Innovation, high expectations could boost reading

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Education officials in the Obama Administration have made innovation in teaching a top priority for schools and districts that want to win their share of extra federal stimulus grants. A recent study points toward one area where innovation is long overdue: reading instruction for struggling minority students.

Education officials in the Obama Administration have made innovation in teaching a top priority for schools and districts that want to win their share of extra federal stimulus grants. A recent study points toward one area where innovation is long overdue: reading instruction for struggling minority students.

The study from the University of Illinois found that African American and Latino students who were grouped by skill level for reading instruction actually learned less than comparable students who were not grouped. Both higher-skilled and struggling students suffered: The reading gains of higher-skilled minority students who were placed in groups were no better than the gains for comparable students who were not grouped, and struggling students lost gains over time.

Ability grouping is a widespread practice in public schools around the country, including Chicago, and allows teachers to tailor lessons to students’ skill level. There are widespread misconceptions that the practice is beneficial, says Christy Lleras, a professor at U of I and the lead author of the study. “I hear from teachers all the time that they were taught that grouping helps all kids learn,” says Lleras.

The study analyzed reading gains on standardized tests for a national sample of about 1,800 black and Latino students from kindergarten through 3rd grade, from 1998-2002.

The study also points to the importance of high expectations. Lleras found that students in lower-level ability groups were more likely to be assigned lessons that required rote memorization and were less likely to get challenging lessons meant to develop reading comprehension skills. The outcome: Less learning and a wider achievement gap for minority youngsters.

In classrooms where teachers did not group students by ability and gave all students the same material, the results are more equitable, Lleras reports. In these classrooms, higher expectations and higher-level material were the norm.

Still, Lleras is quick to say that teachers are not to blame. Outside forces such as the pressure to raise scores under No Child Left Behind, lack of resources and large class sizes have spurred schools to continue the practice of ability grouping because of the belief that the practice will help students.

“This issue is [one of] social justice,” says Lleras.  “We have to look back at what schools are supposed to do, which is to educate all children, not just some. To achieve equity and fairness, we should look at some of the practices we use pervasively and question if they are the best.”

Lleras’ findings were published in the February 2009 issue of American Journal of Education.