Monday, January 16, 2012

Will grouping by ability mean re-segregation?

One of the aspects of the "BC education plan" most touted by the government recently is the notion of grouping students by ability, rather than age. A quick perusal through the moderators remarks on the government website shows that comments favourable to this viewpoint are highlighted. The topic also made it into the Vancouver Sun and Janet Steffenhagen's education blog.

On it's face, it is an attractive idea. Teaching a group of students with a wide variety of ability levels is very challenging and time consuming. One of the simplest and yet most important theories in the educational literature comes from the Russian educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsky - the "zone a proximal development". In regular words, this theory states that optimal learning takes place when the learning is attempting to do a task just outside their current ability level. Too far, and the learner is lost. Too close, and nothing is learned.

Clearly in age-segregated classrooms, it is difficult to consistently reach every student's optimal learning "zone". Because children learn at different rates, age segregation does a poor job of filtering students according to ability. In addition, ability level varies across subjects and tasks. A typical classroom in BC today can easily have a grade level differential of 5 or more years. This means a Grade 8 class can have students with a Grade 2 reading level and students with a Grade 10 reading level, for example.

On one level, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world is to simply re-organize according to ability, not age. And yet there are some significant consequences.

Schools and classrooms are not only for academic learning. They are social places. Children are impacted by which groupings and which schools they are placed in and can become stigmatized by these choices. Grouping by ability automatically sorts children the same way a report card or a test score does - into "winners" and "losers".

A look at some similar educational philosophies reveals some of the dangers inherent in this approach.

There is a considerable body of research on "social promotion" - keeping students with their age cohort rather than retaining them in a grade level. This research generally shows no academic benefit to retention, and that a number of social effects of social promotion are positive - fewer drop-outs, less high risk behaviours and less bullying. Particularly in early years, research supports the finding that there are negative impacts associated with retention as opposed to social promotion (

Another form of "sorting" of students was the exclusion of students with a disability from the "regular" classroom - a practice that was successfully challenged and eliminated under the Charter of Rights. Prior to integration, many students with disabilities were segregated into separate schools and separate classes within schools. Research assessing the impact on educational outcomes of different models of inclusion have been mostly inconclusive. As one researcher acknowledged, integration took place at the same time as the beginning of the long decline in school funding, the mid-1980's. It is therefore difficult to judge the success of inclusion (

Some argue that age grouping is an artefact leftover from the factory model of schooling introduced in the early twentieth century. This is the argument put forward by Sir Ken Robinson, and has gained some traction with some educators. And yet Britain already went through a long process of eliminating forms of streaming, which is a form of ability grouping (albeit within an age cohort, rather than across age cohorts). In the 1960's the government eliminated tested entry into levelled schools, in favour of comprehensive schools based on geographic catchment. This was a progressive change aimed at eliminating the advantages of the wealthy in a publicly funded system.

One of the difficulties with ability grouping is the impact on equity. Students with advantages from outside of school factors (home life, socio-economic status) will tend to enter school at a higher ability level. When they are then streamed into a higher level class or school, the school system will serve to exacerbate the differences, rather than diminish them. It was precisely this effect that comprehensive schools based on geography were meant to eliminate.

Call me cynical, but I believe the government's interest in ability grouping is actually a way to save money while satisfying well off parents whose children are likely to do well and who can pay for outside tutoring and extra assistance when they need it. For these children, the streaming into ability grouping may well lead to better outcomes over the same time period with the same funding. Meanwhile those who have traditionally cost more to educate and who need additional supports, learning assistance and intervention, will be streamed together in their own class. Sounds like a new form of segregation to me.


  1. I agree with you totally. As a parent with a child who has learning problems and special needs, I know what you write is true and it is all about wrong values and ignorance about true education.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more. There is the argument that in combined classes the "older students" will help the "younger students", but we all know that this means we now have an even greater span in ability ranges. I like how you brought Vygotsky's idea of ZPD in here, and think about how much we have to fight to have time to work with students considering his idea of dynamic assessment. I dug up an article by Elliot Eisner called "What does it mean to say a school is doing well?". Eisner says that because of standardization the deeper problems of schooling go unattended and teachers become isolated. And he says that the press toward standardization is because of our age-graded system.

    "Age-graded systems work on the assumption that children remain more alike than different over time and that we should be teaching within the general expectations for any particular grade. Yet if you examine reading performance...the average range of reading ability in any ordinary classroom approximates the grade level."

    So at grade 2 there is at least a 2 year spread, grade 3 there is a 3 year spread, etc... So there is the potential that in grade 8 there is an 8 year spread. The public might think this is an exaggeration, but any teacher will tell you from experience this is more the norm than the exception.

    Eisner concludes that, "Children become more different as they get older, and we ought to be promoting those differences and at the same time working to escalate the mean." To do this we need the support of our government in making the classroom working conditions reasonable - which at the present time they are not.

    Thank you for your blog posts that are highlighting the frustrating circumstances that us teachers are facing on a daily basis/


  3. Thanks for your thoughtful comments Jonathan, and for readers out there please check out Jonathan's very interesting blog on educational issues: