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Jan 4, 201312:26 PMEducation Matters

MCPS Superintendent Says Mixed-Ability Grouping is Here to Stay

Jan 4, 2013 - 12:26 PM
MCPS Superintendent Says Mixed-Ability Grouping is Here to Stay

Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Public Schools

Montgomery County Public Schools chief Joshua Starr must have felt like he was back in his old job in Stamford, Conn., during last night’s meeting at Northwood High School with parents from Downcounty Consortium schools.

Once again, he was defending his opposition to the grouping of students by academic ability—an issue that defined his tenure as superintendent of Stamford public schools, where he ended the longstanding practice known as tracking despite protests from some parents.

This time, it was MCPS parents who were questioning how Starr expected heterogeneous grouping to work, especially in the highly diverse classrooms of downcounty schools.

Whether or not to group students by ability is a hot topic among parents as MCPS continues its implementation of a new elementary school curriculum. Known as Curriculum 2.0, it calls for teaching kids of all abilities within the same classroom—a concept that many parents have complained is unworkable without highly trained teachers.

Across the county, parents have protested the elimination of accelerated math classes for advanced kids under Curriculum 2.0; MCPS says it’s working on providing acceleration to those students who need it and Starr’s proposed budget for next year includes funding to train teachers to work with kids of all abilities.

Parents attending last night’s discussion at the Silver Spring school focused mostly on heterogeneous grouping in middle schools and the challenges faced by teachers who must deal with a wide range of academic skills, which parents believe results in a lack of academic rigor.

As the mother of a sixth-grader at Silver Spring’s Sligo Middle School put it, “I do not want my child to suffer in a school where the staff feel demoralized by having to bridge an enormous strata.”

She noted that frustrated teachers often leave for jobs at other schools with less challenging populations. “We lose good teachers all the time,” she said.

She urged Starr to consider the specific challenges of downcounty schools when considering the effectiveness of heterogeneous grouping, and not compare them to MCPS schools that aren’t as diverse or even national research on the issue.

That drew loud applause from the crowd.

Noting his own background on the issue, Starr pointed out that the debate over grouping was not unique to MCPS. He acknowledged that there may be legitimate reasons for grouping students by ability at times, but he came down solidly against the practice as a “wholesale policy.”

History has shown that the conventional wisdom of grouping kids by ability provided some kids with a “fabulous” education and some kids with a “very bad education,” Starr said.

“I understand where that comes from and I tell you, it doesn’t work,” he said. In fact, high-achieving kids “don’t necessarily get any better being around kids that perform on the same level as they do.”

The session topped off one of Starr’s daylong visits to the district’s school clusters. During these “Community Days,” Starr is visiting schools, meeting with staff and holding Town Hall-style meetings for parents and community members.  

This was the second session for the Downcounty Consortium schools in Silver Spring, Kensington, Wheaton, and Takoma Park; some parents had asked for the additional meeting because they couldn’t attend a December session due to conflicts with events at several schools.

A number of parents at the meeting had hoped to hear Starr address their concerns about Sligo Middle School, where issues over academic rigor and school leadership have been simmering this school year.

But Starr didn’t directly address those issues raised by Sligo parents, noting that he wasn’t versed in data about each of the county’s 200 schools. Instead he spoke of his plans to improve middle schools by making a “significant investment” that would build on reform efforts that “kind of plateaued” a few years ago. He has proposed the hiring of 30 additional math and literacy teachers and more professional development for teachers.

And he said that concerns over a lack of rigor will be addressed as MCPS modifies the middle school curriculum to reflect the Common Core Standards, a set of rigorous education standards for kindergarten through high school that have been adopted by 45 states.

To those parents concerned about the reputations of their local middle schools, Starr advised that they base their judgments on their children’s experiences, instead of the views of others.

“Judge us on what your kid is getting every day,” he said.

But his responses didn’t satisfy a number of parents, who left the meeting grumbling that the session had left them unimpressed with the superintendent.

"He filibustered...and didn't answer questions. Sigh," a Sligo parent posted on Facebook.

Jan 10, 2013 12:21 pm
 Posted by  OlneyMom

Apparently Starr will have to watch MoCo families vote with their feet. My son would have suffered tremendously if not for tracking and accelerated classes. It was a poor teacher having to cope with (a not overly-diverse) range of students which proved to us that our son was not going to get the attention he needed for accelerated learning. Thank goodness he was able to take advantage of MCPS G/T schools, which seem on their way to being diluted. If we were starting the process now, we'd probably end up putting him in private schools. If that happens enough, maybe the supt's office will pay attn to corresponding drop in their beloved test scores.

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