LOWELL, MASS. — AT the Bartlett School, a public school in Lowell, Mass., middle-school students used to be grouped by ability for every subject, including music, art, and gym, recalls Principal Elizabeth Bryant.
"Once they were in that single track, that was it," she says. The strong students excelled in an isolated environment while weaker students fell further and further behind. A first-grader who was half a grade below the expected achievement level ended up three or four grades behind by sixth grade, Ms. Bryant says.
Under the school's four-track system, teachers constantly complained about behavior problems in the lowest tracks.
About six years ago, Bryant moved the Bartlett School into the vanguard by introducing heterogeneous grouping of middle-school students. All subjects except math are now mixed. Bryant would like to move toward heterogeneous grouping of math students but cites "pressure from above to have students ready to perform in high school" as an obstacle.
One of the most dramatic effects of mixing students is improved discipline, Bryant says. "As [low-achieving] students had better models, many of the behavior problems disappeared," she says. "When all the behaviors were negative, there was no way for students to see what was expected in the classroom."
The reason heterogeneous grouping works, Bryant argues, is that teachers see success stories. It's the success stories that convinced Joanne Hatem, a seventh-grade teacher at Bartlett. "Right now I have a student who has always been an `F' student," Ms. Hatem says. "I know she would not be achieving as well as she is if it wasn't for the higher-level students in the class with her.... They bring each other along."
Not all teachers agree that mixing students helps everyone equally. "I disagree with it as a philosophy in every sense," says eighth-grade teacher Richard O'Loughlin. "There's no doubt in my mind that the top student is hurt greatly."
Although low-achieving students benefit from heterogeneous grouping, Mr. O'Loughlin says the trade-off for high-level students isn't worth it. "Some people will say that the top students are going to excel anyway. Well, that's not true," he says. "If they're not told a certain fact about history, they can't possibly know that. If they're not taught to think on an abstract level, they can't think on that level."
O'LOUGHLIN says he moves through the material in his social-studies classes much more slowly with a diverse group of students and is unable to introduce more complex activities like essay writing or historical comparisons. "It's going to hurt the country to water it all down," he says.
Hatem remains convinced that all students gain by learning together. "There was absolutely no learning going on in the lower tracks," she says. "At least the lower kids are learning now."
Eighth-grader Aubrey Rocheleau has attended the Bartlett School since she was in kindergarten. She now takes classes with students at all ability levels, except in the case of algebra, which is only taken by top-level students.
Aubrey notices a difference between algebra and her other classes. "In algebra, we kind of get more done," she says. "There are a few distractions but not as many as in my other classes."
But Aubrey doesn't like the idea of being with one group of students for every subject. "I don't think I would want to be with those 20 same people all day," she says. "I want to get to know different kinds of kids - smart kids and not so smart kids."
She acknowledges that sometimes it's frustrating to have everyone together. It gets loud in the classroom or someone might take a long time to state a point. "But you learn how to tune them out and do your work," Aubrey says. "Some of the other [low-achieving] students are really smart. Their mind just doesn't focus on anything."