RE: Ability Grouping

Having just read Fawn Nguyen’s post on tracking/ability grouping, I wanted to imitate her (you’re supposed to imitate the best, right?) and (1) write down my own educational experiences with tracking and (2) write down my thoughts and where I am now on the issue (still an evolving process).

Elementary School

My school had one pull-out class named just “AG class” (Academically Gifted). I think I enjoyed it, although when it came to writing assignments I felt that most people, if not everyone else in there was way beyond me, especially when it came to creativity. I remember my teacher would play this association game where you wrote down as many ideas as you could connected to something and whoever had the most got a piece of candy. In 3rd (or was it 4th?) grade, I won because I cheated & looked off a really sharp kid’s paper. I told my mom about it later that day. She scared me by being spontaneously furious about it “You didn’t do that, did you?!?!?” after which I lied and told her what she wanted to hear: “No, I didn’t.” I don’t know if I ever ate that candy.

I found out that I had a talent for multiplication facts in 4th grade. Our teachers would post how every student did on their weekly quiz outside of the classroom to have a “fun” competition between classes. One time I didn’t get a 100% and the whole class turned to me and gave one of those “what, Jonathan didn’t get 100%?” looks. I don’t think I actually cried, but I was close.

Middle School

I started middle school in “honors” classes except for math. My MS was the one in the county that had “AG level 3”–one step above honors, and I guess I was still testing well in math at that point. After 1 quarter, my dear sweet mother pushed all the way up to the top of the school bureaucracy to get me into all AG level 3 classes.

Now socially, for the first time I felt accepted. Elementary school wasn’t the best for me: I was bullied in cub scouts by other boys who were also in my class because I wasn’t allowed to watch the R-rated movies. It didn’t help that I had always been introverted and shy.  Now I was surrounded by others who actually cared about school (most of them).

High School: Part 1

Since my MS was a magnet school, only a few of my treasured classmates moved up to my districted HS. I wanted to go to the IB Magnet HS (partly to follow a girl, but that’s neither here nor there) to stay with the majority of my friends, but my parents decided they wanted all 3 of us to go to the same school[1].

I remember being so bored in “Honors” Alg II freshman year. I was in a class with mostly sophomores and some juniors. I think there might have been 2 of us freshmen. The teacher sat at the front 100% of the class and I had already seen all this material  before in Alg I (except for i–that was the one new concept all year).

High School: Part 2

When I became a junior, I applied & attended NCSSM (the North Carolina School of Science and Math). Part of the reason I attended is because of the incredible time I had in MS which I missed: being surrounded by like-minded peers who care about their education. Part of the reason I attended was because if the incredibly arrogant view I had of my own math & education abilities.


Like Fawn, I had/have very similar beliefs about ability grouping. I’d like to add a few more:

When students who care about school are surrounded by students who also care about school, they get to experience friends their age.[2] [3]

What about AP classes?


This year in Chemistry, I sat down with a student to focus on Acids & Bases because he wasn’t getting it. I gave him the following equation:

2.3 + x = 14

I asked him “do you know how to do this?” and he just sorta shook his head. I felt guilty since this was the end of the year, but this isn’t the sort of thing I look out for in my incoming Juniors. Perhaps I should start looking out for it.

I remember one teacher who had been in the field for 2 years before coming to grad school, whereas most of us were fresh out of undergrad. She had some very strong opinions, one of which was that tracking absolutely shouldn’t happen. Having never been in the classroom myself, I thought “how naive of her”. She was in the science teacher program. Having taught science now for a few years, I completely agree with her: students of differing abilities can help one another grow in the right classroom environment (our school is too small to track in anything but math). But I still stuck to my guns on math because I hadn’t seen any other way.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so bored in Alg II in HS if I hadn’t been on the “fast track” the years before. Or perhaps we need to weed out all the unchangeable & ineffective teachers (ha). In one sense, math tracking makes up for the fact that most math teachers (1) don’t differentiate and (2) don’t teach problem solving. Or is this a case of “bringing down smart kids so that we can all have a level playing field”. Probably not. Although many parents/teachers/administrations probably would see it like that.

After I read Fawn’s piece, I went looking online and found this article which helped me understand more why tracking is bad. Perhaps we shouldn’t teach “math class”. Perhaps we should teach “problem solving class” where math is but a tool for that. Sorta how you’ve never heard of “screwdriver class” or “hammer class”–it’s just “woodshop”.

My view (and understanding) is still evolving and I hope that this is something that I can continue to learn about. And I hope to get better at teaching problem solving.

Thank you, Fawn.


[1] Joke’s on them: when my younger brother got to my HS, I opted to go to a boarding school. When my younger sister go to HS age, she opted to go to the local magnet arts school. So none of us ever were in the same HS at the same time.

[2] Are schools responsible for this? Depends on your view of schools. If “social knowledge” is part of an education, along with athletic knowledge or moral knowledge, then yes. If we only care about academic knowledge, then no.

[3] One summer I attended Duke TIP (“Talent Identification Program”) at the end of MS. Again, I was surrounded by like-minded peers. This may have been a more novel experience for me had I not had a similar experience in MS. Should this be the outlet for students who care about school to find peers? Perhaps. Ironically, I taught a class one summer while in grad school, which is what prompted me to consider & pursue teaching for the first time ever. The name of the class? “Math Problem Solving”. (Have we come full circle yet?)



Filed under Teaching

2 responses to “RE: Ability Grouping

  1. Please. Do. Check. for the folks who don’t know the algebra. It doesn’t get better by itself. Great post 😉

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