Grouping Gridlock

A group of fourth-grade teachers follow their principal's edict to group students by ability for math and language arts instruction. The teachers divide their students according to existing test scores only to find out that they have left an identified gifted child out of the advanced math class.

The fourth grade team meets after the first day of school to create math groups for the year.

Jeanne smiled and sank into a chair. The first day of school was always exciting and exhausting! A veteran at Holfield Elementary, Jeanne Sampson was well known and respected in the West Lake community. Although she hesitated to make snap judgments based on the first day, Jeanne was pleased with her new students. West Lake was a friendly community with parents who were generally educated and involved. Most Holfield students were good kids and motivated learners. This new batch of fourth graders, however, seemed exceptionally eager.

Jeanne on bus duty

As she reviewed the names and faces of her students, Jeanne’s teammates entered the room and joined her at the round worktable. All of the teachers on the fourth grade team were experienced educators, like Jeanne. Sandra Barr, Michelle Dempsey, Kenneth Forrest, and Jeanne had been teaching at Holfield for a combined 28 years. For the last three years Jeanne, Michelle, and Kenneth had worked together as members of the fourth grade team. They were all good friends and worked well together. This was Sandra’s first year on the fourth grade team. Prior to this assignment she taught fifth grade down the hall.

“Boy, do I have my hands full,” laughed Kenneth. “They are nice kids, but we’ve got some work to do.”

“I’ve got a real range in my class, at least in terms of their standardized test scores from last year,” Michelle added as she thumbed through a copy of their scores. They compared notes on their students for a few more minutes.

Jeanne interrupted, “Well, team, let’s get down to business. It’s been a long day for all of us.” As the team leader, Jeanne often had to rein in her colleagues from their friendly chatter and focus them on the matter at hand. While she normally didn’t mind, at times she was annoyed at her colleagues’ unwillingness to get down to business. “The math grouping is the most important thing on today’s agenda.”

Jeanne and Kenneth discuss how to split up the students.

In the past, the teachers had taught heterogeneous, self-contained classrooms. But this year was different. Holfield’s principal, Dr. Karen Hadley, wanted to group the students by achievement for math and language arts instruction. Dr. Hadley had encouraged the teachers to use flexible grouping as an opportunity to differentiate instruction within a smaller spectrum of student differences. She had even hired a specialist to conduct in-service training on differentiating instruction. The consultant reminded the faculty that when teachers narrow the range of readiness levels in a group of students, meeting the needs of all students within the group becomes easier to achieve, and instruction becomes more efficient.

The teachers decided to divide students by readiness levels and assign them to teachers by common learning needs. “How are we going to go about splitting them up?” Sandra asked.

“We can use their achievement test scores from last year,” suggested Kenneth. “Although that seems like it might ignore any changes in student needs since last year.”

“You have a point. I’m sure we can find some kind of practice test to give them as a diagnostic and reference their scores from last year as well. I remember the consultant emphasizing ongoing diagnostic evaluation through pre-testing. But I am concerned that with this grouping all of the gifted students will end up in the same class,” Sandra said. “I don’t mind teaching the lower group, but I think they really benefit from having higher functioning kids around to serve as models during classroom activities.”

“Sandra, relax! It’s only the first day of school. There’s plenty of time for other students to rise to the top and become role models in any grouping of students we create,” Kenneth said. “Besides, all of our students will be served best by addressing their current readiness levels and moving them forward. Most of our kids will pick things up quickly.”

Sandra is taken aback by Kenneth’s plans for grouping students.

Sandra looked slightly taken aback, but smiled sheepishly. “Maybe I’m just sensitive to the fact that not all students are motivated to learn. Sometimes peer pressure and strong role models can do a lot to motivate lower achieving kids.”

“I agree with Sandra’s suggestion of giving a pre-test. We can test students on Friday and begin switching classes on Monday,” Jeanne said.

“I don’t want to test my students the first week of school,” Michelle said. “They need a chance to get back into the swing of things. They’re just getting to know us. Don’t you think we should give them some time to get comfortable before springing a test on them? How about waiting until next Tuesday? We can do math with our homerooms until then.”

Jeanne thought about the above average students who were ready to move on right away. No one else seemed to be thinking about them.

“We’ll start switching on Wednesday then. Sounds good! I’m ready to get out of here!” Kenneth laughed. Dramatic and fun-loving, Kenneth always kept the group on their toes. Michelle shrugged and nodded, and Sandra, surveying the anxious smiles of the rest of the group, nodded as well. After chatting for a few more minutes, the group dispersed to clean up their classrooms, get ready for tomorrow, and head home for the day.

Sandra and Kenneth go over last year’s test results.

Alone in her classroom, Jeanne thought about the meeting. Overall, it seemed successful, given that it was relatively brief and focused. However, she was concerned about the interaction between Sandra and Kenneth. They seemed to be at loggerheads over this grouping issue. Kenneth had always been opinionated, but the others knew to take some of the things he said with a grain of salt. Sandra, being new to the team and more serious in general, seemed a little ill at ease.

Although Jeanne understood the other teachers’ determination to let the students get comfortable before testing, losing a whole week before getting into the meat of her math program was disappointing to her. She didn’t like the idea of keeping the children in her mixed ability group entertained for a week. Jeanne would have to find something productive and appropriate to do with her class. Gathering up some binders of math materials she had accumulated during various conferences, Jeanne headed home for the evening.

Jeanne confers with the gifted education teacher on their collaborative model.

The next morning, Jeanne arrived early to school. She needed time to settle into her day before the children arrived. She was organizing maps when Suzanne Peters, Holfield’s gifted education teacher, knocked on her door. Suzanne was an energetic and outgoing teacher who had come to Holfield the year before. In the past, Holfield’s gifted program had used a pull-out system. Identified gifted students were pulled out of class for one hour a week to spend time in the gifted resource room.

“Good morning, Jeanne,” said Suzanne. “I’m glad you’re here. I stopped by because we need to figure out how I can work with the fourth grade team this year.”

This year, the district had decided to use a push-in model that allowed classroom teachers to collaborate with the gifted education resource teachers in order to better serve gifted learners. Instead of pulling students out of classes, Suzanne would be coming into classrooms to work alongside regular teachers to serve the gifted students through differentiated core academic activities. The goal was to enrich the experiences of the non-gifted students in the classrooms as well.

“I’m so glad you stopped by—with all the craziness this time of year, I probably never would’ve made it over to see you, especially now with all the grouping issues to resolve.” Jeanne summarized the team’s plans for grouping students.

“Do the parents know about this grouping yet? As soon as they hear about it, every parent in Holfield is going to want to know whether or not their child is in the gifted reading and math groups. Your phones will be ringing off their hooks by next week with parents wanting you to move their children into the high classes!” Suzanne shook her head and laughed.

“Our parents are great, but sometimes they can be a pain in the neck! Why don’t they understand that we can’t make someone gifted, they just are. Besides, it isn’t any fun being different from everyone else. I wouldn’t wish it on my own child.” Jeanne paused. “I imagine you’re right. The gifted children will all test into the same group. If they do, then you could come into my class a few days a week to help me differentiate lessons.”

“That sounds like a plan. Let’s talk after you’re finished testing and grouping,” Suzanne said. “I’ve got to run and see second grade before school starts. I’ll be in touch.”

The team reviews the math results.

The team reassembled in the library on Tuesday afternoon, each bearing their grade books, test records, and a stack of pre-tests.

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Kenneth said. “How should we start?”

“Let’s put all of the pre-tests in order by score and break them into groups,” Sandra suggested.

“But I don’t want to ignore their standardized test scores from last year,” Michelle said.

“Well, let’s take it one step at a time,” suggested Kenneth. “First we’ll group them by this year’s scores, and see how that breaks down. Then we’ll try last year’s. Hopefully they’ll match pretty closely.”

See scores below:

After working through the scores, the teachers found that students didn’t fall into groups as cleanly as they had hoped.

“Wow! What a mess!” Jeanne said.

“There are over ten students that could fall into two different classes. What do you think? Which grouping is more valid?” Sandra asked.

“Well, let’s look at grouping one. That puts group A at 24 students, 20 in group B, 23 in C, and 13 in D. Grouping two has 28 in A, 18 in B, 17 in C, and 17 in D. Just for class size reasons, grouping two seems to make more sense,” Kenneth suggested.

The team meets to review test results.

“Twenty-eight kids! What will Jeanne do with all of those children?” Michelle asked.

“Oh!” Jeanne suddenly exclaimed. “This had totally slipped my mind! I talked to Suzanne Peters, the gifted education teacher, yesterday and she can be in my class a few days every week. Having two of us in there should really help.”

“About half of the students in group A are gifted in math at the very least, so they should be an easy group to work with,” said Kenneth.

Although Jeanne was thankful that she’d be supported by Suzanne, she disagreed with Kenneth. She knew that having gifted students along with non-gifted students would be a challenge. It was not necessarily going to be easier to teach students just because they happen to be gifted in math.

As if on cue, Suzanne Peters walked into the room. Jeanne recounted what had transpired in the meeting thus far.

Suzanne nodded as she listened. “I just got my hands on this great compacted curriculum series for math. It’ll be perfect!”

“That sounds like fun,” Jeanne agreed. “I’m looking forward to team teaching.”

“The math curriculum provides a great introduction to algebra. I think your group will respond well to it.” Suzanne continued.

“Sounds great, then,” Kenneth said, standing and stretching. “Is anyone else ready to get out of here?”

“I am!” Jeanne agreed. “I’ll type up the class lists and email them to you.”

“Hey, wait! Is anyone else concerned that we’re totally overlooking the math scores on the pre-tests that we just spent valuable teaching time administering?” Sandra asked.

“Oh, don’t be difficult Sandra. This will work out fine.” Kenneth said. Gathering his materials, Kenneth headed for the door, followed shortly by the rest of his team.

Jeanne divides the math classes and finds a contradiction.

Tuesday evening, Jeanne sat in front of her computer sipping an iced tea. She thumbed through her bag and found the notes she had gathered from the team meeting that afternoon.

“Let’s see,” she said to herself as she began typing the names into her computer.

See the class lists that Jeanne created below:

She sat back and surveyed the lists, glad that this grouping had seemed to sort itself out. Then something caught her eye. “Oh no…” she sighed, clapping her hand to her forehead.

Jeanne picked up the phone and dialed Michelle’s number. “Hello, Michelle? This is Jeanne. I was just working on the fourth-grade math student assignments, and we’ve got a problem. James Dovitz is identified as gifted, but according to last year’s math achievement test scores he sits solidly in the middle of all the students.  I can’t believe I didn’t catch it before. He’s in my class.”

See James Dovitz’s student profile below:

Jeanne working with James

“Rats! I wish we hadn’t overlooked that!”

“I know. What do you think we should do?” asked Jeanne.

“Well, it seems to me like we have two options,” Michelle said. “Either we bump him up to Group A and hope he can cut it, or we leave him in Group B and hope that no one notices that he is an identified gifted student not being served.”

“Neither of those sounds very attractive to me,” Jeanne replied.

Michelle agreed. “What a mess. I think we need to meet with the team again tomorrow and work this out.”

“I guess we have no choice,” Jeanne sighed.

“But there goes one more day that the kids aren’t grouped. I’m anxious to get started with my targeted instruction,” added Michelle.

“Well, I’ll call the rest of the team and let them know what’s going on. Let’s meet before school and see if we can’t get it worked out. I’ll see you at 7:15.”

The team meets before school to reconcile differences.

“I was afraid this wouldn’t work out so easily,” Sandra said as she joined the group.

“It wouldn’t have worked even if we did use the other scores,” Jeanne said. “Both of James’s scores put him right in the middle of the second group.”

“All I’m saying is that we decided things a little too quickly,” Sandra replied coolly.

Jeanne asked the group, “Do we place him in the top group and hope he makes it, or put him in middle group and hope no one makes a stink about one gifted child not being placed in the top math group? I’ll tell you now I’m all for keeping him in group B. I’ve got such a big class already, how will I handle having one kid who is constantly struggling to keep up? Isn’t that the whole point of grouping them?”

Michelle raised the question, “Would we be at all concerned about our decision to place James in the middle math group if he were not labeled a gifted child?”

Suzanne entered the room. Jeanne had called her and filled her in on the dilemma with James.

“Let’s think about what’s best for James. Let’s review some of his information here,” Jeanne continued.

Suzanne had stopped in the school office to pull James’s confidential file. She began to thumb through the manila folder. “He was identified as gifted last year after his mother petitioned to have him tested. Jane Whitlow, his third grade teacher, didn’t see it, but I finally tested him to pacify his mom. He was identified on the basis of exceptional knowledge of language arts and social studies—I think he knows more about World War II than I do. He was great in gifted class last year, especially when we did enrichments involving social studies or language arts. He’s very curious but relatively reserved.”

“How did he do in math last year?” Sandra asked.

“Let’s see. He got a B.” Suzanne said.

“But will he be able to make it in my class?” Jeanne said. “I mean, we’ve talked about doing algebra with these kids, Suzanne.”

“Plus doesn’t it seem a little unfair that he would get to move into that class just because he’s labeled gifted? There are five other students that have better math scores than him and could probably soar in that class,” added Sandra.

Kenneth agreed, “There are other students with higher scores who deserve that slot more than James.”

The first warning bell of the day interrupted the discussion.

“We’ll have to meet again during planning time to straighten this out,” Jeanne said as the first of the students trickled into the classroom.

“We still have to assign students to language arts groups as well. This is taking way too long. I wish somebody else was placing students into our groups. I’ve got loads of planning to do,” Kenneth said as he left the room.

The team continues the discussion during planning time.

It was important to Jeanne that the focus returned to the purpose of grouping strategies and the impact on instruction. She was afraid that the politics of grouping had sidetracked the team and that they needed to be redirected to focus on instructional issues. Perhaps Suzanne Peters, the gifted education teacher, could help pull it back together.

“Good morning,” said Suzanne. “I asked Jeanne if I could join you today.”

“Welcome,” said Kenneth.

“Thanks,” replied Suzanne. “I think it’s fair to say that we are fast approaching grouping gridlock. I’m glad we’re using instructional grouping to better meet student needs, including the gifted students with whom I work, and I’m hoping that we can step back and re-examine our grouping approach.”

“I really appreciate your willingness to help,” interjected Michelle, “But I really hope that we aren’t going to start this process all over again. We need to get moving. The new math curriculum is huge.”

Jeanne responded, “I don’t think starting over is what Suzanne had in mind. She and I talked last evening and I am convinced that we’ve missed some real opportunities here. We have only considered one possible grouping strategy. I don’t believe that grouping is the problem here, but maybe the strategy we’re using for grouping is. I just want to back-up a bit and take a good look at where we’ve been this week and rethink our plans.”

Kenneth replied reluctantly, “Yes, it’s true, our current plans have a few hitches. I do want to ability group so we can target student needs. But truthfully, I don’t know where to go next.”

Sandra said with great emotion, “I do agree, but I’m already exhausted and facing teaching a whole new curriculum. I’m not sure what else I have to offer to help move us along.”

Michelle asked, “What does Dr. Hadley say about all this? Whatever we decide, parents are sure to question and challenge our choices. Do we have the support we need to proceed?”

Suzanne responded to Michelle’s question, “I think Dr. Hadley cares that we implement some type of appropriate flexible grouping. Achievement grouping is just that…I feel assured that she supports our best efforts to match students readiness levels to appropriately differentiated learning.”

“I have a suggestion,” followed Jeanne. “Why don’t Suzanne and I work together to create some alternate plans for using appropriate instructional grouping to improve learning for all students, especially our gifted students. We’ll be sure to include a rationale that satisfies the concerns of parents and administrators.”

The group agreed but asked for a quick turnaround. There was much work to be done.