Abstract on Addressing Heterogeneous Student Populations

Prepared by Rabbi Stanley Peerless

graphic of diversity


Approaches to dealing with heterogeneous student populations have been the focus of debate in educational literature over the years. Many educators believe that the creation of homogeneous classes is the most effective way to deal with this issue. This solution, however, has come into question in recent years on the basis of both its effectiveness and its practicality. A number of alternative methods of dealing with heterogeneous classrooms have been suggested.

A Unique Challenge for the Jewish Day School

This issue has gained greater significance in Jewish day schools in recent years. Meeting the needs of heterogeneous populations in day schools is particularly challenging for the following reasons:

        A) Day schools are increasingly drawing a varied population in terms of socioeconomic background, cultural background, and academic ability.


        B) Most day schools do not have large enough populations or sufficient resources to create effective homogeneous groupings. Many lack the resources to provide adequate support services for gifted and learning disabled students.


        C) Multi-ability programs are beneficial for heterogeneous populations. Yet, because of the double curriculum, day school programs tend to be academically based with a strong emphasis on verbal and math skills. Programs in physical education and the arts are less intense than those in the public schools and are greatly reduced on the high school level. The length of the school day makes it difficult for students to participate in extra-curricular activities.


        D) There is a severe lack of Jewish Studies pedagogical material that fosters grouping within the classroom or multiple ability presentation. It becomes the responsibility of the teacher to create such materials. Yet, most Jewish Studies teachers were nurtured in traditional educational settings and lack the requisite training that would enable them to create effective learning materials and handle the management of multi-level programs.Thus, unique solutions must be sought to help our day schools effectively address this issue.

A Review of Educational Research

        There has been much discussion in educational literature about the impact of ability groupings on learning. While teachers tend to believe that achievement is improved by creating homogeneously grouped classes, this is not generally supported by the research.In 1987, Robert Slavin coordinated the findings of fourteen studies on this issue and found that “the achievement effects of ability grouped class assignment are essentially zero.” (Educational Leadership, September, 1988) While there is more evidence that ability grouping may have advantages for academically gifted students, it does not raise the achievement level of students on most ability levels. Furthermore, the creation of homogeneous classes carries with it a number of negative consequences including the stigmatization of lower level students, the lowering of teacher expectations, and the creation of academic elites. Lower track classes tend to suffer from a greater level of disruption as students lack the positive role models and the stimulation provided by heterogeneous groupings. Consistent with Slavin’s findings, the Harvard Education Letter (July, 1987) suggested that heterogeneous groupings make sense on the elementary level, and that homogeneous groupings should be reduced on the secondary level as well.One might conclude that the failure of ability groupings to increase achievement is related to the difficulty in actually creating meaningful ability groupings. Goodlad estimated that dividing a class of students into two ability groups based on IQ scores reduced the total variability in each class by only 7%. With three groups, heterogeneity was reduced by 17%. In other words, while it may appear that ability grouping is in theory the ideal method of maximizing learning, it is practically difficult to achieve.While the above quoted research negates the effectiveness of ability groupings, it does not place a particular value on heterogeneous grouping. In recent years, however, the positive educational value of teaching in heterogeneous settings has gained support. In

a recent article, Dr. Rachel Ben-Ari

       claims that social interaction among individuals with different profiles leads to a higher level of cognitive development. She bases her thesis on the theories of Vygotzky (“self-regulation”), Piaget (“socio-cognitive conflict”), and Bandura (“social learning”). Dr. Ben Ari presents research results that confirm increased achievement in heterogeneous instruction characterized by verbal interaction among students.

Methodologies for the Heterogeneous Classroom

  1. Homogeneous Ability Groupings – Those who adhere to the assertion that learning is maximized through homogeneous classes, can improve learning in the heterogeneous classroom by means of homogeneous ability groupings. This approach requires the creation of appropriate multi-ability level materials and the correct balance of frontal presentation and group class work. An example of this approach for Jewish Studies can be found in the Matach Mikra Series (HaTokhnit L’limud Mikra b’Gisha Ha’yihidanit) which provides workbooks on three different levels for the books of Breishit and Shemot.
  2. The Multiple Intelligence Approach – A popular approach to teaching a heterogeneous class is to adopt the multiple intelligence approach. This approach is based on the research of Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University (see Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice by Howard Gardner). Gardner claims that, as a result of the accepted methods of intelligence testing, our educational culture has focused primarily on two intelligences, the linguistic (verbal) and the mathematical-logical. Gardner initially identified seven intelligences that he contends are biologically linked. They are:
            1. Linguistic Intelligence
            2. Mathematical-Logical Intelligence
            3. Spatial Intelligence
            4. Musical Intelligence
            5. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
            6. Interpersonal Intelligence

Intra-personal Intelligence Gardner defines an intelligence as the ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community. He supports the biological basis of these intelligences by pointing to prodigies who exist in each of these areas. A person with spatial intelligence has the ability to form a mental model of a spatial world and is able to maneuver and operate using that model. Successful sailors, engineers, packers, surgeons and sculptors are examples of individuals with a highly developed spatial intelligence. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is the ability to solve problems or fashion products using one’s whole body or parts of the body. It may manifest itself in highly developed dancers, athletes, surgeons, or craftspeople. Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand other people and how to work cooperatively with them, and may be found in successful salespeople, politicians, teachers, counselors, and religious leaders. Gardner believes that all of the intelligences are of equal importance.The multiple intelligence theory has practical implications for classroom instruction. By gearing one’s lessons to the variety of intelligences rather than limiting instruction to linguistic and mathematical logical instruction, the teacher will be able to reach all of the students in the class and maximize their learning. The multiple intelligence classroom will be more student centered and will be characterized by a variety of instructional methods and learning activities. This approach is reflected in a fourth grade workbook on the book of Bamidbar (Shiurim B’Sefer Bamidbar L’Kita Daled) published by the Israeli Ministry of Education, and can be found as well in the Matach program.

  1. Complex Instruction – Complex Instruction is based on the premise that heterogeneity is a potentially positive opportunity to develop all students. In order to realize the positive elements of heterogeneous instruction, however, a restructuring of the learning environment is required. The frontal approach in which the teacher transmits the lesson will by its nature reach only a percentage of the students in the classroom.

The complex instruction methodology has been developed to foster effective learning in the heterogeneous setting by changing the role of the teacher, the role of the learner, and the method of learning.  Complex Instruction fosters a cooperative learning approach in which the teacher often becomes the facilitator of group learning activities rather than the transmitter of knowledge.  Students learn in heterogeneous groups of four in which each participant has an assigned role.  In order to engage all of the students in the learning process, teachers must prepare well structured learning activities that exhibit the following characteristics:

1) challenging

2) open-ended

3) multi-ability based

4) requiring interdependent work

A significant focus of complex instruction is the sociological component of status within the classroom.  The complex instruction researchers contend that in every classroom, some students assume dominant roles while others find their learning restricted because of their relatively low status.  An important role of the complex instruction teacher is, therefore, assigning of competence in order to create a greater degree of equality within the learning community.

Research has indicated that the student interaction, particularly verbal interaction, fostered by this approach leads to higher levels of achievement not only in the subject matter, but also in language arts.

Alternative Assessment

In a presentation at the Mid-Winter Conference of the Lookstein Center Principals’ seminar, Professor Clifford Hill of Columbia University stated that assessment drives curriculum.  It is, thus, impossible to discuss curricular and methodological changes involving multiple intelligence theory and/or complex instruction without concentrating as well on a structured alternative assessment program.

Professor Hill’s research demonstrates that traditional assessment instruments often fail to accurately evaluate the skills of all students.  Standardized tests, and to a degree teacher made tests, are designed for a particular cultural perspective and thought process.  For the sake of utility, traditional assessment sacrifices accuracy and fairness.

On the other hand, many alternative assessment models have serious drawbacks.  Alternative assessment programs tend to be more labor intensive and more difficult to standardize and quantify.  As a result, they fail to create an adequate method of reporting student progress.  Portfolio assessment, with all of its positive attributes, suffers from these drawbacks.

In recent years, the concept of utilizing instructional rubrics as a basis for assessment has become increasingly popular.  Rubrics provide students with: 1) a list of criteria upon which their work will be evaluated, and 2) a clear description of gradations of quality for each of the criteria.  The following is an example of two criteria and their gradations of quality from a persuasive essay instructional rubric devised by Heidi Goodrich Andrade of Harvard University’s Project Zero:

Criteria:  The Claim

4: I make a claim and explain why it is controversial.

3: I make a claim, but don’t explain why it is controversial.

2: My claim is buried, confused and/or unclear.

1: I don’t say what my argument or claim is.

Criteria: Organization

4: My writing has a compelling opening, an informative middle, and a satisfying conclusion.

3: My writing has a beginning middle and end.

2: My organization is rough but workable.  I may sometime get off the topic.

1: My writing is aimless and disorganized.

Rubrics make the assessment of students quick and efficient, and provide a clear method of reporting progress to students and parents.  Ms. Andrade claims that rubrics are not just excellent assessment tools, but also powerful instructional tools.  She identifies a number of positive aspects of instructional rubrics:

  1. Instructional rubrics are easy to use and to explain.
  2. Instructional rubrics make teachers’ expectations very clear.
  3. Instructional rubrics provide students with more informative feedback about their strengths and areas in need of improvement than traditional forms of assessment.
  4. Instructional rubrics support learning.
  5. Instructional rubrics can help students become more thoughtful judges of the quality of their own work.
  6. Instructional rubrics support the development of skills.
  7. Instructional rubrics support the development of understanding.
  8. Instructional rubrics support good thinking.

In describing an alternative assessment project that he conducted with the Newburgh School District, Professor Hill identified several other positive outcomes of cooperative alternative assessment work including:

  1. Restructuring of the learning environment.
  2. Increased collegiality among teachers – sharing of ideas regarding the best way to assess what kids know or can do.
  3. Enrichment of the relationship between teachers and students.
  4. Reduction of fear of assessment among students and an increase in self confidence.

Ms. Andrade acknowledges that it is not easy to create rubrics.  In her article entitled “When Assessment is Instruction and Instruction is Assessment: Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Understanding”, she does however suggest practical ways to create an effective rubric.


The increasing heterogeneity of the Jewish day school demands the development of approaches that will enable teachers to meet the needs of the entire class.  The lack of standardized testing relating to Jewish Studies makes it a perfect area for the development of innovative curricular and methodological approaches and alternative assessment programs.  Given the relative lack of appropriate educational materials geared for heterogeneous instruction, this effort will require a serious professional development program for teachers and administrators.  The investment of time and resources, however, promises not only to help day schools better meet the needs of their students, but to revitalize the Jewish Studies faculties and programs.