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A conversation with University of Wisconsin-Madison Education Professor Adam Gamoran May 27, 2009
Jim Zellmer: Good afternoon, Adam.
Adam Gamoran: Hey Jim.
Jim: Thanks for taking the time to visit today, and maybe we could start off by giving your title at the university.
Adam: Sure. At the present time I'm the interim dean of the School of Education, and in the fall I'll be returning to my job as the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, and professor of sociology and educational policy studies.
Jim: Excellent. Well, maybe we could start by just talking about your background, your research, the things you're interested in, and how you came to arrive at the UW and what you do there.
Adam: I'm a sociologist, and I study inequality in education. That is a topic that is at the core of sociology and also questions about education that are pervasive in this country, and really everywhere in the world. My earliest research was on the effects of ability grouping and curriculum tracking on student achievement.

I was able to demonstrate that increasing inequality that results from ability grouping is substantially a function of differences in instruction that's provided to students in different groups and tracks, and that has had a variety of practical implications, as well as answering some important questions in research.

A major question at the time I was doing my graduate work was, "why does student achievement vary within schools more than it varies from one school to the next?" And one of the major answers is because students within schools have different experiences, and that leads to differences in student achievements.

In recent years I've been interested in questions about school reform, so studying not just why is the situation as it is in schools, but what can be done about it. I think each of a number of projects that address questions about teachers improving their practice and school conditions that support teachers' improvement in practice.

At the present time, I have a large-scale study of profession development to improve elementary science teaching in Los Angeles and a study of a parent involvement program called FAST - Families in Schools Together, which is taking place in San Antonio and Phoenix.

Jim: So, has any of your work compared public and private schools in these areas? Do you have any comments on that?
Adam: That's not been a major focus of my work. I did have one article that has gotten a lot of attention. The main focus of that article was a comparison of public magnet schools and public comprehensive high schools, but two groups of private schools were in the study for comparison: Catholic schools and non-religious private schools.

That study showed that magnet schools produced higher achievement in mathematics than public comprehensive schools, and it's gotten a fair bit of attention.

Catholic schools also produced higher achievement, and those advantages could be attributed to more rigorous course-taking in Catholic schools.

And that connects to a wider of literature about the effects of Catholic schools on student achievement, which suggests that Catholic schools not only produce higher achievement, but do so by bringing low-achieving students and disadvantaged students up closer to their more advantaged counterparts.

The more recent study suggests that that advantage has diminished, perhaps as Catholic schools have gone to draw in a more heterogeneous population than they had in the past.

Jim: Interesting. So, of all the work you've done, what makes you smile? What are you the most proud of?
Adam: Well, I can answer that in two ways, with respect to my research and with respect to my administration and leadership within the university. With respect to my research, my work on ability grouping/curriculum tracking still attracts the most attention.

When I'm asked to speak, that's typically the topic that people want to hear about, even though I've done a lot of other things recently: work on school reform, work on standards base reform in No Child Left Behind, work on stratification in higher education.

But, when people look back at my contribution there, they're still going to focus most on the work on differentiation in school systems.

One piece of research that was especially enjoyable and a culmination of many years of work was the study I did in Scotland in the 1990s. The work that I have done suggests that if we reduce the use of ability grouping, then we would end up with less inequality in achievement.

But, I make that statement... I reached that conclusion based on comparison of more and less differentiated systems. It's quite a different matter to say what would happen if a system actually became less differentiated, and in my study of Scotland I had the opportunity to examine just that.

This was a school system that went from more stratified to less stratified over time, and we found, indeed, that achievement became less unequal, primarily because students at the lowest levels had better opportunities for learning and became closer to their higher-achieving counterparts.

This system did not eliminate stratification entirely, and it did not eliminate inequality entirely, but went from more to less stratified and became from more to less equal.

I've published a number of works on this general topic. One of the big questions right now is whether the effects that we see of tracking, or any educational intervention, really reflect the program or instead reflect differences in the types of students who are assigned to different parts of the program.

I have been a pioneer in trying to address these questions of causality, and at the present time I'm conducting randomized trials, which are the best way to avoid these problems of selectivity, of selection as a possible explanation for the findings.

So, I'm proud of being able to advance my methodological approaches as the field of education research has moved in that direction.

Jim: Three, two, one...OK.
Adam: I've also had the opportunity to have a number of leadership positions at the university. I was chair of the department of sociology for three years, I've been director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research for five years, and I'm spending most of the current year as dean of the School of Education.

I take a great deal of enjoyment and pride in the opportunity to help colleagues be successful, and that's really the job of a leader at a university. It's a collegial environment, and it works best when one person, especially people in positions of leadership and seniority, can help others be successful.

I've had the opportunity to mentor some fantastic graduate students and junior faculty, and in roles such as chair and center director and dean, I've had both the responsibility and the opportunity to try to procure resources that other people can use to make them more successful. That's something that I enjoy a lot and that I've succeeded at, so I'll continue to do that.

Jim: Excellent. Let's turn to Madison for a while and our Madison public schools. Obviously, the School of Education has been very involved in the public schools, particularly with respect to curriculum. What is your perspective on the relationship? And how do you think that benefits student learning?
Adam: UW-Madison is a national university. By that, I mean that we have an international orientation. So our main focus is to try to improve the human condition in our nation and in our world, as well as in our state.

With respect to education, then, our contributors attempt to speak to the broadest possible audience.

Our Faculty are working with schools and school districts all over the world and, certainly, all over the Country in many spheres of activity from: English to social studies, to math, to science; from preschool to post-secondary; from educational technology to special education, to English language learning - the full spectrum of issues in education.

In saying that, we are a treasure for our local community. And we are happy to the extent possible and, when appropriate, to lend our expertise to our local partners here in Madison and in the State of Wisconsin.

In recent years, we have been able to work a lot with our local school district - with the Madison schools, especially - because we have had a partnership grant from the National Science Foundation, what's called a math-science partnership, which brings together K-12 educators, university mathematicians and scientists, and university-based math and science educators.

That partnership, which is known as SCALE - Systemized Change for All Learners and Educators - has been a very large, very substantial led by UW math professor Terry Molar. And that has given us the opportunity to work quite closely with the District.

Madison is one of four districts that is part of our partnership; the others are Los Angeles, Providence, and Denver. So we have had the opportunity to work with Madison in that capacity. And I think that we have made a lot of contributions.

Another longstanding example of the relationship between the School of Education and the Madison schools is also in the area of mathematics education, and that is the development of cognitively guided instruction, which is an approach to mathematics teaching that has been used at the elementary school level.

It has directed teachers to focus more on student thinking and student reasoning, so that they can understand the ways students were thinking and then respond to that in their instruction, instead of just going down a checklist as if the students' responses to instruction were not important.

That work was led by emeritus professors Elizabeth Fentema and Tom Carpenter. And that approach resonates within the Madison school districts today.

There are many other ways in which our Faculty has been involved with the school district just as we are with school districts in states all across the Country.

I'll give you one other example of current involvement. We have a project within WCER called the Value-Added Research Center, led by research professor Robert Meyer. And we are working with Madison to look at schools value-added to student achievement.

Our current accountability system is misguided in that it focuses on test scores at a single point in time even though we are aware that what goes into a student test score has something to do with the school, but it has to do with a lot of other things, as well.

A value-added approach says, "Let's focus on the growth in a student's test scores from one year to the next. And let's do that as a way of understanding, which schools are actually contributing to student learning instead of simply reflecting the populations they are handed."

So our Value-Added Research Center is working with Madison schools to help get a better understanding of school contributions to student achievement.

Jim: So how does that fit in? Especially when you mention your role in reform before, how do you think the grants and those types of activities fit with, let's say, the traditional Board of Education Governance Model?

At least, in my experience, in watching some of this, it seems that the grants sometimes drive strategy. I don't know if that is good or bad; it just seems that is how it is. But what is your sense of that?

Adam: I haven't gotten the sense that grants drive strategy. On the contrary, I have gotten the sense that school districts - Madison, like any school district, seeks grants to support its efforts in areas where things could be successful.

I suppose there is a natural tendency for anyone to say, "OK, what are the opportunities out there," and to think about whether those opportunities can bring resources in for the school district to serve its effort.

But I think that Madison is actually famous for its willingness to forego grants when those grants are in contradiction. And I'm thinking, of course, with the Reading First Grant...

Jim: The Reading First, right.
Adam: ... Which Madison turned down because it did not want to adopt the tight constraints over its reading curriculum that Reading First required. Of course, now, Madison, in hindsight, looks very, very smart because Reading First turns out to have been a corrupt as well as an ineffective program, according to the Inspector General and according to the research findings.

But, if anything, that suggests that strategy drives grants rather than the opposite in the Madison System.

Jim: Some parents, because of these grants and these initiatives, have felt like - and these are things that I have heard - their kids have been subject to experiments. Do you have a sense of that? Do you think that these programs that are being tried and used are - would you call them experiments?

Would you say that they are new initiatives? How would you respond to something like that?

Adam: I'm not sure, specifically, what you are referring to, but...
Jim: Probably the ability - the grouping things as well as some of the reform math programs, things like that.
Adam: I would say that, in school systems, we are always trying to improve. We are always trying to raise test scores and enhance student learning. This means raising test scores and other things, as well. It's broader.

We respond to tensions because school systems have a diffuse mission. They have to prepare the next generation of workers. They have to pass on our values of citizenship to the next generation. They have to boost children's cognitive performance. They have to mold their social relationships, their psychological capacities.

So because of these competing missions or the variety of missions that sometimes compete with each another, it is not always obvious what approach is best.

Some have described schools as loosely coupled systems. By that, they mean that decisions made in one part of the system don't necessarily reverberate in other parts of the system.

That is because of three uncertainties that are endemic in school systems: shifting preferences, uncertain participation given that participants change from year to year, and ambiguity about cause and effect. We don't have certainty about what practices lead to the best result.

As a result of those uncertainties, school systems are constantly trying out new things, and I think they should. If they weren't, then we wouldn't be making any progress at all.

I am an advocate for more formal experimentation. By that I mean, trying new things with a design that says we can actually tell if these new practices are improving the outcomes that we are seeking. Typically school systems don't do that.

Somebody gets it in their mind that they want to try something new and they just implement it for everyone. And then it's impossible to tell if the program is effective or not because there is no comparison group.

At the University we are trying to convince school systems to enter new programs in a more deliberate way that will allow us to judge their effectiveness by comparing participants to non-participants. The most rigorous way to do that is to randomize which group gets the new program and which group is the comparison group.

There are ways of doing that that I think may be acceptable to school systems, such as a phasing in a reform, so it's not that some people get the reform and others don't but that it's delayed in some places so that you can compare the effects of the reform to its absence.

In addition, some people say "Well, is it ethical to do experiments in school systems?" I would argue that if you're certain of the impact of the reform, then it's unethical and unnecessary to do an experiment.

But if you're not certain of the impact of the reform, then it's unethical not to do an experiment. Or at least to implement the program in a way that will allow us to judge its impact.

Jim: Interesting. So related to that, you talked about this tension, and you were on the strategic planning committee with me, among many others.

Do you have a view of the tension that's present in Madison these days between - I guess I'd say - those who advocate increased academic opportunities versus more of a one-size-fits-all, or more of a forced grouping or what have you? How will that play out? What's your sense of that?

Adam: What you're describing is a reflection of a pervasive tension within education.

Because school systems are charged both with conveying a common set of identities and preparing young people in a standardized way for a common future and, at the same time, differentiating among people for different opportunities to respond to their different interests and capacities for differentiated futures.

So this is a pervasive tension within school systems. Every modern school system faces this tension. And there's no single answer to this question. If there were, we'd have found it already and we'd be doing it.

Jim: Right.
Adam: So we are always trying to adjust the balance, to fine tune the balance between when do we offer the same program for everyone and when do we offer different programs for different children under different circumstances.

I think anybody who says it has to be all one or all the other is kidding himself or herself, because that response fails to recognize that both differentiation and commonality within our school system are cherished values.

You know, we want all our children to emerge with common standards of citizenship. We want all our children to emerge with certain basic levels of ability to navigate the larger world... And yet at the same time we should recognize that not everybody is going the same place after they finish high school.

And we should allow people to have opportunities to pursue their interests and develop their talents. And so both of these are important values and it's impossible to serve both of them at their maxima, and so we are constantly trying to find the right balance.

Jim: Interesting. Having said all that, should parents, students, taxpayers be concerned that some of the Madison school district employees are now at the School of Ed, given the relationships and, as you say, the grants and other.

You know in the Pentagon, they refer to that as a revolving door. I don't know how much of it goes on, but it's been expressed to me. So, is it an issue?

Adam: No, I don't see that. I don't follow that analogy. The kids at the Pentagon, you're talking about people working for companies with whom they have contracts.
Jim: Right.
Adam: But the University is not a business.
Jim: But you have contracts with the school district, right? You can just slap three or four of them on a scale, that kind of stuff.
Adam: Mostly that's the school district having a contract with the University where the University goes out and gets a grant...
Jim: Right, right.
Adam: ... and gives an award to the school district, rather than vice-versa. So there's not too much - really, I don't think the analogy holds. It's not like at the Pentagon, where you work at the Pentagon and you give a big contract to a company and then you get a job there. The financial interests just don't work that way.

I would say that it's valuable for the University to bring in people who are experienced in real school districts. Because sometimes there's a danger that we professors lose touch with what the work is like on the ground, and bringing in people from the school system to work side-by-side with us can be an advantage.

At the same time, I think it's valuable for the school system to bring in expertise from the University, and of course, you're hiring our teachers, and many of the leaders in the school system have gotten second degrees at the University, and that's valuable as well because of the expertise and knowledge that brings.

Jim: One of the other related questions that I had on academic grouping or mandatory grouping was your comments on - and we're diving into more technical terms I guess, now - on tracking versus quote "cluster grouping" and flexible or ability-based grouping. If you can sort of describe them and your comments on the different approaches, I guess.
Adam: Well, let me address the issue more broadly first. Within the Madison schools there's been some controversy over the use of ability grouping and curriculum tracking. And my research is often cited by both sides...
Jim: Yes. [laughter]
Adam: ... in this debate, because my research shows that students assigned to low tracks in groups end up with lower achievement than they would have had had they been in a mixed ability class. But high achieving students end up with lower achievement in a mixed ability group than they would have had in a high achieving class.

So when I speak with educators, I try to emphasize that there's no single or simple solution to this, but rather whichever approach you pick, ability grouping or mixed ability grouping, you need to be aware of the challenges of implementing that approach, and try to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm.

So if a school system is implementing ability grouping, then they need to watch out for the damage that typically occurs for low achieving students.

Damage that occurs because of low expectations manifested in an unchallenging, undemanding curriculum. Damage that occurs because very often, not inevitably but very often, the least experienced teachers or the teachers with the weakest reputations are assigned to teach the low ability classes.

Or, damage that occurs because of a vicious cycle of low expectations between teachers and students that occurs in low achieving classes. On the other hand, if we implement mixed ability teaching than we need to be aware that very often such classes did not challenge our highest-achieving students.

We need to find ways of differentiating instruction within those mixed ability classes so that high achieving students can achieve at their maximum.

Jim: Has that been done anywhere?
Adam: Sure, and in my research I've given a couple of examples of this. One was an urban high school on the east coast which, in the study lead by my colleague Fred Newman of highly restructured schools, actually had the highest level of authentic achievement of all the 25 schools in our study.

They had integrated math, science, English, and social studies classes and they had very challenging tasks for students.

I have a great quote in one of my studies from a teacher in a math/science class that says, "If you can't add fractions I don't slow down for you, I say, 'You should come to our tutoring sessions on Saturday.'"

So this was where there was a refusal to dilute the curriculum to respond to low-achieving students. It was a project-oriented curriculum and a student had to prepare portfolios to demonstrate their success over time.

So there are some examples but many of the examples including the one I'm describing and another example from research by a Rutgers professor named Carroll Burress have had some special advantages. They've had either in the Rutgers study a relatively affluent population or in this study, which did not have an affluent population but did have the ability to select students.

Students had to be interviewed to be allowed in. It had small classes and it had some grants that allowed them to run a Saturday tutoring program.

Both cases of successful mixed-ability teaching had one element in common which is supplementary instruction for low-achieving students. In one case an extra class session, in the other case an extra tutoring program, so it's not an easy thing to do. As I said, if it were easy or simple we'd be doing it already but there are some examples of success.

Jim: Can you give me just a few comments on best practices for different types of students? For example, special-ed students, ELL students, quote, 'average' students, and high-performing students. What are you views on approaches to those students anyway?
Adam: Well, that's a very interesting question. It's not an easy one to answer because on the one hand there are special measures that need to be undertaken with specific groups of students and yet at the same time, in my view, the research is telling us that the fundamentals of good practice cut across these different groups of students.

I was just reading an article that suggests that best practice for English language learners are best practices for students in general.

So such elements as a challenging curriculum, opportunity to work orally instead of just being assigned work sheets and other seat work, interaction with teachers, opportunities to work on sustained problems instead of focusing on fragmented bits of information-

-opportunities to work on problems in depth rather than staying at a superficial level, these are practices that I would argue cut across subject matters and across different categories of students.

Subject area experts will argue that each subject area has its own special needs and challenges and so an English educator will argue for one approach and a math educator will argue for another. I'm sure there's something to that.

There are distinctive aspects of subject matters but at the same time I think much of what's important cuts across students and subject areas.

Another aspect, one of the most talked about aspects of effective schools today, is high quality teachers. For example the No Child Left Behind law defines a high quality teacher as someone who has a bachelor's degree, is certified in teaching and has subject matter expertise.

This emphasis on subject matter expertise is something that's receiving a new emphasis, both here is Madison and on the national scene. I think there's a lot to it.

We've seen that in large scale studies students who are taught by teachers with more subject matter expertise, whether that's reflected in having, let's say, a math major or a math minor.

Or it's reflected in successful performance in the National Board for Exception Teaching Standards, we find that greater expertise is associated with higher levels of student achievement. I think there's something to that.

Many state including this one are doing their best to circumvent that law by simply declaring all teachers as highly qualified, whatever they've done, that's high qualifications. But we're seeing a demand from communities, from parents, form school boards, for more demonstrable subject matter expertise.

I think that is, again, an aspect of high quality teaching that cuts across these different categories of students and subject matters.

Jim: OK. Next, here's a hypothetical from a reader. You have a high school of 2000 students. Demographics are very homogeneous but abilities vary widely.

For example, in ninth graph you have students reading or working at the fifth or sixth grade level as well as students reading and working at the college level. What's the best way the structure this high school and why?

Adam: Well since you've given me the questions in advance I'm going to take the whole thing at once instead of trying to take is piece by piece here. I will talk about how different school composition might lead you to structure you school differently.

This is something that challenges us when we consider the best way to organize students for classes. Because of situations outside of school systems, there is a strong association between the common basis of social disadvantage such as race and social class with academic performance.

When we stratify schools on the basis of academic performance, if the school has a diverse student population ethnically, racially, and socio-economically then we end up dividing the school up on the basis of race and social class as well.

Since we tend to value mixing students from different backgrounds in the academic experience, if we decide to divide students on the basis of academic performance, which we might do as a way of targeting instruction to students' performance levels, then our intention with our other goal combining students on the basis of their racial, ethnic, and social class backgrounds.

I'll give you an extreme example of this, which is from a school that I studied many years ago. It was a school with a mixture of students from different communities such that it had a bimodal distribution. By that, I mean that it had a population of students from a very wealthy neighborhood and a population of students from a very disadvantaged, largely minority neighborhood.

Here, the school was in a great dilemma, because student achievement levels varied similarly, so the teachers would have liked to have divided students by achievement levels for instruction so that they could target instruction to each group of students.

But if they did that, then they would be dividing them and essentially creating an internally segregated school, which they were loathed to do.

So, instead, they used mixed ability grouping. Now, what typically happens in mixed ability grouping - and actually happens in every kind of class - is that teachers teach to the middle of the achievement distribution.

Well, because the achievement distribution in that school was bimodal, when teachers taught to the middle of the distribution, they were teaching to no one. There was basically no one in the middle of the distribution.

That was a highly problematic situation. And there is no simple answer to that question. So I think that it is much easier to defend ability grouping when the population is socio-economically and ethnically homogeneous, because then you can divide the students according to their achievement levels, and you're not dividing them according to race, ethnicity, and social class.

You still have the problem that low-achieving classes are typically dead-end and academically unproductive. So you still face that problem if you use ability grouping, even in a homogeneous environment. But you don't face the additional problem of creating internally segregated classrooms.

One thing that we can do in schools with a diverse population is to try to use ability grouping in some subjects and not others, and try to use ability grouping to some degree but not an extreme degree. I think that you described a situation with some students at the fifth- and sixth-grade level and some students at the college level.

So perhaps we might have some additional opportunities for high-achieving students and some supplementary opportunities for low-achieving students.

And then we have some experiences, whether it's a different subject matter, let's say in social studies, or whether it's in English, but then there is a second English class for high-achieving students. There are a variety of approaches.

How you choose to set this up might also depend on your numbers. If you are talking about one or two students at one extreme or the other, then you might deal with that differently than if you got a whole class full of students at one extreme or the other.

This is because our school systems have finite resources and can't do everything with everybody; otherwise we might have tutoring for all students.

Jim: Individualized education. [laughter]
Adam: Yes, exactly.
Jim: OK, the last question is a hypothetical one. So let's say that the Madison School District decides that flexible ability grouping is the best way to go in its high schools. It's non-negotiable. Flexible ability grouping will now definitely occur in grades nine through 12. How would you advise them to implement this policy?
Adam: First of all, you are never going to see that in mathematics and science, because class assignment is partially determined by the course sequence. So while it is conceivable that all students in Algebra might take a common Algebra course, it will not be the case that all students will take Algebra at the same time.

I am going to try to make this realistic. Suppose that there were a decision, however, that, when students take Algebra, it is always to same Algebra course. Or in other subject areas, such as English or Social Studies, there is mixed ability grouping, and that we are mandated.

I guess I would add that my constant argument to school systems is that they should always evaluate their own particular circumstances, and there is no single approach that works best in all schools, in all places.

So I would argue that this is best a school-by-school decision rather than a district decision, especially in a school system such as Madison, where each high school has its own distinctive character, its own faculty, its own student body, its own special strengths and weaknesses.

With that said, in any circumstances, if a decision were made to use mixed ability teaching in any subject area, then there are some things that we can do to try to maximize the benefits and minimize the damage.

This gets back to some comments that I made earlier. If we are going to implement mixed ability teaching, then it is essential to find opportunities for our highest-achieving students to pursue their interests. And there are ways of differentiating instruction within mixed ability classes at the high school level.

The more our assignments are project-oriented rather than lockstep standardized test-oriented, the more we are able to differentiate assignments. The more that we use supplementary readings and original sources, the more opportunities that there are for our highest-achieving students to expand their horizons.

Supplementary instructional opportunities can be an asset, but they are a double-edged sword. If you are taking an extra English course, and there is something else that you're not doing, and if you're pulling students out of the English course, then there is always something that they are missing. So that is a little bit trickier.

Jim: There's some stigma to it, too, I would think. Wouldn't there be? If you're trying to catch up, right, and are sort of grouped back into that catch-up group?
Adam: Potentially. I would argue less stigma than there is in ability grouping when you're just in the class for the weaker students all of the time.
Jim: Right.
Adam: But if it is handled well, then the stigma can be minimized, perhaps not eliminated. Certainly, we have seen cases where this kind of pullout has been handled very poorly, and there is stigmatizing. But I am trying to address how to do it well.
Jim: Where we do it well, right.
Adam: Yes, you have to recognize that there is a cost to whatever approach you take. Whether you use ability grouping or you use mixed ability grouping, there is a cost. And the goal here is not to say, "We're going to do something that is cost-free." Instead, it is going to be, "How can we minimize the downside and maximize the upside?"

So moving in this direction will almost certainly take extra support for teachers to learn new strategies, and time for teachers to work together to develop new strategies to approach instruction in this way.

Jim: OK. Well thank you very much Adam, it's a pleasure and I'm very appreciative of the time you took to talk today.
Adam: It's my pleasure, Jim.
Jim: Great. May 27, 2009