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  • Writer's pictureTL Zempel

3/5: How We Place Students in Classrooms Is a Harbinger of Learning Outcome

Updated: Mar 19

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

- Albert Einstein

No one in power wants to admit that how we place children in classrooms affects their ability to learn, but every teacher knows it is true. Place 22 middle-of-the-bell-curve children in a fourth-grade classroom with four advanced learners, three IEP students functioning at first grade level, and one autistic child and try to imagine the daily activities.

Because her SpEd students cannot read the grade-level material, the teacher focuses her attention on them, hoping to raise their reading, math, and stamina for learning levels, even though she has no experience or expertise at working with learning disabilities. She will often place the autistic child in the same learning group as the SpEd students because this boy rarely demonstrates what he knows, so she figures he’s probably at a similar functioning level. What she doesn’t understand is that in his mind, he has the knowledge of a sixth grader. When he sits with students who are working on phonics so they can make sense of the symbols that stand for letters and how to place them into word groups appropriately, he is bored to the point that he withdraws further into his private world. The teacher doesn’t understand this behavior either, so she labels him a “reluctant learner”. This, then, goes into his paperwork, which affects how the next teacher will treat him.

The SpEd students are unable to focus on their instruction because they are embarrassed by it. Being in fourth grade and unable to read is not fun. They often choose the path of disruptive behavior as a coping mechanism. Being disruptive does not necessarily equate to being out-of-control naughty; it can simply mean the child is uncooperative during instruction. The teacher, sitting at her reading table with her group of SpEd learners, points to a sight word and asks the students to read it. Two of them try, but one of them shrugs and mouths something that sounds a little like “Idunno” while grinning sideways at those middle-of-the-bell-curve students who are working at their own desks. This guy is rewarded with laughter from his classmates, and voila! He has found a comfort level in an extremely uncomfortable situation.

While the teacher is working with the cognitively (and emotionally) challenged quartet in her room, the other students are languishing. The few who are advanced learners don’t push themselves because their own comfort zone is to stay where it is easy. Even though their curiosity tries to push them, they enjoy the ability to finish a task quickly and then move on to more fun pursuits, such as doodling in their notebook or imagining their teacher as a dragon and the rest of the class a frightened village.

In this classroom, no one’s needs are met. The SpEd students need to be with a teacher who specializes in working with children who are unable to learn using typical instruction. They also need a smaller group, a smaller adult to child ratio, and the ability to focus on instruction without the embarrassment of being observed by their peers who already ‘get it’.

The advanced learners need specialized instruction just as much as the special needs learners, but this is often ignored because these students can be counted on to self-learn. The average achievers are the ones most likely to get their needs met because these needs probably most closely match the teacher’s expertise. But she is so consumed elsewhere that even these learners are not pushed to the maximum.

And the autistic child? He continues to be taught with the slowest cognitive abilities, so he also has no opportunity to blossom; his learning path will forever be affected by the labels put on him by people who don’t understand him.

This is the result of decades of mainstreaming, the practice of dispensing with SpEd classrooms and placing these students into mixed ability classrooms with their same-age peer group. Researchers can point to studies that show this practice works. But how is that research conducted? In regular classrooms? Think about it. The minute you place either a camera or a group of researchers with notebooks into a classroom, it is no longer a regular classroom. It becomes a laboratory, and the students respond to that. When someone knows he is being watched by people taking notes, his demeanor changes. It is impossible to understand how real children function in a classroom unless they can be observed unobstrusively.

Mainstreaming exists as an established practice because decades ago, a group of researchers who saw it succeed under contrived conditions began pushing the narrative that it would work under any condition. The overwhelming sentiment now shared by nearly everyone in education management is that the best placement for all students is a heterogeneous classroom, one that mixes kids together, regardless of ability or motivation or special needs. These people insist that kids in mixed ability classrooms help each other, learn from each other, and grow to the best of their ability. This sentiment has been repeated so often it has become the mantra of every educator. No one dares dispute it, even though many of us can point to our own classroom 'research' as reason to.

We teachers in the trenches have been gaslighted into accepting the idea that separating children according to their needs is a cruel practice that encourages elitism while ignoring those with the most extreme needs. The reality is that throwing children into a purposely mixed group of ability levels encourages us to miss what will work with each ability level. Differentiation is less likely to occur. This dilutes the education for everyone, and the fall-out is that no one is challenged. No one blossoms. Everyone who is able operates at the same level of mediocrity. And those who are not able continue to languish in their own inabilities.

There are ways to ability group without ignoring social-emotional development, but no one wants to explore this because it competes with their own comfort zone for elementary school: placing children in a classroom for the school year and hoping for the best.

We must do better.

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