Educating High and Low Achievers in the Same Classroom

Everyone seems to agree that the American education system needs to be fixed, but the debate rages on about how it should be changed. One year research points in one direction, only to point in the opposite direction a few years later. It’s no wonder that educational programming is constantly in flux.

In his article All Together Now?, Hoover Institution fellow Michael Petrilli states that the greatest challenge facing America’s schools is the enormous variation in students' academic levels.

By the fourth grade, there may be a six-year span of reading abilities in a classroom. Addressing all of these levels is a daunting task for any teacher. For decades, schools have gone back and forth between ability grouping in reading and math and concern that confining youngsters to lower ability groups hurts their self-esteem.

Once policy incentives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) were instituted, there was a shift to prioritize low-achieving students. As a result, the performance of the lowest 10 percent of students shot up, while the achievement of the top 10 percent of students stagnated, leaving parents of high ability students displeased.

The answer, according to some, is differentiated instruction. Using this method, one teacher instructs a diverse group of students, but manages to reach each one at precisely the appropriate level. Every child receives a unique curriculum that meets that individual’s exact needs. In reality, most teachers agree that this is very difficult to achieve.

Michael Petrilli visited Piney Branch, an elementary school in Takoma Park, Maryland, where both high-ability and low-ability students have made remarkable gains on test scores. At this school, every homeroom has a mixed group of students that represents the diversity of the school. During the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups that are appropriate for their individual reading levels. These groups are fluid. If a child in a slower reading group progresses, that youngster will get bumped up to a faster group.

For math, students are split into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one room, middle students in another, and struggling children in a third. If capable, an advanced group of math students may work two years ahead in the curriculum.

During science, social studies, and specials, the students are back in heterogeneous classrooms. Even then, teachers work to differentiate instruction, offering more challenging, extended assignments to the higher-achieving students.

But it gets more complicated. In an effort to retain gifted students who were testing into highly gifted programs at magnet schools, Piney Branch formed cluster groups of students at each grade. Therefore, in one classroom in each grade, there are 12 or so gifted students, along with another 12 or so who are working at grade level. Teachers agree that handling these various groups requires extensive planning and training. In addition, the teacher needs to be someone who is well organized and creative.

There are many different ways to approach the education of gifted students. This is an example of the methods used by one successful school. In order to replicate this success, a school needs to have strong support from the district, the principal, the teachers, and the parents.

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