Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix is one of a small number of districts nationwide using an innovative approach to organizing classrooms. Elementary students are placed in six different groups based on ability and then are carefully mixed together in ways that shrink the huge achievement gaps among them that make teaching so hard.
This orchestration of students allows teachers to tailor instruction so all students are challenged and can advance more quickly. And they typically do.
The model, called schoolwide cluster grouping, is a counterpoint to today’s prevalent ideology on education pushed by social justice advocates. They oppose most forms of ability grouping, from gifted programs to selective schools, arguing that all students should learn together, no matter their wide range of abilities. This is the best way, in their view, to ensure an equal education and avoid locking black and Latino kids into low-performing ability tracks. But many teachers say the result of this approach—classrooms where five grade levels of ability or more separate students—makes effective instruction impossible.
Paradise Valley and some other districts are taking a different approach—and test scores have gone up for students in all ability groups. What’s more, in a district that’s about one-third Latino, a much larger percentage of kids are being identified as gifted, which can dramatically improve the trajectory of their education.
“It works because teachers can truly target instruction after we provide that narrowed range in classrooms,” says Karen Brown, director of gifted services at Paradise Valley Unified. “The model plays a key role in allowing us to address the learning of all students.”
The model has taken root in states such as Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas, where progressives have less influence and where gifted programs get more support.
The model, first developed by the late Purdue University professor Marcia Gentry, evaluates elementary students each year for placement in one of six ability groups: Gifted, above average, average, low average, low, and special needs. Next, classrooms are pieced together, often with students from three groups to reduce their vast achievement gaps. So gifted kids and low performers are not put together. A typical set up: above average, low average, and low.
Motivating students is a guiding principle of classroom design: Gifted and above average students are never mixed in classrooms to allow the latter to shine instead of being overshadowed by the brightest minds. The diligent above-average students emerge as role models for lower achievers, a position for which some gifted kids are not well suited.
These mixed classrooms also seek to avoid the stigmatization that arose when schools placed students into easy-to-identify high, medium, and low tracked-classrooms in the 1980s and later. At Paradise Valley, students are not told which ability group they belong to, though some likely figure it out.
A small group of Paradise Valley principals agreed to be the first to test the program at their schools. After only a year, test scores in reading and math rose across the board. Soon the rest of the district’s 30 elementary schools signed up. Test scores rose in these schools, too.
Paradise Valley also measures itself against other Phoenix-area districts with similar student demographics: half white, a third Latino, and a third low-income. Its passing rates on a 2022 state test, for instance, topped neighboring Peoria Unified by a wide margin: 56 percent vs. 42 percent in English, and 48 percent vs. 36 percent in math.
Critics find fault with the basic premise of reengineering classrooms around academic abilities.
The influential scholar Jeannie Oakes, whose research at UCLA focused on inequality in education, says students have too many diverse characteristics to divide them neatly into homogenous ability groups for tailored instruction.
And some districts discover that the sweeping changes required of the model are difficult to pull off. Teachers must customize instruction to students of different abilities, which requires more effort than just giving everyone in class the same assignment. They also need specialized training in how to work with gifted kids, whose learning process differs from general education students.
The largest study of the program so far, federally funded, found that in the first wave of 31 schools that joined the study, only six implemented the program with a high degree of fidelity to its standards for sorting students into groups, training teachers, and tailoring instruction. Fifteen schools did a pretty good job, and 10 scored low on fidelity.
“It shows how difficult it is for schools to make this type of change,” says Purdue University professor Nielsen Pereira.
But there’s an upside for the schools that execute total school cluster grouping in its entirety. Pereira says he is “cautiously optimistic” that data will show that these schools achieved an increase in academic growth of students in all ability groups, and importantly, in the percentage of black and Latino kids found to be gifted. The benefits to these young students can be enormous.
This article was adapted from a RealClearInvestigations article published April 26.