High And Low Achievers In The Same Classroom?

Is it possible to educate high and low achievers in the same classroom?

Opinions on this have varied over the years, but in an interesting article in Education Next, entitled “All Together Now?”, Michael Petrilli argues that the greatest challenge facing American schools today is “the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom.”

Ability Grouping

In this well-researched piece of writing, Petrilli provides a brief history of solutions to this problem, beginning with the use of ability grouping and tracking “in the old days.” He goes on to discuss the attack on tracking, when it was argued that confining students to low tracks hurt their self-esteem, labeled them unnecessarily, and was often elitist and racist.


Detracking was supposed to help everyone succeed, but by the mid-1990s, it was clear that this was not happening. Under No Child Left Behind, I should add, we have seen the push to get more students over a low performance bar, but an almost complete abandonment of high achievers.

Differentiated Instruction

This brings us to differentiated instruction, which is the latest buzz phrase to enter the debate. The idea is simply that every child receives customized instruction, designed specifically to match her or his learning needs.

The remainder of Petrilli’s article focuses on Piney Branch Elementary School in Takoma Park, Maryland, which the author has visited in order to study differentiated instruction in person. But the more I kept reading about the school, the more it sounded just like cluster grouping by ability, and not differentiated instruction at all.

The Piney Branch Model

For reading, “during the 90-minute reading block, students spend much of their time in small groups appropriate for their reading level.” “For math, on the other hand, students are split into homogeneous classrooms. All the advanced math kids are in one classroom, the middle students in another, and the struggling kids in a third.”

The students are probably getting an excellent education, to judge by the school’s reputation, but this is not differentiated instruction, which would involve teaching heterogenous classes as integrated units.

And so, to return to the central question: Is it in fact possible to educate both high and low achievers in the same classroom by using differentiated instruction?

Huge Classes Pose A Problem

In general, I believe that the answer to that question is “no.” That is, it could work in theory, but what teacher has the time to prepare a different lesson for each student? There are, however, some qualifying factors that could make a difference. Teaching in a large public high school, I often had 38 students in one class, and trying to customize my class for that many students was impossible. With smaller classes, perhaps it could work.

It’s also true that tracking takes various forms. I grew up in England at a time when children took the 11+ exam at the end of grade school; if they passed, they went to the “good” school, and if they failed they went to the “bad” school. And there they stayed for the rest of their high school career.

That kind of tracking is dangerous, but some grouping by ability can be useful.

Maybe With Smaller Classes?

Differentiated instruction is a wonderful thing if the teacher has a small class as well as some assistance in the classroom. On the other hand, I would venture to say that many teachers personalize their teaching every single day, thereby offering a type of differentiated instruction.

Most importantly, unlike the English model I describe, having consistent high expectations for all students is a must, starting in the lowest grades and continuing all the way through their K – 12 years.



kenneth m.
kenneth m6 years ago

It's bad for the smart kids

Sharon Beth L.
Sharon Beth Long7 years ago

In seventh graade I was "homogenously" grouped with all the brighter kids; I found it very stimulating.In eighth and ninth grades I was heterogenously grouped. This kind of worked because the work was largely self study. For ex in Social Studies we were required to read the textbook and answer the questions to pass for the week (we were given some class time to do this) Kids who had trouble could request assistance. That was for the minimum passing grade. To get higher grade you had to do something extra a two page paper, extra reading or research etc. This work could be done at home if you need more time. The weekly grades were based mainly on how much you did, not the quality of the work. There were also quarterly tests which everyone took which counted for a large part of the grade based on the reading (there also was a lecture based on the weekly required reading at the beginning of the week but for the rest of the classes of the week one worked independently). Math was still tracked and students that needed extra help had special reading classes (the rest of us were in heterogenous English classes). Did I learn? Yeah, but probably not as much as if I were homgenously tracked. Was it better for the others? Because achievement did not rise as much as was hoped this system was dropped when I was in high school. As far as self esteem was concerned in addition to academic awards my high school gave awards for art, home ec and shop projects.

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman7 years ago

Noted, thanx

Sarah Olson
Sarah Olson7 years ago

thanks for the thought-provoking article. i tend to agree with kris allen though, i think heterogenous classes are best

Sundeep Shah
Sundeep Shah7 years ago


Walter G.
Walter G7 years ago

Well, sure it'll work, on the model of "no child left behind, no less. the so-called under achievers bully the brighter students into giving them the answers to tests, and everyone lives happily ever after, till the unders land a job requiring the education.

Alexandra S.
Alexandra S7 years ago

not possible unless you have very good teaching personel! We had this kind of class, with 3 different levels combined, it was downright idiotic. the low achievers didn't benefit at all, and the good students(i was one of them) wer hold back massively. when i went to highschool i noticed how much i missed just because i was in this stupid class. The only ones who didn't seem to be affected at all were the average achieving students.
So, don't try unless you're willing to "betray" the good students. I don't think i'll ever forgive the school, it made my first highschool year hell on earth>:-(

Jose M. C.
JOSE M. C7 years ago

Both low and high achievers can benefit greatly by working together in the same classroom. Differentiation is a bit more difficult, but not if we keep the class at a reasonable size. More importantly, there first needs to be a strong culture of fairness and equality among all the teachers and students. The difference between "smart" and "dumb" kids is much smaller when they ALL feel they are being given a quality education and good opportunities to improve themselves from teachers who genuinely care about them.

Kris Allen
Kris Allen7 years ago

Mary L.
I don't know where your information comes from, but phonics and spelling are still mainstays in primary classrooms. Whoever started the myth about no more phonics? I hear it all the time from people outside of schools.

Kris Allen
Kris Allen7 years ago

Speaking only of elementary school, I hope we do not resort to ability-grouped classes. But I fear it is the next gimmick on the horizon.

Ability-grouping in the younger grades creates all sorts of issues. Struggling students have to sit in classes with most of the behavior problems and the distractions they cause. Parents brag over their kids in the "high" class. Children form self images of themselves as high or low. Younger, less mature kids usually end up in the low classes, in spite of their future potential. Low performing students don't get to benefit from the modeling provided by higher performing students.

In my classroom, mixed ability groups work well. And I still provide personalized challenges for my high achievers.