Why Grouping Kids Based on Ability Works

The hottest trend in grade-school teaching: grouping kids based on ability. Here, experts weigh in on why this approach is working. 

It's time for the fourth-graders at Washburn Elementary School, in Bloomington, Minnesota, to work on language arts. After a classroom discussion about Chicken Sunday, a book promoting multicultural friendships, Kim Avaloz, their teacher, directs the 19 students to one of five assigned workstations. The groups are organized based on standardized test, as well as informal assessments, and are designed to team up kids working on similar skills. Some pore over novels in the reading nook. Others use a laptop and headphones to try reading along with a fluent reader. Another group tackles writing. Avaloz connects with three groups a day, rotating so that every student gets individual attention. She uses the same technique for math. The groups are flexible, so a child might be in a slower-paced group for decimals and a faster-paced one for geometry, and can switch levels during the year.

Now that the Common Core—a rigorous set of required skills for students in grades K–12—has been implemented in 43 states, our kids' learning is in the national spotlight. But a very different conversation is taking place among administrators, teachers, and education researchers: What is the most effective way to provide elementary-school kids with individualized attention?

The answer, increasingly, is to do what Avaloz has done: group kids by ability. While the Department of Education hasn't issued a policy statement about the optimal learning approach, a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that a majority of teachers divide their classrooms up by reading and/or math ability. The setup is a happy medium between "tracking" (a popular strategy for much of the 20th century that placed students in separate classes based on ability, as still occurs in grades 6–12) and teaching the same lesson to every child. Most classes have subgroups only for these two core subjects, with the students taught together for other subjects.

Years of research conducted by Frederick Morrison, Ph.D., a professor of education at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and Carol McDonald Connor, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, found that students who were taught in small groups matched to their reading level made literacy gains that were, on average, two months higher per year than children who were taught using a whole-class instructional approach.

A Bigger Investment

Count Amanda Stanton-Geddes among the supporters of learning groups. When her first-grader was placed in a slower-paced reading group in his Belmont, California, elementary school, she saw an immediate payoff. "The structure and extra support gave him a chance to develop skills, and now he's no longer in that group," she says.

The challenge with tweaking a lesson plan for multiple levels is that it requires additional work for teachers. Avaloz says planning for her classroom's math and reading groups uses up all of her allotted school-day prep time as well as extra hours during the weekend. Still, she says the time investment is worth it, as the approach has made her a more effective teacher.

Not all educators are on board, though. Plus, grouping students can cause extra stress for parents, who worry, rightly or not, about what a child's level suggests about her academic future. "It made me worry that my daughter would think she wasn't smart," says a Minneapolis mom, of her daughter's being placed in a slower-paced third-grade reading group. "I was afraid the teachers would reduce their expectations for what she could achieve." When conversations with administrators at the school went nowhere, the mom signed her daughter up for private tutoring. By fifth grade her child had advanced to the top reading and math groups.

The main objection to grouping is that it denies students the chance to learn from those who solve problems in a different way. When placed together, stronger students help bring up the weaker ones. In turn, they are exposed to alternative ways of thinking about things. Being placed in a "low" group can also damage a child's self-esteem. "When you pull out the kids who struggle, you lose the spark that happens when you combine them with those who get it," says Linda Gojak, past president of communications for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a nonprofit group with more than 80,000 members.

Placement Importance

Some administrators also worry that in today's hypercompetitive parenting culture, trying to get your child into an accelerated learning group has become its own kind of arms race—with potentially negative consequences for students. "Not every child can be in the top 10 percent all of the time," points out Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. She says that rather than lobbying to have their kid placed in the top level, concerned parents would be better off advocating for a group that is "just right" for him.

The decision to use flexible learning groups for reading or math generally happens at the district level. However, teaching methods vary from school to school and even class to class (depending on a teacher's willingness to implement subgroups). Those distinctions can have a significant impact on a child's education, in grade school and beyond. To make sure your kid's educational needs are being met, follow this checklist.

Get Specifics From Your School

Talk to your child's teacher about how the class is composed. Does the school support kids of different abilities, and what criteria are used to determine them? If the groups are set for an entire year, it could be a red flag that the program pigeonholes kids rather than allowing them to grow.

Embrace a "Strengths and Challenges" Outlook

Your child will likely be adept at certain skills and labor with others. "Often a student learns the most in a class where she struggles, not where she excels naturally," says Weingarten.

Help Your Child Accept His Level

Even if your school takes pains to mask the fact that learning groups are tied to achievement, kids usually know exactly where they stand. If your child asks about his level, respond along these lines: "This group works at a speed that your teacher thinks will work well for you." Regardless of which group he is assigned to, look for signs of progress—and offer praise when you see it. Unless your child's teacher recommends it, hold off on tutoring. "Pushing a student to do advanced math before he's developmentally ready can end up backfiring," says Gojak. "Young children need to master skills at their own pace and often come into their own academically in middle school."

Examine the Data

If you believe your child hasn't been placed in the right group, meet with the teacher to discuss your concerns. Experts say a range of assessments should be used to gauge learning levels. Having her walk you through the analysis should clear up any confusion. If you still feel your child wasn't properly placed, this gives you an opening to push for a change.

Dial in to Your Kid's Interests 

Research indicates that children learn best when they're surrounded by students with similar passions. "If kids are into robotics or zombies or farming, reading together enables them to have engaged discussions," says Joseph Renzulli, Ed.D., the director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. Since your school may not have the resources to group kids that way, be proactive. Try setting up book clubs or signing up for special-interest after-school activities with children who share the same hobby (kitchen-chemistry club, anyone?). This strategy is especially beneficial for students in districts that don't employ a small-group learning approach.

Parents asked kids to share what they like best about going to school. Their answers are, er, educational.

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