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Mass. Leads Mounting Charge Against Ability Grouping

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QUINCY, MASS.--When school districts in this state group students according to their academic ability, Daniel V. French in turn groups the districts, separating those that agree to abandon the practice from those that face losing some state funds for declining to do so.

As the Massachusetts Department of Education's director for student development, Mr. French is leading his agency's effort to discourage public schools from putting children in different classrooms based on their perceived ability.

The agency, headquartered here, lacks the authority to forbid ability grouping outright. But it uses the award or denial of state dropout-prevention and remedial-education money as leverage to get schools to "rethink traditional notions of grouping students,'' in the words of a 1990 department advisory statement that strongly criticized the use of homogeneous grouping.

With the backing of Gov. William F. Weld and Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci, the department has put Massachusetts in the forefront of a growing offensive against ability grouping and tracking in public schools.

Here and elsewhere around the nation, increasing numbers of educators, educational researchers, and civil-rights advocates are aggressively promoting an end to such practices. (See related story, page 23)

Many of these critics base their efforts on a long-held conviction that ability grouping contributes to segregation of students by race, ethnic group, economic background, and other nonacademic characteristics.

Just last month, the Amherst, Mass.-area chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District had violated the civil rights of minority students by grouping them disproportionately in low-ability classes.

But many of the newest attacks on ability grouping are based not only on concerns for insuring integration and equity.

Advocates of heterogeneous grouping have also begun to frame their arguments in terms of a broader movement for educational reform. They argue that it is not enough simply to mix together students of different ability levels; a commitment to a stimulating curriculum and to methods such as cooperative learning, they say, is central to insuring that heterogeneously grouped classrooms succeed.

"If you just implement heterogeneous grouping without any thought, it doesn't help,'' Mr. French acknowledged in a recent interview. "It does not help high-achieving kids and it does not help low-achieving kids.''

Unless its proponents can demonstrate that heterogeneous grouping improves the education of all students, including the brightest, it is likely to continue to meet staunch resistance, especially from many parents and advocates for children deemed high-achieving or gifted and talented, experts from both sides of the debate say.

"By totally doing away with ability grouping, you are clearly preventing children from reaching their full potential,'' argued Peter D. Rosenstein, the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Educators of the gifted have increasingly seen their programs under attack by both budget cutters and education reformers. (See Education Week, March 18, 1992.)

Mr. Rosenstein contended that the elimination of higher-ability classes in Massachusetts and other states has been inspired by a desire to trim budgets and is being carried out by "politically misguided educators who are looking not at what is good for children, but what is politically correct.''

Middle Schools Mixing Students

In Massachusetts, 21 percent of all public middle schools now group all students heterogeneously, compared with only a handful a decade ago, and an additional 69 percent have adopted more heterogeneous grouping during the past three years, according to survey results that the Massachusetts education department plans to release formally in the coming months.

Some schools and school districts in the state undertook heterogeneous grouping well before the state began promoting it, and are seen as models for others that are considering such a change.

Among the districts is the Pioneer Valley Regional School District in northwestern Massachusetts. Kevin J. Courtney, the superintendent of the rural, virtually all-white district, said pedagogic concerns, rather than civil-rights considerations, inspired the heterogeneous-grouping effort undertaken eight years ago.

The so-called "detracking'' effort there was initiated by teachers who questioned the educational value of ability grouping, Mr. Courtney said. The move probably would have been "doomed'' if it had been imposed on teachers by school officials or the state, he said.

John D'Auria, the principal of the Wellesley (Mass.) Middle School in the suburbs of Boston, credited a long list of experiences for his decision to push for mixed-ability grouping soon after taking his school's helm in 1988.

He noted his stint as a teacher in a heterogeneously grouped Catholic school, which impressed him with its "sense of community.'' And he cited his experience as a guidance counselor in public schools, where he came to see young adolescents as "molting,'' or experiencing a key formative stage, during which they are especially vulnerable to negative messages that may be conveyed by grouping practices.

Thus, Mr. D'Auria said, he was distressed when he came to Wellesley and found the 7th and 8th grades divided into three levels each. "We really had some hidden belief that kids who learned things the first time and quickly were the bright ones,'' he said.

Mr. D'Auria set out to heterogeneously group the school's classrooms and to have all children taught the honors-level curriculum. He endeavored to create a culture within the school that constantly reminds all children they can succeed, and he established an after-school study center for students who got low marks for effort.

'Rethink Traditional Notions'

At about the same time that Mr. D'Auria was undertaking his changes in Wellesley, officials at the Massachusetts education department were attempting to identify the obstacles that seemed to be limiting the impact of its discretionary grants for dropout prevention and remedial education.

State officials were frustrated because, although dropout rates had dropped slightly, grade retention and in-school suspensions apparently were rising in a number of districts where the state-funded programs were in place, Mr. French said.

The state began to encourage systemic change in schools to improve student achievement and, in 1990, targeted ability grouping as one of the biggest obstacles to improvement for low achievers.

The education department's statement issued that year is one of the most strongly worded state advisories on ability grouping to date.

"There is little evidence that ability grouping or tracking improves academic achievement,'' it said, "while overwhelming evidence exists that ability grouping retards the academic progress of students in low- and middle-ability groupings.''

The advisory blamed ability grouping for widening the gap between high and low achievers and for segregating students by race, income, language background, and disability. Gender also skewed the grouping process, it said, with girls being more likely than boys to be placed in low-level science and mathematics classes.

The education department offered schools technical assistance and training to implement heterogeneous grouping. Agency leaders asked the department's staff to work with educators, other state agencies, and various child-advocacy groups to promote an end to ability grouping and tracking.

Lacking authority under the Massachusetts constitution to require heterogeneous grouping, the department opted to use as its "carrot and stick'' the awarding or denial of grants for dropout prevention and remedial education.

For example, one school that embraced heterogeneous grouping, the Bartlett School in Lowell, received an additional $150,000 in state money over a year, which it used to fund professional development to prepare teachers for heterogeneous classrooms.

Other districts had state grants revoked if they refused after a year to move to abandon ability grouping, Mr. French said.

Depriving the Gifted?

Some local newspapers responded to the state's initiative with editorials charging that the education department was trying to water down the curriculum used in public schools.

And some educators criticized the state advisory as ignoring the fact that the research appears inconclusive on the value of ability grouping for high achievers, especially those deemed gifted and talented.

Many parents of gifted and talented children, meanwhile, have continued to oppose some districts' efforts to act on the state advisory. Some parents have removed their children from public schools over the issue, according to Joseph F. Harrington, the president of the Massachusetts Association for the Advancement of Individual Potential.

"The bottom line,'' Mr. Harrington said, "is that bright kids, while they can learn cooperatively, at the same time learn better with other bright kids.''

Although a small minority, the parents of gifted and talented and other higher-track children tend to be the among the most well-to-do, influential, and heavily involved parents in schools. Such parents have proved to be formidable opponents when they feel the welfare of their children is threatened, according to many educators and administrators who have tried to implement mixed-ability grouping.

Tracks 'Deeply Entrenched'

Many educators also have reservations about heterogeneous grouping, and getting them to implement such programs remains "an enormous struggle,'' said Maria Garza-Lubeck, the director of the Middle Grade State Policy Initiative. That program, with the oversight of the Council of Chief State School Officers and funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has targeted grouping by achievement level as a practice it wishes to eliminate.

Many teacher-training programs continue to prepare their graduates only for ability-grouped classrooms, and the use of ability grouping and tracking remains "deeply entrenched in the junior high model,'' Ms. Garza-Lubeck said.

Elizabeth J. Bryant, the principal of the Bartlett School in Lowell, said teachers there "still have some serious concerns'' about the heterogeneous grouping undertaken by the school five years ago. Bartlett's enrollment is about 40 percent white, 30 percent Cambodian, 25 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent black; 77 percent are economically disadvantaged.

"Teachers still are wondering if the brightest kids are getting sufficient attention,'' Ms. Bryant said. "They worry sometimes about whether to gear their instruction to the top or the middle.''

Nevertheless, Ms. Bryant said, most teachers in her school have given an "overwhelmingly positive'' response to heterogeneous grouping, largely because they still remember the "horror show'' each had encountered in teaching the lowest of four tracks in the school's 7th and 8th grades.

The students who had been in Bartlett's lowest tracks "had no role models'' under that system, Ms. Bryant said. In contrast, she said, their behavior improved dramatically once they were placed with higher achievers.

Although Wellesley Middle School did not face the same disciplinary problems as Bartlett, teachers there had been uncomfortable with ability grouping because they felt it encouraged students to focus on grades rather than learning, or discouraged them from taking risks out of fear their placement would be questioned, Mr. D'Auria said.

New Mission and Methods

In her book Crossing the Tracks, released last month, Anne Wheelock, a former policy analyst for the Massachusetts Advocacy Center, a child-advocacy group, examines dozens of efforts to heterogeneously group students undertaken by schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Heterogeneous grouping, Ms. Wheelock concludes, requires a profound shift in a school's basic mission and culture. Existing emphases on quantifying intelligence, defining ability, and identifying weaknesses must give way to emphases on releasing intelligence, nurturing effort, and building on strengths, she writes.

Mr. D'Auria of Wellesley Middle School echoed that view.

"What people believe really, truly influences the outcomes that you see,'' he said. To help reinforce that message, Mr. D'Auria has decorated his school's hallways with street signs bearing the names of triumphant underdogs, such as Jim Abbott, a professional baseball player who was born with one hand.

Schools that undertake heterogeneous grouping, Ms. Wheelock writes, also need to provide their teachers with staff development so they can learn to use mastery learning, cooperative learning, curriculum-embedded assessment strategies, and other pedagogic tools that have proved useful in working with diverse groups of students.

Phasing In Changes

An updated version of the Massachusetts education department's advisory on ability grouping, scheduled for release next month, maintains that all students, including the gifted and talented, benefit from a change to mixed-ability grouping as long as it is accompanied by appropriate changes in curriculum, instruction, and testing.

The updated advisory cautions, however, that such changes should be phased in. It recommends that schools spend a year on staff development and planning before they implement heterogeneous grouping.

"I have to really think about the concepts I want to teach, and I have to think: What is a really student-centered way for them to learn this?'' observed John C. Lepore, who teaches science at Pioneer Valley High School.

When interviewed one recent morning, Mr. Lepore was teaching a class of heterogeneously grouped 7th graders, some of whom had special needs. Working cooperatively in groups of four, the students dipped thermometers into various-sized containers of water to determine which would lose heat faster--a mountain lion or a mouse.

At a glance, it was impossible to tell the brightest children from those with special needs. Working in one of the groups was a child with autism, a beneficiary of the complementary relationship between heterogeneous grouping and the mainstreaming of students with disabilities.

Mr. Lepore said his task of teaching a mixed classroom was being helped by "an explosion of new textbooks that are using an integrated approach to science education,'' as well as newly available interactive laser disks and hands-on activities. Noting that he had taught in both homogeneously and heterogeneously grouped classrooms, he called teaching the latter "more fun.''

Homogeneity Helps

Largely due to the efforts of the state education department, only about 10 percent of public middle schools in Massachusetts continue to separate their students into at least two groups based on ability, Mr. French said.

However, he added, ability grouping remains prevalent at the high school level, which the state so far has given a lower priority in its campaign to promote heterogeneous grouping.

"If you are really going to talk about all kids graduating from high school with a high-quality academic preparation, then you need to look at some of the rigid tracking that goes on in the high schools,'' Mr. French said. He said he plans to give high schools "a bit more of a friendly push'' to reconsider their grouping practices.

Heterogeneous grouping appears, ironically, to meet the most acceptance and success in schools that are relatively homogeneous to begin with. In such schools, proponents of mixed-ability classes acknowledge, the prospect of lumping all children together appears less threatening to parents and faculty members.

Ms. Bryant of the Bartlett School in Lowell said that she received virtually no unfavorable reaction from parents when she implemented heterogeneous grouping. But she said she probably would have run into more resistance if more of her students were from wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds.

"There is no question that it is easier if you are more homogeneous to start with,'' Ms. Wheelock said in an interview.

"But,'' she added, "I don't think it is fair to say it is impossible when you are extremely diverse.''

Realism or Racism?

School leaders in the Amherst-Pelham district strongly defend their ability-grouping policy, which is the target of the federal suit filed last month.

John E. Heffley, the principal of Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, argued that grouping students by ability is a necessity in his district, which serves both the children of recent Southeast Asian refugees and of University of Massachusetts faculty members. The enrollment is 72 percent white, 10 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent black, and it is disproportionately limited-English-proficient.

Mr. Heffley said the vast majority of parents and staff members at his school endorse its grouping system, which provides three tiers of instruction in most courses and involves parents by asking them to approve or reject a teacher's recommendation about where their children should be placed.

"I believe that school systems should develop their institutional pattern of grouping students to fit their own system,'' Mr. Heffley said.

The Amherst-Pelham grouping system, Mr. Heffley said, produces large crops of National Merit Scholarship finalists and college-bound students, as well as low dropout rates among limited-English-proficient students who get the extra help they need.

William A. Norris, a lawyer for the Amherst-area chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., believes otherwise. He contended that the chief product of the Amherst-Pelham grouping system is "permanent, irrevocable scarring, low self-esteem, underperformance, and boredom'' inflicted on minority students who are disproportionately represented in the lower tiers.

"This is a racial issue,'' Mr. Norris said. "Within the same schoolhouse, we have two groups being treated differently. We have in-house segregation.''

The district's policy of involving parents in the grouping process "is no defense,'' Mr. Norris added. Many parents may be unwilling, unable, or afraid to challenge a teacher's recommendation, he said.

The suit Mr. Norris filed in U.S. District Court argues that Amherst-Pelham should be denied federal funds because its grouping system deprives minority students of full access to the school curriculum, and thus violates their rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and various federal civil-rights laws.

"We want to choke funds,'' Mr. Norris said. "That is the ultimate sanction.''

Just Desserts

On a recent Friday afternoon in Lowell, meanwhile, Ms. Bryant celebrated the success of the Bartlett School's heterogeneous-grouping efforts by treating her faculty to ice cream.

Last year's 8th graders surpassed those in comparable schools in all four areas of the Massachusetts Assessment Test, Ms. Bryant explained, and "we celebrate when we can.''

Ms. Bryant conceded, however, that she puts little stock in standardized-test scores and that she probably would have barely mentioned the test results if they had not been good.

Mr. Courtney, the superintendent of the Pioneer Valley district, took an even dimmer view of the state's standardized tests, which he described as "so full of holes they are not worth talking about.'' The tests, he asserted, are incapable of measuring the positive impact of heterogeneous grouping on higher-level thinking skills and in other areas.

Unless educators in Massachusetts and elsewhere can agree on what constitutes a valid measurement of student achievement, the debate over the relative merits of homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping appears unlikely to be resolved.

In the meantime, many proponents of heterogeneous grouping base their arguments on personal observations, ideals, and faith.

"When kids are forced to explain and answer questions, they are learning that material in much greater depth,'' Mr. Courtney declared as he gave a tour of Pioneer Valley High School.

Mr. Lepore, the science teacher, said, "I have never had a parent come back to me and say their son or daughter is not challenged.''

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