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Episode 15: What's the Impact of Labeling Kids? - An Interview with Kaneka Turner

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Desiree Harrison 0:00

There’s no doubt that we are social beings and for many people it’s a natural instinct to form groups.

In many elementary classrooms, teachers build on this idea and create ability groups, many times labeled as high, medium, and low groups even if given the disguise of colors or animals for kids sakes. And these groups, at first glance, really are appealing.

I know that I used them when I first started teaching - you have small groups of kids at one time, you can seemingly differentiate instruction in order to give kids what they “need”, and you as the teacher can more or less control what’s happening. The question though is - is this really what’s best for kids? And also - In what ways does ability grouping and labeling provide equal opportunities to learn? Or to develop a positive mathematical identity?

You might still be thinking that this grouping is not a big deal - you might even be reminiscing right now to your own schooling experience and how you were a part of the yellow or red group, and you’re right - “ability grouping is a pervasive practice in schools and districts” - but just because something is happening in a lot of areas, does mean that it is equitable.

Even with this, some people might critique this argument by saying that “well, ability grouping allows for differentiation, which another buzz word in education, and differentiation is supposed to be good right? But when applying a historical context to this idea of differentiation, we learn that from the start of public schooling in the United States (so thinking back to the beginning of the 20th century), differentiation and labeling have been used as code for maintaining the status quo and as “gatekeeping tools to sort and rank children by social class, race, and gender” (NCTM, 2020, p.27).

If students in your high, medium, and low groups are receiving different instruction and/or reaching different goals, then this is not equitable mathematics teaching.

Two of my own nieces who are in elementary school are a part of the green and red groups for their remote math classes. And while I don’t believe that they particularly mind being in these groups, I am saddened when I think about all of the conversations they are missing out on by not being in random groupings with more diversity of thought or engaged in whole group discussions with all of the members of their classes. I also wonder what opportunities to learn have they missed and how might this be affecting their mathematical identities?

The NCTM states that “while children’s degrees of mathematics progress or proficiency vary from one day to the next and from one mathematics concept to another, the labels assigned to children stay with them both inwardly and outwardly throughout their academic careers and have a long-lasting impact on how they see themselves as doers of mathematics.” In other words, there is a direct impact on their identity (NCTM, 2020, p.27). Diversity is a strength, not a hindrance, and it’s time that we stop using ability grouping in math.

In fact, a key recommendation of the NCTM’s Catalyzing Change book (2020) “is that early childhood and elementary mathematics should dismantle inequitable structures, including ability grouping and tracking. They go on to say that “any ability grouping in mathematics education is an inequitable structure that perpetuates privilege for a few and marginality for others (NCTM, 2020, p.27).

In today’s episode, we talk to educator Kaneka Turner to learn more about this impact of labeling students in the math classroom.