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Age or ability?

July 6, 2010

Children have almost always been grouped in school by age.  In the past, children have been held back a grade (or more) if they failed but that very rarely happens now.  Likewise, children who are advanced are rarely moved ahead a grade.  Some “enrichment” may occur but the preference is to keep children with their “peer groups.”

Some schools in the US are switching to a system of grouping students according to ability (USA Today).  This is brilliant and could benefit both students and teachers.  Of course, I think that it will never happen here.  Why?

Students who stay at the same level to master coursework will have their feelings hurt.  Parents will demand that their children are allowed to stay with their friends.  I’ve witnessed it even with split classes.  The resistance would be huge.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott Down permalink
    July 6, 2010 10:49 am

    That is a really good idea. I share your cynicism, though; it wouldn’t happen in Canada.

  2. saskteacher permalink
    May 13, 2011 7:36 am

    wow…you really need to read the research on why this is a terrible idea. you honestly think it is a good idea to have someone with an intellectual disability in grade 2 when they are supposed to be in grade 10? What about students who are 6 years old but read at a grade 8 level…do they have the social skills to hack it with 13 year olds full of hormones? What about the student who excels in math, is terrible in reading, isn’t very athletic and does so-so in science, are they switching classrooms for every subject in grade two and being taught by 10 different teachers? Research shows that students benefit most when they are not grouped in like abilities. If you want the research on this so you can make informed comments, I’d be happy to provide you with a load of scholarly articles to support this. there is a reason why the USA is way behind Canada in terms of academic achievement…their government does not put their money into public education and most decisions made about curriculum and classrooms are made to ensure education is delivered in the cheapest way possible

  3. r.e. permalink
    May 14, 2011 5:01 pm

    Saskteacher,
    taking an example to an extreme does not invalidate the point. For a multitude of reasons you would never have that kind of age disparity between students.

    In my opinion a one to two year age spread does not create the horrible inequities that you envision, but in my experience in 10 years in the classroom I have seen more issues around students being pulled back to ensure that no student is left behind, rather then allowing that student a realistic chance to relearn the material ( yes it does mean repeating a grade).

    In the instances where parents have had the vision to to this, I have seen students with a much greater sense of self as they succeed on their own accord rather than feeling as if they can not achieve what is expected of their peers. Will kids make comments to other students about ‘failing’ you bet they will, and those comments will disappear by the end of September when they child is excelling.

    When you push a kid forward without having those skills or confidence they are the kid who a group ‘has’ to have in their group, or someone ‘has’ to work with and you end up with an entire years worth of comments that diminish the child’s self worth.

    and if students are held back in the early grades when the foundational work is being done, the don’t have the double whammy of being unprepared academically and having the challenge of hormones.

  4. saskteacher permalink
    May 15, 2011 9:31 am

    r.e.
    The research would disagree with you. In education we have learned that keeping a child back does not help. When students are held back they do not magically begin to match the level of the students in that same grade with them, who are now a year younger than them. They may excel for a month or two, but guess what happens to the student’s self esteem when the children a year younger than them start to learn the material more quickly and efficiently than they do after that month or two period? We know that students do not just “catch up” from one more year being spent in that grade. In kindergarten, however, there is research to suggest that this is the BEST year to keep a child back, but it is usually not recommended.

    What needs to happen instead, is teachers need to adapt to a variety of learning needs in the classroom through innovative teaching methods. For example, stationed learning centers where the teacher supervises as one, and EA supervises another and the 3rd is an independent center. If a child is not understanding a concept, they can repeat the center again with the teacher’s supervision and guidance. Or, some students may need to use some different technology (such as word Q speak Q) to help them do the same assignment as their peers, but in a different way

    I am a special education teacher and I have a masters degree in the area. Trust me, holding kids back is not a good idea. Especially if they have learning needs or a disability (and most students struggling in school do, you just wouldn’t know as they are not visible disabilities). These disabilities are difficult to diagnose sometimes until grade 3 or 4 as psychologists and medical professionals are hesitant to make these diagnoses at such a young age. Usually by grade 2 or 3 however we learn the “reason” why the student is not learning adequately. Usually this is due to a specific learning disability, an intellectual disorder, or neglect from home (usually in lower socioeconomic communities). Holding a child back (even for one grade) does not fix these issues, they need to be dealt with and adapted to at the professional level.

    If someone would like me to post some research on this topic, I’d be happy too (just don’t want to go through the effort if no one is interested)

  5. Michele permalink*
    May 15, 2011 8:56 pm

    I think that it is unrealistic to expect teachers to teach to so many different levels in one classroom. How can one teacher challenge advance students while accommodating the slow students while giving all students the best educational opportunities?

    Students should be grouped by ability and taught accordingly.

  6. r.e. permalink
    May 16, 2011 7:05 am

    I agree with Michelle, with a caveat. There has to be a consideration age difference as it relates to social interaction. We already see the challenges that come from an early admission student being the youngest in a class, and by early admission I mean students who just barely make the age cut off for registrations.

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