Proficiency grouping makes more sense than differentiated instruction

by Grace

Proficiency grouping, or “tracking” as it was then called, used to be common in American public schools.  But then it begin to fall out of favor in the 1960s because it was considered inconsistent with “equality of opportunity”.

Tracking was replaced by heterogeneous classes with differentiated instruction – “the strategy whereby teachers adjust their material and presentation to the diverse array of academic abilities within a given classroom”.

Differentiated instruction is tough on educators, with 83% of teachers reporting that differentiation is difficult to implement in practice.

Differentiated instruction is inefficient, increasing costs with questionable learning benefits.  Only a small portion of a class session can be used to teach at the appropriate level for any student, especially hurting children at either end of the ability spectrum.  Students end up receiving only the “occasional crumb” from their teacher .

Differentiation is given a lot of lip service, but in practice it amounts to teaching to the middle while throwing the occasional crumb to students who are struggling or who are ahead. This only works as a strategy if the administration is satisfied to be able to say that there was some small element of each lesson that met each student at her/his readiness level, rather than realistically holding out for a system where most students get quite a lot out of each lesson.

This training video shows how teachers may resort to using curious methods to preserve the self esteem of students in their mixed ability classrooms.

… once they’re in their mixed ability groupings I can help the struggling kids feel smarter by asking them easy questions and make the advanced kids feel challenged by asking them hard questions.

Do we think the kids don’t get it?

Differentiated instruction promotes the use of peer teaching, whereby an advanced student tutors a slower learner.  This practice has significant downsides for both parties, which I will write about in an upcoming post.

Flexible proficiency grouping is better than trying to differentiate instruction within a classroom.

Joanne Jacobs wrote about one study.

Sorting students by performance “significantly improves” reading and math scores, concludes a study that analyzed  data linked to a cohort of elementary students in Dallas. Sorting helps both high- and low-performing students, though the high achievers showed larger gains.

Meta-analysis supports proficiency 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.

The future?
Recent trends and a historical perspective are provided by the Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning?  Ability grouping within classrooms* has been growing, but the trend going forward is unclear.

* I found the terminology used in this report a bit confusing because it deviates from most standard definitions I’ve read elsewhere.

Related:  New York school district gets ‘creative’ by tracking students for reading instruction (Cost of College)

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