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One of the most difficult and important decisions that school administrators have to make is how to group children for instruction. Should students be assigned to classes heterogeneously or on the basis of their ability? When there are small numbers of students in a particular grade, should multi-grade groupings be used? If so, how should these groupings be determined? What type of groupings, if any, should be used within classrooms? Should the school be departmentalized with certain teachers assigned to certain subjects (Slavin, 1988)?
As well as deciding how students should be grouped for instruction, educators must decide upon the size of instructional groups. Is the common belief that smaller classes produce more learning really true? Does class size have an effect on students' or teachers' satisfaction with their school experience?
This summary of the research literature considers these two important questions, "How should students be grouped for instruction?" and "What size should class groupings be?"
The rationale for ability grouping is that it allows schools to tailor programs to the needs of specific students. It is believed that ability grouping lets high achievers move rapidly and gives low achievers attainable goals and extra help (Slavin, 1988).
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How Should Students Be Grouped for Instruction?
Three major types of grouping for instruction are considered in the sections that follow: ability grouping, age/grade grouping and departmentalization.
Ability grouping is the practice of grouping children on the basis of their performance or their perceived ability. There are different classes or different groups within classes for students of high, average, and low ability. The rationale for ability grouping is that it allows schools to tailor programs to the needs of specific students. It is believed that ability grouping lets high achievers move rapidly and gives low achievers attainable goals and extra help (Slavin, 1988). It is sometimes argued that ability grouping boosts the self-esteem of low-achieving students because they aren't always comparing themselves to students of greater ability.
Research does not substantiate these beliefs. It shows that ability grouping has benefits only in very specific situations. Ability grouping isn't a single practice; it has many different forms that each have different effects on the intellectual and personal growth of students. The most common types of ability grouping and their consequences are discussed on pages 3 and 4.
Ability grouping has received a great deal of attention recently and has become a political issue as well as an educational issue. No discussion of ability grouping would be complete without touching on its political implications. Opponents of ability grouping say that it fails students of perceived low ability - the very students that it is designed to serve - because it provides a far richer educational experience for students placed in high-ability groups than for students placed in low-ability groups. For example, students in high-ability English classes study modern and classical literature, analyze literary genres and write original fiction, poetry and research essays. Students in low-ability classes, in contrast, write simple paragraphs, read "young adult" fiction and complete worksheets. Most of their assignments feature memorization and low-level comprehension. They have little exposure to the knowledge and skills that would allow them to move into higher classes or to be successful if they got there (Gamoran, 1992; Goodlad & Oakes, 1988).
Opponents of ability grouping say that this difference in curriculum has important long-term social and educational consequences. Students in low-ability groups have limited exposure to the knowledge that society values most, therefore, they are likely to be permanently locked into low educational and employment tracks because important skills and concepts were missing from their education. They lack the knowledge that will allow them to move successfully into higher educational, social and economic classes. This aspect of ability grouping is tremendously significant because it is often students of minority background that are placed in low-ability groups - in the U.S., Blacks and Hispanics; in Saskatchewan, Aboriginal students. Representatives of these groups sometimes see ability grouping as a type of institutionalized segregation and as a systemic strategy for ensuring that they remain a disadvantaged underclass (Goodlad & Oakes, 1988).
Ability Grouped Classes
In elementary school, students may be assigned to self-contained classrooms on the basis of achievement or perceived ability. Thus, in a particular school, there might be high-, medium- and low-achieving grade five classes. In high schools, ability-grouped class assignment usually means that students are assigned to a particular track (for example, academic, general or vocational) within which they receive most of their instruction.
Numerous studies have shown that most students in ability-grouped classes do not have higher levels of achievement than students in heterogeneous classes. However, a few (but by no means all) studies suggest that high achievers may benefit from ability grouping at the expense of low achievers (Slavin, 1988).
Several explanations have been suggested for the fact that ability grouped classes do not benefit most children. The first is the self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers have lower expectations for students in low-ability classes and communicate these expectations to students through their behaviour. Students live up to their teachers' expectations and fail to achieve. The second explanation is that the curriculum in low-ability classes may not provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to do well on various measures of achievement. The third explanation is that grouping students on the basis of a single variable such as I.Q. does not produce as much heterogeneity as might be expected. There may still be considerable variability in specific skill areas.
Students in low-ability groups have limited exposure to the knowledge that society values most, therefore, they are likely to be permanently locked into low educational and employment tracks because important skills and concepts were missing from their education (Goodlad & Oakes, 1988).
Numerous studies have shown that most students in ability-grouped classes do not have higher levels of achievement than students in heterogeneous classes. However, a few studies suggest that high achievers may benefit from ability grouping at the expense of low achievers (Slavin, 1988).
The limited research on regrouping between classes suggests that it promotes achievement if: (1) level and pace of instruction are adapted to students' performance level, (2) students are regrouped for only one or two subjects and remain in heterogeneous classes for most of the day.
The research suggests that within-class ability grouping promotes achievement in mathematics. However, it cannot be assumed that this is also the case for reading.
Regrouping Between Classes for Reading and/or Mathematics
Another commonly used ability grouping arrangement has students remain in heterogeneous classes most of the day but regroup for selected subjects, usually reading and math. The limited research on regrouping between classes suggests that it promotes achievement if: (1) level and pace of instruction are adapted to students' performance level, (2) students are regrouped for only one or two subjects and remain in heterogeneous classes for most of the day. However, when level and pace of instruction are not adapted or when students are regrouped for more than two subjects, no academic benefits have been found (Slavin, 1988).
Three reasons have been suggested for the fact that regrouping between classes has benefits in some circumstances.
Within-class grouping is the practice of assigning students to subgroups on the basis of their achievement within a heterogeneous class. For example, in a typical grade four class students might be regrouped for math and language arts. In all other subject areas, they would be grouped on the basis of criteria other than achievement. The research suggests that this type of grouping promotes achievement in mathematics. However, it cannot be assumed that this is also the case for reading. Reading is fundamentally different in nature from mathematics in that there is much less need for students to work on problems independently. It is worth noting that the practice of in-class grouping for reading is nearly universal in North America, but is less common in Europe (Slavin, 1988).
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Heterogeneous Age/Grade Classrooms
Heterogeneous/age grade grouping is the common practice of assigning all students who are the same age to the same grade regardless of their achievement or perceived ability. As mentioned in the previous section on ability grouping, grouping children heterogeneously according to their age is as effective as grouping them by perceived ability for low and average achievers. The research is inconclusive when it comes to high achievers. Some studies suggest that heterogeneous grouping produces less learning among high achievers than ability grouping, while other studies suggest that there is no difference.
One issue that does arise with heterogeneous age/grade grouping is retention in grade. Sometimes students do not complete all of the work prescribed for a particular grade, their level of achievement is considered to be low or they are considered to be immature. Retention in grade - the practice of requiring a student to repeat the same grade over again - is sometimes seen as appropriate in these situations. It is believed that the extra year will give the child a chance to catch up on academic work, to develop socially and emotionally, and to improve work habits.
In actual fact, research has repeatedly shown that these beliefs about retention are rarely true. Over the long term, retention in grade tends to lower academic performance, not improve it. Children who are retained do worse than comparable students who are promoted. A child who is retained in kindergarten or grade one may indeed show some initial advantage compared to children who are promoted, but this advantage disappears entirely by grade three or four. Most studies show that after several years, children who were retained are actually somewhat behind children of comparable ability who were promoted. The negative effects of retention are not as great if retention occurs in the earlier grades, but they still exist. Retention has long-term negative effects. Students who are retained in grade are more likely to drop out before graduation than are those of similar ability who have never repeated a grade.
Retention affects children's attitudes toward school as well as their achievement. Most studies show that retained students' school adjustment, attitudes toward school, classroom behaviour and school attendance are all poorer than is the case for students of similar ability who have never been retained.
Grouping children heterogeneously according to their age is as effective as grouping them by perceived ability for low and average achievers. The research is inconclusive when it comes to high achievers.
Over the long term, retention in grade tends to lower academic performance, not improve it. Children who are retained do worse than comparable students who are promoted.
Most studies show that retained students' school adjustment, attitudes toward school, classroom behaviour and school attendance are all poorer than is the case for students of similar ability who have never been retained.
Studies consistently show that students in multi-grade classes do as well as students in single grade classes in both psycho-social development and academic achievement. A small number of studies do show that retention in grade improves academic performance. These studies had several elements in common. Students were from middle class homes. Those who were potential candidates for retention were identified early and given special help. Parents were involved in the decision to retain. The children were not required to repeat the same curriculum but were placed in a special class with a low student-teacher ratio. An individualized educational plan was prepared for each child. Continuous evaluation meant that students could rejoin others their age any time (Shepard & Smith, 1990).
A multi-grade classroom is one in which two or more grades are combined. Multi-grade classes are usually a response to declining enrollments. They are established in situations where there are not enough students in a grade to make up a class. A recent Canadian study (The Multi-Grade Classroom ..., 1991) estimates that one out of every seven classrooms is a multi-grade, and approximately one out of every five students is enrolled in a multi-grade class. Multi-grade classes are common in cities as well as rural areas, as shifting demographic patterns cause enrollments to decline in particular areas of the city.
Parents generally take a negative view of multi-grade classrooms. They often fear that the teacher will not be able to give enough time to all groups in the class and so students will achieve less. In fact, this is not the case. Studies consistently show that students in multi-grade classes do as well as students in single-grade classes in both psycho-social development and academic achievement.
Researchers generally agree that students in multi-grade classes are equal or superior to students in single-grade classes in study habits, social interaction, self-motivation, cooperation and attitudes toward school (The Multi-Grade Classroom ..., 1991). Some studies, but not all, find that multi-grade classes also promote a sense of security and belonging, and improved self-concept.
The literature contains less information about the academic development of students in multi-grade classes than it does their psycho-social development. The studies that do address this question show that, overall, students in multi-grade classes do as well academically as students in single-grade classes. Two recent Canadian studies are consistent with this generalization. A New Brunswick study (Brown & Martin, 1989) found that the report cards of students in grades one to five showed a number of differences in achievement between students in multi-grades and their counterparts in single grades. However, only 20% of the comparisons favoured the single grades. Eighty percent showed no difference between the two types of classes or favoured the multi-grade classes. Similar results were also found using Canadian Test of Basic Skills scores as a criterion (13% and 87% respectively).
A Canada-wide study (The Multi-Grade Classroom ..., 1991) found that more than 85% of teachers considered the achievement of students in multi-grades to be equal or superior to the achievement of students in single grades in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.
The terms "multi-age grouping" and "nongraded" classroom are often used interchangeably.
Different researchers use different definitions for a nongraded or multi-age grouping.
Slavin (1988) defines a multi-age grouping as a method of organization used at the primary level where a class may include students between the ages of five or six and nine or ten. Within the class there are no grade groupings. The way the class is grouped for instruction depends upon the teacher's goals. The class may work together as a whole or students may be grouped by interests or skill level for specific tasks (Slavin, 1988). He reports that such groupings are relatively uncommon in North America and so limited information is available about their academic effectiveness. The few studies that have been done are inconsistent but generally positive.
Pavan (1992) defines multi-age grouping as a system where students aren't assigned to class groupings at all. Instead a team of teachers works with a team of students who are regrouped frequently according to the particular task or activity and student needs or interests.
Appendix A provides a summary of the goals and elements of a fully realized operationalization of the nongraded ideal.
Nongraded classroom and multi-age grouping mean different things to different people.
The evidence from the first cyle of research on the nongraded elementary school supports use of simpler forms of the model and supports the need for and potential fruitfulness of further experimentation. Pavan (1992) reviewed 64 studies on the outcomes of multi-age groupings. She reports that in 58% of the cases, students in nongraded classes performed better than students in graded classes, and in 33% of the cases they performed as well. Overall, on mental health and school attitude measures, 52% of the studies indicated that nongraded schools were better for students and 43% found no difference between graded and nongraded schools.
Gutierrez and Slavin (1992) say that a non-graded elementary school is one in which students are grouped according to their level of academic performance, not their ages. Sometimes this grouping is done for just one subject, usually reading (Joplin-like plans); sometimes it is done for many subjects (comprehensive projects), and sometimes students are placed in multi-age classrooms according to their reading performance or perceived ability.
Gutierrez and Slavin note that, generally, students in Joplin-like and comprehensive nongraded programs show higher levels of achievement than those in traditional graded programs but that students in non-graded programs incorporating individualization do not. They attribute the success of Joplin-like and comprehensive programs to the fact that these programs increase student-teacher contact and provide more time and opportunity for direct teacher instruction which, in their view, increases learning. Programs that incorporate individualized instruction tend to rely on written materials and seatwork, strategies which tend to decrease learning according to Gutierrez and Slavin.
They consider additional advantages of nongraded plans to be:
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Goals and Elements of Nongraded Schooling
I. Goals of Schooling
2. The school should help develop individual potentialities to the maximum.
3. Each individual is unique and is accorded dignity and respect. Differences in people are valued. Therefore the school should strive to increase the variability of individual differences rather than stress conformity.
4. Development of the child must be considered in all areas: aesthetic, physical, emotional, and social, as well as intellectual.
5. Those involved in the school enterprise are co-learners, especially teachers and students.
6. The school atmosphere should allow children to enjoy
learning, to experience work as pleasurable and rewarding, and to be content
A. Vertical Grouping
10. Each child should have opportunities to work with groups of many sizes, including one-person groups, formed for different purposes.
11. The specific task, materials required, and student needs determine the number of students that may be profitably engaged in any given educational experience.
12. Children should have frequent contact with children and adults of varying personalities, backgrounds, abilities, interests, and ages.
14. Varied materials must be available to cover a wise range of reading abilities.
15. Alternate methods and materials must be available at any time so that the child may use the learning style and materials most suitable to his or her present needs and the task at hand (including skill building, self-teaching, self-testing, and sequenced materials).
16. A child is not really free to learn something he or she has not been exposed to. The teacher is responsible for providing a broad range of experiences and materials that will stimulate many interests in the educational environment.
18. The curriculum should be organized to develop the understanding of concepts and methods of inquiry more than specific content learning.
19. Process goals will be stressed: the development of the skills of inquiry, evaluation, interpretation, application - the skills of learning to learn.
20.Sequence of learning must be determined by each individual student and his or her teacher, because:
23. Learning is the result of the student's interaction with the world he or she inhabits. Individuals learn by direct experience and manipulation of their environment: Therefore, the child must be allowed to explore, to experiment, to mess around, to play, and to have the freedom to err.
24. The process is more important than the product. How the child learns is emphasized.
25. All phases of human growth-aesthetic, physical, intellectual, emotional, and social-are considered when planning learning experiences for a child.
26. The teacher is a facilitator of learning. He or she aids in the child's development by helping each one to formulate goals, diagnose problem areas, suggest alternative plans of action; by providing resource materials; and by giving encouragement, support or prodding as needed.
27. Children should work on the level appropriate to present attainment and should move as quickly as their abilities and desires allow them to.
28. Successful completion of challenging experiences promotes greater confidence and motivation to learn than fear of failure.
29 Learning experiences based on the child's expressed interests will motivate the child to continue and complete a task successfully much more frequently than teacher-contrived techniques.
31. Evaluation by teacher and/or child is done for diagnostic purposes and results in the formulation of new education objectives.
32. Evaluation must be continuous and comprehensive to fulfill its diagnostic purpose.
33. A child strives mainly to improve his or her performance and develop potential rather than to compete with others.
34. Teachers accept and respond to the fact that grown patterns will be irregular and will occur in different areas at different times.
35. Individual pupil progress forms are used to record the learning tasks completed, deficiencies that need new assignments to permit mastery, and all other data that will show the child's progress in relation to past achievements and potential or that will help the teacher in suggesting possible future learning experiences for the individual.
36. Evaluating and reporting will consider all five areas of the child's development; aesthetic, physical, intellectual, emotional, and social.
In a departmentalized school, teachers teach one or a few (but not all) subjects to several different classes. Departmentalization is nearly universal at the high school level and is also found to a certain extent in some elementary schools. The main advantage of departmentaliza- tion is that it allows teachers to specialize and teach subjects that they are able and willing to teach. However, at the elementary level it may make it difficult for a child to identify with a single caring adult.
The little research that does exist on departmentalization suggests that this type of grouping has negative effects for elementary children. Several studies have found that elementary students in depart- mentalized schools show lower levels of achievement than do children in self-contained classes (Slavin, 1988).
The little research that does exist on departmentalization suggests that this type of grouping has negative effects for elementary children. Several studies have found that elementary students in departmentalized schools show lower levels of achievement than do children in self-contained classes (Slavin, 1988).
Despite the large body of research which exists, there isn't a single, clear-cut answer to the question, "Do smaller classes result in more learning?"
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What Size Should Class Groupings Be?
The issue of class size never fails to provoke discussion. Many parents feel that small classes mean better instruction and more learning and will go to considerable lengths to enrol their children in schools with small classes. Class size is a continuing issue in negotiations between teachers and school boards. Teachers argue that smaller classes facilitate individualization and allow for more student/teacher interaction. Boards of education point out the costs associated with small classes including teacher salaries, and construction and maintenance of facilities. They question whether the benefits of smaller classes are worth the cost.
Common sense suggests that smaller is better, but is this really the case? Do smaller classes result in more learning?
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Class Size - The Research
In an effort to answer that question, a great deal of research has been done over the past 50 years. In addition to studies of specific situations and programs, the body of research also includes numerous reviews of the literature, and several meta-analyses in which sophisticated statistical techniques are used to integrate the data from many studies. Several of the documents used to prepare this summary of class size research are reviews of the literature. Together they provide a reasonably comprehensive overview of research in this area.
Despite the large body of research which exists, there isn't a single, clear-cut answer to the question, "Do smaller classes result in more learning?"
There are studies that show that learning goes up as class size goes down, studies that show that class size matters sometimes but not always, and studies that show that it makes no difference.
There are a number of reasons for the inconsistent and even contradictory research findings concerning class size:
Those who interpret research findings and, indeed, researchers themselves sometimes approach the issue with a particular bias. This bias cannot help but influence their conclusions.
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Class Size and Academic Achievement
Perhaps the strongest statement that can be made about the relationship between class size and achievement is that reduced class size positively influences the learning of some students in some situations. In general, research findings suggest that:
Most studies show that teachers' general instructional approaches and discipline methods are similar regardless of class size but that smaller classes allow teachers to implement instructional approaches more effectively.
Academic Achievement, Class Size and Quality of Instruction
Researchers who found that decreased class size lead to increased academic achievement, then set out to answer the question, "Why do smaller classes result in greater achievement?"
Most studies show that teachers' general instructional approaches and discipline methods are similar regardless of class size but that smaller classes allow teachers to implement instructional approaches more effectively. In other words, reduced class size results "only in changes in degree rather than in changes in kind" of instruction (Johnston, 1990 b).
In smaller classes:
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Non-Academic Effects of Class Size
While a child's academic achievement is certainly the major concern of the school system, subject matter knowledge is not the only outcome of schooling. A child's experience in school can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A child's self-confidence, self-discipline and creativity can grow or diminish. A child can develop positive or negative attitudes toward school. The research strongly suggests that smaller classes tend to have a positive effect on all of these non-academic outcomes of schooling.
Indeed, the relationship between class size and non-academic outcomes is much more pronounced than the relationship between class size and achievement.
There are several reasons why this seems to be the case:
The research strongly suggests that smaller classes tend to have a positive effect on some of the non-academic outcomes of schooling.
When classes are smaller, teachers' experiences of school are more positive.
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Alternatives to Reduction in Class Size
Reducing class size is expensive. There are extra teachers' salaries to pay and additional facilities to maintain. Although decreased class size has academic benefits for some students, non-academic benefits for most students and personal and professional benefits for virtually all teachers, many question whether these benefits are worth the cost or whether the same benefits might be achieved more cheaply through other strategies.
Again, there are no single clear-cut answers to these questions, but the research does provide some guidelines.
First, in a school or school division it may not be appropriate to decrease the size of every class. Research shows that young children and students with special needs benefit most from small classes. Reducing the size of high school classes may not be cost effective since it will produce little additional learning. Another option may be to decrease the size of only elementary math and reading classes through the use of part-time teachers, because small class size has been shown to produce greater benefits in these subjects.
Secondly, there may be other less expensive alternatives that will lead to comparable gains in achievement. For example, the use of teacher aides or volunteers, computer-assisted instruction, or tutors are all possibilities. The literature provides few guidelines concerning the cost-effectiveness of these various alternatives. The few studies that have been done are inconclusive. Some report that reducing class size is a more effective way of increasing achievement than any of those other strategies, while other studies indicate that strategies such as tutoring and computer-assisted instruction are more cost effective than reductions in class size.
A third alternative strategy is redistribution of students. Students don't necessarily have to be taught all day in a traditional classroom grouping. The use of pull-out programs staffed by specialists or volunteers, team teaching, interest or activity centres, and flexible grouping are all ways of reducing class size for at least part of the day.
Finally, some of teachers' concerns about class size arise because teacher workload increases as class size goes up. Anything that administrators can do to reduce that workload would contribute to greater teacher satisfaction. For example, clerical staff could assist with preparation of materials; administrative paperwork could be reduced or additional preparation time could be provided (Chandler, 1988).
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To Think/Talk About
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