School workers weigh in on leveling

NASHUA – Supporters of keeping leveling in the city’s middle schools spoke out Monday night, arguing that mixing students of all abilities together would dilute education and overburden teachers.

Jean Lorrey, a teacher at Elm Street, advocated strongly in favor of leveling students. She said much of the research in favor of doing away with leveling is outdated and has become irrelevant.

“Equality in education has never meant that all students should be treated the same,” she said, but that students have equal opportunity to actualize their potential.

Even if the district went with heterogeneous grouping, there aren’t enough resources to support it, she said. The quality of instruction would deteriorate, she said, and students at the high end would be left to their own devices.

“If we’re talking equity, that certainly isn’t,” she said.

The school district’s policy on middle school education is to level students for instructional purposes, a process referred to as homogeneous grouping.

Mixing students of all abilities is referred to as heterogeneous grouping.

There are three levels at the middle schools: foundation being the lowest, then extension and honors, the highest level.

Enrollment data shows that minority students and poor students – two populations that often overlap – are disproportionately placed in the lowest-level classes, at the middle school and the high schools.

Monday night, the school board’s curriculum committee held its second of three meetings intended to review the district’s policy, identify any problems and come up with possible solutions, if necessary.

While some argue that the current system fails students by placing labels on them and lowering their own expectations, a vast majority of those who spoke Monday night were in favor of leveling.

Henry Castonguay, a seventh-grade teacher at Fairgrounds, said the belief that somehow it is stigmatizing for students to be in a lower level is a complete falsehood.

“It is not a punishment or a branding to be in a lower group,” he said.

If the district were to switch to a heterogeneous structure at the middle schools, Castonguay said he would be forced to teach different skill levels at the same time, meaning high-end students would lose out.

Susan Haas, a guidance counselor at Elm Street, said students are learning the same thing in each level class, just at a different pace.

“There is a basic curriculum we have to follow,” she said.

She used an example from her time an English teacher: In honors, students read the unabridged version of “Treasure Island”; in the extension level, students read the abridged version; in the foundation level, they listened to the abridged version.

“The point is they all learned ‘Treasure Island,’ ” she said.

Haas said it is true that there are also students who don’t have the same kind of support system and parental advocates.

“When we work with students who have no advocates, we aren’t worried about their level,” she said. “We worry first about where they’ll feel safest, a learning environment that welcomes their questions and meets them where they’re at.”

If there’s one thing that was clear Monday night, it was that, just as there is nationally, there is divide of opinions among staff members on the issue of leveling.

Dan O’Donnell, assistant principal at Fairgrounds, said leveling is not the right approach for middle schools. He read through some of the statistics at his school: poor students make up 44 percent of foundation students but only 9 percent of honors, he said.

Similarly, 67 percent of special education students are foundation, but only 5 percent are honors and 74 percent of English Language Learner students are foundation.

The question is one of equity, said O’Donnell, who pointed out that those are all groups have been problems for the district in making Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“What we’re doing now isn’t working,” he said.

School board member Robert Hallowell, chairman of the curriculum committee, responded quickly, saying no one has proven leveling isn’t working.

Hallowell questioned whether getting rid of leveling would simply be hiding the problem.

“It’s not unexpected that people who are from low socioeconomic status are going to end up in foundation,” Hallowell said. “We don’t want them to stay there. That’s the point.”

Other school board members were also skeptical of such a drastic change.

Paul Asbell, principal of Pennichuck Middle School, said his school has blurred the lines of leveling by mixing groups throughout the year and giving students opportunities to excel.

Asbell is an advocate of moving to heterogeneous grouping. Although homogeneous grouping may work in some instances, “as an across-the-board policy that you have to live and die with, I don’t believe in it,” he said.

Asbell said that in a heterogeneous classroom, the bar should be set as it would be in an honors classroom, giving all students equal opportunity to excel.

Foundation students may not all reach an honors level, he said, “but I would maintain they would go further than they are currently going with strictly defined grouping patterns.”

O’Donnell distributed a spreadsheet of 18 school districts – including Manchester, Concord and Derry – that showed Nashua stands alone as a district that groups all students by ability.

Most school districts did have some form of leveling in math.

Hallowell said that just because Nashua is the only district around that does it, it doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do.

Nancy Mitchell, a sixth-grade teacher at Fairgrounds, was one of the teachers to speak out against leveling at the meeting.

“When the student at any level has been pigeon holed, segregation has occurred,” she said. “The ability to learn from each other has been taken away.”

Chuck Gray, a teacher at Fairgrounds, said there are students who get stuck in low levels, often for scheduling reasons. But for some, moving up to extension or honors “becomes mythic,” he said.

Danielle Michaud, a parent of three, said she was frustrated by the rigidness of leveling.

Michaud said one of her daughters excels in most subjects except math. But because her daughter also takes French and the way her schedule is set up, Michaud said she can’t move up to an honors-level math course.

Sharon Coffey, an assistant principal at Fairgrounds, said lack of flexibility is a problem. When a student needs to be in a level for one area, that scheduling dictates they have to be in that level for all subjects, she said.

Data has shown that nearly 40 percent of grades handed out in middle school foundation classes last year were Fs; in honors classes, half of all grades were As or Bs.

Hallowell stressed the board is taking its time with this issue.