Policy warns Wake County teachers about student discrimination

Wake County teachers and principals will likely get a warning about considering the impact of classroom diversity before they split students up into groups for instruction.

The Wake County school board’s policy committee on Tuesday backed a policy that still allows teachers to flexibly split their students into different groups during the school day. But the policy warns that race and sex discrimination won’t be tolerated when students are grouped.

The policy warns that if the “homogeneous grouping materially affects diversity, the person proposing such grouping must demonstrate that the benefits of homogeneous grouping clearly outweigh the benefits of meeting the board’s educational goals of diversity.”

It’s uncertain how much the new policy, which still has to be voted on by the full board, will impact how Wake’s nearly 159,000 students are taught. But school leaders said they want educators to think about the impact of their grouping practices.

“The language provides teachers with both guidance and flexibility to reflect on how they group students for instruction,” Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for academic advancement, said in an interview.

The way students are grouped in classes has long been a controversial issue in American education.

The practice of homogeneously grouping students of the same ability level can result in lower expectations being set for low-income and minority students. But the practice of heterogeneously grouping students of different ability levels has drawn complaints that it can slow down the faster students.

Wake’s current grouping policy is brief and hasn’t been revised since 1990. The policy is being updated with wording suggested from the N.C. School Boards Association, including the section on diversity.

The new bias wording was endorsed by a committee of teachers that advises Superintendent Jim Merrill.

“We heard clearly that this committee is pleased with the explicit language around discrimination not being tolerated in grouping practices,” said Brian Kingsley, assistant superintendent for academics. “That was further affirmed with the teacher advisory committee.”

School board member Jim Martin, chairman of the policy committee, said the new policy is more than just about diversity. He pointed to how the committee pushed for changes that give more flexibility for grouping than had been proposed in a version presented by staff in September.

The latest version drops wording saying “heterogeneous grouping usually is the best means of meeting the educational needs of the board.” The new version instead includes wording about how grouping allows teachers to individualize instruction and learning.

The new draft also drops wording from the September version that listed multiple factors that teachers should consider when grouping their students.

“The point is be flexible to maximize the educational goals to maximize students learning,” Martin said in an interview. “What I see is really an effort to say how do we best provide education for students.”

At the same time, Martin said that it’s important to consider the diversity impact of grouping.

“I think it’s extremely important that we add that whatever you do with your grouping practices does not become a de facto discriminatory practice,” Martin said. “It’s important to be intentional about that because it can be overlooked.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui