Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ability grouping is NOT tracking...and here's why

“Grouping all the gifted students together is tantamount to racism. The students will be tracked and I am morally against this.”

One can make two major arguments in response to this statement. First, gifted students do not necessarily have to be grouped together in one homogeneous unit all the time. We might use within-class grouping, cluster grouping, cross-grade grouping, subject-specific grouping, pull-out programs, and/or full-class heterogeneous grouping as appropriate, and these can all be flexible options (Allan, 1991; Gentry & Owen, 1999; Rogers, 2002; Rogers, Re-Forming Gifted Education).

There is no reason these opportunities should be seen as set in stone; the idea of tracking, where identified GT students are always together for every class (and other students are effectively blocked from participating in compacted, higher-level courses), is unreasonable if we consider the myriad ways and speeds at which children learn and grow. This is one of the reasons Virginia now requires annual screening of all students for GT services (8VAC20-40-40); children change, and we have to give abilities and talents a chance to emerge.

It is true some students show intellectual giftedness in all areas of the curriculum, but most have strengths and weaknesses; advanced in math does not necessarily mean advanced in language arts. Flexible grouping, a major tenet of differentiated instruction (see Carol Ann Tomlinson for lots of information about this), is designed to address just these types of scenarios.

The second tactic involves challenging the very assumption of a superior/inferior dichotomy. As stated by Fiedler, Lange, and Winebrenner (2002), “…being able to function at an advanced level intellectually does not, automatically, make an individual better than anyone else. It merely implies a difference that requires an educational response that may be erroneously interpreted by some as giving one group an unfair advantage”.

We do not even blink when one group of athletes is placed on the varsity team while others play JV, nor do we think twice about providing special education services to students who struggle due to various disabilities (Pare, 2004). People tend not to see these things as “giving one group an unfair advantage”; JV teams provide places for athletes to hone their skills while still receiving playing time, while those with already-developed and/or extraordinary abilities are not forced to do drills and exercises they do not need. Special education services permit certain students the accommodations they need to learn and grow at an appropriate and reasonable pace, while allowing other students to learn and grow at a more accelerated tempo. Why should appropriately serving gifted students be any different?

Rather than assuming intellectually advanced students will be seen (and see themselves) as superior to others, we should be attempting to understand gifted students and giftedness in the context of individual differences, just like we do with athletics, fine arts, and other areas (Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner, 2002; Rogers, 2002).

Insisting, instead, that all students be grouped heterogeneously at all times has a terrible consequence of its own; we actually encourage elitist attitudes among gifted students by ensuring they will always be “the smartest kids in each class”. Unless they are appropriately challenged by spending at least some of their time with intellectual peers, they may develop the very attitude many seek to avoid by refusing them these crucial interactions (Fiedler, Lange, & Winebrenner, 2002).

1 comment:

  1. 'Well said and cited, too! I've always liked the "sports athletes" argument, especially since I'm an "athletic misfit" myself. I'm glad you suggest the topic, "How ability grouping benefits students in regular classrooms." Keep beating your drum!



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