Archive for September 13th, 2012

September 13, 2012

New York school district gets ‘creative’ by tracking students for reading instruction

by Grace

Everything old is new again.  A Westchester County school district is trying a “new approach” of tracking students for reading instruction.

PORT CHESTER — After cutting a staff of reading specialists from the budget, the schools are starting a new approach for children who need extra help in literacy.

All four elementary schools will dedicate one period a day to specialized literacy instruction, based on students’ needs. That replaces a practice of pulling particular children out of classes for reading assistance.

“It’s pretty creative,” said Carlos Sanchez, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the district. Those with the greatest needs will be grouped accordingly, and those performing above grade level will take part in enrichment programs.

Tracking, or separating students into instructional groups based on their proficiency levels, begin to fall out of favor in the 1960s because it was considered inconsistent with “equality of opportunity”.  I remember hearing one local school administrator tell parents that grouping students by ability before 8th grade would permanently scar them.  But since it’s now portrayed as a “creative” method of “specialized literacy instruction”, it may have found new acceptance by the PC police.

The fact is that meta-analysis supports ability grouping.

The academic benefits are clearest for those in the higher ability groups, but students in the lower groups are not harmed academically by grouping and they gain academic ground in some grouping programs.

Today’s proponents of ability grouping stress that it should be based on proficiency levels and should offer flexibility so students can move between groups when appropriate.  Instead of “tracking”, a more descriptive term is “flexible proficiency grouping”.

Pull-outs and differentiated instruction are problematic

To replace grouping, schools have tried pulling students out of class for additional services and offering differentiated instruction within the classroom.  But there are problems with these alternatives.

“In a pullout program, kids miss something to get something,” Sanchez said.

“In this type of set-up, everybody gets what they need. Nobody’s falling behind because they miss a half-hour of curriculum,” Sanchez said.

Differentiation places an unreasonable demand on teachers, with a recent survey finding that 83% of them find differentiation difficult to implement in practice.  No surprise there, with many classrooms including students three or more grades levels apart in academic skills.

Lumping all students together is not the best option, and could be a factor in the growing achievement gap.

This approach stunts later achievement levels for many students of varying ability levels.  But it’s the students on the lower end of the distribution curve who probably suffer the most, with fewer resources to make up for an inadequate educational process.

Cutting costs while improving student achievement
The Port Chester schools turned to proficiency grouping after budget cuts forced staff reductions.  A silver lining to the new era of controlling public education costs may be that more schools begin to try new “creative” approaches.  Over the years, heterogeneous grouping fueled the need for smaller class sizes and bigger staffs, so an unexpected outcome of “new” instructional methods could be improved academic outcomes at lower costs.

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