It doesn't take much to astound the education world. A few years ago the experts were rocked by news that "most juvenile crime happens after school.' Yes, according to researchers, more kids commit crimes when they're not in school than when they are in school.
Equally astute researchers have concluded that "students who rank in the bottom fifth of basic skills have a very low probability of completing college,' and that improving a child's reading proficiency "can dramatically increase the kid's chances of going to college.
As for instructional methods, The Washington Post recently headlined that students should read material ahead of time, discuss in class what they've read, and ask their teacher for help with anything that remains unclear. The Post included a "source' for this revolutionary approach, which means somebody actually claims to have invented it.
Heterogeneous grouping has long enjoyed prominence as a research-based instructional method. This is the practice of deliberately not grouping students according to their academic ability. If you're wondering why anyone would deliberately try to teach students with widely different academic aptitudes, needs, and interests simultaneously, you obviously haven't attended enough mind-numbing, education reform workshops.
Experts have insisted for decades that ability-based grouping is "discriminatory.' Advocates contend that ethnic minorities and students from "poor families' often wind up in lower ability classes, and that less-competent teachers and students with behavior problems are often assigned to these classes.
Schools could have addressed those last two complaints, in schools where they were valid, without eliminating ability grouping, simply by reassigning teachers and removing disruptive students from classes at every ability level. Schools can do less, however, to remedy the disadvantages commonly conveyed by lower "socioeconomic class.' Poverty is no bar to academic achievement, just as wealth is no guarantee of success, but students from homes with more books, better diets, and better-educated parents do enjoy advantages.
For decades the only acceptable response was to eliminate academic grouping. Anyone who disagreed was guilty of endorsing a "destructive,' "racist' practice.
You don't have to be a bigot to suggest that it makes sense to teach students in groups according to what they know and what they can do. That's why beginning skiers don't start at the summit of the mountain and experts aren't subjected to the bunny slope. It also doesn't best serve either group to hold class for everybody halfway up the hill.
Nonetheless, by 1998 only twenty-eight percent of reading teachers were teaching classes grouped by ability.
Now "emerging research' suggests that ability grouping "can in fact benefit students.' Not surprisingly, allowing teachers to work with a "more narrow range of students' is "beneficial for both high and low-scoring individuals,' with both ends of the spectrum "perform[ing] better when grouped with peers' who share comparable abilities and achievement levels.
Naturally, devout reformers are appalled. They're also dismayed by Brookings Institution data which show that the number of reading teachers in classes grouped by ability has risen to seventy percent.
Another reform initiative is also facing mounting evidence that it's a bad idea. Between 2005 and 2011, at the urging of reformers, forty-five states increased the number of eighth grade students taking algebra. Unfortunately for reformers and math students, according to federal NAEP data, the "increased enrollment hasn't led to higher math performance,' with data suggesting that higher eighth grade algebra enrollment actually had a negative impact on performance.
Numerous studies indicate that placing lower performing math students in higher level classes results in "watered down' math where algebra is replaced with "a significant amount of more basic material.' As a result, higher performing students are missing out on the rigor and advanced math they could and should be learning, while lower performing students are being denied the skills they could and should master, especially if they ever hope to study real algebra.
You shouldn't need a crystal ball to predict that placing students who are unprepared for algebra in an algebra class, especially on an accelerated timetable, will result in either lots of students who fail or lots of adjustments in what you're calling algebra. After all, if these kids had been ready to take algebra, chances are they would have been placed in an algebra class on their own merit and not because we're making a rule that everyone has to take algebra.
It's hard to figure out why education reformers have such a hard time discerning between common sense and cutting-edge, bark-at-the-moon lunacy.
It's also more than a little scary. Because theirs are the minds that are shaping the schools that are shaping the minds that will soon inherit the Republic.