longer a separate honors seventh-grade mathematics course. Moreover, differentiated instruction in our schools often appears to mean simply providing students with more challenging work to complete outside of the classroom in the form of homework, which may disadvantage those with fewer home resources and less encouragement to voluntarily complete the extra work.
Several factors have likely contributed to the growing commitment to heterogeneous classrooms in our schools, including the belief that grouping harms students assigned to the non-honors classrooms and concerns about fairness based in part on the disproportionate share of low-income children and children of color who have historically been assigned to such classes. These are strong arguments against grouping by academic proficiency, but a fundamental issue remains as to how this approach affects the academic achievement and intellectual engagement of all children.
Despite our rather unique approach to differentiated instruction, we have not systematically evaluated the effects of our methods for serving students with varying levels of preparation, meaning that we have little basis on which to judge the advantages and drawbacks. This includes the reliance on students taking the initiative to complete additional work outside of the classroom rather than being selected (by some combination of testing and teacher recommendation) to receive a more challenging level of instruction during the school day, which in some cases is necessary to qualify for honors-level classes in a subsequent grade. Although it avoids explicit grouping, our approach may disadvantage students under less pressure from parents or peers to push themselves academically or students and parents who are less well informed about curricular options.
As budget shortfalls lead to larger classes that likely make it more difficult to reach children at different levels of proficiency, we believe that it is more important than ever to evaluate rigorously the effectiveness of heterogeneous classes. All our children deserve an intellectually engaging and supported education in all subjects. Moreover, the absence of grouping, although ideologically appealing to some, does not necessarily lead to improved academic outcomes for struggling students or reduced racial or income achievement gaps. It is student outcomes rather than the appeal of specific types of structures upon which we should judge our schools.
Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.