Why I Am Against Mixed Ability: Part 2November 29, 2015
Last weekend, I spoke at the Debating Education event, at Michaela School, opposing mixed ability teaching. Hopefully the video of the event will appear in the next week or so. The following is a rough summary of what I said (i.e. it’s me going back over my notes and reconstructing my argument but nothing like my exact words). Obviously, it is in no way intended as a research article on mixed ability teaching or a summary of the evidence, just an explanation of my views. This is continued from Part 1.
Like a lot of trainee teachers, I was told on my PGCE course that the empirical evidence strongly supported mixed ability. It was a bit of a shock to look at this evidence and see how poor much of it is. A number of studies consist of tiny trials, where two schools (one with ability grouping, one without) are compared and the results of those schools reported back. Or in the case of Jo Boaler’s research, the actual results are ignored and mixed ability is reported to be better regardless. Even when you look at meta-analyses which include small trials like this, the outcome tends to show either virtually no impact, or a negative effect, for mixed ability. One of the few meta-analyses that suggests ability grouping is marginally harmful is Slavin (1990) though this was after including some remarkable outliers that others might well have ignored. Overall, Hattie combined the meta-analyses to find ability grouping to have an effect size of 0.12. Much of the so-called research in this area is little better than propaganda, declaring mixed ability to be right and attempting to shift the burden of evidence to its critics. Slavin, above, springs to mind as an example of this, his meta-analysis declared, a priori, that ability grouping was “anti-democratic” and “anti-egalitarian”. Betts et al (2000) also identified a tendency for research to compare progress for high and low ability sets with entire mixed ability sets (i.e. not just the high or low ability students in that set), and declare that this showed that while high ability students might do better in ability groups, low ability groups did worse. A trivial outcome that results from not comparing like with like. If there is any good research on setting, it is the randomised control trial conducted in Kenya by Duflo et al (2008) and it found a positive effect for ability grouping for students of all abilities.
It is sometimes claimed that ability grouping leads to stigma and labelling, i.e. that students in the bottom set will feel worse about themselves as a result. On the one hand I doubt this, because students are often even more acutely aware of their lack of ability when in the same class as their more able peers. But I would also look at what’s happened in the years since ability grouping became less popular. Far from refusing to identify the highest attainers as better, they have been listed as “gifted and talented”. Rather than ceasing to single out low attainers we now have 1 in five children identified as having SEN, often for nothing more than low academic attainment. This is not removing stigma; it’s ensuring that differences that could have been accommodated within the curriculum are now seen as problems that require more labelling and more treating students as fundamentally different.
Finally, it is often claimed that if education is focussed on equity, then that would give us reason to avoid ability grouping. It is claimed that it enables us to help the students who are most behind to make the most progress. But if we do want to help the least able, ability grouping favours that aim and mixed ability hinders . With ability grouping, schools can make conscious decisions to make the bottom sets smaller, or provide them with more resources, if they so choose. Mixed ability actually hinders support for the least able as they are split between different classes and dependent on different teachers. If we want to help the weakest, then ability grouping helps us meet their needs. You wouldn’t send everyone to hospital in order to avoid letting the ill and injured feel excluded. You wouldn’t send everyone to court or to prison, so that those who are actually accused or convicted of a crime can avoid stigma. If you set up a food bank, you would put it where the hungry could get to it, you wouldn’t just go from door to door in the nearest street giving everybody a sandwich. You don’t meet needs by ignoring them. Identifying what students need, and providing it, is the aim and ability grouping helps us achieve that.