by Alicia Woodard Green
Students learning English as a second language are grouped by their performance, not their age.
Every morning at Centennial Elementary School, eight-year-old Anna Lovyn and her classmates leave their third grade homeroom, walk single-file to different classrooms, and get ready. For the next 90 minutes, Anna’s reading group teacher, Ranae Meenderinck, like every classroom teacher, leads students through vocabulary drills, chants and other exercises designed to improve their reading skills.
Although Anna is a third grader, she started the school year reading at a second-grade level. Two years ago, her parents moved to Mount Vernon, Washington from the Ukraine because the school system there was disintegrating. They wanted to give their children a better education and more opportunities. But no one in the family spoke English when they arrived in America.
In another school, Anna – a bright girl with an infectious smile – might have faced insurmountable odds. She likely would have received little specialized help, struggled with English, fallen behind and eventually been held back. But Centennial has a different approach.
Faced with a growing immigrant population, the school turned to the reform model Success for All (SFA) in 1999 to find ways to reach English language learners. By placing children in Success for All’s prescribed reading groups – which organizes students by skill level, not age – the school has seen dramatic increases in student achievement and test scores. “[Centennial] has moved up considerably,” says district official David Scott. “In 1999, they were at 45.9% of students meeting standard, and increased that this past year to 75% of students.”
The Grouping Debate
But despite the success of schools like Centennial, “grouping” can be a dirty word in the education world. For the past 70 years, scholars and policy makers have analyzed and re-analyzed more than 700 studies on the subject. And they have disagreed about everything from its effectiveness to its social implications to the studies themselves. They even differ on how to define it.
Amid all the heated arguments about grouping, people often overlook the fact that there are many kinds of grouping. The two major categories are “ability grouping” and “tracking,” terms that are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably.
Ability grouping has been used in elementary schools for decades, and organizes students into small groups within their classes to work on different materials at different rates. Tracking, generally used in middle and high school, places students in classes based on their perceived ability level. In the past, students commonly had all their classes on either a remedial, average or honors track. Today, schools are more conscientious about catering to a student’s particular strengths and weaknesses, placing the same student, for example, in average math, but honors English.
Tracking has historically drawn the most criticism because of the charge that it pigeonholes students. Others call it racist, arguing that low-income and minority children are placed in the slower tracks, while wealthier, white children are put in more advanced ones. Parents, educators and even courts have weighed in on the tracking debate, with many siding against it. Ability grouping has its share of critics as well, many of whom believe it shatters self-esteem and leads to tracking in middle and high school.
But Success for All’s grouping is neither ability grouping nor tracking. In fact, the model’s co-founder, Bob Slavin, opposes both. Carol Tieso of the University of Alabama writes that Slavin’s research is, “quoted by both educators and researchers as the basis for abolishing or curtailing programs that may smack of ability or homogenous grouping.” Slavin contends that, “unless schools can demonstrate that tracking helps someone, [they] should quit using it.”
Grouping and Success for All
Success for All’s grouping was based on the Joplin Plan, developed in 1954 by Cecil Floyd, the assistant superintendent of schools in Joplin, Missouri. Slavin, who insisted that every aspect of Success for All be research based, found that data on the Joplin plan showed “time and time again, the schools that use the performance grouping got better results.”
In this model, students are separated from their homerooms for reading only, and placed with others of a similar skill level, regardless of age. For example, Anna Lovyn’s reading group for English language learners consists of nine students who are a mix of third, fourth and fifth graders. The key, Slavin says, is to meet students at their level. With this central concept and strict guidelines about how to implement reading groups, Success for All’s grouping avoids the pitfalls critics most often raise.
First, students are assessed every eight weeks by an SFA facilitator, who places students into appropriate reading groups. If they are performing below grade level, as Anna was for the first part of the year, the facilitator arranges for extra help or comes up with other methods to reach the child.
If a student is progressing rapidly, he or she moves up. And that is what happened to Anna – twice. “Anna is probably one of our biggest success stories,” says Meenderinck. In just two months, “she made a double jump, which means she increased an entire year’s worth of reading.” By the end of her third-grade year, Anna was reading at grade level.
Sometimes, the SFA facilitator even places students in a reading level above their grade level. At Centennial, one second-grade reading group consists primarily of first graders. “Every eight weeks, it gives the kids a chance to not get stuck,” says Stacy Malcolm, Centennial’s facilitator. “They’re not bored. They’re able to move on.”
Second, Success for All is mindful of the fact that older students may be embarrassed about being grouped with younger readers, and works to reach children at their level, without damaging their self-esteem.
“What we found is that the children who are older and reading below level are in a difficult spot no matter what,” Slavin says. “What they do like is the opportunity to see success. The best motivator is success. If you have children who are at a level where they’re likely to be successful, they can profit from the instruction, then move forward. Then, they feel very good about themselves. Whereas if you say, ‘Well we hate to discourage the kids by putting them in a class where they’re the tallest,’ and they experience failure every day, you’re just not getting any benefit.”
Andrea Guy, a first-grade teacher at Centennial, has dealt with this scenario repeatedly. “There have been times when I felt, ‘This child is so turned off by being older and in a younger group. They need to move on,’ or, ‘We need to find another older group for them.’ Most of the time, though, they are anxious to learn. They want to learn, and they can move on at a more rapid pace.”
Stacy Malcolm says teachers also try to make the oldest students role models by pointing out their successes to younger classmates. In addition, Centennial recruits adults to rally around the child. “We have their tutor, their teacher and other adults checking in with them,” Malcolm says. “And quite often, that helps them grow, if they know that other people are watching out for them.”
A third component to Success for All’s grouping is individual tutoring. Malcolm organizes daily tutoring sessions of 20 minutes for more than 100 students. The sessions reinforce what students learn in their reading groups.
“No matter how effective your basic instruction is, there will still be individual children who have difficulties,” Slavin says. “And we know from a lot of research, and common sense, that one-to-one is the most effective form of education.” For some students, this is the only extra reading they’ll do outside the classroom, despite a directive from the school that all parents make sure their children read 20 minutes a day at home.
For the Lovyns, getting Anna to read the allotted time is not a problem. “She’s very serious about it,” her father says through a translator. “And we’re very serious about it. In fact, she reads more than 20 minutes a day.” Anna now loves to read and write, regularly checks books out of the school library and even translates for her father when the need arises.
And she is not shy about showing off her skills. At Centennial’s poetry night, Anna marched on stage before a packed auditorium and, without hesitating, held a piece of paper in front of her, on which she had written:
My name is Anna Lovyn.
I am a girl and I am tall.
I have brown hair.
I love my friend, Katie, family and school.
I feel nice.
I need a house, a car, a birthday.
I fear bears, dark, earthquakes.
I am a resident of Mount Vernon.
Welcome to my poem.
Her parents sat in the audience, and applauded.