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By Ellen Dorsey
Like those teaching at Harwood Union High School, I am a teacher in a school community that is grappling with the need to shift our "style of play."
Last year, my school went through the exhaustive self-study and continuous improvement process that we undertake every seven years to keep our accreditation with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges through which our educational practices are measured against research-based best practices. As a result of this process, the NEASC visiting committee identified increasing heterogeneous grouping opportunities as a need for us to address. We need to change from an instructional model that is squarely centered on the teacher relaying homogeneous content to a group that is supposedly homogenous to one that is more student centered and individualized.
Some have drawn parallels between heterogeneous grouping in academics and sports. Although I profess no expertise as a distance running coach, I do have experience motivating youths and have been somewhat competitive as a runner at times, too, in marathons and such. Ten years ago, I would have said that runners need to train almost exclusively with those of a similar pace. Since then, two schools of research have changed my mind. The first is physiological – having to do with the benefit of including workouts that are significantly lower in aerobic intensity into a training plan to enable the body to become more efficient at burning fat rather than glycogen. The second is cognitive and psychological – based on the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Her research supports the idea that our "talents" are moving targets that have less to do with innate ability and more to do with the mindset we have. In short: Effort, attitude and opportunity beget talent and not the other way around. Furthermore, mindset can be developed. Dweck's research extends into a multitude of realms from sports to art to academics.
Granted, the nine-minute-milers are not likely to be well partnered with the six-minute-milers if both groups of runners are focusing on speed work simultaneously, but couldn't a nine-minute-miler doing speed work be companionably paired with a six-minute-miler who needs help reeling in his or her speed on a low-intensity day? And since Dweck asserts that mindset makes such a difference in extending the potential of a runner, wouldn't we want all of our runners to view their current pace as something transient (a point along the way) rather than something permanently defining them? When we assign students to fixed tracks in schools, the message we give them is clearly "This is what you are" rather than "This is where you are." Nothing I can say to them as a teacher can negate this message, and prevailing research shows that we are not improving our ability to help the majority of students realize their potential continuing on this way. Why else would the NEASC standard for heterogeneity exist?
Perhaps the sports analogy is not appropriate considering that the goal of public education is not to produce a handful of champions but instead to ensure that all are competition ready. To do so, yes, we do need to change up our game. What needs to change is the idea that everyone grouped in a classroom must always be working on the same thing at the same time. The vision that Washington West Supervisory Union is considering does not include eliminating "honors" but rather switching to an individualized, proficiency-based model through which a student can achieve "honors" by virtue of his or her individual growth and effort in relation to high standards rather than through membership in an inflexible program. No part of this model includes having the more proficient students enlisted to instruct the less proficient students. However, the highest level of conceptual proficiency in mathematics (which is my subject area) does require that students demonstrate the ability to apply and communicate the concept. A teacher skilled at differentiated instruction could recognize this as an opportunity to pair students who are operating at different proficiency levels symbiotically for a time so that they might each further their understanding.
Individualized instruction represents a paradigm shift for teachers, students and parents. That kind of change can feel daunting or even threatening. After weighing all of the research and evidence, I am convinced that we must change and am frustrated by the lack of support that some community and school board members have demonstrated in my school community because they want to maintain honors-level tracking. Individualized instruction is not only possible but necessary if we are to give students at every level the best opportunities to extend their potential in the 21st century. I enthusiastically support this change for my students at U32 Middle/High School as well as for my own bright children attending school in WWSU.
Ellen Dorsey lives in the WWSU district and is a mathematics teacher, U32 Middle/High School.