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Keeping the Class Together

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Is ability grouping within an elementary school classroom an effective method for teaching math? Until recently, most research said yes. But a new study of roughly 2,000 4th-6th graders suggests that grouping, in certain circumstances, may not produce the best results.

In 1988, DeWayne Mason, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, conducted a research project involving math classes in nine elementary schools in the Columbia, Mo., school district. The schools were typical of many in the United States: Students came from fairly similar backgrounds, and their range of math abilities was not as wide as in some urban districts. Moreover, the teachers often swapped a few students for math instruction, so that classes were made up of children of similar abilities. Most math teachers then divided their classes into high- and low-ability groups, teaching each group at a pace tailored to its needs.

For the study, Mason had teachers in three schools teach the same way they always had: Each class was broken up into a high and low group; a student's placement was determined by his or her achievement during the previous year. At three other schools, math teachers were trained to use a different approach. They taught their classes as a whole, regularly checking to see if students understood the concepts and periodically forming small "ad hoc'' groups for remediation or to give students more challenging material. Three schools acted as controls, with teachers using any method they chose to teach math.

What Mason discovered is that when students of like abilities have been placed together in a classroom, those taught as a whole group consistently perform better than those who have been divided into subgroups.

Elaine Hassemer, of Fairview Elementary School, was among those teaching math to the class as a whole. "In my building, everyone doubted it would work,'' she recalls. But once she got the hang of teaching to the whole group, she noticed her students were doing better on their homework and seemed to retain skills longer.

Her positive observations were confirmed by Mason's findings. Students who were taught using the whole-class approach covered more ground than those in grouped classes. They mastered an average of 3.4 units during the four-month study period; grouped classes only finished 1.9 units. The whole-class students also scored higher on unit tests and on a 40-item test designed by the researcher.

To explain the findings, Mason points to an experience that gave him the idea for the project. As a principal of a Missouri middle school that assigned students to math classes based on their ability, he was troubled when he observed that teachers also grouped students within their classrooms, creating two or three subgroups that they had to juggle every day. "Students were on their own for 40 minutes out of the period,'' Mason says. "Intuitively that bothered me.''

Mason's findings show that his intuition was correct. Students who were taught in the wholeclass setting received an average of 19 minutes of instruction on mathematical concepts each day. Although teachers of two-group classes spent roughly 20 minutes teaching math concepts, they divided this time between the two groups of students, so each only received 10 minutes of instruction per day. The researcher also found that more time was wasted in the two-group environment. Teachers in these classes spent more time in transition and giving directions. That didn't leave much time for one-on-one work with students. In fact, students in the grouped classes received seven times less individual attention than their whole-class counterparts.

Mason knows that many teachers do not have the luxury of teaching classes of students of similar abilities. But those who do, he says, should be aware that there are advantages to not grouping their students.

"Management of two groups is difficult,'' notes Linda Coutts, math coordinator for Columbia's elementary schools. "Often, instruction of one group is chopped short so the teacher can get to the other group.''

Teachers who have tried both methods also say that a big advantage to the whole-class approach is that students don't have to confront the negative stigma attached to being in a "low'' group. Terri Martin, a 6th grade teacher at Derby Ridge Elementary who recently switched to whole-class teaching, says she was surprised to find that every student demonstrated a special skill or talent that helped them feel successful.

"When kids see themselves as failures, you have a long, hard battle in front of you,'' Martin says. "It's neat to see a kid realize, 'I'm not always in the slow group.' --Elizabeth Schulz

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