On Ability Grouping and Gifted Education: Part 1

After a recent #gtchat on this subject and follow-up posts from fellow participants, I felt an urge to set out my own perspective on this vexed question.

I cannot pretend to have reviewed the voluminous research undertaken on both sides of the Atlantic, let alone worldwide, but what I have digested leads me to the comments below.

Before we summarise the research evidence, let us begin with three important pieces of context.



First – On Excellence and Equity

Regular readers will know my view that the balance between these two principles has a powerful impact on the nature of gifted education policy at all levels of our various education systems.

Like non-identical twins, excellence and equity are often found together. Dressed in various guises, they regularly find their way into politicians’ statements of their wider educational objectives. For example, England’s Secretary of State for Education maintains that his Government’s top educational priorities are ‘raising standards’ (aka excellence) and ‘narrowing gaps’ (aka equity). It wouldn’t take much effort to unearth similar statements from most of his opposite numbers around the developed world.

Politicians are often rather coy when asked to say whether one of these twins is more important to them than the other. They tend to be given equal billing regardless of party political viewpoint.

But, given a longer term perspective, they can be imagined more accurately as sitting at either end of a policy seesaw. At any particular time, one of the pair is usually in the ascendant, but it always seems as though that elevated status inevitably results in the other gaining ascendancy in its turn, though perhaps not until the next administration, or even the next but one.

Please excuse the dreadful mixing of metaphors but, as with G&T education – and other critical issues like school admission – ability grouping is sensitive territory. It forms part of the troubled borderlands of education policy where the twin principles of excellence and equity often clash and have to be reconciled (or, failing that, to coexist in a state of some tension).

Second – On Prescription and Autonomy

The squaring of excellence and equity within these educational badlands can be attempted within the declared education policy of the authority, state or country concerned, or it can be devolved to schools. This applies to ability grouping, gifted education or any similarly contentious issue where the twin issues are wrestling for ascendancy.

The second option – devolution – seemingly enables politicians to sidestep the issue, which is often attractive because the alternative centralised prescriptive approach risks leading them into hot water and/or requires a commitment of additional resources that they do not have to spare.

But it is not feasible to admit such reasons openly, so devolution tends to be justified on the grounds that the administration should not be fettering the discretion of the professionals. In the case of ability grouping, they will argue that it cannot be right for them to trespass in the secret garden of pedagogy (to use a phrase that will resonate with English educationalists). That is rightly the province of the school, which must be free to reach decisions without meddling governmental interference, taking full account of its unique circumstances and the particular needs of its pupils.

Both prescription and autonomy have their weaknesses. In the case of autonomy, the problem is that a government is typically accountable to an electorate for its education policies and will need at some point to demonstrate success in achieving its stated priorities. If too many schools act in a way that runs counter to those priorities, the government must either admit failure or – much more likely – use evidence selectively to put the best possible spin on affairs.

A sensible administration will not trust solely to their powers of communication however. If there is a chance that the collective decisions taken in schools will not deliver the outcome they stand for, they will also want to deploy the various ‘policy levers’ available to surreptitiously encourage schools towards the ‘right’ decision. Examples of such levers are the distribution of funding, or the inclusion of relevant issues within inspection and quality assurance processes, or a set of identified priorities for teachers’ professional development.

Sometimes there are inherent contradictions in a government’s policy that need to be reconciled. This is a problem regardless of whether prescription or autonomy is in the ascendant. In the case of autonomy, there is a strong risk of mixed messages, schools are divided over the best approach and policy levers are introduced that pull in different directions.

On occasions there can be policy contradictions and a conflict between prescription and autonomy. Before the recent General Election, the senior Conservative partners in what has become the Coalition Government committed to freeing teachers and schools from government interference (autonomy) and narrow gaps in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged learners (prescription, equity) and ensure that setting became much more prevalent in schools (prescription, excellence).

It will take some sleight of hand to pull off that particular trick, as we shall see. But maybe the commitment to setting has fallen by the wayside – it did not feature in the Coalition Government’s priorities for education reform and we wait to see whether it will reappear in the forthcoming Schools White Paper.

Third – On Terminology

A further similarity between ability grouping and G&T education is that different terminology is used in different parts of the world. This makes it much more likely that discussants will become disputants, because they do not share a common pedagogical language.

In the US context, one most often encounters the term ‘tracking’ and its rather inelegant antithesis ‘detracking’.

As I understand it, ‘tracking’ is typically used to mean dividing pupils into different educational programmes – either on the basis of ability or past achievement – which apply across all or most of the school experience. The equivalent term in the UK is ‘streaming’.

I cannot find recent and reliable data to illustrate how prevalent tracking is in the US. Some of the research studies imply that it has been almost universal in US high schools, at least until ‘detracking’ began in earnest around a decade ago. Conversely, while streaming was once popular in England, it now seems comparatively rare. It seems to survive in a few comprehensive schools that are competing with selective schools and so opt to establish a ‘grammar stream’ but is otherwise discarded as poor practice.

It is also unclear to what extent US tracking practice has morphed into what we in the UK call ‘setting’ – the grouping of pupils according to ability or achievement in specific subjects. As far as I can see, the stereotypical generic and tripartite tracking model in the US still seems common, but I stand to be corrected. Setting is much more prevalent in UK secondary schools, especially in the so-called ‘linear subjects’, and has also increased in primary schools, predominantly in the core subjects of English and maths.

‘Detracking’ is the process of dispensing ‘tracking’ in favour of exclusively mixed ability classes. The online literature implies that this is happening in many schools and states across the US but, yes you’ve guessed it, reliable data seems rather thin on the ground.

Tracking, setting and streaming all take place across the school, or at least across an entire year group within a school. They are therefore clearly distinct from ‘selection’ – which is the shorthand term we in the UK apply to approaches that sort pupils into different schools – and to ability grouping at the classroom level.

So, with our terminological differences out of the way, we can move on to consider what the vast body of research actually tells us about the effectiveness of tracking, detracking, streaming and setting.

Top Line Conclusions from the Research

The first and most obvious point is that the research conclusions are contested and – to be brutally honest – not always entirely objective. Put very crudely, those with an equity focus tend to marshal the arguments in such a way that helps them conclude that tracking/setting/streaming is detrimental to learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Conversely, those with an excellence perspective (including most gifted education researchers) tend to work towards the conclusion that it is markedly beneficial to high achievers, if not to G&T learners per se.

Both groups tend to downplay the evidence that does not fully support their position.

For a more balanced view I turned to an extensive and objective 2005 literature review for England’s education ministry. This concludes that the research worldwide can be interpreted as follows:

  • no single form of grouping benefits all pupils and there is little attainment advantage associated with setting – ie no significant difference between setting and mixed ability classes in overall attainment outcomes across all pupils
  • ‘at the extremes of attainment’ low-achieving pupils show more progress in mixed ability classes and high-achieving pupils show more progress in sets
  • lower sets tend to contain a disproportionate number of boys, pupils from those ethnic groups that tend to underachieve and pupils with SEN
  • there are aspirational and behavioural disadvantages to setting, predominantly amongst lower attainers and there is a correlation between disaffection and setting, particular for pupils in the lowest sets
  • higher sets are more likely to have experienced and highly-qualified teachers whereas lower sets experience more changes of teacher and are less likely to be taught by a specialist in the subject.

The terminology is tailored for a UK audience but these conclusions apply in equal measure to tracking versus mixed ability settings. Since the gains of high achievers are offset by the losses to low achievers – and middle achievers tend to do broadly the same in either scenario – neither setting nor tracking has little overall impact on the raising of standards (excellence).

However, compared with mixed ability teaching, setting and tracking tend to increase performance gaps between high achievers and low achievers per se. Moreover, because pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are found disproportionately in the lower sets or tracks, this serves to widen socio-economic achievement gaps (equity), as well as some ethnic minority achievement gaps and the gender gap between girls and boys.

Next Time

In Part 2 we will look more closely at some of the issues beneath these headlines – playing back into the mix the wider contextual issues above. But, for now, my point is this: we, as an international community of gifted educators, ought to be prepared to accept this as the broad baseline consensual position, rather than holding on to an alternative and partial version of reality that is focused too narrowly and exclusively on the needs of gifted learners.


September 2010

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