It’s Groundhog Day in Education

My heart sank last Friday morning as I read the article “More Teachers Are Grouping Students By Ability”, which reported that elementary teachers are increasingly grouping kids by ability level again, in spite of significant research that shows this is not an effective practice and is contrary to what their own union recommends. This news comes from the recently-released report by Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on American Education, which found that “the percentage of fourth-grade teachers who said they created ability-based reading groups skyrocketed from 28% to 71%. In math, between 1996 and 2011, the practice rose from 40% to 61%.”

These teachers must believe that this practice provides some benefit to the students, otherwise they would not be doing this.  However, I wonder how many realize that ability grouping has long been controversial because students often end up being separated by race and class. In addition, I suspect they may not be aware of the research that presents two equally-significant psychological reasons they should avoid ability grouping regardless of the race/class composition in their classrooms: 

  1. It can negatively affect students’ beliefs in their abilities and therefore their motivation to learn, at every ability level, and 
  2. It can negatively affect teachers’ beliefs about students’ abilities to learn and grow.

Student Beliefs
Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, recently published an important book describing the connection between belief in our abilities and our actual success in school (and life).  “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”  describes clearly and compellingly how a “fixed mindset”, the belief that intelligence and talent are set and unchangeable, can decrease motivation in any student.  Given that many students operate with this mindset (and I would guess almost all of them do), it is clear that ability grouping can have a significant negative impact on their development.

For example, as you might predict, placing a student in a low-ability group can lead the student to believe that they are of low intellectual ability, resulting in a lack of interest in exerting any effort. After all, what’s the use? What’s surprising, however, is that Dr. Dweck found that even if the same student is later moved to a higher-ability group, the original belief and motivation to learn don’t necessarily change — these students continue to view themselves as intellectually limited, but now they feel out of place and anxious as well.  Their mindset hasn’t changed, and continues to limit them.

As for the higher-ability kids, they don’t fare any better.  The research shows that “smart” kids often give up on challenging tasks when they have a fixed mindset because they “…want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed.”  In other words, for kids who are told they are “smart”, failure is not an option, so they don’t risk stretching themselves, instead choosing success over growth.  Further, and more alarmingly, “they may feel a sense of superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other people’s.” 

According to Dr. Dweck, the solution for all kids of any level is to teach them a “growth mindset”:  understanding that their abilities, intellectual and otherwise, can be developed through learning and practice.  So, informed and skillful teachers can mitigate some of the potential damage of ability-grouping by:

  1. Teaching students that they can expand and grow through effort,
  2. Consistently emphasizing and recognizing effort over results, and
  3. Framing failure as “a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.  

The problem is that teachers need to be aware of these ideas in order to act on them, and I worry that many don’t.  Further, they also need to be aware of another potentially harmful factor:  their own beliefs.
Teacher Beliefs
In addition to the very real risk of reinforcing students’ negative beliefs about themselves (as described above), there’s a further danger that ability grouping can influence the teacher’s beliefs as well.  It’s called the Pygmalion Effect, and according to psychologist Robert Rosenthal, it is the result when “what one person expects of another comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

Research has shown that teachers’ beliefs and expectations about their students can make an enormous difference in the students’ achievements.  A teacher who believes in a student’s potential and expects that student to succeed is warmer and more encouraging (verbally and non-verbally), provides more material (and often more difficult material), allows more opportunities for the student to contribute, and offers higher-quality feedback. This is an unconscious choice by many teachers, however, and ability grouping can either reflect or reinforce teachers’ own limiting beliefs and expectations about their students.

So, if you are a parent whose child is put in an ability-level group, I urge you to do the following:

1.  Take action. Speak to your child’s teacher and explain your concerns.  You can let them know that their own union, the National Education Association, is against this practice and even has a statement against it on their web site. Then, jointly come up with a plan for addressing your concerns, including encouraging them to find another way to meet students’ needs beyond ability grouping.

2.  Read “Mindset” (see link below).  If your child’s teacher is not able or willing to move beyond ability grouping, you will need to intervene with your child. This book will help.

More about “Mindset”If you are a parent or teacher and have time to read only one book about educating children, this is the one.  Your children’s mindset about learning and success will impact them throughout their lives, and the information and techniques in this book will help you support them.

Click here to see other books I recommend.


About Lori Dunlap

Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. In addition to homeschooling her two sons, she writes regularly about education and parenting issues. You can read her blog at, or connect with her on Facebook:

Posted on March 27, 2013, in Common Concerns, Education, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Lori,

    You can expect a lot of Groundhog Day moments as long as the policies from schools to states and the fed are guided by the overly simple idea that education consists of the delivery of knowledge, skill, and/or information. Consider the possibility that ability grouping may be a strategy for teachers to get something done in a manner that they evaluate as getting through more content or getting through the same amount of content with less resistance. If this is true then the hidden curricular goal of delivering units of content which is currently a pervasive systematically reinforced idea is going to trump the explicit curricular goal of actual learning which is a rhetorical flourish added on to the content delivery system.

    You are right that teachers diligently work “within the rules and limits they are given” and when those rules and limits contradict learning goals then the explicit learning goals lose and the implicit “accountability” goals of the system win. Unfortunately, teachers and students end up as collateral damage in this contest.

    But do not despair, there is an emerging metaphor that education is cognitive cartography that can do a much better job of guiding appropriate policies and practices. In this way of thinking teachers and students both arrive in the classroom with flawed maps of the world and their task is to cooperatively construct better maps. This metaphor arises from how neuroscientists and psychologists have come to understand how our minds work.

    Here's a link to an esssy about it:

    (Cross-posted at LinkedIn Group)


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