To group or not to group
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Can’t get a delegate slot to go to one of the party conventions this summer and are looking for something else to do in July? Maybe the B-BALI Advanced Leadership Conference in Iowa is for you.
EdWeek ran an article, really an opinion piece, about ability grouping, where students are grouped in a classroom with other students of similar ability in the content area being studied. The author, Shirley Clark, who is from London, praised mixed-ability learning, where students from differing ability levels are grouped together, while simultaneously denigrating the above mentioned practice of grouping kids by their academic mastery levels instead of just age levels. The article cites a meta study of mixed ability grouping and pronounces it a superior method that is embraced by other countries.
What Clark doesn’t highlight is that the studies examined in the meta analysis focused primarily on mixed-ability grouping’s effect on low performing students. For them, there is a small positive effect. What the studies also show is that mixed-ability grouping for bright or gifted children actually has a negative impact. In many classrooms, my child’s as well, bright students become at best a crutch for the teacher, being asked to act like a teacher’s aide and help struggling students in their group, and at worst an ignored subgroup. They are under challenged, bored and falling behind their full potential.
Susan G. Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo and Miraca Gross wrote A Nation Deceived in 2004 which examined the research on ability grouping and America’s reluctance to use this proven effective teaching strategy. Their paper claims, “Every year, across the nation, students who should be moved ahead at their natural pace of learning are told to stay put. Thousands of students are told to lower their expectations, and put their dreams on hold.”
Assouline promotes acceleration which allows students to progress at their own natural pace. Such students may be grouped together in an ability group. The strategy encourages teachers to provide advanced learning options for students who show the right aptitude. These options may not be what the rest of the class is working on. This allows the brightest students to truly achieve as much as possible. It allows low performing students to advance at a pace that is both challenging but also manageable without feeling inferior to high performing students.
The way it works is a little different depending on what grades you are talking about. High schools have most easily adopted some form of acceleration by offering dual enrollment with local colleges, Advance Placement and IB courses for gifted students. Some middle schools are beginning to embrace this as well offering some students advanced math, language arts and foreign language courses. Elementary schools are the least receptive to the idea of advancing students, ability grouping them or providing alternative assignments for gifted students.
Acceleration does not mean pushing a child beyond what they are capable of or ready for. Choosing to accelerate a child is done only after assessment by the teacher and in close consultation with the parents. It may be done for a single subject or multiple subjects, depending on assessment. Concern about hurrying a child through childhood is often misplaced as gifted students find themselves socially and intellectually mismatched with similar aged peers. The authors claim, “Choosing not to accelerate is itself an intervention. The evidence indicates that when children’s academic and social needs are not met, the result is boredom and disengagement from school…. By worrying about hurrying, a chance is missed to match the enthusiastic, passionate, bright child who has the ability to move ahead with the right curriculum. They ignore the bright student’s rage to learn.”
The meta study cited in the EdWeek article (John Hattie Visible Learning Meta Study, 2009, updated 2012) actually supports ability grouping and accelerated learning for gifted students, something Clark fails to mention. Hattie finds a d=0.30 effect size for ability grouping gifted students. Effect size is a statistical measure that shows how far away a student’s performance is from the expected norm. For comparison, under Hattie’s model, a d=0.0-0.15 ES is the effect of an average teacher on a class. It is the amount a student would have developed over the school year with minimal teacher influence. Thus a 0.30 effect gets more into Hattie’s range of desirable effects of a particular strategy. It is significant then when he finds an effect size (0.88) for acceleration programs. Some have argued that Hattie’s statistical analysis is flawed, but the trend of his numbers still tells an important story.
A Nation Deceived gives the following 20 important points regarding accelerated learning.
- Acceleration is the most effective curriculum intervention for gifted children.
- For bright students, acceleration has long-term beneficial effects, both academically and socially.
- Acceleration is a virtually cost-free intervention.
- Gifted children tend to be socially and emotionally more mature than their age-mates. For many bright students, acceleration provides a better personal maturity match with classmates.
- When bright students are presented with curriculum developed for age-peers, they can become bored and unhappy and get turned off from learning.
- Testing, especially above-level testing (using tests developed for older students), is highly effective in identifying students who would benefit from acceleration.
- The evidence and mechanisms are available to help schools make good decisions about acceleration so that it is a low-risk/high-success intervention for qualified students. The Iowa Acceleration Scale is a proven, effective instrument for helping schools make decisions about whole-grade acceleration.
- The 18 types of acceleration available to bright students fall into two broad categories: grade-based acceleration, which shortens the number of years a student spends in the K–12 system and subject-based acceleration, which allows for advanced content earlier than customary.
- Entering school early is an excellent option for some gifted students both academically and socially. High ability young children who enroll early generally settle in smoothly with their older classmates.
- Gifted students entering college early experience both short-term and long-term academic success, leading to long- term occupational success and personal satisfaction.
- Many alternatives to full-time early college entrance are available for bright high school students who prefer to stay with age-peers.These include dual enrollment in high school and college, distance education, and summer programs. Advanced Placement (AP) is the best large-scale option for bright students who want to take college-level courses in high school.
- Very few early college entrants experience social or emotional difficulties.When these do occur they are usually short- term and part of the adjustment process.
- Radical acceleration (acceleration by two or more years) is effective academically and socially for highly gifted students.
- Many educators have been largely negative about the practice of acceleration, despite abundant research evidence for its success and viability.
- To encourage a major change in America’s perceptions of educational acceleration, we will need to use all the engines of change: legislation, the courts, administrative rules, and professional initiatives.
- Effective implementation of accelerative options for gifted students with disabilities is time- and resource-intensive.
- It is important for parents to be fully involved in the decision-making process about their child’s acceleration.
- The few problems that have been experienced with acceleration have stemmed primarily from incomplete or poor planning.
- Educational equity does not mean educational sameness. Equity respects individual differences in readiness to learn and recognizes the value of each student.
- The key question for educators is not whether to accelerate a gifted learner, but rather how.
If your school district is interested in helping students achieve their highest level of performance, then maybe they should send someone to the Belin-Blank Advanced Leadership Institute (B-BALI) July 25 – 26, 2016, at the Iowa Memorial Union, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA. The Belin-Blank Institute will focus on A Nation Empowered: Research-Based Evidence about Acceleration and Gifted/Talented Students which updates A Nation Deceived. From the website:
“A Nation Empowered includes updated information about the best-researched yet most under-utilized educational option for gifted students: academic acceleration. In spite of the strong research base supporting the implementation of the many forms of acceleration, many schools do not routinely utilize any of the options, and educators often express concerns about accelerating students, assuming that doing nothing is better than taking a “risk” with acceleration.”
More information and registration for the conference can be found here.