Academic grouping at the high school

Thursday December 6, 2012

Charles Putney

When you group students by academic ability, do you discriminate against students who are less academically talented or disciplined? Do you deny those students the opportunity to be influenced by students who have more skills and higher aspirations? If you have classes with students whose academic skills vary widely do you detract from the education of the best students?

Mount Anthony Union High School is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or NEASC. This is a voluntary way of having educators from other schools take a look at what you are doing and assessing the extent to which a school meets strong standards. In the most recent report MAU was applauded for its many strengths, but NEASC was concerned about the fact that at MAU students are, for academic subjects, grouped by academic ability.

Americans with academically talented children often seek the best schools for their children. There are many private schools in this area, and some are intentionally geared for academically strong students. Across the nation there are also public magnet schools, competitive public high schools, charter schools and other publicly funded institutions for the strongest students.

It’s possible to make an argument that academically weaker students will never get stronger if they spend their classroom time in rooms with other students who have the same level of competence. It is also possible to argue that all you’re doing when you have a classroom of academically strong students and students with weaker skills is slowing up the good students and frustrating the weaker students.

Add to all of this, the constant conversation about students who "fall through the cracks" and leave school early because they’re not doing well, are bored, unmotivated, or don’t see the relevance of completing high school.

Public schools are an important part of our democratic heritage. Early on in our history one of the distinctions between the "old" world of Europe and the "new" world of America was universal education for children. An educated citizenry is critical for the functioning of our democratic process.

Public elementary schools group students by geography. Everyone from a specific geographic area attends the same school. This can sometimes lead to segregation by housing or income, but that’s less common for schools in smaller communities. There may be special programs for children with academic needs and with special gifts, but most of the time all of the children are in common classrooms. If there is discrimination it is linked to housing--some communities are more affluent than others. As students age, however, and particularly at the high school, they are grouped by performance and, eventually, by the classes for which they enroll. Advance Placement Biology will be filled by students who have a strong interest in a college-level course.

This grouping by performance and interest is more subtle and subjective than the tests students take in many other nations at certain points in their schooling. In other nations tests divide students according to their talents and needs, with top students (on the tests) heading to university and others going to technical schools, apprenticeships or direct entry into a life of work.

No system is ideal, but one of the strengths of Mount Anthony is the degree to which those students who are not academically strong or interested have options designed to keep them in school and give them skills for employment, entry into the military or further career-oriented education. Closing the "cracks" means a strong set of programs for students who otherwise might leave school before graduation--putting them at risk of a lifetime of underemployment or unemployment.

Charles R. Putney is a consultant to non-profit organizations. He lives in Bennington.


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