Dana Goldstein wrote a piece for Slate today about grouping kids by ability in classrooms. Evidently it's back in fashion and she's wondering whether or not it's good for kids.
Here's what's good for kids: small enough classes (preferably between 12-18 if there is one teacher) so that the teacher can really know each child's learning and check in with each child every day. A classroom where the teacher has a clear philosophy of education and is free to practice it, either because it is the same as the philosophy of the school as a whole (as in private schools) or because the teacher has the freedom to run her classroom the way she sees fit (as in a good public school.) Food in their bellies. A good night's sleep. A sense of safety. And a group of adults who are working together to ensure that the child maximizes her potential.
You can study classrooms all you want. You can come up with fads and new methods and old methods and recycled methods. You can throw money at the problem or insist that teachers are the cause of it all.
But it comes down to those things.
In fact, there are several different well-thought-out philosophies of education that work well. There is some evidence that it is helpful to match the child to the right philosophy, but I think matching the parents to the right philosophy is more important. When the parents and the teacher agree on how children should be treated and what is important in education, kids do better. But what is essential is that the teacher has a clear philosophy and knows how to execute it. Because whether you believe that children need individualized learning (Montessori) or that children should be treated as a community (Waldorf) or that children learn best when the topics are based on their interests (child-centered) or that teachers teach best when they teach to their interests (teacher-centered) or that we only learn when we are able to connect new information to something we already know (constructivist) or whatever, if you're doing what you do well, kids will learn.
I happen to think that ability grouping is helpful. Smarter children are less likely to get bored and children who struggle are less likely to tune out if the lesson is targeted to their abilities. I also think there's less fodder for teasing if children are taught in a more narrow intelligence band and that children are more likely to take risks if everyone around them is about as likely to make a mistake as they are.
But are they better or worse than any other philosophy? Not demonstrably.
The biggest problem in education is that everyone is looking for one method that works all the time in every situation for everyone. There isn't one. Just like any other art form--painting, dance, acting, medicine--there are different methods that work in different situations. Each teacher needs to find what she believes in--what works for her--and deliver that to her students.
I think it's good when a Principal comes in and creates a philosophy for the school. It's easier for the students if all the teachers have similar philosophies. What's not good is telling teachers how to teach in such a way that each teacher cannot do her job. And that's what's so popular today, both in articles like this one and in politics. It's got to stop.
Teachers are professionals. They are well-trained and intelligent. Pay them what they're worth, and let them do what you hired them to do.