School choice and ability grouping

John Merrfield

For years, it was lost in the wreckage from the crash of the politically incorrect “tracking” of students. But now, the worthy concept of “ability grouping” is making a comeback. A June 9 New York Times article on its resurgence is good news, but in the current public school system the much-needed ability grouping by subject is especially costly, with a very a limited upside. If parents had more freedom to choose within a system that could easily diversify its instructional offerings in response to families’ interests and needs, the power and attractiveness of the concept would be much greater.
Unlike tracking, which assumes an across-the-board, one-dimensional level of student ability – i.e., students are uniformly brilliant, average, or slow – ability grouping by subject recognizes children have strengths and weaknesses. Strengths probably correlate with interest/talent, so in a system of genuine school choices, parents recognizing those interest/talents would tend to enroll their children in schools specializing in those particular areas. They’d be in classrooms with children who are similarly passionate and able to progress at similar, fast rates. And, likewise, for necessary subject matter in which they are not as adept, again, they’d be in a room and school building full of kids more similar to them. Stigma gone; no self-esteem threat.

Related: English 10.