Grouping practices - especially tracking - often have the effect of reducing equity. Research generally shows that tracking and between-class ability grouping benefit students who are placed in high-end tracks or groups while having a detrimental effect on students placed in low-end tracks or groups (see, e.g., Secada, 1992).
Tracking based on the student's ability, which determines course content, the number of courses, and often the career path that a student chooses, has had the following negative results:
Mary Hatwood Futrell, National Education Association, in the videoconference, Managing Instruction for Equity and Excellence (1989), on poor white and minority students in lower tracks (119k). A text transcript is available.
"During the elementary grades, the science and mathematics experiences of children from low-income families, African-American and Hispanic children, children who attend school in central cities, and children who have been clustered in 'low-ability classes' differ in small but important ways from those of their more advantaged and white peers. By the time the students reach secondary school, their science and mathematics experiences are strikingly different."
Students placed in high-end tracks or ability groups benefit most from both tracking and ability grouping (Secada, 1992):
Such research offers considerable evidence to support the elimination of traditional tracking and between-class ability grouping. In schools that eliminate low- and middle-end grouping practices while retaining high-end grouping practices, it is essential to evaluate regularly entry into the high-end groups and to ensure that high-end groups are accessible to all.
As an alternative to tracking and ability grouping, advocates of equity most frequently propose using small, cooperative learning groups in heterogeneous classrooms. In diverse cooperative learning groups, students demonstrate individual accountability and responsibility for working with others toward a shared goal.
Dr. Robert Slavin, director of the Elementary School Program, Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools, Johns Hopkins University, in the videoconference, Managing Instruction for Equity and Excellence (1989) on the benefits of cooperative learning for disabled and minority students (306k). A text transcript is available.
Cooperative learning groups, in combination with preventative tutoring, within-class ability grouping, and other alternatives to traditional tracking, have been shown to result in higher achievement, little or no psychological harm, and less segregation (Slavin, 1987). In fact, in-class ability grouping, when it is closely related to the purposes of instruction and is applied flexibly - grouping and regrouping based on the needs and interests of students - can be beneficial for students of diverse ability (Secada, 1992).
Flexible grouping practices that call for collaboration by diverse groups of students, when combined with high expectations and high-quality mathematics instruction, have great potential for ensuring equity and excellence for all students. These practices enable teachers to meet a wide range of individual needs. Consequently, they also may enable educators to be more responsive to the concerns of diverse parents and community members.
A thoughtful reexamination of grouping practices can bring the educational community closer to the vision for excellent schools in OERI's National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993 [Now Institute of Educational Sciences]). This report recommends that we create flexible schools - using flexible grouping and instructional opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom - that improve education for all students, including the most able.
For more information on grouping practices, see the issue of Educational Leadership (Dec. 1994/Jan. 1995) on "The Inclusive School" which discusses experiences with detracking and differing views on meeting the needs of both gifted and disabled students, and provides a wide range of visions, experiences, and commentary.
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