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Rewarding Achievement: Why Ability Grouping and Course Based Learning Are More Effective than Age

physixmatters 1 / -  
Mar 27, 2016   #1
The American education system is currently failing. It ranks 14th among developed nations in terms of academic quality. Could a shift to a system based on ability, instead of age, be the key to a brighter future? In the current system, academic placement is based on age, except in cases of learning deficient children and limited advanced placement courses. An ability based system would place all students according to their academic ability, fostering their strengths and working to repair any deficiencies. This method would build a stronger foundation for all subjects and may be able to increase student success in subjects they might otherwise never fully understand. It would prevent students from being passed along without thorough understanding, simply because they're only allowed to be held back twice in a lifetime. It would provide the opportunity to make progress in certain subjects while remaining at lower levels for others that need further refinement.

Generalized education currently attempts to build a wide base of information for students. While there are polls, like the 2011 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, claiming that 70% of people believe that universities should require broad spectrum classes, however only 36% of respondents believe that a college degree will prepare them for their future careers. Half of the time and massive debt incurred by students is spent on general education classes that do not address what students will actually need for success. A common complaint among students is that college is uninteresting, a joke even, for the first two years, until they're able to take classes related to their intended major. This time is often a review of what students have just finished in high school and so is boring and unpleasant to have to take again. Replacing this system with ability based learning could alleviate the inefficiency and frustration of this system, allowing students to pursue paths that apply to their future and their strengths, without paying for classes that do not.

Studies have shown that organizing classes according to academic ability has the propensity to improve student performance across the board. Several studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research have proven that this format can improve student success in reading and mathematics, both in low and high performing students. The opinions of educators and administrators alike seem to converge on the idea of course based learning as the ideal way to ensure optimal progress for students of all ability levels. It is already in practice in high school and college level institutions, and it proves exceptionally efficient at allowing students to find where they perform best. Without the restrictions of tracking programs, which keep students locked into one track they test into, a true ability based system adds fluidity to education, moving with the ups and downs of each individual student's progress.

The way the education system is designed now caters to self esteem for all and academically only caters to the lowest performers. This is hardly conducive to producing an impressive or useful population. Age is a completely irrelevant and unrealistic way to determine academic placement. People of every age vary in their abilities. There are mentally handicapped, below average, average, above average, and genius level performers from birth to senility. In the workplace, people of varying ages work the same jobs and in the same environment. Socialization solely to one peer group limits social ability in the larger social scheme. Age based placement also limits a teacher's ability to design courses specific to the mental capacity of their students. (Thorvilson) There are legal pressures for the provision of "special needs" classes for those with handicaps (Pursley), as well as pull out programs for those with learning disabilities and those who simply lack the fundamental knowledge to succeed at their current level. (Wade) Why then, are there not such specialized programs for those who have exemplary academic performance, who would greatly benefit from advanced, specialized programs that suit their pursuit of knowledge? Legally, there is no need to place students according to age in order to provide an appropriate education. If children with handicaps can be sorted and taught according to their special needs, then it stands to reason, and to existing law, that the special needs of extraordinary students should be equally accommodated.

Standardized testing is a particularly irrational blockade to a movement toward ability based learning. People are not standard, nor is the way they learn or the areas in which they best perform. Every person succeeds and fails to varying degrees in various subjects. That's precisely why people pursue different fields for education and work. A scientific genius may fail at history, but is that really a reason to prevent progress toward a university education? Einstein struggled with French classes in school, which has been suggested as the reason for failing his university entrance exams (NY Times), but he is revered as one of the most brilliant mathematical minds in the history of mankind.This system clearly does more harm than good.

This all begs the question: which students are being catered to in the American education system? Special education classes have become a requirement for children with handicaps and learning disabilities, one that receives an inordinate amount of funding, staffing, and attention. According to the Unified Federation of Teachers, these classrooms are limited to twelve students for every one certified special education teacher and one to four paraprofessional aids. This number is lowered to eight for students with severe academic and behavioral issues. And still, several lawsuits have been pursued fighting for the "rights" of handicapped children in education. Parents want special classes, special treatment, but still want their "special" children to be in school with others the same age. (Pursley) Age, however, has never proven to be a valuable asset in the education process.

What about the rights of advanced children? Parents have sued for special education classes at every level, and there is demonstrable success of ability based grouping the special education. In fact, it is the widely accepted opinion that ability based classes are necessary for the success of their education. Average and above average students are hardly given the same attention and specialization to their learning styles, and perhaps that is part of the anchor pulling down the American education system

Educational imperatives result in constantly changing ideas on how to improve the system. The failure of government enforced methods has a negative impact on the public view of the system, reduces faith in the quality of education and can have disastrous effects on the futures of students. It is not something to be experimented with lightly. No Child Left Behind is one of most recent and most destructive examples. (Dee & Jacob) This program was designed and implemented for the sole purpose of dragging forward all those students who were failing to meet the most basic standards. It was an order under the Bush administration, mandating that all students reach proficiency in math and reading by 2014. It addressed solely the remedial needs of low performing students. (Wade) Granted, it did make slight increases in academic achievement for the lowest scoring students in mathematics, but it proved no positive results for reading capabilities and it impeded the progress of higher level students who were not given the resources or attention necessary to further their success. It also furthered the overwhelming problem in America of "teaching to the test," whereby teachers focus solely on material that will be covered on standardized test instead of covering the entirety of a subject. (Dee) The threats of losing funding or becoming a sanctioned school were overwhelming and added stress and poor teaching practices to the ever-mounting pile of problems with the U.S. education system. All too often students who were able to pass the standardized tests were still ill-prepared to pass Advanced Placement (AP) tests. This negates the entire purpose of the AP program, since students are unable to receive college credit for the courses and end up retaking them in college.

An ability based system alleviates the strains on both extremes. Courses determined by academic achievement, not age, allow students to be placed according to where they actually stand academically. High schools and colleges use this method already, but it may be beneficial to take it to the next level. If a student excels at math and is behind in English, then they can be placed appropriately according to each subject. This avoids the ever vocalized opposition to a tracking system. Ability grouping is not a test-and-set pathway for students, but a process that requires constant reassessment to maximize educational benefits for students. (Olszewski-Kubilius) Students are not placed on "dumb kid" track or in the "smart classes." Instead, students can be placed into any class they prove they can handle. That may mean an overhaul of lower level courses for some or a combination of regular and advanced courses for others. Course progress and testing at regular intervals will help determine the success of each student and avoid inappropriate placement. If a student in a remedial class catches up by the next testing date, they can move up. Students who fail to keep up with course load may be moved down to a level they can handle.

Every study of ability based grouping has shown positive results. Ability grouping improves performance in both high and low performance students in reading and mathematics. (NBER) The mean increase in reading skills has been .22. (Puzio) The study by Courtney Collins and Li Gan for the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted studies within the Dallas Independent School District, employing variations in sorting methods, and concluded that of all the methods used, ability based grouping yielded the greatest benefit to all students. Both high and low performing students achieved greater progress in both reading and mathematics under this sorting system. Considering the limited scope of these studies, it would be beneficial to expand research to include ability grouping for all academic subjects, particularly STEM subjects, which have the greatest potential for benefiting mankind.

In addition to the stigma associated with a tracking system, it has been suggested that ability grouping may have an impact on self-esteem. Some have claimed that low performing students do poorly when they think they are in the "dumb" class, while high performing students put into higher level classes do well for a time, then equalize and stop trying as hard. (Abadzi) However, ability based grouping studies would suggest that this is simply due to a lack of expectation and motivation. This complacency would not be an issue if there were always an opportunity for upward or downward mobility. Students would be consistently encouraged to push forward in the subjects they most excel at.

In other parts of the world, there are systems in place that test and guide students to successful career paths. Germany has a system that helps guide students toward their most beneficial future in the most expedient way. (Carroll) They submit all students to a series of tests to determine whether they might be best suited for vocational training or a university path. If they pursue vocational training, they undertake an apprenticeship 3-4 days a week while taking classes related to their future career path. These students graduate with a diploma and a professional certification, and most often maintain a position with the company they apprenticed for. This has given Germany a substantially lower unemployment rate than the U.S.

Vocational schools have proven to be an exceptional option for students who already have an idea where they want to go in life. Despite the fact that they have been proven to be extraordinarily effective, vocational schools do not have a great reputation in the United States. They have recently been making a comeback, but a negative connotation still lingers around the idea. This is because of the presumption that those in vocational programs are the "dumb kids" or trouble makers. (Bidwell) Schools are also hesitant to offer vocational classes for fear of the high liability. Parents are quick to sue for injuries, even if they are caused by the student, not by negligence of the instructor. (Wade)

The benefits definitely would outweigh a bad reputation if these lawsuits and payouts could be avoided. There is a lower unemployment rate associated with places that offer vocational training as a part of the education system. Students who graduate with a professional certification are more likely to have jobs and less likely to drop out, since they have a career path so clearly and simply laid out before them. In Germany, a vast majority of students keep working for the companies they apprentice for, making the transition from school to the workplace easy and less intimidating. They already have friends and contacts and known how on the job. This "learn by doing" mentality is the basis of the widely acclaimed Montessori philosophy, as well as many successful private school curriculum. This is how the world was structured once and it is a logical path to follow. Students who know where they want to go in life are not shown to benefit greatly from spending time, energy, and money on classes that are entirely irrelevant to their necessary skill set. An aspiring journalist may be bored or even discouraged in their education when forced to take advanced mathematics courses to fulfill a general education requirement, but that they will never apply to their career. (Pracz)

It seems to be the general consensus among educators that ability based grouping is an ideal conclusion for bettering the education system. The disagreement, however, lies in whether it should be absolute or within classes grouped by age. Dr. Janet Wade, an education administration in Banning Unified School District, contributes to the writing of curriculum for middle and high school classes and oversees the special education department and special projects. According to her experience, monitoring student progress is essential to formulating a system that works, but schools and teachers are limited in what they're actually able to do to help children. Currently a student can only be held back for two years throughout their entire path through the school system. Resorting to this is most effective in elementary schools, giving children more time on foundational skills. However, this would hardly be an issue if the gap in knowledge were limited to certain subjects. In ability placement, course based system, students could retake a particular course without retaking an entire year, allowing them to carry forward with subjects that they do actually excel at.

The options now in place are student study teams, composed of influential people in a student's life, and pull out programs. Intervention teachers are assigned to students who are failing or missing vital foundational knowledge, but do not have learning disabilities. Resource is a pull out program designed for students with learning disabilities who are functional enough for a regular classroom with specialized assistance. Dr. Gray expressed concerns about self esteem for kids who feel like failures for being placed in the "dumb" class, especially from young and "impressionable" ages. Dr. Craig Borba, the previous superintendent of Palm Springs Unified School District believes in the effectiveness of course based education as early as children are able to test into the first class. Both agree that if course based learning were to be implemented, it should start from the elementary level.

From all of these facts, a few conclusions can be drawn. First and foremost, it must be established that age does not determine ability. Second, education is about the pursuit of knowledge and working toward a successful future, not coddling the self esteem of students. Belief in oneself is dependent on perceived worth. If a student finds what they love, what they're good at, and a path to success, they are more likely to feel confident in themselves than following an educational path where they are forced to take classes in subjects they consistently fail at or consider irrelevant and don't even bother trying. Forcing students to take classes that they don't want to learn, will not apply in their futures, and that they may never succeed at wastes the time of all students involved as well as the tax dollars spent on providing those classes to so many students who do not value their contents. Those valuable resources could be put to better use, which would in turn reduce the anxieties of teachers who lose faith in students after years of disappointment and frustration.

In addition to remedial and advanced academic courses, vocational options should be available at all schools or in all areas.Course organized learning should begin from the start. Students should be tested every quarter to determine their progress. Students should take classes they're qualified for, no matter how high or low. Students need to learn what they're ready for, not just what others the same age can do. This method will make it faster and easier to tell which students will excel in which subjects. It encourages them to pursue subjects they're good at, at which they can excel through rapidly, and works on the foundational basics of subjects they're not. A full overhaul of the education system may never happen. If it does, it may take an exorbitant amount of time, but it is an absolute certainty that shifting the education paradigm would change everything for the future of Americans and the way they impact the world.

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