Differentiation Debacle

June 16, 2009 1 min read

A Connecticut middle school’s attempt to create mixed-level, integrated classes is facing a backlash from parents, according to The New York Times.

Traditionally, Cloonan middle school in Stamford, Conn., has tracked students and put them in separate classrooms based on academic performance, with students ranked as zeros for highest achievement and ones and twos for medium and lower levels respectively. According to the Times, the system has created an “uncomfortable caste” system in which classes are segregated predominantly by race and socioeconomic level. “Black and Hispanic students … make up 46 percent of this year’s sixth grade [class], but are 78 percent of the twos and 7 percent of the zeros.”

In an attempt to address that disparity, the school launched trial mixed-ability grouping last month by combining zeros with ones and twos in its 6th grade science and social studies. There have been reports of fewer behavior problems and better grades for struggling students in the mixed classes, but there have also been reports of high-performing students being under-challenged.

Over 300 parents signed a petition opposing the mixed-level classes saying they are unfair to gifted students and making threats to put their children in private school. The school says it plans to keep a top-honors level, but integrate most other classes in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades over the next three years.

For the students themselves, the numbered tracking system creates social and academic stigma. Jamiya Richardson, a 6th grader at Cloonan, is a two and says that students all know their own number and their classmate’s numbers. “I don’t like being classified because it makes you feel like you’re not smart.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.