My Blog List

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Education: Grouping Students by Ability

Children mature physically, emotionally, and intellectually at different rates.  Age grouped, one-size-fits-all classrooms are anachronistic failures.  Educators tried numerous plans to circumvent the problem.  They dumbed down the curriculum to the lowest achievement level, producing high school graduates best suited for work as Wal-Mart greeters.  The jig saw classroom performed no better.  Focusing on the top and bottom ten percent of achievers and warehousing the rest produced similar results.

Alaska abandoned the traditional time as the constant and learning the variable model; now, time is the variable and learning the constant.  Learning is cumulative.  Advancing students to their next grade level without mastering the first leaves them unable to meet demands at the higher level.

Alaska's experiment is successful.  The Chugach district – whose 250 students are scattered over 22,000 square miles – went from the lowest performing district in the state to Alaska's highest-performing quartile in five years in the 1990s, a shift the former superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, attributes to the new philosophy.

Teachers cannot teach to multiple ability levels simultaneously; they have to ignore some students.  Teaching to one ability level includes everyone in a classroom.  Students learn at the most effective and comfortable pace for every individual.  Children strong in math and weak in reading can improve each discipline without penalty.  Eliminating marginally successful ESL classes is another benefit.

Colorado also groups students by ability rather than chronological age.  The plan is to have 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades, [with] students…in different levels depending on the subject [moving] up only as they demonstrate mastery of the material.  Advocates sometimes describe it as flipping the traditional system around so that time, rather than mastery of material, is the variable.

Clive Thompson’s article discusses flipping in California that, utilized with Alaska’s and Colorado’s versions, could revolutionize education.  In Palo Alto, CA, teacher Kami Thordarson, uses Kahn Academy.  Khan Academy is an educational website that, as its tagline puts it, aims to let anyone ‘learn almost anything—for free.’

Initially, Thordarson planned to use Kahn as a teaching aid, but soon, she flipped her entire classroom operation.  She replaced some lectures with Khan videos and had students watch at home.  In class, they work on problem sets. This is the flip: students hear lectures at home and do homework in class. 

Thordarson asserts that students need individual attention most when homework assignments make them struggle to comprehend subjects.  Khan provides teachers with a dashboard application that alerts them when students get stuck.  I’m able to give specific, pinpointed help when needed.

Kahn offers the personal instruction that Benjamin Bloom proved could improve students’ academic performance by two standard deviations, available online, on demand, and without individual tutors’ exorbitant costs.  From TED talks to iTunes U to Bill Hammack the Engineer Guy, new online educational tools are bringing the ethos of Silicon Valley to education. Contributions to the Kahn Academy include $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Google kicked in another $2 million.

As usual, some Luddite educrats feel threatened.  If adopted, these methods would require fewer education union members.  They know this too.  Some teachers who’ve seen Khan Academy presentations and loved the idea wondered whether they could modify it ‘to stop students from becoming this advanced.’  Open mouth and insert size 8 pump.

May your gods be with you.     


  1. There are pros and cons to this approach. On the pro side, gifted students won't be slowed down by those who are less so, which is happening now under No Child Left Behind. On the con side, some of this process is happening already, and the downsides are that the "best and brightest" will tend to develop groupthink, as they all end up going to the same schools, having the same professors, and having the same thoughts, not all of which will be in line with the majority of the population. For a living example of this, have a look at most of our Ivy League-educated ruling class. For a textbook explanation of this phenomenon, check out Charles Murray's "The Bell Curve."


  2. "... wondered whether they could modify it ‘to stop students from becoming this advanced"

    Excuse me! What kind of thinking is that?
    i like what you described as flipping and I very much like the idea of students studying an assignment at home and then doing the "homework" in class. I can see how that would allow the teacher to give one on one attention to those who needed it. This is the first I've heard of the Khan Academy. I will google it to learn more.


Rational civil discourse is encouraged. No vulgarity or ad hominem attacks will be posted.