School choice and ability grouping

by John Merrifield


For years, it was lost in the wreckage from the crash of the politically incorrect “tracking” of students. But now, the worthy concept of “ability grouping” is making a comeback. A June 9 New York Times article on its resurgence is good news, but in the current public school system the much-needed ability grouping by subject is especially costly, with a very a limited upside. If parents had more school choice – more freedom to choose within a system that could easily diversify its instructional offerings in response to families’ interests and needs – the power and attractiveness of the concept would be much greater.

Unlike tracking, which assumes an across-the-board, one-dimensional level of student ability – i.e., students are uniformly brilliant, average, or slow – ability grouping by subject recognizes children have strengths and weaknesses. Strengths probably correlate with interest/talent, so in a system of genuine school choices, parents recognizing those interest/talents would tend to enroll their children in schools specializing in those particular areas. They’d be in classrooms with children who are similarly passionate and able to progress at similar, fast rates. And, likewise, for necessary subject matter in which they are not as adept, again, they’d be in a room and school building full of kids more similar to them. Stigma gone; no self-esteem threat.

This is not to contend that all students in say, an arts- and music-focused school or in a science- and technology-focused school, wouldn’t study some or both those subjects along with standards such as English, math and history. But students in those schools are likely to be more connected and engaged because of the emphasis on things they have strong interest in and an aptitude toward. Undoubtedly, each type of school will attract some students that are strong across the curriculum, but many of the science school students might have a more difficult time with English and the arts and vice versa.

In a traditional public school, children don’t have a common level of ability in particular subjects or means of instruction because they only have their neighborhood in common. You can see the effect in the photo in the Times article. The system would benefit from the option of having a relative uniformity of subject ability in each classroom, but in traditional public schools, ability grouping means dividing classrooms into sets of kids with different abilities for the subject matter at hand. The teacher has to circulate between tables of children with similar abilities, dividing her time between groups and finding the time to differentiate lesson plans; something that taxes time and teaching talent.

For all the emphasis in recent years on differentiated instruction, the results show that at best doing it well is extremely difficult and rather rare. The kids are also aware, perhaps “painfully” so, when they’re among the “dummies,” hence the political resistance.

The resurgence of ability grouping within the current system may be temporary. Or it may be forced to stay under the radar that tends to detect and destroy anything that smacks of unequal treatment in our public schools, even if differentiation is needed to engage children.

Our current system cannot pursue ability grouping in a way way that would maximize benefits, including reduced teaching burdens, minimized teacher prep, and reduced student self-esteem costs. A system with expanded school choice can.