A letter to the editor
Dear Editor: We are dismayed that two of the candidates running for the Madison School Board, Lucy Mathiak and Maya Cole, would work toward reversing access for students by promoting ability-grouping and tracking. In fact, Cole called the district’s efforts to provide more heterogeneous classes that all students could access “worrisome.”
Consider these points:
• The research has clearly shown that ability-grouping and tracking lead to unequal educational opportunities for students, particularly students of color, poor students and students with disabilities.
• Madison schools are regularly studied and visited by other urban districts looking for successful ways to increase inclusion.
• Only nine-tenths of 1 percent of MMSD’s African-American students are taking advanced placement classes, while more than 30 percent receive special education support.
• The achievement gap between white, middle-income students and all other students in the district is just starting to show improvement.
This is an issue of civil rights and full access for traditionally marginalized groups. Mathiak, Cole and their supporters can point to no hard data showing that including all students in classes with appropriate supports, services and differentiated curriculum harms the highest echelon. At most, they claim that some high-achieving students may be “bored.” Hardly a concern when the dropout rates, AP course access, and postgraduate outcomes for traditionally marginalized students continue to be both a nationwide and an MMSD problem.
Using words like “cookie cutter” approach and “one size fits all,” they portray the issue of access as one of “dumbing down” to low achievers. Nothing could be further from the truth in successful differentiated classes, where all students access curriculum at the learning levels that are appropriate for their individual needs and goals.
In fact, teaching in a fully inclusive model requires the best-trained, most creative and hardest-working school staff available. While Mathiak and Cole say it sounds good in theory, we have seen effective inclusive education in classrooms all over the district.
That’s why Madison Partners supports strong leadership, high-level training and total team teaching as strategies to improve Madison schools and outcomes for all students. Just because inclusive strategies are challenging doesn’t mean these research-proven methods aren’t worth doing.
We encourage the community to step forward on this critical civil rights issue.
Kelli Betzinger, Kristina Grebener, Helen Hartman, Barb Katz, Jane and Randy Lambert, Lisa and Mike Pugh, Tom Purnell, Beth Swedeen and Terry Tuschen on behalf of Madison Partners for Inclusive Schools
Published: March 28, 2006
Copyright 2006 The Capital Times


  1. Sorry, folks, this is not a matter of inclusion. At the middle and especially the high school level, this is a matter of providing a full range of learning opportunities in order to meet the full range of educational needs that exist within our student population. It’s a matter of providing a full range of learning opportunities and allowing students to select the ones they want and need. There is nothing non-inclusionary about a system that includes an appropriately wide range of choices and that is based on self-selection, where every student has the same right and opportunity to sign up for every class in that full range of offerings.
    Of course, the schools must be committed to providing enough sections of each class to accommodate the level of student interest, something that some of our high school do and some of our high schools do not. At LaFollette and East, for example, they adjust the number of sections of TAG/honors biology they offer depending on the number of students that sign up. In stark contrast, at West they offer one section of Accelerated Biology for 24 students each year, no matter how many students express an interest and take the screening test (typically well over 100!). Now THAT’S an educational access problem! Why should every east side student who is interested in a more rigorous biology experience get it, while at West, only one-fifth of interested students are provided for? In a similiar vein, I just found out that although 49 students have applied to be in sixth grade FPS (Future Problem Solvers) at Hamilton MS next year, they are nevertheless planning on having only one class, i.e., only about half of the interested students will be accommodated. What’s wrong with this picture? Would access and opportunity be restricted like this for any other group of students?
    In addition, as a district and in each of our schools, we must be seriously committed to indentifying and encouraging and supporting the full range — demographically speaking — of high ability students. No more lowered expectations for our students of color and poverty! It’s an insidious and shameful practice, however unconscious it may be. Whether it manifests itself in the classroom, the teacher-student relationship, one-on-one counseling/advising situations, or the assumptions we make when we choose and implement curricula. Whenever and however it manifests itself, it makes a major contribution to the achievement gap. Lowered expectations keep our students from fulfilling their potential in our schools every single day.
    Personally, I am moved by the words of Asa Hilliard III: “Excellence should be judged based upon criterion levels of performance, not relative levels. This gets us away from the “Black White achievement gap.” … There can be no question but that the achievement of African students is, in general, far below their potential. This gap, however, should not be thought of as the gap between Black and white students. It should be thought of as the gap between current performance of African students and levels of excellence. When we choose excellent performance as the goal, academically and socially, we change the teaching and learning paradigm in fundamental ways. By setting the required performance level at excellence, we require excellent performance to be articulated. … So there is an achievement gap. To me the gap between Africans and Europeans is a non-issue. The real gap is between Africans’ typical level of performance and the criterion levels of excellence, which are well within the reach of the masses of them.” (“Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students”, pp. 138-139.)
    And because, once again, it’s relevant to my discussion, here is the link to the October, 2005, one-of-a-kind report on the past several years’ worth of efforts to close the Black-White achievement gap in the 26 school districts in greater St. Louis. The major finding of the St. Louis Black Leadership Roundtable was that, in general, the size of the Black-White achievement gap was significantly correlated with overall achievement levels for Black and White students, but in the wrong direction! That is, smaller achievement gaps were associated with lower overall achievement (for Black students and for White students). High academic achievement (Hilliard’s criterion-based excellence) among Black students was associated with larger achievement gaps.
    Achieving educational equity (which I think Hilliard would prefer we think of as “maximizing minority student achievement”) without at the same time sacrificing educational excellence is not a simple matter that can be effectively addressed with simple-minded solutions like core curricula and completely heterogeneous classrooms. We do ALL of our students a disservice when we act as if it is.
    By the way, Donna Ford and Glen Whiting are returning to Madison next month. For more information about the parents program on Monday, April 10, contact Diane Crear in the MMSD Parent-Community Relations Department at 663-1692.

  2. I’m intrigued by the repeated citation of the St. Louis report. Could you point out where it states or implies that “solutions like core curricula and completely heterogeneous classrooms” are not effective in “maximizing minority student achievement” or where it points to ability grouping or expanded TAG programing as effective strategies? I don’t think it speaks to these, perhaps I missed something.
    What exactly is the point you are trying to make by citing this?

  3. Some additional points to consider in this debate:
    1) Research shows that the beneficial effects of ability grouping on the performance of high ability students is even greater for high-ability African-American and Hispanic youth (Page & Keith, 1996). So if we truly want these students to reach their highest level of potential, we should group them with other high ability students.
    2) While the writers of the original post complain about the description of heterogeneous classes as “dumbing down” or “one size fits all,” that is in fact what the research shows happens. Observation of teachers in the classroom has found that teachers teach to the ability level of the 23rd percentile of their class (Arlin & Westbury, 1976; see also Harlen & Malcom, 1997). This means that the more heterogeneous the classroom the greater the disparity between the abilities of the top performing students and the level and pace of classroom instruction. Furthermore, while teachers may think that they are differentiating instruction, research shows that they do not engage in differentiation as often as they think, spending upwards of 80% of class time in whole class instruction. (e.g., Harlen & Malcom, 1997).
    Finally, I would like to ask all of the proponents of heterogeneous grouping why it is okay for our students to be grouped by ability when they participate in sports but not okay when they participate in the classroom. Perhaps when our varsity sports teams include student athletes with little or no ability or interest in the sport, I’ll be more supportive of heterogeneous grouping in the classroom.

  4. Would someone please ask Silveira if it is her plan to eliminate all AP and honors classes in high school. This is the logical extension of her advocacy for heterogeneity, and an answer many parents would like to hear before they vote on Tuesday.

  5. Tom,
    The report suggests that if we focus only on closing the achievement gap — and lose sight of the larger achievement context — it could turn out that we reduce the gap, but at the same time reduce excellence. That’s apparently what happened in the greater St. Louis area, where there has been an area-wide busing and desegregation plan in place for several years. It has included the St. Louis city school district and all 25 St. Louis County school districts, with each district implementing specific programs aimed at reducing the gap.
    The unintended and alarming result suggests that when we think about what to do about the achievement gap, we must be careful not to implement solutions that may at one and the same time reduce overall achievement. An achievement gap reduced in that way and with that side effect is a cosmetic, short-sighted, and dangerous accomplishment … even if also a reduced gap. I worry that many of the things we are doing in the MMSD — like core curricula and completely heterogeneous classrooms in our secondary schools — risk the same pattern of results here in Madison. (Of course, if “bright flight” from our district continues, then that could also partially account for any future decline in overall achievement.) That’s the point I am trying to make — the warning I am trying to sound — whenever I reference this report.
    I cannot yet tell you what each of the school districts in St. Louis has done and which initiatives are associated with which effects. I ordered a copy of the full report months ago, but it has yet to arrive.
    I can tell you, however, that the school district with the highest achieving African American students (and, therefore, one of the larger achievement gaps) — Clayton — has honors classes in all grades and content areas at its high school. I know that because I attended that high school myself in the early 1970’s and my best childhood friend’s daughter is a junior there right now. We have talked about these issues a lot.
    Hope that helps.

  6. Laurie (please call me TJ)
    Thank you for responding. I continue to be intrigued. You correctly point out that in districts like Madison with significant racial and economic diversity and in districts like the St. Louis suburbs participating in the voluntary transfer program, what you call “bright flight.” can be a factor and is to many a worry. In fact, it is very possible that a significant portion of the slight decrease in white test scores you point to is attributable to this. If this is in fact the case, then nothing having to do with diversity or inclusion had a negative impact on any student’s achievement. That is speculation, but what is clear is that the St. Louis metro data as presented here provides no basis for affirming a relationship between heterogeneous classrooms and anyone’s’ educational outcome. It fact it tells us little more that these partial statistics show some aggregate coincidence between a rise in African American achievement and a dip in white achievement and that therefore too much emphasis on “gaps” can be misleading. Point taken. I have yet to hear a single person call for lowering white achievement as a means of addressing the achievement gap.
    As you might have noticed, I have little patience with irrelevant and cherry-picked research.
    You point to Clayton as a model of a district with extensive ability grouping. You also note that it has a high racial achievement gap and a significant number of high achieving minority students. You connect the last two these with a “therefore” implying you believe that there is a causal link between high achievement among some African American students and an overall high racial gap in achievement. I don’t understand that; perhaps it was slip of the keyboard, an inadvertent mistake.
    I look at Clayton and see not a model district, but one that is failing its minority and poverty students. I see a district where the minority students, about 95% of whom have self selected to participate in the transfer program and take on those burdens, are meeting “proficiency standards” at a rates well below 20%. Where free and reduced lunch student proficiency rates in the low 20s. All this despite a minority population that is largely self selected and is very low (1%) in the mobility index (an index that correlates strongly and negatively with achievement. I t is a district that is failing to meet or barely meeting the goals it has set for minority achievement, while exceeding every goal for white and non poverty students. I see white and non poverty advanced and proficient statistics that are well above the participation rate in gifted programs of 17.5%; and I see nothing that identifies the successful minority students in Clayton with ability grouping.
    I also see a district that is taking affirmative steps to limit the number of minority students it serves. I also see a district where high school students of all races have come together to protest this.
    I find this last to be the best thing I’ve seen about Clayton and the only thing that I think Madison has something to learn from. Schools and education are about much more than academic achievement and it appears that these high school students understood this. Academic excellence and social justice are not mutually exclusive. I think most of us understand that.

  7. A question of the proponents of ability grouping:
    Could you describe in concrete terms what ability grouping (in the form you’re advocating) would look like in the schools? For instance, from what grade do you propose starting to group by ability? Does it mean just having higher level classes available for TAG students or will all students be grouped by ability?

  8. I’ve never heard the term “inclusion” used in the MMSD without being specifically referenced to special ed students and ELL students. The MMSD is a national leader in inclusionary education and, frankly, that’s a major reason why my kids attend school here- my special ed child is mainstreamed and the staff differentiate for him on an hourly basis.
    The whole arguement over heterogeneous classrooms is a completely different issue. I’m not going to address that here because I can’t- I’ve yet to form an opinion and in many ways I don’t want to form an opinion because it might mean hanging one of my kids out to dry:(

  9. Years ago when special ed was becoming federal mandated, the Special ed folks asked the TAG groups to join them because kids at both ends of the spectrum had unique needs for their groups. The TAG students can be as far from average as a special ed student. Unfortunately the TAG groups wanted to be on there own. In some states TAG does fall under the umbrella of special ed and they do get services needed.
    People who are stating that hetrogeneous classes don’t work for all are not asking for inclusion, they are asking for some similar attention to the needs to be given to those that are far from the “average” intellegence. No one is saying that special ed students don’t deserve the services that they need. Often the needs for the higher end kids aren’t going to cost anything. For example, at West there would be a 9th and 10th grade honors courses in English.
    Because the district doesn’t do IQ tests for the upper end as they do for special ed, parents have requested to have classes like this so they can all students can self select. Yes, there are kids who have the high IQs who need these classes, but even some average IQ students like the challenge to work hard and do these classes also.
    They are requesting that courses may be needed at middle school or even elementary school for those kids who don’t fit the box, just as special ed parents request classes for kids who don’t fit in the box in the high school level.
    For example, if you have an 15 year old who has an IQ of a 5 year old, they should have available classes that meet these needs. Shouldn’t the 5 year old who has the IQ of an 15 year old, have the their needs met also? I hope this helps a little our stand on the fact that hetrogeneous classes aren’t a good fit for all.
    We understand your position, I am asking that you try to understand ours.

  10. Edukation4u wrote: “The TAG students can be as far from average as a special ed student.”
    Judy: I hope you are not implying that a special ed student is somehow below average in their capacity to learn or their intelligence level. People often forget that Special Ed involves a disability, which is not necessarily an INABILITY. There are some true geniuses in special ed. Their disabilities prevent them from learning the same way (or at the same rate in some cases) as their “normal” peers…so while any given special ed student might be “far from average” in their mannerisms and capacities to learn, it would be incorrect (and egregious) to assume that they are “below average”. Just ask my autistic high honor roll middle schooler:)

  11. I’ve been following this interesting debate on heterogeneous vs ability-grouped classrooms for some time now and, like Dave, remain in the ‘undecided’ camp. There are certainly pros and cons to either approach and there doesn’t seem to be any definitive research that clearly supports one approach over the other as being superior in most situations.
    That said, I keep asking myself – What problem are we trying to solve here? If the problem is that poor and minority students are underrepresented in TAG and AP classes, then wouldn’t you want to try and figure out why that is…my personal observation: institutional racism/classism and low expectations….and do something to address that? Eliminating higher level classes seems to me to be a good way of avoiding/ignoring the root problem and not dealing with it. It’s taking the easy way out and not necessarily improving the educational opportunity for any student.
    I respect the opinions of the folks who wrote the letter above expressing support for heterogeneous classes. But the statement “We are dismayed that two of the candidates running for the Madison School Board, Lucy Mathiak and Maya Cole, would work toward reversing access for students by promoting ability-grouping and tracking” seems disingenuous and is inaccurate. This is a complicated issue, but characterizing Lucy and Maya’s concerns about heterogeneous grouping as working toward ‘reversing access’ is misleading and certainly misses the point of the whole debate.

  12. After Dr. Adam Gamoran’s presentation to the Performance and Achievement committee of 30-Jan-2006 (he is head of WERC, and an expert in the area of heterongeneity/homogeneity groupings), I asked him if there was any research which indicates the range of heterogeneity that a teacher could be expected to differentiate successfully.
    Though he did not have details readily available, he believed that a teacher cannot differentiate if the average preparation of the lowest 1/3 students is more than 2 standard deviations from the average preparation of the highest 1/3. (I use the word “preparation” and not “capability”).
    I have asked for a reference to some of this research, but have not yet received it. So the above statements may subject to correction and clarification. But it gives the jist.

  13. David, I am taking a back by your statements thinking that I don’t realize that special ed includes physical disabilities.I realize that you don’t know me, but my husband is physically disabled, as my mother-in-law, and my mother was both physically and mentally challenged, all for different reasons. I was very active in a disabled program in college and was a camp counselor for disabled (both physically and mentally disabled). I am very familiar with the issues special education has.
    I am talking about mental disabilities only. Some of the most intelligent people I know, have been considered disabled. There are also kids who are 2E, gifted in one academic level and average or below average in another, etc. This is what has been frustrating for the TAG groups, is that as soon as someone talks about intelligence, someone automatically assumes we are saying all others groups are not intelligent. It is very common for people with autism and aspergers to be considered TAG.
    TAG has as many different definitions as there are people who talk about TAG. One of the major problems is TAG (I am only talking academically because even at DPI, TAG can defined in 5 different areas). I see TAG can include different groups of kids, 1) The high IQ, 2) the child who has a strong work ethic, and 3)those who are ahead because what has been available to them. The problem I feel is that our society assumes TAG is talking about the 3rd group of kids and unfortunately, the first and second groups are often ignored.
    Because our district doesn’t look at IQs, TAG kids have to stand out in one of the other areas. If you really think about it, special ed and TAG do have a lot in common because often audience assumes one thing and the speaker is talking about another thing. When I think of TAG, I think of the first two groups, and this is what I am talking about.
    I am talking about a child with an IQ of 150 is as far from the average area of IQ as a child with an IQ of 50. Yes, the classroom teacher probably will have an aide to work with the child with the IQ of 50 working with them, and the child with the IQ of 150 is told he “will be fine” in the hetrogeneous classroom with age peers. I have seen this actually happen on a regular basis in the MMSD district. You can not expect the teacher to support the needs of kids this far apart with only an aide to help. I know of a LD student who preforms wonderfully in the hetrogeneous classes and if he was pulled out for “special services” it would be a detrament to his self esteem. He works extra hard on his homework and has been successful. Shouldn’t we also be looking at the self esteem of the TAG student who in 1st grade, reads at an 8th grade level and writes at a 5th grade level. Or the 3rd grader who is ready for algebra? Or for the 9th grader who is reading college level materials, shouldn’t he be able to discuss college level material with others who are also at a similar level of understanding?
    Years ago, I saw on a TV show where a child who was classified LD, was her high school’s Valedictorian taking honor level classes and was accepted into a college Honors Program. So, if you think about it, she had a learning disability, yet her parents and her work ethic was so strong that she was 1st in her high school graduating class. If she is willing to put in the work, she also should be allowed to take the honors courses. I am also not stating that just because someone has learning needs that they should only be in hetrogeneous classes either a strong work ethic will take this woman far and I feel she should have every opportunity available.
    I have seen kids who will do what they can, to fit in, even if that means “dumbing themselves down”. Generally, kids like to know they are not the “only ones” and programs like “Project Excel” may help with this. I am assuming they are looking at kid who are strong in 5th grade math and trying to support them so there are more minorities in honor and AP classes. The concept is great, I am just not sure how effective the program will be, only time will tell. (I think the first larger group is in 9th grade now.) A problem I have is unless a family is has money and can afford programs like WCATY, other outside activities, a private school that would help met the needs or the child is a minority, there isn’t much out there for the TAG students either within school or out. To me, this is another reason I don’t feel hetrogeneous classes work for all. The middle class family (or lower income) who has 4 children can’t afford sending their children to expensive outside activities or private schooling to meet the children’s needs are the kinds of kids who really suffer.
    My children have been lucky that we are able to send them to a school where they understand the needs of the higher level kids. We are taking away vacations, live in a small house, and taken away a lot of other extras for the family in order to afford this option. Unfortunately, we have friends who’s kids could also benefit by this, and can’t afford the school, so they are stuck in hetrogeneous classes and learning information which they learned on their own years ago.
    Jill, until I saw the pain my daughter was going through a few years back, I was very pro-hetrogeneous, classes. I was a former teacher and pro public schools. I ended up doing a lot of research to both understand her and her pain of being gifted and the results of being in hetrogeneous classes. I would not have believed the change in her as soon as she was tested and placed in classes that did challenge her. She was in classes with academic peers, some who where the same age, and others who where older. She bloosomed. I also have a gifted son (who isn’t outside the box) and would do okay in hetrogeneous classes, but also has grown more because he was allowed to take higher level classes.
    There has actually been a great deal of research done stating that TAG kids need more than the hetrogeneous classes can offer. Studies have been done by Susan Winnebrenner, Karen Rogers and Linda Silverman, come to my mind. If you are interested, all these names can be pulled up on the web.
    I am not a writer, so please don’t take my words out of context. I am just concerned that

  14. Well said, edukation4U. One of the pieces of the debate that I have not fully understood, is the assumption that people who are concerned about heterogeneous grouping don’t have family members or know people who have disabilities. Ironically, like you, I was a camp counselor in a program for developmentally disabled youth and adults. I came to UW-Madison to become a special ed teacher but was corrupted into becoming an historian instead.
    And, like you, I have the seen the pain of a child who is not visible to his teachers and whose needs are unmet during the school day. It is not being overly dramatic to say that it is awful to watch.

  15. I hear very strongly the frustration behind both what Judy is saying and Lucy is saying. I am a licensed special education teacher with two of three of my own children who are highly gifted academically. One of the two highly gifted ones (more than two standard deviations above average) also has Asperger Syndrome. The other has major anxiety issues. They both want to do what their teachers tell them and want to have friends and be successful socially as well. The one who can hide her “unusualness” more has been much mroe successful socially too. She had the advantage of having a teacher who was incredibly good at differentiation for both second and third grade, but that has also made it harder for her when many of her teachers after that either do not understand what differentiation is or do not know how to apply it. My son who is twice-exceptional is often noted only for the difficulties he has in working with others and the massive mood swings that come from an associated menal health diagnosis. His first two special ed teachers had no idea how bright he really was (in spite of having those all-important high IQ scores in his evaluations), and did not even try to address his needs for more challenge and his potential for excellence. Now that his 4/5 special ed teacher is very aware of his gifts, she struggles (admirably and in the best-possible connotation of the word) with finding a way to keep him academically engaged and challenged while also meeting the emotional and social needs outlined in his IEP.
    I am continually amazed by how many assume that those of us who speak out against 100% heterogenous classes with no ability grouping do not understand why inclusion of people with disabilities is so important. It is key to include people with soecial needs whenever possible. But why is it okay (as I think Judy asked) to give the 15-year-old with the intellectual capacity of a 5-year-old the specilized curriculum materials and classroom attention he or she needs to work up to and beyond theoretical “potential”, when it is not okay to do so for the 5-year-old who has the intellectual capacity of a motivated 15-year-old? The best special education processes by late middle school engage the kids fully and in mixed groups where possible, but also keep in mind that the eventual adult needs for education for a “typical” child versus one who has cognitive disabilities versus learning disabilities versus neurological processing issues are going to differ greatly. One size NEVER fits all, because there is no such thing as a child who is “typical” in every area during their entire school career. It gets even more complicated when you have kids who are way ahead in one area, and low average or far below average in another. That is where the best teachers will see what is going on early and encourage growth in BOTH the areas of strength and struggles for each child. But this is impossible when you can only have adult aides for kids with the most obvious struggles (usually physical and cognitive disabilities) and those with a mixed bag or who are generally bright are left to get by one their own while the teacher teaches to the 23rd percentile. If teachers are not trained in and do not utilize best practices in differentiation, then fully-mixed-ability classrooms cannot work to the best potential of even half of the students in the room. If teachers are trained and given the prep time and ongoing interactive discussion time with their colleagues to grow their differentiation strategies, it works well IN MOST CASES. But even there, the kids working far below or far above average are not going to have their needs met, nor their capacity for growth. That is what bothers me the most about round-and-round arguments over ability grouping VERSUS differentiation and inclusion – as though they are now and always will be two mutually exclusive approaches.

  16. As a parent of a child with special needs, I support meeting the needs of each individual student within the constraints of the system. For both ends of the spectrum, the guiding principle of LRE (least restrictive environment) should govern. For a cognitively challenged kid, this would (and does) mean inclusion with typically-developing kids whenever possible/appropriate. For an academically-gifted kid, this would imply accelerated curricula and teaching methods whenever possible.

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