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How Do Teachers' Expectations Affect Student Learning (page 3)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Ability Grouping and Tracking

Although ability grouping can help teachers differentiate instruction, simply assigning a student to a group can create a self-fulfilling prophesy. Even though teachers are usually responsible for students' reading group placement, there is evidence that by the end of the year the placement itself predicts teachers' as well as parents' perceptions of students' competencies, over and above the effect of students' initial skills (Pallas, Entwisle, Alexander, & Stluka, 1994; see also Pallas, Entwisle, Alexander, & Stluka, 1994). Weinstein (1976) found that the reading group to which students were assigned explained 25 percent of the variance mid-year achievement over and above the students' initial readiness score. Henk and Melnick (1998) found also that reading group assignment was frequently referred to by elementary school age children when asked questions about how they evaluated their reading ability. That ability grouping is used more frequently for reading than for math instruction may explain why some studies find that teacher expectations have a stronger impact on reading achievement than on math achievement (Smith, 1980).

Ability group placement affects learning in part because teachers often perceive all members of a group as equivalent, despite the considerable variation that usually exists within groups. Because teachers' expectations are influenced by group placement itself, they often do not monitor individual progress as much as they should, and they do not adjust instruction or move a student to another group when the student would benefit from different instructional input.

A second problem with ability grouping is that teachers vary the nature and pace of instruction between groups more than is necessary or appropriate. In general, studies find that students in high level reading groups receive more effective instruction than students in low level reading groups. Reading lessons for higher groups have been observed to be more loosely structured, to involve more meaningful questions and opportunities to connect reading to personal experiences, and to be more fun. Decoding skills, rather than meaning, are often stressed more with the "low" group (Borko & Eisenhart, 1986; McDermott, 1987).

Similarly, there is evidence indicating that students in low tracks are taught differently than students in high tracks. Again, some differences, such as the pace of the curriculum, may reflect appropriate accommodations to students' learning styles. But many differences in teacher behavior toward students are unnecessary and constrain the achievement of students in the low track.

Consider, for example, Oakes' (1990) analysis of survey data from 6,000 math and science classes in 1,200 elementary, junior high, and senior high schools in the United States. Teachers of low-ability math and science classes claimed to emphasize students' own interests less than other teachers. They also put less emphasis on developing inquiry skills and problem solving, developing skills in communicating math and science ideas, and preparing students for further study in math and science. She reports, furthermore, that in secondary schools, students in low-ability track science and math classes spent more time engaged in solitary seatwork, doing worksheets and taking tests or quizzes, than did students in high-ability track classes. In science classes they spent less time engaged in hands-on activities and more time reading. In a previous study, Oakes and Goodland (1985) found that teachers of high-track classes more often included competence and autonomous thinking among the most important curricular goals for students.

Further research suggests that students in different tracks experience differences in teachers' behavior. Vanfossen, Jones, and Spade (1987), for example, report from national survey data that college-track students were more likely than other students to describe their teachers as patient, respectful, clear in their presentations, and enjoying their work. These differential behaviors are not necessary, and they undoubtedly exacerbate the existing differences between high and low achievers.

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