Response to Betzinger et al on Heterogeneous Grouping

March 29, 2006
To the Editor of the Capital Times:
I read with interest the March 28 letter from Betzinger et al regarding heterogeneous grouping.
Using inflammatory “tracking” vs. “inclusion” rhetoric, the authors clearly misrepresent my position on the current debate, which was posted through the Isthmus on-line questions to candidates two weeks ago. I have stated my position in front of the board and in several forums attended by their group. I also have asked for dialogue with Barb Katz on more than one occasion and she has declined my request to learn more about her position.
Under the circumstances, I can only believe that the authors would prefer not to be confused by the record, which is:
Mathiak: Despite noble rhetoric in favor of this plan, I have deep reservations about the current push for “mixed ability grouping” (a.k.a. “heterogeneous grouping”). The district has failed to clarify whether the goal is to achieve a perfect demographic balance in each classroom or address the historic segregation of Madison’s advanced academic programs.
These are two very different objectives that would require different strategies to succeed.
Since 2000, the district has known that 27% of high school drop outs scored above the 84th percentile in the 5th grade math test; this group includes a large number of low income and minority students. If the district wanted to desegregate advanced academics it would require:

  • Early testing of all students to identify and nurture high ability students of color and low income students.
  • Reform of the middle school and high school guidance system to encourage rather than discourage advanced classes among students of color and low income students.
  • Creation of enough places in advanced classes to accommodate all students capable of success.

If the goal is to achieve a perfect population mix, we need to have a plan that meets the needs of all of the students in that mix. This means addressing several factors identified in successful models but which are not part of Madison’s current public school practice including:

  • The ability to control who attends the school and under what terms
  • The ability to require teachers to be trained in and to implement differentiated curriculum (one expert recently testified that this takes ten or more years to put in place).
  • Generous levels of in-stepping for students who are significantly above grade level.
  • Adequate numbers of support staff — social workers, psychologists, learning disabilities specialists, librarians, TAG specialists, and other core staff — to allow teachers to teach to all levels.