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Meeting Every Child's Academic Needs

A teacher testifies to the visible benefits of grouping students according to skill levels

WHEN I began teaching, I soon learned that my students possessed varied levels of academic ability. Some of the children already knew letters and sounds and were beginning to read. Others were just learning to recognize letters. A few couldn't tell me their names.

Stumped by these vast differences, I felt that the only way to keep from boring some or losing others was to divide the class into flexible groups. I proceeded with initial misgivings fed by literature that suggested such grouping would devastate the self-esteem of the less academically advanced children.

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To my relief, I found the opposite to be true. Ability grouping gave these children more confidence. When they found that they compared favorably with their peers, they were relieved not to compete with children who always knew the answers.

Not only did this grouping benefit less-confident learners, it helped children at every level. It allowed me to zero in on the exact curriculum level of each group and teach only the skills that those children needed.

Gifted children reengage

This was a benefit to my academically gifted students. Instead of waiting for others to complete work, they moved ahead. Behavior problems, which had surfaced when these children were bored, quickly vanished as they lost themselves in the excitement of learning.

This kind of grouping also helped eliminate the negative social pressure placed on honor students.

All of these experiences show that homogenous grouping is the perfect alternative to heterogenous grouping, where children sit, glassy-eyed, while struggling classmates read aloud.

So why doesn't every school offer classrooms where students with comparable skills are grouped together to learn certain subjects?

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There are several myths that prevent public schools from adopting this practice:

Myth No. 1: The brightest students will manage to learn no matter what the environment.

In the currently popular, but often misused, outcome-based curriculums, the bright students are often used as mini-teachers and encouraged to help other students.

There's nothing wrong with peer tutoring. However, if the students who are teaching are being held back until others catch up, not only do they become bored, they are denied the chance to realize their academic potential.

Myth No. 2: The self-esteem of slower children is hurt when they are grouped.

It is ironic that school systems who criticize academic grouping as a form of discrimination allow discrimination based on athletic ability. Why is it acceptable for coaches to choose only the best players for a football team, thus risking the esteem of the other children, if it's not OK for the same school system to offer special programs for honors students?

If children's self-esteem can survive discrimination in sports, why not in academics? After all, not everyone can be good at everything.

And even young children should be given credit for a certain amount of perception.Children know who is the best runner, who is the best at catching a ball, and who is best at reading. Whether we group or not, children know who is successful academically. If we don't group formally, they will group themselves, often with disastrous results.

Myth No. 3: It is better for children's social adjustment if they are not grouped.

It is worse on self-esteem when academic abilities vary too greatly within a classroom. Competition within widely mismatched groups causes resentment, teasing, and negative academic pressure.

Children who are not academically gifted may make it seem ''cool'' not to get good grades. Without the support of peers who thrive on competition and value academic achievement, many bright kids give in to pressure and try not to be too smart. In addition, many give in to demands to give answers and cheat in order to have friends.

Learning and self-esteem

As a country, we must wake up and face the myths. America has lost ground in the race to produce the best minds because of our misplaced preoccupation with self-esteem.

We should insist on true outcome-based education that is measured not according to liberal social values, but by mastery of academic skills that are challenging to each child.

Our public schools were created with one purpose in mind: to educate our children. In keeping with our American tradition of excellence, let's insist that all children receive the best education they are capable of receiving.

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