Many educators have a natural aversion to grouping students by ability level. Granted, leveling in a traditional sense by dividing entire grade levels of students into high, medium, and low groups is an ineffective practice. That’s because learning is too fluid for single-level groups. Kids will master some ideas faster than others. Even within a content area, students will learn one concept quickly and struggle with others.
Many schools address this diversity through teacher collaboration as part of their professional learning community (PLC). It may be helpful to recall the critical questions that Rick and Becky DuFour believe should guide the work of educators:
- What is it that we want students to be able to know and do?
- How will we know when our students have mastered those outcomes?
- How are we going to monitor progress toward those outcomes?
- What will we do as a school when students don’t master the outcomes or need extended study?
I cannot overstate the importance of creating time to allow for structured dialogue among teachers about student learning. I’ve seen too many school leaders trying to establish the components of a PLC without addressing the culture of a learning organization. You simply must carve out time to give teachers the opportunity to analyze student portfolios and collaborate about the data they yield. Otherwise, PLCs become a burden for teachers and another “hoop to jump through” without a change in the culture of community learning. I recall one elementary principal who remarked, “it was amazing the amount that learning increased in the building when we stopped talking about ourselves and started talking about the kids.”
With that culture of collaboration established, teachers can begin sorting for specific lessons by asking questions in the spirit of the Dufours’ critical questions: Which students appear to have mastered the concepts? How can we work together, creating small flexible groups to support students at all levels of understanding? How can we check for mastery incrementally and how will we adapt our groups in order to meet the individual needs of students?
For example, suppose a group of fourth grade teachers has decided that composing text with: a) a beginning, middle, and end; b) a logical sequence of events; and c) sentence variety is an essential outcome for their students. They might begin by establishing exactly what they expect to see from their students at the present time in the school year and then develop a rubric that would help both teachers and students understand what mastery looked like.
After spending time teaching students about writing they would collect student work and use their rubric to assess student mastery. After analyzing the data, the teachers could decide if there were students who needed extra help in writing. Teachers particularly adept in teaching writing or who have a special passion for teaching writing might work with small groups of students in need of remediation (or enrichment, for that matter).
In this case, grouping is based on student progress toward a mutually defined outcome rather than a collective “make the grade or else” type of leveling. Key to this type of leveling is regular intervention times when this kind of grouping can occur and appropriate assessment at intervals to ensure flexibility of the group for students to move in and out as they master concepts.