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Leveled learning
City school districts consider heterogeneous classes

05/22/14



 In the Manchester School District’s middle and high schools, for most subjects, students sit among peers who have similar academic abilities. Classes have four levels, with 4 being the most challenging and 1 the most basic. 

Ideally, the levels students are placed in initially don’t seal their fate for the next four years, said Manchester School District Assistant Superintendent David Ryan. 
“We never want a student to feel they are pigeonholed, because we want them to be able to rise in academic levels,” he said. “If they were to begin in Level 1 as freshmen, it would be wonderful if they all move up.” 
But that doesn’t often happen, Ryan said. Instead, problems arise at the lower levels. Students display higher rates of code of conduct violations, absences and lower academic achievement. They are also more likely to drop out of school or take longer to graduate, and they’re not entering post-secondary experiences of their choice. 
“You ask [lower level] students what they want to do weeks before they graduate and they don’t know,”he said. “At level 3 and 4, their plans are made because they have choices. Our goal is to have every student, when they graduate, have the ability to make a choice.”
That challenge has Manchester administrators, as well as officials at other local school districts,  researching, testing, and/or implementing some classrooms that are more heterogeneous and less dependent on keeping kids segregated based on achievement. 
 
A growing trend
In the past five or so years, a shift away from tracks and leveling and toward heterogeneity has become more popular, local administrators said. Many New Hampshire charter schools and school districts have implemented at least some heterogeneous classrooms that keep students of all abilities together.  
It’s a model that encourages single-level classrooms, where teachers then organize students into smaller groups on a short-term basis, based on their interests, experience or speed of work. 
The New England Association of School and Colleges, a voluntary school accreditation agency, strongly promotes heterogeneous classrooms and first developed a standard for it 14 years ago. In order for New Hampshire high schools to remain accredited, they now must offer at least one unleveled course. 
“It’s really about equitable access for students so they are not shut out of courses,” said Janet Allison, director of NEASC commision on public secondary schools. 
Research finds that when students who are still building fundamental skills are in a classroom with  accelerated-track students, academic “skills modeling” occurs, Ryan said. Those who would traditionally be in lower-level classes see the rewards of applying themselves because they are surrounded by students who do so on a regular basis. 
While the Manchester school district is hoping to test heterogeneous classes at the middle-school level for a couple classes next year, the Concord School District has already eliminated leveling at middle schools. The change was initiated by teachers of low-level classes who said their students were capable of greater achievement but needed more motivation, said Christine Rath, superintendent of the Concord School district. 
The middle school classrooms now use the flexible grouping concept. 
“For specific projects or topics, they might group according to interest or experience, but it’s always short term. It’s not, ‘You’re in this low level,’” Rath said. 
At the high school, Concord has been gradually reducing and eliminating low-level classes over the past decade, beginning with history. Most recently, low-level chemistry disappeared.  To accompany the new structure, the district created 45-minute support classes for students who need extra instruction. 
“To level students, you have to make a decision about something, and it’s a very important decision,” said Rath. “We’re cautious to make that decision because, in the end, they’re all going to have to perform at a very high level in this world.”
The implementations of heterogeneous classrooms with flexible grouping has resulted in fewer students failing classes, Rath said. 
 
Challenges to de-tracking 
Despite heavy support for the flexible grouping structure amongst administrators, heterogeneous classes pose significant problems, especially at the outset, district administrators said. 
“The challenge teachers are faced with is, how do they differentiate instruction for the many different places a student is at?” said Mark Conrad, superintendent of the Nashua city school district.
Nashua levels most of its high school classes and places middle school students in one of three “levels of achievement” after assessing them in unleveled environments during the first 30 days of Grade 6. De-tracking has been an ongoing debate amongst teachers, the board of education and parents, but it has failed to gain enough momentum to change policy, Conrad said. 
“You could have a student who is two years below grade level on math, so the challenge for teachers is, how do you differentiate your instruction? … Leveling provides teachers with a more clustered group who are closer to being in a similar place,” he said. 
Teachers also need to make sure that the level of work stays high for all students, which Rath said is an ongoing concern among parents in the Concord district. 
“It’s a legitimate concern that our teachers are working really hard on,” Rath said. 
For districts that do make changes, they happen differently depending on the size of schools, Allison said. 
“We have a school in Connecticut, a large high school, that has for years required all students to take a current event course senior year and it’s totally non-ability based,” Allison said.
Veteran Manchester Central High School English teacher Selma Naccach-Hoff said the school has always had some kind of leveling, and while she is open to exploring options, she thinks the current levels are working and wants to be certain changes are made for the right reasons — to support student success.  
“The purpose of levels are to make certain that all students learn, and different students learn at a different pace,” she said. “The upper levels can go more quickly, and lower levels need more time, teacher input, structure and guidance.”
Naccach-Hoff suggested some classes may lend themselves more easily to mixed-level structure, though. She currently teaches a mixed-level Greek mythology. 
“That one happens to be a course that does work well,” she said. “The levels are pretty close to one another. There’s no great disparity of learning speeds.”
While critics fear the change would be too daunting for teachers and less vigorous for advanced students, Ryan pointed out that it’s already how learning works in elementary schools and within leveled classes. 
“Even in a Level 3 math class you have a group who needs some extra practice, and you have another group … performing fairly well, and then there’s a group who is excelling,” he said. “So you’re still teaching to three groups of learners. That begs the questions, how are we not able to do it with all of our students?”
 
As seen in the May 22, 2014 issue of the Hippo. 





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