The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Compatibility Based Classrooms

on October 9, 2015

Sorry, faithful readers, but today’s post is a repeat of one I wrote for Valerie Strauss’ blog, “The Answer Sheet” in 2013.  I post it today–with some minor changes– because the topic is still an issue and I feel strongly about it.


Over the many years I served as an elementary school principal my relationships with parents were good.  I was available, I listened, and when complaints or suggestions were reasonable, I acted.  But there was one area where I stubbornly held the line against the wishes of parents, and that was the placement of students.  I made clear early on that I would not honor requests for children to be placed with a particular teacher, nor would I form ability-based classrooms.  My position was not a matter of showing who was “boss,” but of my unshakable conviction that mixed ability classrooms are the best places for children to learn and live, and that teachers know which students should be together in a classroom and which should not.

Although I understand that many elementary schools are moving to ability-based classrooms in the belief that they will do a better job of teaching what students are expected to know and do under the Common Core State Standards, I still think they are a big mistake.

Teaching to the presumed ability level of a whole class never works as well as hoped because students still have significant differences in work habits, paces of learning, interests, and outside of school experiences.  But there is another, more significant factor: the effects on students in the low level classes.  Those kids know who they are, why they are there, and resent it.  Other kids know, too.  In the end, low-level classes can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Everybody thinks I’m dumb, so I’ll show them just how dumb I can be!”

Don’t mixed classrooms have the same problems, you may wonder? Not if they’re structured like a symphony orchestra or a professional sports team to form a supportive and harmonious whole where each member plays his own role.  Instead of spending time and effort creating ability-based classrooms, schools could do better by letting this year’s teachers who know their students place them in classes for the following year where their abilities, interests, and personalities are complemented by those of their classmates.

That is what we did in both schools where I was principal, and it worked out just fine.  At the end of each school year we asked parents who were concerned about their children’s placements for the following year to fill out a form that described their child’s school needs–especially those we might not be aware of.  Surprisingly, we always got only a few  responses; most parents trusted us to make good decisions for their kids.

I must add that we also had mixed grade classrooms at all levels.*  We started that practice because the numbers of students that came to us at each grade were often wildly different.  We could see no value in having a class of  30 third graders and a class of 20 4th graders.  It seemed  far better to have two  grade 3/4 classrooms with reasonable numbers and flexible teaching practices that included whole class lessons sometimes, but at other times small group lessons or students working with partners.

When the brightest kids, the most outgoing, the shy ones, and the strugglers work together in a classroom, there are not only 25 partners and 25 social equals, but also 25 strong learners.

*Not exactly true.  Only at the second school where I was principal, were we able to create a K-1 class, ant it was  near the end of my tenure.  It worked out better than expected for a number of reasons, but I’ll have to save that explanation for a future post.

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