Sometimes educational groups should be made up of students who are similar, but often the best grouping for a given task is heterogeneous - a healthy mix of abilities (and disabilities), ethnic groups, genders, etc. Hopefully teachers do not divide students by race anymore and practices like pitting the boys against the girls, putting them in separate lines, or differentiating the curriculum by gender are dying. Still, in the typical school children are homogeneously grouped for ability or when they are removed from the classroom because they are gifted or because they have other special needs (speech problems, physical or learning disabilities, behavior disorders, etc.) Pull-out programs are a time-honored and measurably effective way to deal with students with special needs or abilities. Without the help of specialists, it is difficult for the classroom teacher to teach the curriculum while addressing the variety of needs represented in the classroom. In pull-out programs gifted students are stimulated by exciting projects and are able to develop and demonstrate their special abilities; students with learning disabilities receive personalized programs that meet their individual needs and keep them from falling farther behind their classmates; disabled students learn skills to allow them to function in society. Highly trained specialists make a big difference for these children.

Ability grouping is also an historically effective system for delivering instruction in a classroom with students of dramatically different skills and abilities. In teaching basic skills, grouping by ability and the use of back-to-back programs increase individual student contact the the teacher by reducing the number of students receiving instruction at any one time. Ability grouping is a compromise between individualized instruction (which is so labor intensive that it is almost always abandoned by the exhausted teacher sooner than later) and whole-class instruction that can tend to teach to the average and hope the high kids don't tune out and the low kids understand some of the content. Teaching ability groups has become common practice because it is a workable compromise. But as good as is the case that can be made for pull-out programs and ability grouping, the result is the class has been divided. And no matter how good the reasons, there are also disadvantages:

Problems with Pull-out Programs
  • There can be a stigma attached to students who leave the room for extra help.
  • Elitist attitudes can be a problem for gifted students in pull-out enrichment programs.
  • Isolation of specialists. Special educators often feel the stigma no less than their students.
  • "It is a part-time solution to a full-time problem. Able learners (and less able) need a program that matches their abilities every hour of the day" (Cox et al., 1985).
  • Disrupted schedules.
  • Fragmented days.
  • With some class members missing out on the common experience that bond the class, there is a lack of group cohesiveness.

Problems with Ability Grouping
  • Superiority or inferiority feelings. Students in "low" groups suffer reduced self esteem and often simply give up trying (Cox et al., 1981) while those in "high" groups can develop an elitist attitudes that are detrimental to the social climate of the classroom.
  • It is not possible to disguise which group is high and which is low. The students know what the red and blue groups are even though they aren't named "Eagles" and "Buzzards". (Bette Shoemaker)
  • Students who are moved down a group are often devastated by the "demotion".
  • Reduced expectations may yield reduced results in lower groups.
  • Labeling reduces group cohesiveness.
  • Often the needs of a class require so many groups that teachers might as well have an individualized program.
  • Ability grouping can result in de facto segregation.
  • Ability grouping simply isn't effective for a large number of children (Goodlad and Oakes, 1988; Slavin, 1988a; Ascher, 1986a; Powell et al., 1985).

Barbara Clark (1986) and other advocates of integrative education urge replacement of "pull-out" programs with "pull-in" programs in which specialists work in teams with generalists to provide for special needs in the regular classroom (Friedman and Kephart ,1989; Flynn, 1990). The Eugene School District's Education 2000 Report (Harris and Shoemaker, 1988) concluded that: "Ability grouping is generally an ineffective means for addressing individual differences and denies groups of low and 'at-risk' children access to instruction with some higher performing peers. Students should remain in heterogeneous classes most of the time and be regrouped by ability only in subjects in which reduced heterogeneity is particularly important. Research indicates that such arrangements increase the academic performance of lower or middle achieving students without jeopardizing the performance of higher achieving pupils."

Still, to be fair, there are some drawbacks of mixed groups:
  • The staff needs to do joint planning and work as a team - particularly for pull-in models of SPED, TAG and ELL.
  • Materials need to be more flexible. Textbooks can't be the centerpiece of the curriculum that supports mixed ability grouping.
  • Teamwork skills must be taught to students in addition to content.
  • There may be more noise and chaos than many teachers may be used to.

It is important for teachers to know that simply placing students in heterogeneous groups is unlikely to be a successful strategy. Before assigning children to groups, the groundwork must be laid: How does the building administration feel about heterogeneous grouping, movement, noise and activity in the classroom? Will groups involve students from other classrooms; are their teachers on board? What content and activities will be studied in groups? Is the climate of the classroom safe enough to allow students to risk expressing an opposing opinion in their group? Do students have the skills to do team work?

In addition, there are times when homogeneous groups are best. Mark Gall of the University of Oregon says that in real-life, most of the groups with whom we associate are homogeneous - university colleagues, fellow teachers, work crews, office mates, even neighbors - so there is nothing artificial about homogeneous grouping in schools. Gall gives the example of his son, who was inexperienced in team sports, blossoming on a novice-level basketball team after experiencing discouragement in a mixed-ability league. Gifted children grouped with other gifted children are able to give flight to some of the creative impulses they feel they must keep in check in mixed groups. Still, when the task is appropriate, all children benefit from experience with classmates of different abilities.

Research on Heterogeneous Grouping
Because researchers have a difficult time measuring the extent to which teachers have done the preliminary work necessary to successful group work, studies of academic gains of children in mixed groups are difficult to interpret. Some studies suggest that heterogeneous grouping can boost academic skills (Slavin, 1983; Spencer and Allen, 1988; Wilkinson, 1986; Hooper and Hannafin, 1988) while other studies show the opposite (Bacon, 1988; Butler et al., 1987; Westling, 1989; Feldhusen, 1989; Kulik and Kulik, 1987) or that there is no difference (Gregory 1984). My feeling is that academic gains are found when sound principles of team-oriented instruction are used. With good teaching by teachers who are enthusiastic about the method of instructional delivery they are using, academic gains can be made using any reasonable approach (ability grouping, individualized instruction, whole group instruction, scripted direct instruction, cooperative learning, etc.).

If it is true that teachers who are enthusiastic about heterogeneous grouping (and who have done their homework) can get academic results using it, then there is good news in the research about the social aspects of mixed groups. Studies are in virtually total agreement on the positive impact of mixed grouping on the social climate of the classroom. Dishi et al., (1983), Ziegler (1981) and Hansell and Slavin (1979) found increased cross-ethnic friendships, Yager (1985) and Slavin (1983) showed improved interpersonal attraction between handicapped and non-handicapped students, Slavin (1983) found improvement in behavior of academically handicapped students. High achievers, too, can benefit from heterogeneous grouping when principles of cooperative learning are followed (Bryant, 1987; Yatvin, 1984). Johnson and his colleagues, (1984) found that cooperative heterogeneous groupings foster more elaborative thinking and discussion of material at a deeper level.

Some educators and researchers, in fact, believe that heterogeneous grouping is the only way to teach a varied ability classroom:
  • Yatvin (1984) says, "When there are sound programs and good teaching, classes segregated by ability are not only unnecessary but also undesirable."
  • Janis Arnold (1988) describes how she stumbled on heterogeneous grouping in searching for a way to get a "shrinking violet" involved in the classroom. The results were positive for the class as a whole, not just the targeted student, and changed her way of teaching. Thereafter she had all students (not just those at the top) working in groups on long term projects and Arnold's students were assigned to reading groups according to their interests rather than by ability.
  • Bryant (1987), advocating for integration of gifted students into the classroom writes that "it is necessary to organize a classroom so that children who have special needs (including gifted students) will have equal opportunity to learn. To accomplish this children must be taught to work in small groups, wait their turn for the teacher's attention, and pursue some learning on their own."

Frank Smith (1986) may state the case for heterogeneous grouping a bit more forcefully than necessary in the following quote but, in general, his message is supported by the research:

  • It is a fallacy to believe that students have to be separated on the basis of age and ability into groups as alike as possible in order to learn. It is not true that children learn best when they are segregated with others of equal ability (or equal inability). Children learn best when thy can help each other, when they do not always have to look to the teacher - or an answer sheet - for help. The sorting of children, like commodities, into similar groups is done for the benefit of programs not of children. Frank Smith (1986)

The bottom line for me is that, when it is appropriate, we should be willing to forego pull-out programs and ability grouping so that children can learn to work together with peers who are different from themselves. I believe the research makes a good case for the position that children in mixed groups will not suffer academically and will gain socially. A class that is supportive and safe like a close-knit family may be possible with heterogeneous grouping but is less likely when class members carry labels and are constantly moving from room to room, ability group to ability group. I think that, just as we aim for the "least restrictive environment" for children with handicapping conditions, we should aim for the "most heterogeneous environment" in our classrooms.