Thursday, October 30, 2014

Teachers using ablity grouping contributing to growing inequality in schools!!

Dr Rubie-Davies
Does your school use ability groups?

There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest contribution to inequality in our schools lies outside the school gate – in the difficult home circumstances of the students

The Minister has spread the myth that one in five students are failing and that schools can alleviate this situation with better teaching - and National Standards. It is all too easy for politicians to blame teachers and in the process ignore that poverty is the problem – poverty created by the neo- liberal polices implemented by governments since the 1980s. 

One in five students failing – one in five students living in poverty – seems hard to ignore the correlation.

Schools can't do much about the poverty issue – this is a matter for politicians – but they ought not to add to the disparity by their teaching methods.

With this in mind it was welcome to read Dr Christine Rubie-Davies article about ‘enacting high expectations for all students’ in the NZ Principal magazine Sept 2014.

She writes that we often hear that teachers ought to hold high expectations for all students implying that currently teachers do not hold high enough expectations. But, she asks, ‘what do high expectations look like?’

Her research has led her into identifying teachers with high expectations and whether holding high expectations has a positive effect on achievement and student self-belief. Rubie –Davis defines high expectation teachers ss those who have high expectations for all their students ‘relative to achievement’. The point she makes is that ‘high expectation teachers expect all their students in their classes to make large learning gains –and the students do’.

So, she asks, ‘what is it that high expectation teachers do? Several studies have shown that high expectation differ from low expectations in three key areas: they do not  use ability groups, they create a warm class climate, and they set clear learning goals with their students. At the heart of these difference, in my opinion is the use of flexible groupings rather than ability grouping.’

This is why the article caught my attention as I have never believed in , or used, ability grouping because of the consequences for students attitudes about their learning ability – ‘once a weka always
An excellent book.
a weka’. (A weka is a NZ bird that has lost its ability to fly! )

Rubie –Davies' research lines upwith the findings of Professor of mathematics Jo Boaler and the research of the UK Teaching Without Limits project.

According to New Zealand researcher John Hattie within class ability grouping show little benefit in raising achievements levels – and this leads on to the negative effects of streaming or banding.

Hattie 'no benefit'
 As a secondary student commented to Rubie- Davies, ‘as you move down the streams, the students get browner’. ‘The major problem with ability grouping’ writes Rubie –Davis, ‘is that it results in differential opportunity to learn and therefore differential learning. Students learn what they are given the opportunity to learn.’

My own thought is that there is not an achievement gap in our schools but rather an opportunity one.

Students Rubie –Davis writes arrive at school as 5 year olds and within a week or two they find themselves in the Red group or the Tiger group (or the Wekas) - names teachers think disguises the hierarchy that represents ability grouping. Once placed students are given different learning experiences and this placement begins their careers not only in an academic hierarchy but also a social one.

 Although many teachers talk about groups being flexible there is research that ability groups students are placed into in their first year predicts the stream they will be placed in at secondary school.

 Other research shows that if children from low achieving groups are placed in average or even high achieving groups they quickly begin achieving at the same level as their peers. There are also studies that show the pernicious effect of ability grouping and streaming. And, it seems, there are no studies, says Rubie- Davies that shows ability grouping is wonderful.

Sadly all this evidence against ability grouping is ignored by schools and as a result schools contribute to student discrepancy.

In contrast Finland, hailed as having a high quality education system has a policy of schools using only heterogeneous grouping and they also have one of the smallest disparities between their highest and lowest achievers. Rubie –Davies concedes there may be other explanation for Finland’s success but, not withstanding, their policy of heterogeneous grouping versus our homogeneous ability grouping is worth considering as one potential explanation for our large ‘achievement tail’.

The high expectations teachers Rubie-Davies studied do not use ability grouping instead they use flexible mixed ability grouping where students can choose the activities that they complete, or higher and lower achievers are paired, or students are socially grouped, or students choose who they work with, or students assigned to mixed ability grouping.

  Educationalist David Perkins suggests students can be withdrawn individually or in small groups, for catch up help and then placed back into the ‘game’ of learning. This approach was identified by Rubie-Davies. She observed teachers ‘pull out students to teach particular skills so that the salience of ability is diffused’.

Such flexible grouping would seem to me to true to the spirit of holistic, integrated, student- centred or personalised learning that once NZ primary education was recognized for  as exemplified by the writings of the late Elwyn Richardson.

Elwyn Richardson
Another aspect of flexible grouping is that students can form relationship across the curriculum and in the process developing a stronger sense of class community.

Flexible grouping shows to students that teachers care equally for all of them. Ability grouping is more harmful at the secondary level where students are streamed and sadly this process is becoming more common in primary and middle schools with inter-class grouping and setting, usually in literacy and numeracy.

Schools’ using flexible groupings requires teacher expertise to monitor individual progress and provide feedback and assistance as and when required – but this is expertise that can be learnt.

 Rubie –Davies has completed studies to develop this expertise. This is the creative teaching that, when I was an adviser, teacher or principal, I admired. My own experience as a principal showed me how hard it was to shift teachers out of using ability grouping in literacy and numeracy – it seemed hardwired into teacher DNA.

‘All students’, concludes Rubie-Davis, ‘come to school enthusiastic about learning and the adventures that lie in store. Many leave school several years later disillusioned, disappointed and dispirited.’

As a country the talents of all our students is our biggest future asset – our school system should focus on developing the unique talentsand gifts of all students and not, as at present, contributing to some feeling winners and other losers – wounded by their schooling.

‘From an equity perspective, all students deserve the opportunity to achieve to their highest potential. High expectation teachers recognise the possibilities in all their students and work to ensure that all students achieve to the highest level they can. It is teachers who foster students’ talent and who can help every child to love learning, to challenge themselves, and to achieve more than others might have thought possible’.

All that is needed is some courageous leadership to create the conditions to encourage teachers to escape past destructive  ability grouping practices.

Further reading................................ Wounded by School by Kirsten Olsen


Anonymous said...

I bet there are few classes that don't use ability grouping - but, like you, It has always worried me. For all the positive talk by teachers it is more for their convenience than students success - particularly the 'low' groups ( your weksa!)

Bruce Hammonds said...

You are right of course and with the imposition of National Standards literacy and numeracy dominate the timetable more than ever and makes ability grouping. setting and streaming even more hardwired. Wait until 'we' get League Tables and performance agreements.

melulater said...

Every school I have ever been in has actively promoted the use of ability groups for reading and maths, and increasingly for writing. I've never really run with the writing one, thinking individual help was more effective than group, but had never questioned the reasonings for or against ability grouping for reading and maths. I do recall in one or two other posts by you that you have said that ability grouping was countrer-productive. I'm wondering how brave one would have to be to go against the expectations of their principal to abandon ability groupsing....

Bruce Hammonds said...

To be honest I can't think of any schools not using ability groups. Worse still I can think of schools who have moved into cross setting for reading and maths. Even classes streamed by ability - as determined by maths/reading abilities. And I believe it will get worse with National Standards.

Interestingly there was a programme on National Radio talking last Sunday about maths and reading ( NZ going down in PISA rankings ) and an answer was to move away from ability grouping!!

To suggest to principals to move away from ability grouping show them the research ( see books in my blog) or get them to provide evidence to support ability groups. Be hard to find!