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Classroom teachers can see what works

A couple of decades ago, elementary schools - or teachers - routinely grouped students by ability, the better to reach all students at their level of readiness.

Critics charged that this practice trapped poor and minority students in low-level groups, and the practice fell out of favor.

But as Vivian Yee reported in The New York Times, grouping is back, reinvented by classroom teachers for the same reason teachers did it in the first place - in an attempt to serve all students better.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress found recently that 71 percent of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed grouped students by reading ability in 2009. In 1998, only 28 percent reported doing so.

The same trend was reported for teaching math.

"Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them copy with widely varying levels of ability and achievement," Yee wrote.

It turns out that the war on grouping had the unintended consequence of forcing teachers to "teach to the middle" of a wide range of readiness levels.

Jill Sears of Woodman Park Elementary in Dover, N.H., said some students breezed through assessments, got bored and acted up, while others struggled, got frustrated and acted up.

"My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners," she told Yee.

She began grouping students by abilities about 10 years ago. And apparently she's not the only one.

But it's flexible grouping, with students changing groups depending on what help they need in what subjects. Teachers address the same subjects in different ways for each group.

Reassessment is constant.

Not surprisingly, it's a lot more work figuring how to teach the same subject, in the same classroom, to several groups of students with varying levels of preparation.

But Sears said "dynamic grouping" is here to stay.

Classroom teachers are in the best position to see what works and what doesn't. They should be freed from faddish edicts and allowed to follow their own good judgment.



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