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The Problem with Mixed-Ability Classes

The Problem with Mixed-Ability Classes


“No matter what the game or sport or competition, everybody wins. No child these days ever gets to hear those important character-building words, ‘You lost, Bobby.’ A lot of these kids never get to hear the truth about themselves until they’re in their 20s when their boss calls them into their office and says, ‘Bobby, clean the sh*t outta your desk and get the f*ck outta here; you’re a loser.’ Of course, Bobby’s parents can’t understand why he can’t hold a job. In school,  he was always on the honor roll. Well, what they don’t understand is that in today’s schools, everyone is on the honor roll because, in order to be on the honor roll, all you really need to do is to maintain a body temperature somewhere roughly in the 90’s.”

-George Carlin

You’ve probably heard about sports games at the elementary level where every kid gets a trophy or ribbon for participation. Maybe you’re aware that some elementary schools give honors certificates to every student at graduation. 

Perhaps you’ve seen a “no score sports game” where no score is kept, and no winner is declared to protect the delicate feelings of the losers. We tend to look the other way when faced with these practices because they are intended to protect the self-esteem of young kids—and because no one wants to be the jerk who takes a kid’s trophy away. But this mentality spreads to upper grades, making teaching even more difficult.

Grade Inflation

In the U.S., outrageous grade inflation has seen a 28% rise in A’s since the sixties. Almost half of all high school students have an A average, even though the average SAT score continues to fall. Many of these kids are really performing at a C average but have pushy parents or have learned how to work the system to get that A. 

No one ever asks teachers what they think of an idea before they thrust it onto them. They must know their ideas are not good, and they don’t want to deal with the pushback. They want to say they are breaking ground with their forward-thinking educational models (usually trashed within a few years), and they want that data! We are their guinea pigs, forced to try every idea that pops into their heads.

The all-honors model is the latest educational experiment determined to “level the playing field” and encourage high self-esteem. When they first rolled this one out in my school, all 9th and 10th graders had one option for English class: Honors

All Honors Classes

The kids who read at a 2nd-grade level and the kids who got perfect scores on the PSAT had one option: to study the same curriculum, use the same materials, and learn at the same pace (actually, they would tell you that all of these would be different according to ability level and that I would need to plan all of that in advance). So why are they even in the same class in the first place? 

In 11th and 12th grade, the choices were Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) English. Higher achieving kids took AP, and lazy kids, or kids with lower ability levels, stayed in “Honors.” One of the first problems that arose in 9th and 10th grade was that higher achieving students complained of boredom to their parents (and rightfully so).

Enough parents complained, and “Pre-AP” classes were created for the 9th and 10th grades, but spaces were limited, and you had to sign up in advance of the school year. These basically became the new Honors classes, while the Honors classes were where the kids with “regular” abilities went. Kids who didn’t get the memo about the “Pre-AP” classes ended up in the same courses with a wide range of ability levels.

Theories and Stuff

Before we get to why this is idea, not a good idea, let’s examine why anyone would think this would work. “Mixed-ability classes” are meant to encourage patience and understanding. Theorists hope that actual honors-level students will inspire and motivate the lower-level students and that honors kids will learn “tolerance and the understanding and acceptance of differences.”

According to another educational theorist, “Academically, higher-level students can help push lower-level students by modeling and encouraging them. This builds higher-level students’ skills in consolidating information and mentoring others. It also exposes lower-level students to some of the higher-level thinking questions and problem-solving skills they might not observe if they remained in a low-level group.”

“All honors classes” are mainly meant to build the self-esteem of kids who do not usually get to have the honors label, and this is what my school focuses on the most.

Research shows that grouping has almost no effect on academic performance among students of varying achievement levels. 

Holding Everyone Back

In my experience, this model holds everyone back. Honors students are bored, and lower-level students are intimidated or need to catch up. The administration’s solution to this is to provide more work for the Honors kids and allow less work to be completed by lower-level kids. When I tried that, the Honors kids complained that it wasn’t fair that they had to complete more work (and it wasn’t), and the lower-level kids were embarrassed. Now everyone knew who was really an “honors student,” which defeated the whole damn purpose. 

When I reported this situation, I was told to provide extra work for the Honors students who finished early but tell them that they were merely getting a head start on a future assignment. Then I was either to excuse the lower level kids from that future assignment or just never grade it at all. WHUT? Basically, I was giving the honors kids busy work and lying to them about its importance.

Book Selections

As far as the materials we study, the books are either too easy or way too hard. I was told to assign specific books to specific students. So Geraldine got a version of Homer’s Odyssey at a college level of difficulty. Bob got the graphic novel, which had one sentence per page. They couldn’t work together for most of the assignments, so they ended up being separated anyway. And that is what most of them wanted. They wanted to be separated because the higher-level kids were angry that they had so much more reading to do than the other kids, and the lower-level kids were embarrassed that they were reading a picture book.

I was advised to give them all a choice of either book at this point. They said that some would want the challenge of the literal translation of Homer’s Odyssey. While a noble idea, when given the choice, the whole class ended up doing the graphic novel.

Geraldine’s Book: 

Bob’s Book:

Planning Four Lessons for One Class

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that 25% of these classes are composed of Special Ed. kids. So I have to plan, within one class period, for honors kids, on-level kids, below-level kids, and Special Ed. kids. This makes a lot of sense.

To summarize, I have students with very different ability levels and varying degrees of work ethic in the same class. They are all called honors students. They have different books and assignments and tend to separate themselves based on their comfort level. 

Some students are supposed to get graded more harshly than others based on their capabilities. They all can’t really work together because they are not working on the same assignments, and the lower-level kids do not want to ask the others for help because they are embarrassed. When someone mentioned that all the kids shouldn’t get honors credit for the class because some are doing a lot less work and are being graded easier, it was proposed that the lower-level kids would get less credit for the course. 

So if the kids are pretty much in separate classes (separate materials, abilities, and credit) within the same room… perhaps they should just be in different classes to begin with?

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Jane Morris

Jane Morris is the pen name of an ex-teacher who would really like to tell you more about herself but is worried awful administrators will come after her for spilling their dirty little secrets. Jane has taught English for over 15 years in a major American city. She received her B.A. in English and Secondary Education from a well-known university and her M.A. in Writing and Literature from an even fancier (and more expensive) university. As a professional queen of commiseration turned published author, Jane’s foremost passion in life is to make people laugh through the tears.

She has written several highly acclaimed books unpacking the reality of teaching and life inside the school system. You can view her full library of works here.