The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

New Possibilities for Teaching Diverse Populations in Tomorrow's High School

Laurence R. Marcus and Theodore Johnson
Rowan College of New Jersey


In response to pressure from parents and children's advocates who believe that homogeneous grouping both unfairly limits opportunities and creates barriers between children along the lines of race and class, schools have begun to abandon that instructional approach. As our society becomes increasingly diverse, the politics in opposition to tracking and "ability-based" grouping is likely to continue. Yet, teachers register a serious concern that their ability to be successful with their students is limited when classes include children of disparate achievement levels. This article suggests that the effective use of instructional technology, along with the reconceptualization of the role of the teacher, can help students to achieve their potentials within heterogeneous settings in the high school of the future.

High schools have organized themselves in different ways to educate their academically diverse student bodies. The predominant pattern has been to track and to group students on a homogeneous basis according to grade point averages and standardized test s cores. The rationale behind this approach is to provide students with instruction appropriate to their abilities so that they may achieve to the fullest extent of their potential. Thus, comprehensive high schools typically offer academically-oriented trac ks for college-bound students, general tracks for the less academically-inclined, and vocational tracks, either within the comprehensive high school or in a separate school for the occupationally, or technically-oriented student. Classes within each track are usually organized according to ability groupings. Thus, for example, the academic track includes honors and advanced placement courses for the highest achieving students and standard college prep courses for the rest; the general track usually includ es courses titled similarly to those in the academic track (but that cover the content less deeply), as well as remedial courses for those who have had difficulty mastering the basics. Now that many schools, particularly voc-tech schools, want to attract high achieving students to their vocational programs, ability grouping is increasingly present in those settings as well. Many schools additionally group students in accordance with any special needs that they may bring to the classroom, particularly if t hey have behavior problems or severe learning disabilities, or if they have developmental disabilities.

The Debate Over Ability Grouping

Proponents of ability grouping claim that it permits instruction to be pitched at the level that best permits the student to master the content and to develop a positive, success-oriented self-image. They also believe ability-grouping helps to orient stud ents to the respective patterns of learning that will be required of them after high school as they move on to a selective college, an open admissions college, further vocational training, the military, or the labor force. It is an efficient model from th e teacher's point of view, and, according to many, reduces student anxiety as well.

Ability grouping has significant support beyond the teachers. This is not surprising in a society where most adhere to a meritocratic philosophy. Parents who view the placement criteria as being reliable, and who believe that they are objectively and fair ly applied tend to advocate the approach. They see the positive effects of providing extra help to the slower groups and of pushing the advanced groups. They believe that instruction that sets appropriate challenges to students based on their ability moti vates all to achieve. Many students also see the value in the homogeneous approach, for the same reasons. Additionally, many express a certain comfort in studying alongside others who share the same characteristics. High achieving students appreciate that they and their teachers are not distracted by students who present discipline problems; those in lower achieving groups appreciate that they are not expected to accomplish as much as the "brainy" kids.

In recent years, however, this homogeneous grouping model has come under attack from parents and advocacy groups of those not in the advanced groups. These parents feel that the tracking and ability grouping of children not only results in those not at th e top receiving a boiled down education, but that it also serves to limit the view of those students regarding the levels to which they might achieve -- all based on a decision made about students at an age when their true potential might not yet have bee n revealed. Counter to the claim that homogeneous grouping increases student self-esteem, opponents claim that this approach reinforces low self-esteem for students in the lower groups. Further divisiveness is facilitated by reinforcement of the old stere otypes of problem students in the lower groups and of elites in the higher groups. Because the enriched classes are populated overwhelmingly by white middle and upper middle class students, while students of color and working class and poor white students are disproportionately represented in the classes with more modest goals, this divisiveness has even broader social ramifications. Further, the segregation of children with behavior problems into the slower groups has a disproportionately negative effect on learning by students in those groups who have no behavior problems. Opponents of ability grouping point out that all students need strengthened educations to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. These opponents contend that slower students can achieve more by being taught alongside higher achieving students. Further, they believe that in our increasingly diverse society, it makes little sense to keep young people from developing the interpersonal and intergroup understanding that comes fro m exposure and close working relationships with those who are different. The push toward more heterogeneity also comes from parents of learning disabled and developmentally disabled students who are increasingly seeking their inclusion in "regular" classr ooms.

The Shift Toward Heterogeneity

Educational leaders have increasingly sought to be responsive to these concerns by shifting their programs to a more heterogeneous approach. In two sections of a masters-level course at our college during the spring 1995 semester, students were required t o diagnose the process and outcomes of a recent change in the particular Southern New Jersey school in which each teaches. Four of the students examined a shift from an ability-based homogeneous to a heterogeneous grouping pattern; four others analyzed th e inclusion of special education students in "regular" classrooms; and three reviewed the implementation of "pupil assistance committees," which are intended, in part, to address the needs of troubled children within the regular classroom setting. Only on e student diagnosed the process of change surrounding the replacement of a heterogeneous grouping approach to an ability-based homogeneous model. In nearly every instance, the students reported a significant level of controversy surrounding the changes. O pposition to increased heterogeneity often came from the parents of the higher achieving students who saw an important service being taken away from their children. (Needless to say, this discord adds fuel to the fire of proposals for vouchers and "choice .") At the same time, many, if not most, teachers were troubled by the change (contrary to the position advocated by the National Education Association, with which most are affiliated, whose research has concluded that the advantages of tracking are outwe ighed by the disadvantages). Sometimes the teachers' opposition was in response to the way in which the change was implemented, but more often they were upset because they saw the heterogeneous concept that every classroom should serve students irrespecti ve of their ability or of the special needs that the child brings to the classroom as making their already difficult task in this outcomes-oriented society even more difficult. More than a few pondered why anyone might think that a student who has trouble reading would be successful in a history or science class alongside higher achieving students, or why a parent of a student who is not well grounded in arithmetic might think that the teacher would be able to teach the student algebra at the same pace as those whose algebra readiness has been demonstrated. Irrespective of what they saw as legitimate concerns, they saw themselves on the losing side of a political issue.

Groups such as the Education Task Force of the National Governor's Association have advocated the heterogeneous model, and several states have implemented incentives or adopted policies to move away from homogeneous grouping. Will the deregulatory mood th at is sweeping the country mean that the push for heterogeneity will abate? We do not think so. Indeed, shifting decisions to the local level is more likely to result in anti-ability grouping initiatives picking up steam in many communities where small, b ut vocal, well-organized groups can wield great power. In any event, given the trends within our society, it is likely that many of the socio-economic (and political) factors that confront us will become increasingly challenging. Indeed for education, the demographic trends indicate that increased proportions of high school enrollments will be minority and immigrant children, children born with low birth weight, children whose mothers used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, children from single parent hom es, children from dysfunctional homes, children with learning disabilities, students with characteristics and backgrounds more likely to result in placements in slower groups for any number of reasons (including discrimination). Even if the parents of the se children are themselves not well educated, they will not be blind to the advancing technology, economic globalization, and the accompanying re-balancing that will affect them and their children. The proponents of heterogeneous grouping will grow in num ber, and their press will intensify, as they seek an educational approach that they believe will provide the best opportunity for a fulfilling future for their children.

The challenge, then, will be to find a way for all high school students to achieve at the limits of their ability in a context where growing numbers will be increasingly skeptical regarding both the efficacy and the propriety of ability grouping. At the s ame time that educators will be required to meet the needs of this changing majority, they will also have to be responsive to the highest achieving students (not necessarily mutually exclusive with the larger group). If they do not, they will run the risk of an "ability flight." If they shift completely to a heterogeneous approach, they run the risk of failing to provide some students with the support that they need. We know, for example, of a large urban high school in New Jersey that recently abandoned homogeneous classes except for its college-level advanced placement courses. Further, this particular high school no longer has bilingual classes despite having a large population of non-native English speakers, and it has no basic skills classes despite having a recognizable population in need of skills development, and no special education classes despite having the full range of learning disabilities and special needs students. However, it has yet to implement an instructional approach that will offset the withdrawal of special services formerly available.

A New Model

To overcome the problems that currently confront both the homogeneous and heterogeneous models, high schools of the future will need to combine the use of technology and the provision of appropriate support services. The politics of grouping appear to be pushing in the direction of heterogeneity as we move toward a majority comprised of persons who historically have been consigned to the lower ability groups irrespective of their true potential. An increased interpersonal and intergroup understanding prom ises less fragmentation and intergroup conflict, by teaching our young people to be more accepting of people who are different from themselves. In the best of circumstances, this is a daunting challenge. It becomes almost impossible if we reinforce the no tion of separation through one of our most important socializing institutions -- the schools. This argues strongly for classroom assignments that are random, except where age-appropriateness makes sense.

Individuals do have different abilities, and even those with very similar abilities may achieve at different rates. Standards set too high for those with lower ability or for those with slower rates of achievement will not serve those students well, nor w ill standards set too low for those who can achieve more. Equally important is the inappropriate standards' effect on society in general if the standards produce citizens inadequately prepared for the full range of occupational and civic roles that our na tion will require. This argues strongly against heterogeneous instruction.

The answer may lie in individualized instruction within a heterogeneous setting through be application of instructional technology in the classroom. In each subject area, the computer can diagnose the individual student's level of achievement and can call up a curriculum that will move the student forward in an appropriate and challenging manner. For example, in the same mathematics class, one student may be working on math skills development, while others are doing pre- algebra, and still others are movi ng through algebra. Further, some of those students may be working with a computer screen that is the analogue of the current textbook, while others are using a multi-media program, and still others are linked with individuals and/or instructors in distan t locations. The permutations of instructional approaches, skills being developed, and content being covered would depend on the needs of each student. The role of the teacher in such a classroom would shift from that of delivering common content to that of overseeing the needs of each student's mathematics development. The teacher would encourage the students to raise their expectations of themselves and to set challenging goals, would assist in selecting the instructional format most effective for the s tudent, would provide assistance as the student maneuvered through the material, would answer questions, would monitor the progress of the student including ascertaining whether the pace of accomplishment was appropriate for the student, etc.

In such a set-up the advantages of the group approach are not lost. Heterogeneous-computer-assisted classrooms should be able to meet many needs--those of students who learn better in small groups, as well as those who thrive in large groups. Diversity wh ich should not be ability- or nonability-related, should become a natural part of all classrooms. In such a setting, a student who has mastered an algebraic concept may help a student who has yet to master the concept or a prerequisite concept before movi ng forward to the next algebraic challenge; several students of similar ability may compete only with each other. In an American history course, where it is not only the pace and breadth of the material to be mastered that may differ across a class, but t he depth of the material as well, it is not difficult to envision the entire group or portions thereof coming together from time to time to discuss an event, a trend, etc., with each student contributing to the conversation from his/her level of understan ding. Networked information and discussion would again free up the teacher to oversee the activity of individual students and of those helping other students, and would make sure that student competitions improved outcomes rather than sacrificing comprehe nsion for speed.

New Teacher Competencies Required

The new role that high school teachers will need order to be most effective in the future will also require their development of knowledge and skills beyond those that are subject- matter related. As the walls between the special education and the regular education classroom come down, it is unlikely that every school will be able to afford -- or would even find it desirable -- to have a subject matter teacher and a learning specialist in each classroom. Thus, the competencies that we currently associate with "special education" teachers will become part of every teacher's work. This is not to say that learning specialists and other instructional support teachers will go the route of the dinosaurs; their role will shift more toward becoming consultants fo r the other teachers, while still providing direct service to children with extraordinary problems.

The changes that we project will have profound implications for the preparation and continuing professional education of teachers. Schools of education will need first of all to equip each prospective teacher with computer skills. Pre-service programs wil l need to ready prospective teachers for the new role of helping a diverse group of students to master academic content in keeping with a set of goals that are appropriately challenging to each student. Teachers will require sharp diagnostic skills and a solid background in learning support and human potential development. High school in-service education programs will need to assist teachers-in-the-field in making this transition, as well as remaining proficient in the application both of new instruction al technology. Teachers will need to learn how to break through the stereotypes and patterned thinking that haunts many -- if not most -- of us, even if subconsciously. This is a two-fold challenge, inasmuch as most teachers will first need to overcome th eir own stereotypical presumptions before helping students to move beyond theirs.

This new pattern of high school education will allow for the talents of all individuals, wherever they may be on the socio-economic scale, to their potential in an environment that fosters community, thus making a major contribution toward helping the Ame rican people renew their commitment to pulling together in the broader interest.


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