When Ability Grouping Makes Good Sense

By James J. Gallagher
I am posting this article from 1992 given the recent debate on one size fits all classrooms. Professor Gallagher makes the point that the argument that homogeneous grouping hurts no one is clearly false: research consistently shows that high ability students do better when they are in classes with similarly able peers.
The recent educational literature has been filled with discussions of the effects of ability grouping, tracking, etc., and new virtues have been found in the concept of heterogeneous grouping of students. The homogeneous grouping of slow-learning children does not appear to be profitable, but the homogeneous grouping of bright students is a very different matter, and often ignored in these discussions. (See “Tracking Found To Hurt Prospects of Low Achievers,” Education Week, Sept. 16, 1992.)
The goal of heterogeneous grouping appears to be a social one, not an academic one.(emphasis added) The desirability of that goal needs to be argued on its own merits, which I believe to be considerable. The argument is clouded, however, by the insistence of the proponents that nothing is lost in academic performance by such grouping. This position is clearly false, in my judgment, as it applies to bright students. Apart from the meta-analyses which indicate substantial gains for gifted students grouped for ability, there is a small matter of common sense.

Do we improve the skills of our Olympic swimmers by asking that they take time to teach nonswimmers how to swim? Is our plan for preparing the next John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors to ask them to play tennis with novices? Are our graduate classes more stimulating if we combine the most sophisticated students with beginners, or will we put the sophisticated student to sleep while we try to bring the new students up to speed? How many teachers, given a choice, would take a class with a range of five grade levels of performance in it compared with one that would have two grade levels?
The attempts to draw from the ability-grouping literature a favorable reading on heterogeneous grouping of bright students are disingenuous, to say the very least. They fall short on the following counts:
* Different curriculum. If the gifted students are learning about the Fall of Rome in their special class, how do you compare their performance with gifted students in the heterogeneous classroom? This has often been handled by measuring the two groups on their knowledge that they have both been taught. If the groups achieve equally on that measure, then the gifted group is clearly ahead since they know as much as those in the heterogeneous class, and in addition, have their special knowledge of the Fall of Rome.
* Measuring instruments. Standard achievement tests have often been the measure by which ability grouping is tested. But gifted students clearly bump their heads against the low ceilings of these tests and, therefore, you cannot easily determine how much they really know. The recent move to authentic assessment may help this problem considerably.
* Failure to use personal perceptions. One of the strongest and clearest judgments against heterogeneous grouping is easily available, if seldom used. You merely have to ask the bright students what they think of the two different settings. The statements of gifted students of crashing boredom, of idleness, of lack of challenge are the most eloquent evidence in favor of some form of ability or performance grouping.
* International comparisons. The failure of our best students to keep pace with top students in other countries, documented by the work of Harold Stevenson and others, should surely give people pause before they design an educational setting that seems to insure a less-than-optimum performance from our most capable students.
All of these factors are easily perceived. Can it be that the advocates of heterogeneous grouping want to believe so strongly in their position that they prefer to ignore what is obvious to a first-year graduate student or any knowledgeable parent? Those suggesting, or even wishing, to mandate heterogeneous grouping are following an unfortunate recent American belief that “We can have what we want most, at no cost or sacrifice.” We would almost have to send our political and educational leaders to the dictionary to find the definition of “sacrifice,” since it is so little used in present dialogue.
The honest argument should be over whether the social goals which are presumably attained through heterogeneous grouping are so important that they are worth the cost of lower academic performance from our brightest students. That is the true question and it can be argued on the basis of values and desired outcomes. To believe there are no costs to what we wish to accomplish is to engage ourselves in unproductive, wishful thinking.
Let us come to the issue of the disproportion of minority students in programs for students with special needs, gifted or retarded. The only reason why people would assume that the demographic proportions in special classes for gifted or retarded youths should come out even to their proportions in the society is to believe that intelligence is a factor fixed at conception–an obvious untruth. The proper solution to these disproportions is not to eliminate programs for the gifted, but to enhance the learning environments and opportunities for children who are at risk for less favorable developmental progress, so that more capable students from all economic and cultural backgrounds will qualify for advanced work, as they surely would.
Our sense of justice and equity requires no less, and the future of our society may well depend upon it.
James J. Gallagher is the Kenan Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

21 thoughts on “When Ability Grouping Makes Good Sense”

  1. This is often why people send their kids to private schools or move to public school districts with a more homogeneous social class. The primary motivations can be to provide more homogenous ability grouping and increased attention for bright students and/or to provide more homogenous classrooms in terms of race/class or religion. So, the movement for homogeneous grouping isn’t so clearly academic, either.
    This is most definitely part of the stress within the community that follows and cares about education – we know our society is more multicultural. We know that many of the social safety nets are weakening and we know how critical it is for kids to have a good education. The burden is for the individual as much as it is for the larger society.
    For many of us that know of the great demands that will be placed on our own children, we might be in a state of panic at the moment. That panic may pull us away for our support of the broader social goals of education to the selective focus on our own kids. It is a mistake, in my opinion. We can work supportively to advance the overall quality of public education within much of the current environment.
    Advocates for heterogeneous grouping in public schools aren’t against performance of the brightest students. Quite the contrary, they often do what they can to support high-quality classroom learning, provide attention and refer high-performing children to other resources, such as TAG programs, libraries, museums, and special programs outside the schools. The options available for the in-classroom and in-school attention and groupings vary widely over schools and districts; they depend on the socio-economic status of the kids, the spending per pupil, the overall needs of the children at the school, administrative oversight and creative leadership, and opportunites and promotion of professional development of teachers and administrators. Often (not always), high-performing kids have a wealth of opportunities (high quality day care, college educated parents with good jobs and time to spend with them) and have high expectations placed on them from someone near to them (parent, teacher, or themselves). These kids, for the most part, are not blowing in the wind. For the kids that are, however, we must try to understand the pathology and whatever sadness we have should be matched with commitment to support/challenge all kids to the best of our abilities. If there are unmet social or academic needs, how can we improve and supplement what the public schools are already providing? How can we continue to call social attention to unmet needs? Madison has answered these questions with a wide range of individual efforts and programs supporting young students and their families.
    Emerson said, “The secret of education lies in the respect of the pupil.” Teachers care about their students, affirm them, know the issues and the demands on them. There is a natural tendancy for classroom teachers to focus on kids that are struggling. Classroom grouping is just one tool schools use to meet the broader needs of the kids. This is a perceived threat to the advanced student, because it may divert attention. But, public education is a balance, and the measures of overall delivery and assessment are complex – they tend to deal with a higher weighting on overall classroom achievement and minimum performance rather than on the rate of advancement of the highest performers. To give due respect to advanced students, teachers and administrators also need to have in place the pedagogy, resources, and assessment measures for these students. Promoting this set of higher order tasks is more important than criticism of the particular tool of homogeneous grouping.
    Public education should be based on a clear reflection on our calling as a society to provide basic skills, literature, the arts, math and science, and more in a safe, friendly, and supportive learning environment. That passion is not only a social one, it is an academic one. Advocates for heterogeneous grouping often believe that the academic and social development of children cannot be divided. The mind has a role in society, and so it should be developed, at least in part, within environments that expose it to broader social conditions. Yes, there are fundamental, social reasons behind heterogenous grouping – but there are also academic benefits, especially when higher order processes are in place to promote learning in diverse settings.

  2. I must respectfully disagree with several of Jerry’s statements:
    (1) “So, the movement for homogeneous grouping isn’t so clearly academic, either.” — Not true. The concern is ENTIRELY about academics. Most parents of gifted kids in Madison want to see mechanisms to identify and nurture ALL talented/gifted children, not just those who have highly educated parents. And the school district seems to be actively against pursuing such mechanisms.
    (2) “These kids, for the most part, are not blowing in the wind.” — I think we just don’t notice the ones who are blowing in the wind. My kids would definitely be in this category if not for the outside opportunities which we have the time to seek out and the money to pay for. So what happens to the kids who don’t have such home support? There are many talented/gifted kids who just become bored, drop out, etc. because they don’t have the “wealth of opportunities” you mentioned.
    (3) “Teachers care about their students, affirm them, know the issues and the demands on them.” — The good teachers, yes. Certainly not all teachers in the MMSD. A huge problem in the MMSD is that there is no mechanism to get rid of poorly trained and/or motivated teachers (either because of the teachers’ union or lack of will of the administration). How can extra money help if it goes equally to teachers regardless of their quality?
    With our 3 kids we have experienced the whole spectrum of teacher quality – absolutely fantastic through mediocre to dreadful. Specifically on the differentiation issue, in first grade one of our twins had an outstanding teacher who handled her mixed 1st/2nd grade classroom adroitly, while the other had probably the worst teacher we have ever encountered. (With twins it’s much harder to push for great teachers for both…)
    Sadly, it seems that the main rewards for the outstanding teachers are intangibles like their own senses of satisfaction, student and parental gratitude, etc. And for teachers who aren’t able or motivated to handle differentiation, there doesn’t seem to be much disincentive, since they still collect the same salary based on years of service.
    Given this situation, I would argue that expecting heterogeneous classrooms to generally work well in Madison is unrealistic.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Barb. I hope to clarify.
    1. Regardless of intentions (which I can accept that for you are purely academic), the outcome of homogeneous groupings would not simply be about academics. In a given school, homogeneous groupings are often challenged on the basis of class and race implications. To some extent, there is a legal basis for inclusion and heterogeneous settings. On a broader scale, those opting out of public education for the purposes of more homogeneous settings – places a greater burden on those remaining public classrooms to manage effectively. I can accept the main point raised by Prof. Gallagher that there can be a negative impact from heterogeneous grouping on the academic performance of advanced students, especially without other student-supporting measures. It is one of many complex tradeoffs. However, one of my points was that grouping is only one of a set of strategies to meet needs of high-performing students. We need to look at the whole set. As a broader community our very willingness to support the broad goals of public education is a service to all learners. I think it is hopeful (wishy-washy and naive?) statements like this that Prof. Gallagher is complaining about, but it won’t change my position for broader support for MMSD. MMSD’s goal is not mediocrity.
    2. I hope the “respect for the pupil” can include all learners and we need to identify disengaged learners. You don’t have to look far to find many, many people in the school community willing and able to reach out. Parents can help the school know about kids that are having problems with reduced attention or anxiety. On broader community resources, one tremendous, low-cost and high access community resource is the public library. The fact that it is outside the school shouldn’t limit our interest in it as a place for learning and personal growth. For our most gifted students, there are few limits in the library. There’s also Simpson St. Press, museums, university programs, low-cost afterschool programs, and much more. Even for drop-outs, there are opportunities.
    3. I think a very high percentage of our teachers do care, do affirm kids, and do know the issues and demands on them. They may not all be able to consistently deliver to every student. I’d rather start with an assumption that the teachers have good intentions, and I would recommend that we encourage administrators to focus on effective assessment, clear communication for performance standards and educational goals, and use of the personnel policies in place. As it is important to continue to stay on top of the assessment and progressive discipline process, it is also important to support those teachers willing to train, join, stay and grow within the teaching profession. Perhaps the ‘worst teachers’ in our midst are great for some students, were once great and/or have it in them to improve. The union, last I checked, is still heavily supported by teachers – and they have collective bargaining power to influence the contract. For teachers, the most important factors for their job satisfaction is not the pay, but the kids and the quality of the broader learning environment. How they feel valued or not by the community is also a factor. So, if you want to improve teaching, work to support the quality of the broader learning environment.
    Although I don’t agree with the position for more homogeneous settings a priori, there’s still much value to ideas that promote higher achievement. Our kids will need to advance at a fast pace to deal with the problems we are leaving them. So, on the primary goal of supporting high-performing kids, I’m with you.
    On a personal note, I’ve been very happy with the quality of teaching and learning our 3 (high-performing) kids have found within heterogeneous classrooms at Midvale / Lincoln. The social benefits to them and us from the diverse settings have also been great.

  4. As I read this article that was written in 1992, and note the use of the word “retarded,” an offensive and sorely outdated word, I wonder what else in the article is outdated information as well. I would be very interested to read more timely research on this topic.

  5. There are different types of TAG kids. There are those who yes, have the high IQs and there are those who are highly motivated. Not all high IQ children are high preformers.
    I agree with you that an extrovert can benefit from some of the hetrogeneous groupings. Studies have shown (ex. Linda Silverman) that for the majority of higher intellectual people, the higher the IQ, the more introverted the person is. First, very, very few teachers are introverts (most teachers enjoy attention, even if it is from kids) and therefore introverts are a misunderstood group. Because of this, introverted kids are thought as needing help with their social skills. Introverts don’t deal well in group situations, it wears them out, where extroverts are energized. Where an introvert needs down time they will read a book to get energized. Introverts are very private, and are afraid to make mistakes in public and humiliation in public. Extroverts love attention and get motivated by outside influences, whereas introverts motivate themselves and hate attention. Extroverts are the kids who like to play “teacher”. Extroverts love to brainstorm, where introverts like to think before they react. Extroverts are rejuvenated by being with others while introverts need time by themselves to rejuvenate. It isn’t unusual for introverts to read a book to rejuvenate. They are motivated internally and it isn’t uncommon for them to want to stay in for recess to learn more versus dealing with others on the playground.
    You can’t change an introvert to become an extrovert. Trying to force them to change will only hurt their self esteem because they are not being true to themselves.
    Yes, hetrogeneous classes with teachers who are strong at differentiating can work for most, but not all students. There are those who are outside the box and they can be introverts or extroverts. Teachers will often look at introverts as misfits and try to force them to “fit” in.
    Yes, there are avenues to give kids extra enrichments. And yes sometimes kids are ahead because of the extracurriculars that they have experienced. Giftedness is a nature vs. nurture thing, I have seen some who just have an inate ability for whatever reason. I have also seen families where they are too proud to ask for help financially, and do what ever they can to help the children, but are unable to “buy” extras for the children yet the children are very, very bright intellectually.
    Some kids enjoy talking to anyone because they love to hear themselves talk, while other kids only talk to someone when they have something to add. A bright child may lead or they may sit quitely, never adding to the discussion because it is so basic that there isn’t anything to add.
    We left the public school system strictly for academics. The school they went to was willing to test them and place them in academics that were appropriate (even with older kids). They have been able to take courses where they are with academic peers and other classes are heterogeneous. And guess what, my introvert has become more outgoing, and much happier. So, the homogeneous classrooms helped her socially also.
    So, I will say, yes for most kids, hetrogeneous classes work okay, but not for all. If I didn’t know my children I may have been willing to say they work for all, but after seeing how they each handle it, I will say hetrogeneous classes don’t work for all. And even for my child who does fine in the hetrogeneous classes, actually is more motivated in homogeneous classes so he still can be on top.
    I will say that there is no point of pulling out the higher end kids to do the same curriculum as the other classrooms – which some schools have done. Grouping them together and not changing the curriculum isn’t beneficial. Homogeneous classrooms need to have different curriculum, going more in depth and breadth of the regular classroom. This is where I have seen schools fail when they “group” high end kids together because they don’t change the curriculum also.

  6. Barb and others,
    I would also recommend this article entitled “How should we group to achieve equity with excellence?”
    It addresses legal issues, as well as educational ones.
    As a sort of companion piece, I often also recommend this October, 2005, report from the St. Louis Black Leadership Roundtable:
    The major finding was this: across the more than two dozen school districts in the greater St. Louis area (my home town) who have been participating these past several years in a major desegregation effort, as well as pointed efforts to reduce the black-white achievement gap, smaller achievement gaps were associated with lower overall achievement by all students, while the highest levels of African American student achievement were associated with larger black-white achievement gaps.
    Apparently, as in most areas of life, in education reform, too, it is possible to win the battle but lose the war.

  7. I get very frustrated when people assume that students with special needs at the low end of the performance distribtution and students with special needs at the high end of the performance distribution are exactly the same, with exactly the same educational and socioemotional needs, in need of exactly the same educational solutions. IMHO, that assumption is simplistic, misguided, and, unfortunately, fundamental to many people’s comments and arguments.
    Here is an article that is relevant to the issue. It is entitled “Two Tails of the Normal Distribution: Similarities and Differences in the Study of Mental Retardation and Giftedness.” http://depts.washington.edu/cscy/old/resources/Two_Tails.pdf It appeared in the December, 2000, issue of the American Psychologist, a premier publication of the American Psychological Association. It is co-authored by leading experts in the two fields, each of whom has devoted their professional life to meeting the needs of all kids.
    The line I have often quoted from this article in statements to our BOE is “Gifted chiildren tend to hurt more privately, and as a society, we tend to underestimate the costs both to them and to ourselves of their reduced motivation and achievement” (p. 1421).
    Thank you for taking the time to read it, and — more importantly — for taking its points and its arguments seriously.

  8. I took the time to read more of the research articles posted by Jeff Henriques. Very interesting. Thanks also to Laurie, Barb, and education4u for comments. Perhaps I mistook the call for greater segregation by ability groupings too sensitively as it influences the quality of the social dynamics within schools – which I believe remains a critical consideration for overall academic quality. I can accept that ability groupings, especially those that remain supportive of the larger learning community, have a role within a bundle of other measures, including in-classroom differentiation (which, like other measures, require some regular assessment). There continues to be a great need to meet the needs of individual students that are quietly suffering (thanks to Laurie for your passion). Could the measures for reducing that suffering include program support (an IEP-like process and better communication/training/sensitivity/staffing for those needing TAG suppport), or is a more extensive revamping of the school enviroment towards ability grouping needed? At the moment, I support the former but I am cautious about the latter. Thanks again.

  9. Yes, the IEP equivalent in Madison is called an InStep. Over the years, TAG has not been used effectively. Years ago, TAG was pullouts and the activities done where not really meeting the kids needs, but rather doing activities that would be good for any child. For instance strings, patrol, foreign language after school was all considered TAG activities besides pullouts. Parents would push for their children to be pulled out, because their neighbor to have an unfair advantage.
    TAG support needs to be done from administration down. Art Rainwater has stated to parents of TAG students that his child was not in a TAG program and she did just fine. He is basically stating he feels that hetrogeneous classes work for all. If the principal is in support of hetrogeneous classrooms, probably then the instep won’t be followed. If a teacher doesn’t agree with the instep, they can make the child’s life a holy @$##. Special Ed IEPs are mandated, unfortunately, Insteps are not. Think about it, if you have a child with an instep, you need to create different materials. This is asking a teacher to create literally 2 different curriculums for all areas that the instep reaches. This is doubling a teacher’s load. Yes, there are TAG resource people, but they are involved with 6 plus schools, they don’t have time to create the curriculum for each instep that is done in those schools. You can place the 1st grader in a 5th grade room for math, but that 1st grader will catch on faster than the 5th graders, may be intimidated by the size of those kids, etc. This is not the right fit for all kids either. You can get mentors, but they are volunteer usually, and they would probably meet with the kid once or twice a week. Who is checking the curriculum that the mentor is doing with the kid and is it at the correct level?
    There have been insteps which have been very successful, in fact, the ones I know of all have been in math. For the children who are strong verbally (reading, writing, vocabulary, etc.) often are told that the curriculum will reach their needs and no insteps are needed. In these areas, kids who are gifted are left behind. Take peer editing. A child who has a gift for writing will do a great job on editing a peer’s paper. A child who struggles will not able to do a good job peer editing and often teacher’s will place these two children together. A project like this can be beneficial for both the teacher and the struggling student. What the gifted child has learned is that Johnny can’t write. Johnny may not even be able to understand what the higher end child is writing, not to say how can you expect him to edit it.
    As I was looking at the curriculum for the West’s 9th grade English class, potential books where read by small groups of kids in the public elementary school. Yes, I agree people can read a book a 2nd time, but it is a struggle for higher end kids to “discuss” books for a 2nd time that they read years ago, when there are so many fabulous other books out there. Discussions can only go indepth so much depending on what the teacher asks. When a child who has a large vocabulary will either not use the word that best fits the situation or if they do, others will just role their eyes because the other kids don’t understand what the gifted child is saying. Again, this can encourage a low self esteem.
    In a class like English 10 Honors, you will still have kids who write much better than others. But the peer editing groups will be more comparable. Books would be at a high level, which would lead to higher level discussions.
    We want all children to be challenged and without ability grouping, kids don’t know that there are kids like them, discussions and learning can go more indepth, and that more kids learn how to deal with challenges when they face them. Often when kids are not in challenging classes, they learn that everything comes easy to them. When they are finally faced with a challenge (high school, college, etc), they don’t know how to succeed and drop out, or lose self esteem (potential suicide). Isn’t it better for all kids to have the opportunity to learn how to succeed and be challenged? For some this may mean that they aren’t going to do it the “normal” way through hetrogeneous classes. They may need to take honor classes, be accelerated in either full grade or by subject, and be with like peers so they know they are not a complete “freek”.
    Ability grouping/homogeneous classes/honor classes what ever you want to call them have some real advantages for those who don’t fall “into the box”. They are needed to help with social skills and self esteem issues, besides the academic needs.

  10. Jerry, There is a dishearteningly pervasive anti-TAG attitude in this District, which — in my experience — has only gotten worse in the past several years. The District and many of its representatives are anti-TAG kids, anti-TAG parents, anti-TAG staff, and anti-TAG budget. The sad fact is, many of them are simply anti-intellectual. The double standard for sports versus academics is obscene and unfair (and, nation-wide, has most certainly contributed to our declining global performance and position). Yes, it is a top-down phenomenon, to some degree. It comes from the Superintendent (whose daughter thrived when the top students in her grade were allowed to go into a gifted program, as I’ve reframed her experience for him), the Director of Teaching and Learning, many school principals, and many, many classroom teachers. Parents could tell you stories. So could the kids. In this district, if your academically talented child is in a classroom taught by an anti-TAG teacher — or worse, in a school with an anti-TAG principal (something we experienced) — your child is out of luck. Don’t fool yourself. The TAG staff have no power in our schools. They have to behave themselves really well, and can only go where they are invited. Gifted education is a state mandate, yes, but it’s no secret that the DPI doesn’t do audits or enforce the legal standards anymore. (That’s why the lawsuit filed against DPI earlier this month is so exciting.) Why, our district has been knowingly (we know, DPI knows) out of compliance with Wisconsin gifted education statutes since 1990! And care to guess what percentage of MMSD teachers have taken the differentiation workshops taught by our TAG staff? Fewer than 10% — 10%!!! — and that’s DISTRICT-WIDE. Nevertheless, differentiation within the regular, completely heterogeneous classroom is what we are being told will be done to meet our children’s educational needs. Jerry, the differentiation experts (e.g., Carol Ann Tomlinson) make it crystal clear that to train teachers in the effective use of classroom-based diffentiation techniques takes lots and lots of time and lots and lots of dollars. As per usual, the MMSD is simply latching onto a word and a concept and touting it as a panacea, but with only the most superficial understanding of what they’re talking about and with no real interest in what it takes to really make it work.
    Parents of academically talented kids are frustrated. They are not racist. They are not mean and cold-hearted. They do not want to protect their children from friendship with children who are different from them. (These are the ugly, ugly things that people insinuate.) The parents of these kids are parents, just like you and Barb K and Art Rainwater. And just like your kids and Barb’s kids and Art’s kids, their kids want and need and DESERVE to feel that their schools care about them and what they really need in order to be happy and fulfill their potential — even if what they need is different from what your kids or Barb kids or Art’s kids need(ed). These frustrated parents simply are not willing to sacrifice their children’s educational and intellectual needs for reasons of social engineering and politics. Maybe in elementary school; less so in middle school; and not at all in high school. We don’t want to take anything away from your kids or Barb’s kids. Really we don’t. We just want the District to consider and take seriously our kids’ needs and well-being, too. And when it comes to the educational and socioemotional needs of academically talented students, the empirical literature is clear and consistent.
    Question: Is your goal for my 12-year-old white, Jewish, tender-hearted, artsy, drama geek son who absolutely HATES football that he become “best buds” with a fellow student who hates to read, hates math, doesn’t play a musical instrument, and lives only for basketball and “South Park”? Or is your goal for him that he treat others — all others — with respect and kindness and compassion? As his mother, my goal for him is the latter. If the former happens along the way, fine; but my explicit goal for him is the latter and it’s one we take very seriously in our home. So seriously, in fact, that you have my express permission to ask any of his teachers how he’s doing on that score.

  11. Forgot to add: INSTEP’s (the equivalent of an IEP, but for an academically advanced student)are one of the District’s best-kept secrets. The vast majority of parents and guardians who should know about them (i.e., whose students need and would benefit from them) don’t know about them. And for those of us who do, it is not an uncommon experience to have encountered teacher and/or principal resistance when we have requested one.

  12. I am disturbed by this refrain in Jerry’s posts, that the presumably well-heeled parents of high-ability children should simply access out-of-school resources to enhance their children’s learning experiences. Well, of course many of us who are able do just that. The problem here is our inability to add hours to our already long days. After 7 hours spent in school, my children have music lessons, play practice, sports activities, Girl Scouts, etc. There are museums, music performances, plays, trips to the library. Vacations include lots of opportunities to learn more science and history. All these are activities which they love and clamor to participate in. We also need to find time to have home math classes and history readings to make up for deficiencies in school curricula.
    But children are, after all, children. They also need time to dress their dolls, go sledding, play in the mud, tell stories, build cardboard houses and all the myriad other things they do to unwind. Then there is also sleep time to work in.
    When are those things supposed to happen if all the free time at home is spent on enrichment? I begin to resent the time spent in school as a big black hole. So much could happen in those hours if children were ability grouped. Instead my children come home completely drained and stressed out from having spent their day in heterogeneous classrooms where so little is accomplished. These are not the heterogeneous classrooms that we knew as children, with lots of moderately bright and a few super smart kids. No, these are classes which include children operating several years below grade level, children who cannot behave within ordinary school norms because they have not been socialized to do so. Many of these children might have been gifted also, had they not been subjected to various and sundry pre-natal as well as post-natal insults. I feel for them, but my children’s suffering alongside them does nothing to benefit anyone. They are all in pain. My children’s pain is relatively easy to remove, just put them in an environment with their peers (defintion of peers: children, fat, thin, black, white, green, orange, poor or stinking rich, who love school, are eager and able to learn and contribute) paired with a challenging curriculum. The other children’s problems are a much more difficult issue to address, and an issue which MMSD is rightfully focused on.
    But MMSD can’t ignore the needs of my children and others like them indefinitely. They try to sooth by placating words. ‘No childs’s education should suffer’ and ‘teachers will meet your children’s needs by differentiating within the classroom.’ What nonsense. I’m from the reality-based crowd, and my reality does not spring from vaporous hypnotizing words. I observe what happens at school. I see reality before me. Differentiating properly within these extra-heterogeneous classrooms while suffering special-ed budget cuts is not doable by even the most talented teachers (of which we have many.)
    Example. Science is a particularly difficult subject in which to mainstream these kids. A typical 5th-grade science lab begins by the overburdened special-ed teacher patting my daughter on the head, figuratively. “I’m sure you’ll do a good job helping ‘Johnny’ and ‘Billy’ learn how to use the equipment and understand what you’re doing.” Then ‘Johnny’ mixes chemicals wrongly on purpose while cackling with glee, ‘Billy’ upsets the scale, eats the science experiment before anyone can see the results, spills solution on the data,… What has my daughter learned from her years of similar experiences? One, to hate science. Two, to dislike these children who ruin her school time, although I have explained to her many times that they live in desperate circumstances and haven’t learned how to behave in school, and/or have some kind of physical problems that make it impossible for them to react normally, that it isn’t their fault. These talks haven’t made her feel better. Are these the positive social results MMSD is hoping to engineer?
    Another example.The middle school math curriculum is completely inappropriate for talented children. All the beauty and elegance of the math is stripped away, leaving children to discover some unappetizing applications. If it is indeed helpful for less able children, of which I am doubtful, the least the district could do is offer a parallel challenging curriculum for kids who need and want it. Not everyone finds math some bad medicine that has to be wrapped into some unrecognizable shape to be swallowed. Some children love math, real unadulterated math. Not to disparage applications. One needs to be able to apply math to real world situations, but this CMP is awful stuff for people who revel in math. Skipping a year or 2 of it isn’t enough to offer these kids. They need a different curriculum.
    I realize I’m mixing issues here a bit. The one of whether to separate out the brightest kids into classes of their own and the one of whether to mix the really low kids into average classrooms. I do think ability grouping for the brightest children is obviously the right thing to do, even if it stirs up class and race equity issues. It is particularly urgent to do so in schools with high numbers of low-performing kids, because in these schools the level at which the teachers can operate has been pulled down by the need to help bring these kids up. This makes the classrooms even more unbearable for the brightest children than they would otherwise be. As far as whether to mix the really low disruptive kids with average kids, I have opinions, but am not qualified to express them.
    People will eventually vote with their feet. Apparently MMSD has nothing to fear from private schools since their enrollments are stable and full. But people can and will move out to the suburbs if MMSD will not provide an appropriate education for the brightest kids.

  13. Celeste,
    I’m sorry for my lag in posts – I thought most people would be relieved! And, I’m not saying that disengaged MMSD learners can simply supplement and be happy. We should address the problems of disengagement (I’m just not sure that a quick move to ability groupings as the solution is best). Wanting to be helpful to a dispairing crowd with more immediate needs, I encourage those who want more at a low cost see the limitlessness and accessibility of learning itself (like the publc library). Kids can become passionate about learning even if they have difficulty within school.
    I think one of the best things to be done right now for the gifted student is to get to know the broader needs of the school and work to address them. You seem to be doing this. You have observed what the stresses are. There can be movement on the issue of ability grouping – and what resistance you receive from administrators and schools may be based (in part) on how they perceive they can meet the broader needs of the school. With long-range, broader support, however, the gifted student will benefit, alongside the developmentally disabled student, the kid who eats the science experiment, or the average kid. Not only that, you may develop a deeper support base for your issues within the schools. I believe this is realistic – not just a dream.
    Finally, I take exception to the statement that MMSD is ignoring kids. They may be stalemating on an issue that is important to you. But, if school is a big black hole – teachers and your neighbors’ kids, the schools themselves, have no value.

  14. Boy, do I hear you, Celeste. I only wish the administration and the current board majority would, too.
    Thank you for writing this. You have captured most cogently the dilemna families like yours and many others face–bright, once happy learners plodding through long, boring hours in school interrupted by some classmates’ inappropriate social behavior. Trying to offset this by enriching the rest of the hours of the waking day just leads to overstressed kids. And now the district wants to expand that underchallenging curriculum into West.
    For every one of you happy with what you see as the benefits of diversity/heterogeneity, there is at least one family and likely more who ask themselves, is it worth putting my child through this. For some, their strong belief in social justice compels them to ignore or even celebrate the frustrating experience Celeste so compellingly described in her child’s science lab experience. Others say that whatever loss it is in attending a school with less “diversity” is more than made up for by a less disruptive and more challenging learning experience, which if things keep up as they are, will mean leaving MMSD.
    What do we lose when families like Celeste’s move away? We lose them as valuable members of our community. We lose their talented and motivated children in our classrooms, the ones bringing enthusiasm and passion to their learning. The district loses them from their brag list, you know, those National Merit and other contest winners. The schools lose parents who most likely are active in volunteering and supporters of school activities and events. The district loses state revenues, a not insignificant consideration. And if it goes far enough, a tipping point can be exceeded: our once excellent public school system, a draw for newcomers, becomes a deficit. What follows is a decline in property values and, by extension, property taxes, which in turn leaves less and less for the schools.
    A grim scenario. I remain cautiously optimistic that this is not necessarily the ordained outcome. However, my optimism hinges on Maya Cole and Lucy Mathiak getting elected. It is only after the current majority is out of power that there is any hope for a new approach in this district, one that offers all students a truly challenging learning experience. If the election results leave the current majority in place, expect to see them continue to march in lockstep with the administration down the path to mediocrity. And then I fear more and more families with means will flee. It won’t be white flight, as I watched growing up in Milwaukee, but rather brain drain.

  15. Quality of our schools and conditions for learning are self-fulfilling. If TAG advocates leave for other schools (as they have), we can be assured the criticism and our problems will remain. In fact, they are harder to fix. If you stay, we have a chance to fix at least some things together. Your kids will get attention and a good education. We can do this together. But, there will likely be dissent, disagreements, some decisions that go against what you think is best, and some may continue to use a fearful language of black holes and societal ruin as they frame the debate.
    I once had a very smart, but mean professor that used to say that we were “abyssmally ignorant.” I couldn’t accept it – and I challenged him to explain himself. I’ll continue to challenge anyone that uses the same sort of language to describe community members that care deeply about the schools and continue to do what equates to a volunteer position. We work with each other with respect, we discuss ideas and we debate – but we should also elevate the debate and not try to burn it down when we feel our position is weakening.
    Those bumpy roads don’t mean that we’re not moving along them. I can accept that my overly rosy, “let’s join hands” rantings bring little comfort, but it is a language of hope that rests not on any particular school board member or administrator, but on us.
    Good luck to all the candidates. They’ll soon inherit us.

  16. Jerry, I beg to differ with you. Yes, I agree that if MMSD doesn’t change, more and more TAG kids will be leaving the district, causing less “need” for honor type courses. But there will also be less National Merit Semi Finalists and WCKE tests scores will also change.
    I was a very active volunteer at Leopold for 7 years, spendng almost every hour between 8 and 3 helping. I worked with the low end, thinking that it would give teachers more time to work with the upper end. I was very active in helping starting a bookroom in our school, so books would be easily available for all teachers, high and low. I knew that this was a problem when my children where young and teachers didn’t have books at a high enough level in their rooms. This was a big plus that would help with hetrogeneous classrooms for kids strong in reading. I would even help with lunch time when others were not available. I did what ever was needed to help staff.
    But my children left for other schools because after 6 years of needs not being met, they couldn’t wait any longer hoping that needs “may” get met someday. I still advocate for TAG issues, but for my own children’s needs, socially, emotionally, and academically, we had to get them out of the situations they were in. Sure, I would have liked to have kept them in the public school system, but not to the detriment of their education, including socially and emotionally. There is a point where one needs to stop looking at the big picture for what is best for everyone, when their own family crisis is happening. I will be honest, some schools, just like some teachers, do a better job meeting the needs of the higher end kids. Teachers can’t do everything.
    If you remember the list of NMSF students that attended West, 10 where K-12 Hamilton neighborhoods, 2 were from Cherokee, and 0 from Wright. LaFollette has only had one NMSF in the last few years, while East has only had a few each year. Are you thinking certain parts of the city are “smarter” than others? I hope not. To me, this shows that certain schools do a better job than others at meeting needs of the high end. Not every school is going to meet the needs of every child – for instance, both my children thrive in small school settings, and don’t deal well with big schools. And where do we live? Leopold the largest elementary school in the district.
    A principal drives the direction at some schools, and for some, this isn’t the direction on where they need to go. As adults, we don’t tell someone to stay at a job they aren’t happy with, because one day it may get better. There are certain situations that just are not good environments for their kids, and parents have to make the decisions, if it will work or not. For some hetrogeneous classes work fine. For others children they are tired of hearing the same thing every year, and truly ready for a challenge. Which is better, for a child to be challenged and fail while they are at home, or have them on their own in college with no family around to help them deal with it, when they first experience failure. I have chosen that my kids need to experience advancement in math in middle school and honor level classes starting in high school vs. them still in hetrogeneous classrooms.
    I advocate for the TAG programming by sharing with others how my introverted, unwilling to participate child, has come out of her shell after being allowed to participate in honor courses and accelerated in classes. Without success stories proving otherwise, people will state that hetrogeneous classes work for everyone. So, it is good that we advocate for TAG situations, but families have to do what is best for them.

  17. I suppose my black hole image was a bit over the top. But it wasn’t directed at anyone personally. My children have had many wonderful teachers. I didn’t even mean that others should view it as a black hole. Even within my own family the perspectives are not the same. Some children are very adaptable and can slow their motors down as necessary, keep steady and happy even in less than ideal situations. I have one like that, and see other such children at our school. There are some children, however, who are much more sensitive to the environment around them and cannot thrive in the typical heterogeneous MMSD classroom of today. They can’t adapt to the slower pace, the chaos around them. It isn’t possible to teach them the requisite coping skills because it goes all the way to basic personality structure, like introvert vs. extrovert. I have one like that as well. I watch this one losing her bearings and falling apart before my eyes and it’s all about school because she loves school and learning as the focus of her life, but our school is causing her so much stress and unhappiness. Not intentionally of course, they are focused on other more important overall goals. But as a parent, what can I do but take her away? It isn’t what I want to do, but surveying the scene, I see no other choice.

  18. Celeste, my situation is exactly the same and the reason we pulled the first. The second would probably been okay in the MMSD, but is thriving way more than I had anticipated at the school we chose for the first. You need to look at what is best for your children. If you don’t advocate for them, no one will. You know them the best and what their needs are, so if you don’t feel that a specific situation works, you need to look at alternatives. Maybe MMSD will end up being the best alternative, and unfortunately, others may not like the choices you make, but you will have your children for the rest of their lives where others maybe only around for a year or even a few years. Good Luck

  19. Jerry, I understand your feelings about that people need to stay and fight to have changes made for TAG students. But here is some interesting data for you to ponder:
    28 Memorial students
    2 East
    1 LaFollette
    29 West students include:
    1 Homeschool for high school and takes 2 classes at West
    16 Hamilton (including 6 Moved to Hamilton, 1 transfer from Wright to Hamilton)
    2 Cherokee
    7 Eagle (including 2 transferred to Eagle from MMSD)
    3 West, started MMSD after a move into the district
    0 Wright
    People will look at schools track record. It isn’t fun being at a school where they state, “I have never experienced a child like yours”. It is more comforting to hear, “We have had a great deal of students come through here who become National Merit Semi Finalist. We are a school that offers X,Y,Z classes for our high end students.” We heard consistantly, if your child does 5th grade work now, what will they do next year?
    If MMSD wants to keep the intellectual students, they will need to have more students across the district who are NMSFs. This years seniors show that you either are in the Memorial district, Hamilton (for West students) or you take your chances. I know a number of families who have left their district (West, East and LaFollette) to either go to Memorial or out of MMSD (including private) Families have to decide how much they can afford. I remember once shopping for homes in another a specific Memorial middle school district and Hamilton’s neighborhood and finding the homes where much more expensive than our home was, and smaller. It was cheaper for us to send out kids to private than to get them into a specific neighborhood based on the Middle School/high School.
    Yes, as you can see, kids will get into NMSF despite the schools. But isn’t it better that they are in schools where there are academic peers?
    When my kids were early in elementary school, I didn’t think it mattered what school they attended for middle school, but as I saw things not change, I changed my mind. Good luck in what you decide to do.

  20. The first time I saw this data it was presented in the context of how many NMSF had private schooling in their background. As a potential Cherokee parent, I was immediately struck by how few of these children came from Cherokee. Even after adjusting for the larger population of Hamilton, and for the larger %age of low-SES students at Cherokee (I would like to think that our school system could nurture many of these kids up to that level, but let’s face it-we aren’t there yet) the Hamilton:Cherokee ratio is still almost 3:1.
    I don’t look at these numbers with an eye to whether or not my childen have a high likelihood of getting this honor from a specific school, but rather as an indicator of what kinds of things go on inside the school that will benefit my children’s education. These numbers do reveal something meaningful.
    Not to belabor the point, but in schools with high numbers of low-performing students, it is especially critical to institute ability grouping so that the most able children have the same opportunity to reach their full potential as other children. We see that this rarely happens when they share classrooms with children several years below grade level. The fact that there are problems with identifying low-income children who would benefit from ability grouping does not mean that we shouldn’t have it. It only means that we need to have it AND simultaneously we need to work harder to identify and mentor talented underprivileged youths.
    Although MMSD often repeats the mantra of “every child should reach their full potential,” it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what they really mean is something like “every child below the 85th %ile or so should reach their full potential, and for the rest, it is a more important goal for you to give up some to stay and assist the unfortunates in a leg up.” After all, even if you only reach 80% of your potential, it’s so much more than many could hope for, and you shouldn’t be too greedy and selfish in your aspirations. There is a real attempt at psychological manipulation of parents to make them more malleable to MMSD’s goals. Not that their intentions are bad. Of course they have noble aspirations, but I won’t be made to feel guilty about wanting the best for my children and any attempts to manipulate me only make me more likely to dig in my heels as I don’t take favorably to being played for a fool. At least be straight with me about your goals.
    Part of the problem is that we aren’t working with common definitions. MMSD has a rather peculiar definition of potential. They assign social compassion potential a large piece of the potential pie. Then if academics are given up, but social compassion is gained, they believe that on the whole, the same potential has been reached and so they are not lying about their goals, just work with a different framework. I am willing to grant that social compassion is an important goal, but that isn’t what I mean when I say potential. I am not willing to give up one iota of academics for it, and don’t think it is necessary to do so. My children can have compassion for people without being in enforced shared activities with them all day long. The subjects in which shared classrooms are most likely to yield enlightenment about others’ perspectives are English and Social Studies classes. Even in those classes, it should be structured so that children are ability grouped at least half the time, so that progress toward full ACADEMIC potential can be made.

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