Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users, please click the view more button below to purchase a copy of this dissertation from Proquest.

(Some titles may also be available free of charge in our Open Access Dissertation Collection, so please check there first.)

Ability grouping: Practices and perceptions of elementary school teachers

Anne Elizabeth Harrison, University of Massachusetts Amherst


One fundamental purpose of American education is to provide an equal and quality education for all children. Unfortunately, evidence that schools are failing to meet this important challenge is abundant. One barrier to equal educational opportunity is the practice of ability grouping, which is widespread despite research showing that it does not consistently benefit any group of students and may be detrimental to students in lower-ability groups. Teachers favor ability grouping, but little is known about why. Two major research questions guide the present study: (1) How do Coalition elementary schools group students for instruction? (2) What do Coalition elementary school teachers perceive are the effects of existing grouping practices on student learning? The study employs qualitative research methods to describe the practices and perceptions of a particular group of principals and teachers in relation to school and classroom grouping. Data are drawn from 47 interviews with principals and teachers representing Grades K-6 in 12 elementary schools associated with the Coalition for School Improvement. Data show that principals in all 12 schools attempt to create heterogeneous classes. However, teachers create groups within classes to reduce the heterogeneity of student abilities in some subjects. Usually, reading is taught in ongoing, similar-ability groups. Most other lessons are introduced to entire classes and are followed by ad hoc similar-ability groups for a specific skill lesson or mixed-ability groups for peer tutoring or cooperative learning. Teachers defend similar-ability groups on instructional grounds, usually to maintain appropriate content and pace in reading and math. They defend mixed-ability groups because of social benefits to children, usually in science and social studies. Teachers' perceptions of groupings' effects on students' personal development are mixed. The study concludes that within-class ability groups operate with different learning conditions for different groups. Teachers hold unexamined assumptions and are remote from research linking grouping and student learning. Grouping decisions also are influenced by forces outside of teachers' control, including mandates, norms, and requirements

Subject Area

Curricula|Teaching|Elementary education

Recommended Citation

Harrison, Anne Elizabeth, "Ability grouping: Practices and perceptions of elementary school teachers" (1989). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8917361.