My elementary School in San Mateo, Calif., had reading ability groups in every classroom. I arrived in the middle of third grade in 1952, and I was put in the lowest group, the canaries. By June, I had clawed my way up to the top group, the bluebirds.
This pedagogical device made sense to competitive types like me. My mother, a teacher, thought it was a troublesome crutch, but it was too tightly woven into American culture to change.
Except that it did, as Brookings Institution education expert Tom Loveless reveals in a new report. The canaries, redbirds and other ability-group fauna took a huge hit from scholars studying inequity in American schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Teachers moved away from ability grouping.
Loveless, senior fellow at Brookings’s Brown Center on Education Policy, examines this turnabout in his new report, “How Well Are American Students Learning?” He is a former teacher with an eye for newsworthy developments in education reform.
One of the earliest and sharpest attacks on ability grouping was Ray C. Rist’s 1970 paper, “Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education.” Loveless says Rist “followed a group of kindergarten students through the first few years of school and noted how the composition of the reading groups rarely changed, consistently reflecting students’ socioeconomic status.” Rist said teachers developed higher expectations for the more affluent kids in the top groups.
Other scholars assaulted tracking, the practice of putting classes at different levels in the same grade, rather than the ability-grouping approach of different levels in the same class. Jeannie Oakes’s 1985 book “Keeping Track” argues that tracking was an attack on social justice, making inequality worse.
Loveless’s research shows that the anti-tracking movement had some effect, although middle schools and high schools still have one set of courses for college-oriented students and a less demanding set in the same subjects for those not so academically inclined.
The biggest triumph of the anti-trackers, particularly evident in this area, has been the opening of college-level classes like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and the Advanced International Certificate of Education to all students who want to take them.
Ability grouping declined more sharply than tracking did in the face of the scholarly assault. A 1986 Johns Hopkins survey found bluebird/redbird/canary/etc. groupings in at least 80 percent of elementary schools. By the mid-1990s, such grouping had dropped to as low as 27 percent, according to another study.
Then it rebounded. A 2006 survey found that ability grouping was back to 63 percent of teachers. The jump was even more pronounced in fourth-grade reports from the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, from 28 percent of students in ability groups in 1998 to 71 percent in 2009. The jump in math ability groups was from 40 percent of students in 1996 to 61 percent in 2011.
Washington area school officials tell me tracking and ability grouping is permitted as long as students are not stuck at one level and are helped to improve.
Studies show teachers prefer ability grouping to teaching all students, fast and slow, at the same time. Ability grouping also helps them focus on those children closest to reaching the proficiency targets under No Child Left Behind. This retread from my youth is back, and likely to stay, no matter what researchers and my mom think of it.