Education Fads: What Goes Around Comes Around
June 10, 2013, 03:52 AM
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Back in 1972-1973, when I was a freshman in high school, the national high school debate topic was:

(1972–1973) Resolved: That governmental financial support for all public and secondary education in the United States be provided exclusively by the federal government

So, I've been following the social science of education ever since. A common pattern is for energetic, self-confident people who have made a bundle in other fields to decide one day that they are going to Fix the Schools and thus fund a lot of hoopla about the latest panacea. After awhile, they get depressed and bored and either go away or, in Bill Gates' case after he wasted two billion dollars on "small learning communities," they move on to some other cure-all.

Thus, there isn't much institutional memory in education. All the incentives are set up to flatter the latest messiah that everybody who came before him was an idiot.

Not surprisingly, with no incentives for remembering anything, there is a lot of hamster wheel churn in education policies. For example, tracking frequently gets denounced as racist, but then after a few years of not tracking, teachers and schools start it up again because it's clearly less stupid than the alternatives.

But, will anybody learn anything permanent from the latest failure of anti-tracking?

From the New York Times:

Grouping Students by Ability Regains Favor in Classroom 

by Vivian Yee 

It was once common for elementary-school teachers to arrange their classrooms by ability, placing the highest-achieving students in one cluster, the lowest in another. But ability grouping and its close cousin, tracking, in which children take different classes based on their proficiency levels, fell out of favor in the late 1980s and the 1990s as critics charged that they perpetuated inequality by trapping poor and minority students in low-level groups. 

Now ability grouping has re-emerged in classrooms all over the country — a trend that has surprised education experts who believed the outcry had all but ended its use. 

A new analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Census-like agency for school statistics, shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. In math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996. 

“These practices were essentially stigmatized,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who first noted the returning trend in a March report, and who has studied the grouping debate. “It’s kind of gone underground, it’s become less controversial.” 

The resurgence of ability grouping comes as New York City grapples with the state of its gifted and talented programs — a form of tracking in some public schools in which certain students, selected through testing, take accelerated classes together. 

These programs, which serve about 3 percent of the elementary school population, are dominated by white and Asian students. 

... Teachers and principals who use grouping say that the practice has become indispensable, helping them cope with widely varying levels of ability and achievement. 

When Jill Sears began teaching elementary school in New Hampshire 17 years ago, the second graders in her class showed up on the first day with a bewildering mix of strengths and weaknesses. Some children coasted through math worksheets in a few minutes, she said; others struggled to finish half a page. The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest would become frustrated, give up and act out. 

“My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners,” said Ms. Sears, a fourth-grade teacher at Woodman Park Elementary in Dover, N.H. “I didn’t like those odds.” 

So she completely reorganized her classroom. About a decade ago, instead of teaching all her students as one group, she began ability grouping, teaching all groups the same material but tailoring activities and assignments to each group.

“I just knew that for me to have any sanity at the end of the day, I could just make these changes,” she said. 

While acknowledging that wide variation in classrooms poses a challenge, critics of grouping — including education researchers and civil rights groups — argued in the 1980s and 1990s that the practice inevitably divided students according to traits corresponding with achievement, like race and class. Some states began recommending that schools end grouping in the 1990s, amid concerns that teachers’ expectations for students were shaped by the initial groupings, confining students to rigid tracks and leading teachers to devote fewer resources to low-achieving students.