End Athletic Tracking!

by Robert Pondiscio
June 17th, 2009

The 15,000 pupil Stamford, Connecticut school system, ”among the last bastions of rigid educational tracking,” is abandoning the practice, which the New York Times describes as ”an uncomfortable caste system.”   But if the Times is so concerned about tracking, asks Will Fitzhugh, why are they silent on “the complete dominance of athletic tracking in schools all over the country?” As unbelieveable as it seems, deadpans the editor of The Concord Review, there is no real movement to eliminate it.

Athletes in our school sports programs are routinely tracked into groups of students with similar ability, presumably to make their success in various sports matches, games, and contests more likely. But so far no attention is paid to the damage to the self-esteem of those student athletes whose lack of ability and coordination doom them to the lower athletic tracks, and even, in  many cases, may deprive them of membership on school teams altogether.

Fitzhugh observes that the elimination of tracking is a product of educators who are ”more committed to diversity and equality of outcomes in classrooms than they are in academic achievement.”  I would also add that mixed ability grouping on sports teams is not unheard of.  The New York Mets have been doing it for years.


  1. This would be more amusing and persuasive if we didn’t live in a country with a serious problem with juvenile obesity, which our current system of school athletics does little to address.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — June 17, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  2. @Tom: Exactly. Because who would want to play sports simply for fun, without being worried about winning? It’s the American way, all right. Although Robert gets points for his Mets jibe…

    Further–why do we always have to analogize teaching/learning/school issues? (And I would include here the endless comparisons between education and medicine, most of which don’t work at all.) Education and athletics have entirely different purposes and different clients.

    Let’s leave the straw-man of “self-esteem” out of it, too. The research is clear that being in mixed-ability learning groups results in significantly higher achievement and aspiration for kids who come in at lower levels. That alone is reason to end tracking. It’s not about making them feel better–it’s about increased learning for the exact group whose achievement levels are of the greatest concern, nationally.

    And finally–it’s about being committed (wisely) to diversity and equity of opportunity (not equality of outcomes). Precisely because it results in greater academic achievement. The rising tide, the boats, and so forth.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 17, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  3. The research is clear that being in mixed-ability learning groups results in significantly higher achievement and aspiration for kids who come in at lower levels.

    No, that’s not a clear research finding. See, e.g., the experiment discussed here: http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2009/05/tracking-first-controlled-experiment.html

    Comment by Stuart Buck — June 17, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  4. 1) How is it good for the advanced kids? How is it fair to slow them down? Or even worse, how is it fair to use them us unpaid tutors/teachers?

    2) Want to see how quick affluent people leave public schools, untrack them. Homes schooling and private schools will become infinitely more popular. Schools will likely become even more segregated as what is left in public schools will likely be poorer, students of color. Maybe you can argue that untracked schools are good for society, but MOST parents will ask: What is good for my kid?

    3) Any economist will tell you motivation is about getting incentives right, the carrot and the stick. Whats the motivation for a smart kid to do anything at all after learning the material in 5 minutes of a 60 minute class? What is the incentive? We really want this?

    4) Can we really expect a secondary teacher with 100+ students to have 100 different levels of material ready at any given moment in an untracked setting?

    Comment by Matt — June 17, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  5. The whole upper tier of kids are bored out of their minds in heterogeneous classes. They are being seriously shortchanged because they are not provided with an educational level suitable to their needs. This is also true of the kids at the bottom, who can’t understand the material. The only way this can be justified “academically” is to redefine success strictly in terms of process, not content. The kids at the top also resent being expected to do “peer tutoring”. Teachers are paid to teach; students are not and therefore should not be required to do so.

    Comment by momof4 — June 17, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  6. I have to agree with Tom and Nancy that Fitzhugh’s use of the sports analogy was uncharacteristically ham-fisted.

    His claim that educators sacrifice achievement for diversity isn’t entirely helpful. Do achievement and diversity necessarily inhabit opposite poles? Are we comfortable with lack of diversity among the highest achievers?

    I always thought the excellent Concord Review aimed to spread the wealth beyond students who are already high achievers. Let’s face it: High achieving students at exclusive schools will continue writing first-rate research papers with or without the Review. We presumably want more students (and schools) to aspire to the standard Fitzhugh presents in the Review. Fitzhugh himself seemed quite distressed in 2002 by the apparent disappearance of term papers from many high school curricula.

    When we strive for diversity amidst excellence, we’re not just being “politically correct.” If schools spend more energy selecting the highest achievers than educating all students, they stray from their educational mission.

    Yes, I’m painting with a broad brush here, but let’s not discount the importance of the nation’s relatively recent interest in educational equity.

    Comment by Claus — June 17, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

  7. I took the analogy in the spirit in which (I thought) it was intended: as a tweak at our inconsistency. After all, isn’t “bodily-kinesthetic” part of the Howard Gardner Pantheon? So why do we privilege one “intelligence” over the others.

    Others will disagree, but I have a tough time reconciling my experience teaching with the idea that ALL children do best in heterogeneously grouped classes. The higher ability children — especially in low-income schools — do not.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 17, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  8. I’ve said it before; preparation for AP courses in high school needs to start in kindergarten. We need to get many more kids to that level, but it can’t be done legitimately if they are entering high school with 5th-grade reading and math skills. Schools need to get serious about real education from the beginning.

    Comment by momof4 — June 17, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  9. As one of the athletically inept, I’m willing to speak to the downsides of tracking… It certainly seemed counter productive than many of my elementary gym classes seemed to center around games where once you’d messed up you spent the rest of the period sitting on the sidelines — you trip over the first level of the high jump, and you didn’t spend the rest of the period practicing, you can spent it watching the more successful kids do the higher levels.

    As Claus points out, there are two possible reasons for tracking. One is to identify the high achievers who have a “future” in the field. Another is to meet students at the level that produces balance between of being challenged but not being in over their heads.

    The danger in the first approach is that there teachers/coaches focus only on the students who have a future — the rest are kind of irrelevant. And the danger of tracking over all is that is educators aren’t vigilant, the second motivation turns into the first, and weaker students get written off.

    Comment by Rachel — June 17, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

  10. When I was in school, I had experience both being one of the best students in the class (in some courses) and also being “in over my head” (to quote Rachel) in other courses. I can attest that neither experience was optimal. In some classes I was bored; In other classes I struggled.

    This is why I am in favor of tracking: It allows students to be challenged, without being overwhelmed or bored. My best classes as a student were those where I was challenged just enough to have to apply myself, but not frustrated to the point of giving up.

    As a former middle and high school teacher, I found it much easier to teach a class of students who were roughly of the same ability level. It was very difficult one year when I had an English class comprised of students whose reading levels ranged from 2nd grade level to 11th grade level. Not only couldn’t I use the same texts, the grammar and writing skills instruction each student required differed enormously.

    Comment by Attorney DC — June 18, 2009 @ 10:19 am

  11. I favor removing all PE from schools. Let the kids/families choose activities from the parks and rec department and private clubs; they can then do whatever activity and level they find appropriate. I am all in favor of fitness, but just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean that the schools should be the ones providing it.

    At middle and high school levels, it is very inefficient; either the kids shower and waste half the period changing, showering and changing back or they won’t do anything that makes them sweat. We also need to remember that just as there are more overweight/unfit kids, there are far more full-time athletes. The latter don’t need PE in any form. At middle and high school levels, playing a school sport season should meet a semester’s PE requirement.

    Comment by momof4 — June 18, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  12. Strange to find proponents of tracking here at the CKB. Isn’t the very foundation of the Core Knowledge movement offering a rich, comprehensive, carefully sequenced, important curriculum to all children? You wouldn’t offer a CK curriculum only to the students who “deserved” it, would you? Successful charter schools are all based on uniformly high expectations for all students, including college admission, and rigorous curricula.

    Whereas the unambiguous principle that lies under tracking is: different expectations for different kids.

    @Stuart: I noticed that the research study you cite was conducted in Kenya. I would argue that the most pernicious evil of tracking, as practiced here in the U.S., is setting societal inequities in concrete while children are still in elementary school. Not sure that grouping children for math in Kenya really makes your case here.

    Jeannie Oakes’ “Keeping Track” is the seminal research piece on tracking, but here are a couple of others, from my very long list:




    I especially like the second one, from the National Association of School Psychologists.

    @Matt: Where is it written that all teachers ask their “advanced” students to tutor “lower” students in heterogeneous classes? I think that assumption is another red herring in the tracking debate. It’s not good instructional practice to foist your own responsibilities off on talented students, whether classes are tracked or not. If this happens, the problem is with the teacher, not the grouping.

    Further– teachers often prefer quiet, compliant kids and are not particularly good at uncovering and developing actual intellectual potential. Lots of what passes for efficiency in “ability-based” instruction is really about which kids are easy to teach. And, if we’re brutally honest, parent preferences for having their kids in classes with students who have the same values–and faces. Saying that parents are going to pull their kids out of public schools because they de-track is a nicer way of saying “If you don’t privilege my child, I’ll be forced to take my social capital to a private school,”–using a false meritocracy to justify the action.

    I do agree that students have different instructional needs. But sorting them into “ability” groups was an idea that had currency a century ago, back when we believed that race, ethnicity and skull size were indicators of potential. We can do better. We can give all students the curriculum and instruction they need without labeling them.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 18, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  13. OK, Nancy, I’ll rise to the bait. Why do you assume the necessity for all students to benefit from a rich curriculum is a function of ability?

    Let’s say there are two classes discussing Grapes of Wrath. One class might have a deeper, more nuanced discussion than the other. But it doesn’t follow from that that the lower ability class doesn’t “deserve” to read the book, or wouldn’t benefit from doing so. Ability grouping and curriculum aren’t–or needn’t be mutually exclusive. Is that supposed to be the point of differentiated instruction?

    You are certainly correct on the historical abuses that made tracking a dirty word. But I think it’s also safe to suggest that mixed ability grouping makes the average teacher reluctant to present material that is too challenging. We may pay lip service to differentiation, but as a practical matter it’s more honored in the breach than the observance.

    I’ll also back up Matt on the “tutoring” piece. I was assigned to an inclusion class my first year teaching. I was told time and again that it was effective precisely for the reason that the more advanced students “modeled” the learning and were expected to assist the lower achievers.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 18, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  14. Attorney DC: “As a former middle and high school teacher, I found it much easier to teach a class of students who were roughly of the same ability level.”

    Yeah, it is easier for the teacher. But as we are constantly reminded, it’s not about what’s easiest for adults, it’s about what’s best for kids. Tracking has persisted because teachers find it much less effort to prepare a single lesson, believing that the “science” of tracking has matched students and instructional levels. In reality, of course, learning is always uneven and unpredictable, in spite of our best efforts to box it up, neat and tidy.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 18, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  15. Nancy: In response to your comment, it’s not simply “easier” for a teacher to prepare lessons for students who are roughly at the same level in a given subject. It’s plainly more efficient and a better use of the teacher’s time.

    It’s a simple matter of math. For instance, if I teach two subjects a day, 5 days a week, I will need 10 lesson plans per week. I can spend 10 hours preparing lesson plans and will have one hour to devote to preparing each lesson plan for each class each day. Or, I can spend 5 hours on lesson plans (30 min. per lesson), and use the remaining 5 hours for after-school tutoring, meetings with parents, etc.

    If my classes consist of students at wildly varying levels of knowledge, in essense I will have to create 2 or 3 different lesson plans per period. This means that each “lesson” will only get 20 or 30 minutes of planning. In order to get the 5 extra hours for meeting w/ parents or after-school tutoring, I will only be able to devote 10-15 minutes to each lesson.

    As a practical matter, while a teacher could create multitudes of lessons for each day (and many do!), this is not the most efficient way for teachers to use their time. If a school is big enough to track students into ability groupings for certain subjects (e.g., math, reading), why waste the teachers’ time by forcing each teacher to develop multiple plans?

    Comment by Attorney DC — June 18, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

  16. I don’t get it. Is Fitzhugh writing tongue-in-cheek? Or is he serious?

    I have long felt that the general topic of managing competition in the classroom and in education in general has been sorely neglected. I don’t remember a word being said about it when I was in ed school. I think it is an important subject that needs careful thought. The idea that there should be no competition of any sort in a classroom seems not only unrealistic, but undesirable. Everyone wants to compete in at least some ways, and they want recognition for excelling. But the opposite, competition in everything, is also undesirable. No one wants to be forced into unwelcome and destructive competition.

    The issue of fostering desirable competition in ways that we want seems a separate issue than managing competition that arises in unexpected ways. And competition does arise spontaneously in many ways, sometimes totally unexpected and unpredictable. Both issues have philosophical considerations as well as practical considerations.

    Has anyone every written about this sort of thing?

    Comment by Brian Rude — June 18, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  17. I’ve read Oakes, and to say her research is less rigorous than a randomized experiment would be quite an understatement. Neither of your first two links contains any actual evidence that tracking harms anyone’s learning, and the NASP position statement even admits that “Homogeneous grouping by skill level has been demonstrated to be effective for instruction in the areas of mathematics and reading (Marzano, Pickering , & Pollack, 2001).” I can’t read the Zimmer paper.

    One recent paper — based on nationwide data and sophisticated economic techniques of analysis — finds that there is “no evidence that tracking harms low-ability students.” David N. Figlio and Marianne E. Page, “School Choice and the Distributional Effects of Ability Tracking: Does Separation Increase Inequality?,” Journal of Urban Economics 51 (2002). See http://www.nber.org/papers/w8055

    That said, you could cite Eric Hanushek for your position: Eric A. Hanushek and Ludger Wößmann, “Does Educational Tracking Affect Performance and Inequality? Differences-in-Differences Evidence across Countries,” Economic Journal 116 (2006).

    Comment by Stuart Buck — June 18, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  18. I have to jump in here. First off, to give kudos to Nancy for standing up for what makes sense across the board against the many truisms about waht makes sense for any individual (and somehow it seems always to be the “advanced”) kids.

    Second–to Stuart. I have been waiting for someone to pull in that study from Kenya ever since I first saw it headlined as “proof” that tracking is beneficial. It is a well-conducted randomized selection study. It has a few generalizability issues, however. One, it was conducted exclusively with first graders, who were then returned to a non-tracked system. Next, the opportunity to conduct the study came along with government dollars to lower class sizes from 80 students to 40 students, through the addition of one new first grade teacher per school. In the control group, students were randomly assigned to the (now) two teachers per school. In the experimental group they were assigned based on (I believe it was reading) scores. The lowest group advanced more in the differentiated grouping, and the middle students did as well in the upper or lower groupings. What was really interesting was that some of the new teachers were the Kenyan equivalent of “tenured” teachers, and some were newer and had not yet achieved tenured status. The researchers also randomly assigned the teachers. It turns out that the biggest bang for the buck was in the groups with the non-tenured teachers. The tenured teachers made gains with the upper level, but not the lower level students. Non-tenured teachers made gains with both.

    Its a very good study. Not what I would call broadly supportive of tracking, however. I think we need to stick to the preponderance of evidence that tracking is harmful to those kids on the bottom–and more so the earlier that it starts.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — June 18, 2009 @ 2:10 pm

  19. Robert-I don’t understand your reference to the Mets with regards to tracking. If the Mets have been doing tracking, its been working out for them. They’re in second place right now.
    Stuart-If tracking is so wonderful, then why is it that Asian countries use heterogeneous grouping a lot at the elementary level and often at the secondary level and their test scores are very high?
    Japan and Singapore especially do this. The debate over tracking is about what students will learn, which is why it hurts lower tracked kids because it doesn’t allow them to get to the kind of experiences that the higher tracked kids get. The kind of instruction needs to be looked at and the curriculum needs to be examined as well to make sure everyone gets the same material.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 18, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  20. I think we need to stick to the preponderance of evidence that tracking is harmful to those kids on the bottom–and more so the earlier that it starts.

    Well, I think that has yet to be established. To be sure, I can imagine that tracking might be harmful in some situations, i.e., if a school just shunts kids off into a classroom where they don’t learn anything. But that certainly isn’t a _necessary_ feature of tracking. Done right, tracking would just mean trying to reach each student at his or her level, and to do this efficiently (without creating huge boredom issues for the more advanced students) it might be helpful to have a teacher who can focus on teaching the less advanced students exactly what they need to know. Which is why it’s a bit absurd for educators who could (if they wanted) teach a lower-tracked class just as rigorously — albeit on a level more suited to the children’s abilities — act as if “tracking” is such a bad word that it magically makes them do bad things.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — June 18, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  21. If tracking is so wonderful, then why is it that Asian countries use heterogeneous grouping a lot at the elementary level and often at the secondary level and their test scores are very high?
    Japan and Singapore especially do this.

    I don’t know much about Japan and Singapore, and so I can’t speculate about what makes them score high. From googling around a bit, I see a book and several papers suggesting that Japan doesn’t track in elementary school, but there are apparently strict tests to get into high school, which is rigidly tracked between schools. Would you say that that’s true? If so, what does that educational policy tell us?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — June 18, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

  22. The act of physically separating children based on ability (and how exactly we are determining “high” versus “low” achievers is another discussion) encourages the perception of lack of ability in the minds of the students and educators. Sure, we could teach those in the class labeled “lower achieving” (or whatever other euphemism we may give it) a rigorous curriculum, but then why the separation. As Nancy pointed out, tracking has always been more about what’s convenient for the adults, not what’s best for the children. That’s why we have separate grade levels, tracks, “advanced,” “remedial,” “special ed”..on and on. My husband and I have raised 11 children. We didn’t put each one in a separate cubicle, so we could give them the appropriate level of challenge in parenting. We did differentiate on many levels, and so will good teachers when they have reasonable class loads, time to work together with peers around the needs of students, and freedom from lock-step structures be they grade levels or poorly scripted curriculum guides.

    Comment by Renee / TeachMoore — June 18, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  23. I can’t buy the idea that having kids who haven’t mastered 4th-grade math in an algebra I class helps anyone. Ditto for the idea of trying to teach high-school-level literature and composition to kids who read at a 4th-grade level and can’t write complete sentences. A wide range of abilities means that each level gets less of the teacher’s attention than would a homogeneous classroom.

    I am all for a content-rich curriculum across almost all levels, but not at the same depth/sophistication/abstraction level or at the same pace. It’s not PC to admit, but everyone has some limits on what they can achieve. I never had a hope of becoming a professional musician, artist or basketball player and neither did any of my kids. Talent of any kind is not evenly distributed. Schools should challenge every kid appropriately, not pretend that all kids are the same.

    Comment by momof4 — June 18, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

  24. The problem with tracking, fundamentally, is that it requires soothsayers — folks who KNOW what a student’s potential is at some point (end of 8th grade?)in time. “I know Johnny. He’s a candidate for the Grapes of Wrath Lite class if I ever saw one.” Most often these decisions are made by teachers who, like the D.C. Attorney, prefer the smooth path provided by rooms full of students who learn like they do (although that’s up for grabs in these digital times).

    Let’s talk about pathways, not tracks. Options that leave open possibilities. And what about the really smart kid who wants to take all those intriguing hands-on courses over in career-tech? Is it fair to track him/her away from those opportunities? At a time when graduates from a quality CTE course of study are more likely to find a good job at 18 than the $200,000 B.A. from George Washington U, I’m not so sure. “You want an extra shot in that Vende, ma’am?”

    Comment by John Norton — June 18, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

  25. The problem with tracking, fundamentally, is that it requires soothsayers — folks who KNOW what a student’s potential is at some point (end of 8th grade?)in time.

    Depends on what you mean by “tracking.” If you mean a rigid system that puts someone in a “non-academic” track that they will never escape in any future year, then (and only then) you’d be right. But if you’re just talking about grouping kids in different classes so that you can best help them at their current level of ability and achievement, then no soothsaying is needed at all.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — June 18, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  26. The act of physically separating children based on ability (and how exactly we are determining “high” versus “low” achievers is another discussion) encourages the perception of lack of ability in the minds of the students and educators.

    If you have a kid in 7th grade who can’t read at all, everyone is eventually going to figure out that he’s not up to speed . . . that perception is going to be there regardless of “tracking” or not. So the question is whether to have him in a class that he can’t understand or a class more geared to addressing the curriculum at his level, at giving him the extra instruction he needs, etc.

    I find it hard to believe what the anti-tracking folks are saying. By their logic, there’s no reason to have separate grades at all . . . you could just put everyone from 6 year olds to 18 year olds in the same classroom, teach the same lesson, and they’d all supposedly benefit even more than when they’re in separate grades.

    That’s too extreme, you say? Well, there are kids in high schools now who are reading on a 1st grade level. And there are elementary kids who are reading on a high school level (I know one of them). I find it hard to believe that these kids wouldn’t be better off in a class that is more geared to their own individual level, rather than being blindly grouped with everyone else of the same chronological age.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — June 18, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

  27. I agree with Stuart Buck’s point that “tracking” might mean two different things: (1) Putting students on a permanent “track” or (2) Grouping students in certain subjects year by year based on their current abilities and/or test scores.

    I find no harm with grouping kids into separate classes (especially for core reading and math classes) each year based on their current abilities (determined by test results or last year’s grades).

    Earlier in these posts I addressed tracking from a teacher’s perspective. I also believe tracking (at least in the second form) is better for students as well. To give you one example, one summer I taught a small math class in a private school. The students in the class were each working at a different level. Each student had his or her own textbook, problem sets, and concepts to master. Nothing I taught one student directly related to the work of any other student.

    Essentially, the class turned into a study hall where I worked for a few minutes at a time with each student individually. Because this was a private school with fewer than 10 kids in the class, this was possible (although not ideal). In the meantime, I wasn’t able to do any comprehensive lessons or demonstrations for the whole class, b/c each student was working on a different subject (e.g., fractions versus basic algebra). The students could have learned more, I believe, if they worked from the same book (on the same subject). If so, I could have developed lesson plans, examples, and problem sets for all the students to work on together and presented concepts to the class as a whole. If this is “tracking,” where’s the problem?

    Comment by Attorney DC — June 19, 2009 @ 8:38 am

  28. A note on anonymous postings.

    This blog is moderated, which means all posts have to be approved by yours truly before they’re published. As a rule, I never reject or edit postings, including anonymous ones, other than spam and the occasional clearly commercial announcement. A post was sent just now which referred to several people by name perjoratively. Even this wouldn’t normally be enough for me to reject the posting, except that the writer posted anonymously.

    I don’t much care for name calling. We tend to be pretty civil around here even when we disagree. But if you insist on calling someone names, I’m not going to allow you to do it anonymously.


    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 19, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  29. Robert: Good policy!

    Comment by Attorney DC — June 19, 2009 @ 11:49 am

  30. Of course I am joking in parts of my article on “Rigid Athletic Tracking,” but, as I wrote to Mr. Pondiscio, Mort Sahl used to say: “If we couldn’t laugh about our problems, we might do something about them.” I do want to spread the benefits of the exemplary work published in The Concord Review to as many HS students as possible, but I still think the attention and rewards we heap on HS athletes should be compared to the attention and rewards we give our best
    HS scholars, and we should ask ourselves: Do we have our priorities right?…Will Fitzhugh: fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — June 19, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

  31. Sorry about your vicious visitor, Robert. I have never had to moderate comments on “Teacher in a Strange Land”–except once, when someone threatened that (quote) blood will run in the streets of America because of liberal, misguided teachers like me. I respect the rights and perspectives of people whose views are diametrically opposed to mine, believing that most people who study education are more interested in learning than winning.

    About “winning,” in this case:

    First, I really don’t think this is an argument about who does the most convincing research; different kinds of research reveal different “truths” in social science, and different research models go in and out of academic/political favor. When comments devolve into strengths and weaknesses of types of research or statistical analyses– we’re no longer trying to build each other’s knowledge base or explore multiple viewpoints. We’re just trying to win–a contest around who’s the smartest. Lots of bad education policy has been written by people who think they’re smarter than other people. And lots of “smart” people assume that the way they learn and thrive is the way all people learn, or should learn.

    Next, if you’d like to read a powerful piece by a a real teacher who looked at tracking in a real high-needs diverse school population, over considerable time and using critical data, try this:


    Re: our national compulsion to sort, identify, compete, select and standardize: this is not the way learning works. It is never even, predictable or controllable. Students respond in different ways to varying instructional strategies. I’m guessing that many of the students in Attorney D.C.’s small group learned a great deal from the few minutes of instruction she provided on the fly, combined with enforced quiet time and a motivation to complete the work. It may not have felt like “teaching” to her, but again–how the teacher feels is not important. It’s about what students learn.

    Please notice that I have never said students don’t respond to material in different ways, or have different needs. If the Core Knowledge curriculum needs to be constantly differentiated in order to be useful to all students, then it’s not really “core,” is it? Parents who pull their kids out of unsuccessful public schools and put them in charters often do so because their kids have been assigned to lower-track learning–and they want them to have a shot at the most rigorous content. When someone starts a charter, promising that all graduates will be accepted–and prepared–for a four-year college, there’s no shortage of parents lined up.

    There are lots of people who believe that differentiating learning in mixed-ability groups is not possible. I know that it is, because I’ve done it, for decades. You start building equity by demanding excellence from everyone, rather than trying to figure out who might not be “capable” of excellence, or how to stretch achievement over a curve rather than pushing everyone as far and fast as possible. Like Attorney DC, I taught a “catch-up” class for 2 years and have seen motivated kids (and there’s the biggie: motivation) make 3 years’ worth of math gains in a semester, once they were convinced that they were smart enough to do the work. Everyone should get the good stuff, not just the kids whose parents show up when they’re unhappy.

    Finally, here’s my worst experience with tracking, from the early 80s. I was teaching one section of 7th grade math; the 7th grade was divided (using statewide assessment test data–my state was an early adopter of annual testing aligned to state curriculum benchmarks) into 5 tracks. Honors (which was Algebra), Advanced, Traditional, Basic, and Special Education. I taught Basic. Every 10 weeks, we gave a common assessment, and moved kids from track to track, based on their scores. After the first 10 weeks, 16 of my 30 students qualified to move up–two went all the up to Honors–and I got 16 new kids who’d struck out in the higher tracks. With every 10-week shuffle, I got dispirited kids whose math egos had taken a beating, and tried to convince them that they could indeed master ratios, probability, negative integers or whatever had stopped them in their tracks. Approximately a third of the kids got moved every quarter. By the final quarter, I had only 6 of my original kids (one of whom confessed that he deliberately blew his quarterly move-up tests so he could stay with me).

    We tried to design the perfectly tracked system, using the “motivation” of quarterly opportunities to move up to higher tracks, and to keep the kids grouped with kids who had the exact same knowledge/skill levels. As hard as it was on the Basic kids I taught, it was tougher on the kids who started out in Honors, then drifted downward all year, ending up in Traditional or Basic. Tracking did much more than impact egos and the social system–it made a muddle of instruction. My Basic kids were constantly saying “but I already learned this” (and I’m sure the new-to-Advanced kids were hiding their ignorance). In each of my four scientifically slotted groups, I had superstars and laggards. This was a fairly large pool of kids, about 350, divided into 16 sections with three full-time and two part-time teachers so we could slice them into narrowly determined ability groups. Tracking run amok.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 19, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  32. Nancy: Wow, that tracking system you describe sounds complicated! You sound like you made a lot of progress w/ the students you had, though, which is encouraging.

    Regarding my math summer program, I agree that my students learned something (at least I hope so!). But there were definitely times where one student was “stuck” and had to wait until I finished w/ another student to get to him or her – b/c all the instruction was essentially on a private tutoring level. And these were 5 or 6 kids w/o behavior problems in a private school. I don’t think a typical public school class of 30 kids (with all the usual behavior and social issues) would work that well. Not that it can’t work that well…but it takes a lot of skill and effort on the teacher’s part (and back-up from the admins).

    I still think it makes things run a lot more smoothly (and lets all the students learn more) when the class is basically on the same level (e.g., all learning Algebra I after having all learned the basics of pre-Algebra the year before).

    I don’t think it’s a matter of “innate ability” or “intelligence” of the students (e.g., smarter kids in one track, less smart in another) as it is matter of prior knowledge and scaffolding. Students have to understand the first concept before they can move on to the next one. It’s like jumping into a higher level physics class without ever taking basic physics: You can do it, but it would work better to master the basics first (in a class with other students mastering the basics) and then move on to the more advanced class when you’ve done.

    Comment by Attorney DC — June 19, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  33. Nancy, I can certainly understand how your experience from the 1980s would have soured you on tracking; that sounds crazy. At the same time, the lesson I’d take isn’t that anything called “tracking” is bad, but that anything can be harmful if carried to an extreme. But it also seems extreme to me to say that kids who are all the same chronological age should always be in the same classroom, period, even in the extreme case where one of them is literally 10 or 12 years ahead of the slowest kid in the class (who is years behind). Is that what you are saying?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — June 20, 2009 @ 9:29 am

  34. There are a LOT of studies in this area, which makes it easy to pull one (or a dozen) studies that support almost any position one might wish to take on grouping students based on current levels of achievement in a subject. The way these kinds of disputes are adjudicated by researchers is meta-analysis, which is a set of statistical techniques that allow one to see the overall result of hundreds of studies as if they were one very large study, thus eliminating the cherry picking of favored studies that is so easy to do. There have been two very large, systematic meta-analyses of research on grouping students by achievement, the meta-analyses of James Kulik and Chen-Lin Kulik of the University of Michigan (1982, 1984) and the best-evidence syntheses of Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University (1986, 1990). Educational Leadership (March 1991) summarized the findings as follows:

    1. Gifted and high-ability children show positive academic effects from some forms of homogenous grouping. The strongest positive academic effects of grouping for gifted students result from either acceleration or classes that are specially designed for the gifted and use specially trained teachers and differentiated curriculum and methods. In fact, all students, whether grouped or not, should be experiencing a differentiated curriculum that provides options geared to their learning styles and ability levels.

    2. Average- and low-ability children may benefit academically from certain types of grouping, particularly elementary school regrouping for specific subject areas such as reading and mathematics, as well as from within-class grouping. These benefits may be small. These students show very little benefit from wholesale grouping by general ability.

    3. The preponderance of evidence does not support the contention that children are academically harmed by grouping.

    4. Students’ attitudes toward specific subjects are improved by grouping in those subjects. However, grouping does not have any effect on their attitudes toward school.

    5. It is unclear whether grouping has any effect on the self-esteem of students in the general school population. However, effects on self-esteem are small but positive for low-ability children and slightly negative for average- and high-ability children. There is limited evidence that remedial programs have a positive effect on the self-esteem of slow learners.

    (In the same issue of Educational Leadership, the Kuliks and Slavin, in separate articles, acknowledged that this summary was essentially correct, although they did not necessarily endorse identical policy prescriptions based on this research.)

    Many of the battles about tracking (including the polemics of Jeannie Oakes noted above) have ignored research that the writers found didn’t congenial. I don’t have a horse in this race, but do find the dispute interesting (albeit somewhat depressing) as an outsider. Tom Loveless’s The Tracking Wars: State Reform Meets School Policy (Brookings Institution Press) gives a refreshingly even-handed review of how these battles have been fought.

    Kulik, C.-L., and J. A. Kulik. (1982). “Effects of Ability Grouping on Secondary School Students: A Meta-Analysis of Evaluation Findings.” American Educational Research Journal 19: 415-428.
    Kulik, J. A., and C.-L. Kulik. (1984). “Effects of Accelerated Instruction on Students.” Review of Educational Research 54, 3: 409-425.
    Slavin, R. E. (1986). Ability Grouping and Student Achievement in Elementary Schools” A Best-Evidence Synthesis. (Rep. No. 1). Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools.
    Slavin, R. E. (1990). “Achievement Effects of Ability Grouping in Secondary Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis.” Review of Educational Research 60, 3: 471-499.

    Comment by Joel — June 20, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  35. Reading all these comments raised some questions : Is there a common understanding of what is actually taking place in the classroom as to content and approach to teaching? That is, a common understanding of what teaching and learning are? And, what ages or grades are being addressed? These questions touch on the rejected one-size-fits-all approach to schooling, but is there not a time when all the children should be getting the same subject matter with the same expectations? And one of these expectations is that the children learn to take responsibility for their own learning. In my experience the range of “average” intelligence was wide, but accomplishment was possible for those who knew how to apply themselves. I think that if the information given by Anonymous about Japan and Singapore is correct, then talking about tracking should be based on knowledge of what really happens there.

    And of course all the children are individuals, but still they have the capability to apply themselves to the same content learning without the loss of that individuality. Learning the same math facts (for example) does not create conformity. Ignorance is more likely to create conformity.

    Comment by Susan T. — June 20, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  36. Ahh… Aren’t we a little off track ourselves here? The original subject was athletics. Those fat kids Tom Hoffman mentioned are getting fatter by the second and his skinny little friend next to him in front of the game console is no healtier. Since the “Doctors” of education took over the field a generation ago, athletics in schools has been a forgotten issue, almost entirely appropriated now by the professional youth athletics establishment. It’s high time it received attention, and, perhaps, no where more urgently than at the level where I work, middle school. Despite their professed devotion to the “developmental” needs of early adolescents, the middleschoolistas pay no attention to Little Johnny’s need to run and to bond and to dream. If there are any ambitious young think-tanks wonks reading this, here’s your opportunity to plow a virgin field.

    Comment by Bill Eccleston — June 21, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  37. I have enjoyed reading your comments!

    I have two high-achieving students. Our older child (the highest achiever) went to a low-achieving bilingual school. They eliminated all upper-level tracking one year and subsequently asked us to leave. They also told us that she didn’t deserve an education at that school. The reading ability levels within EACH fourth grade classroom was from 1st grade at the lowest to 6th+ grade at the highest. The average fourth grader was reading at a second grade level.

    We did leave. Our daughter open-enrolled at schools across town and graduated second in her class among 200+ graduates. She got near-perfect scores on the ACT and perfect AP scores. She now attends a selective private college, because our state schools didn’t recruit her at all.

    Our son achieves in spite of having a speech/language disability. Because his IQ tested at a normal level, our neighborhood schools wouldn’t give him speech therapy or an IEP. He went primarily to private/charter schools and we homeschooled one year. He is now open-enrolled at the same high school my daughter attended and is on the honor roll. His private speech/academic services cost us thousands of dollars. When we put in that kind of investment, we wouldn’t let him anywhere near our public schools. It was their loss.

    Comment by Katyh — June 21, 2009 @ 11:28 am

  38. Tracking is wrong, pure and simple.

    It’s an embarrassment to our profession and our culture. It places labels on kids from an early age, labels from which they rarely able to escape.

    It can also be argued tracking is de facto segregation. Take a look at the preponderance of poor/minority students in the “low” groups. It’s overwhelming. Teachers gear their lessons and expectations down significantly when teaching to these classes.

    Tracking is wrong, pure and simple. It should not be employed in US public schools.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 21, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

  39. I think that the original subject was why doesn’t academic achievement get as much attention as athletic achievement. Which is not to say that Bill E.’s comments are out of line; they are just part of a different conversation.

    But I return to my comment: Is there a common understanding of what teaching and learning are? Or do we all comment based on differing understandings?

    To respond to Paul H.: What is the reason for the preponderance of poor/minority students in low tracks? Is it tracking itself, or is there some other cause that puts these unprepared children in underachieving groups? This is not a defense of tracking, but rather a desire to accurately define issues. Is tracking the problem, or a symptom, or a valid question ?

    Comment by Susan T. — June 22, 2009 @ 7:48 am

  40. Susan T. asks, “What is the reason for the preponderance of poor/minority students in low tracks? Is it tracking itself, or is there some other cause that puts these unprepared children in underachieving groups?” Meta-analyses of ability grouping research (described above) gives a clear answer: other causes, not tracking. Blaming tracking & decades of untracking rhetoric and initiatives have not and will not fix a problem that is not caused by tracking, just as giving every low-achieving child a band uniform will not improve achievement, even though band membership and higher GPAs are positively correlated. Focusing on tracking as a way to reverse the racial achievement gap is to doom those under-achieving children to failure. They deserve better, and anti-tracking polemics simply delay doing the things we actually need to do to improve student learning among low-achieving groups of students.

    Comment by Joel — June 22, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  41. Which came first, low academic achievers or tracking. The answer is fairly obvious. The low achievers came first. Tracking is the teacher response and it’s a teacher-centered response as opposed to a student-centered response.

    Tracking is the easiest out for teachers. If a teacher has a homogeneous population of youngsters in front of them they only have to prepare one lesson. Some will contend this is the most efficient use of class time. BALONEY!

    Tracking is the civil service approach to address student needs. This guarantees the continued negative reputation afforded our public schools. It is the laziest avenue and unprofessional from a cohort of folks who continually wonder why they’re not given the same professional status as medical doctors, attorneys, engineers, etc. It’s not that teachers have every summer off, it’s they’re always looking for what’s best/easiest for them that has them in this position.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 22, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  42. Two thoughts:
    Why is math so much more highly tracked than any other subject. No matter what school I have been involved with math has had 4-5 levels for a single grade AND there is always a handful of students that are grade levels or years ahead For example a group of 10th graders in a 12th grade calculus class.
    Are we really arguing that a sophomore who is ready for this should just chill and kill time until he is a senior and can take the class with his peers?

    I am interested in one of my previous questions. I believe that untracked schools will become more segregated as those parents with means bail on the public school system for alternatives that challenge their kids.

    Comment by Matt — June 22, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

  43. I think you’re exactly right, Matt. That was the unspoken point of my post earlier today about what’s happening in Palo Alto. I think it highly unlikely that the well-off parent of a bright math student will buy the idea that his or her child is best served in a mixed ability classroom. And they’re unlikely to be moved by the fairness agument, and common sense will tell them that their child should be with others at the same level. That parent will most likely agitate for an honors math class, supplement their child’s education like the folks in Palo Alto or simply pull their kid out and go elsewhere if they have the means to do so.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 22, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

  44. Agreed Robert. You can argue social justice and altruism, but very few parents are willing to have their own kids take a hit for the “benefit of society.” Heck, it probably doesn’t even matter if the hit is real. Affluent parents with financial means are not going to tolerate even the appearance that their sons and daughters are not getting the best education possible. I am not saying this is not shallow or short-sighted or even flat out racist, but I do believe it is reality.

    Comment by Matt — June 22, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  45. To Paul: Teacher- and student-centered approaches to teaching have nothing whatsoever to do with tracking, and both teacher- and student-centered teaching approaches are fully compatible with (and are regularly used in) both homogeneously and heterogeneously grouped classrooms.

    I’m sorry that your disgust with teachers is so pervasive! Although I’m sure there are some teachers who are lazy (as you seem to think most of them are), most teachers I know try to do the best they can for the students in their classes. (Some even bother to read research in the area, which does not show tracking leads to lower academic achievement, as noted and referenced above.) Some teachers find that they can do their jobs better with students whose needs and abilities are similar and may therefore endorse homogeneous grouping (just as doctors, attorneys, and engineers, whose approaches to work you seem to find more to your taste, quite often specialize in certain kinds of patients, clients, or engineering tasks, another form of homogeneous grouping). I believe it unfair to call teachers lazy and unprofessional for making what they believe, from their reading of research and/or their experience teaching, a more effective way to group students for instruction.

    Comment by Joel — June 22, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  46. Joel,

    I am a retired Massachusetts public school teacher (34 years – elementary classroom). Most teachers I know are not lazy and most (as you say) “TRY” to do the best they can. I honestly don’t believe it’s the fault of the teachers in most cases. It’s the fault of the educational establishment – teacher colleges, schools of education, administrators, researchers, school boards, etc. Most of these folks have NO clue as to how to meet the individual needs of students. It’s simply easier to prepare one lesson for a homogeneous class of 20 students than to address the individual needs and learning rates of those 20 kids. That’s how tracking originated – the easiest route for the teacher. Tracking is de facto segregation and it’s wrong. There is no way to spin it as a positive approach to teaching children. Other than at the secondary level, tracking has NO place in US public schools.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 22, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

  47. Paul: I’ve seen in several separate places derision towards things that “make it easier for the teacher.” Not just in this discussion. Some articles I have been reading, some discussions in a class I am taking etc.

    And frankly, are we trying to make teaching harder? Many of the the new ideas, charter schools, differentiated instruction etc.. require significant work on the part of the teacher. (Look at the required time and life involvement of programs like Teach for America or KIPP Schools or Catholic schools in the Nativity Prep Model)

    If we believe a good educational system requires teachers that must do 60+ hours a week and behave like heroes or martyrs then we do not really have a good system because it is not sustainable and reproducible. Going into teaching should not require falling on the sword. We should be looking for things that make teaching easier to do for teachers! I am very pragmatic about this. It is like any management decision and requires a cost benefit analysis.

    Comment by Matt — June 22, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

  48. I find it amusing that when people talk about tracking or anti-tracking they are almost always talking about elementary school.

    Tracking in High School (and to a lesser amount Middle School) is a given. No one in their right mind thinks we should stop honors courses, or have a single math curriculum for all High Schoolers.

    If one is truly anti-tracking then I can only imagine they have a one size fits all concept of education from K through 12.

    Anti-tracking classroom policies result in situations like my sons next year, where he will be taking zero-hour pre-algebra before starting his 6th grade elementary school class. Of course he is still responsible for doing all the regular 6th grade math homework. Of course, once he hits middle school he will be tracked into Algebra.

    Comment by Rory — June 23, 2009 @ 1:50 am

  49. Matt,

    You state, “We should be looking for things that make teaching easier to do for teachers!” Teachers should remember they’re serving the public, preparing the next generation for their futures, and all AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE. Again, I don’t believe they should be looking to make their lives/jobs easier. They should be looking to make the futures of their students better. I’m probably just old fashioned but I believe schools should exist for the benefit of their students, not to make the lives of teachers easier. And therein lays the rap against teachers and why the profession is viewed by many in a civil service light. I don’t look at this as a positive for our profession. This mindset is a problem and will continue to drag teaching down as long as teachers continue their practice in this manner. I don’t look at it as falling on my sword. I look at it as doing the best I can for the kids I serve.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 23, 2009 @ 6:13 am

  50. Paul: The issue is that there are not enough human beings willing to be put through the ringer that is public school teaching in America “for the good of the kids.” As I used the term before, you are implying that teaching is “heroic.” You imply that teachers should give it all and fight for their kids at any cost. This is just not reasonable. If teachers can not raise a family, or grab a movie, or go on a vacation, they are not going to stay in the field. We can only have a quality educational experience for all students if we have quality teachers for all students and that requires millions of talented adults in schools. Making teaching harder is not going to encourage talented people to go into, and more importantly stay, in the field.

    Comment by Matt — June 23, 2009 @ 7:41 am

  51. I’m afraid I’m with Matt on this one. All praise to those tireless, selfless teachers who are able to give their all 24/7 to their children to great effect. But that’s not a job description. Teaching has to be a job that allows mere mortals, not superhumans, to succeed. We’re not going to find 3 million superstars. This is why ability grouping (I’m not going to use the “T” word) makes sense to me. Getting to the point where every teacher can effectively get peak performance out of every student regardless of ability is a worthy goal. It’s not the stuff of neophytes.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 23, 2009 @ 7:50 am

  52. I’m going to use the word homogeneous grouping in my comments below because I fear the term “tracking” has such negative connotations for some, such as Paul, that it calls up images of nothing but the worst kinds of misuse of homogeneous grouping. It is not my intent to ignore such misuses, and I am certainly aware that homogeneous grouping has sometimes been used as a screen for segregation. (My grandfather struggled — successfully, I’m proud to say — to desegregate a south-of-the-Mason-Dixon county school system in the 1950s, two decades before most counties in that state, so I am painfully aware of that shameful history.)

    Paul stated that tracking originated as a way to make things easier for teachers. It’s hard to read the history of educational decisions about ways to group students for instruction — decisions that happened many different times in many different places — and ascertain the motivations behind the decisions, but I think what record we have would suggest that the goal of grouping students for instruction based on ability was more often made to meet what might today be labeled a very student-centered, constructivist goal: to better meet the differing needs of students. It may have been done well or poorly, and it may or may not have had the desired effects, but I think Paul’s reading of history unfairly maligns the many policy makers (including but not limited to teachers) who made decisions favoring homogeneous grouping. Most did so in the belief that it would help students.

    I agree with Matt that making things easier for teachers, if it can be done in ways that make them more rather than less effective, is certainly desirable. Although I think the meta-analyses of research cited above make an overwhelming case that homogeneous grouping per se does not lower achievement of any groups (and raises the achievement levels of one group — higher achievers — considerably), I understand that others, based perhaps on personal experiences with misuses of homogeneous grouping, may not agree with what research seems to tell us. But I hope all can agree with Matt that making teachers’ jobs easier is not inherently a bad thing and in many cases something we should all support. (The same meta-analyses also report on effects of homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping on self esteem, by the way, another theme that has emerged in this discussion. The research base is less extensive in this area, but it suggests that homogeneous grouping (defined as both within-class regrouping and between-class grouping based on achievement) has minimal impact on self esteem, but what effects are found tend to run counter to what some might expect. Low achievers in homogeneous groups tended to have somewhat higher self esteem than comparable students in heterogeneous groups. As someone noted above, it is no secret in a heterogeneously grouped class who are the poor readers, poor mathematicians, etc. It is rather painfully obvious, day after day, when they cannot keep up, and perhaps especially so to those students themselves. In homogeneously grouped classrooms it is also clear which reading group or math class is the slow group, and that must certainly lower one’s self esteem, but there appears to be an ever greater compensatory boosting of self esteem that results from placing low achievers in homogeneous groups, probably from being in a learning situation where one is given tasks that one can reasonably be expected to accomplish successfully and where one can compare one’s achievement more favorably than in a heterogeneously mixed class of students, most or all of whom are achieving at much higher levels.)

    The issue of differentiated instruction, discussed by several people in this thread, is an interesting one. It is of course difficult to do well or to do in ways that don’t neglect the needs of many students. (Paul’s reference to classes of just 20 students would be a dream for most teachers.) But isn’t differentiated instruction, which I understand to involve different learning activities and assessments based on students’ current levels of achievement, just another way to group students homogeneously? It may be somewhat less immediately transparent than having reading or math groups that meet as separate groups each day, but isn’t it really the same thing (and the lack of immediate transparency does not mean that it is not clear to students which of them are getting the less difficult assignments)? Differentiated instruction is one way to meet the individual needs of students (something everyone seems to believe is important), but is it not simply another way to group students homogeneously for instruction? Perhaps if we can leave behind the word “tracking” and the historical abuses of which it seems to remind many people, we can agree that some grouping of students based on current levels of achievement — some form of homogeneous grouping based on achievement — is beneficial to students. Age has long been used as a proxy for current level of achievement, and our schools have long (but not always) grouped students for instruction homogeneously based on age, but age is at best a very rough surrogate for actual levels of understanding or functioning. We seem to agree that we need to group students homogeneously even beyond what is achieved by age/grade segregation, whether by differentiated instruction, within-class regrouping, or between-class grouping. Can educators get past the unproductive term “tracking” and consider what methods of homogeneous grouping — including but not limited to differentiated instruction, within-class regrouping, or between-class grouping — might be most helpful in different situations?

    Comment by Joel — June 23, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  53. Again, I return to my first question about what the problem is: tracking, or some other cause. And I thank Joel for his answer: there are other causes. Talking about lazy teachers and making work easier are distractors (to THIS issue). What I loved as a teacher was working on ways to make the content clear and understandable to my students, and on ways to give them enough practice so they could remember. But this requires the students to participate actively, to take their share of responsibility. And when I had students who did react in positive ways to expectations we had lively classes. But then the students began to expect me, the teacher, to entertain them, and everything that used to be productive was no longer. Referring to Robert’s comment, teachers cannot get peak performance out of students who do not participate actively.

    Perhaps the student above all I ever had who was a delight to work with was a college student who did not love my subject (French) but whose ambition was to be an Egyptologist who must know French. She took her responsibility and did not complain about expectations. Now, obviously not every student, and probably most, do not have such clear goals. But is this a justification for not placing expectations and giving the teacher responsibility when students refuse theirs? Is it truly reasonable to expect instant gratification from EDUCATION?

    Comment by Susan T. — June 23, 2009 @ 8:45 am

  54. Addendum: To me there is a link between student responsibility and tracking, for on what criteria is tracking done? From my HS teaching experience, I would guess that tracking is done based on student behavior, not on potential, for too many of my students did not perform up to their potential. So they would have been tracked below their actual capacity for study.

    Comment by Susan T. — June 23, 2009 @ 9:43 am

  55. Thank you all for your insightful comments on this fairly provocative subject.


    When you state, “If one is truly anti-tracking then I can only imagine they have a one size fits all concept of education from K through 12,” you are talking about me. Only I would include preK-16. There are many “levels” in an advanced placement Calculus class. There are kids who already know how to do what’s coming up next week as well as kids who still haven’t mastered what was taught two weeks ago. I’ve had fifth graders solving equations with three unknowns on each side of the equation because they demonstrated mastery in all the skills that came before that. Not many kids are ready for that at eleven but for those who are, their needs should be met. In that same fifth grade classroom I had kids who not only had not yet learned their multiplication facts through the twelves table, they were still quite weak in their addition and subtraction facts.

    Arnold, “I’ll bee baaaak” in a short while. Ive’ got to take my wife out to lunch.

    And you know what? This was not as difficult as it may appear. It is doable. It requires good organizational skills but once established it takes no more time or effort than a trditional classroom.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 23, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

  56. Paul,

    Am I correct in understanding, then, that you were using (and approve of) homogeneous grouping based on current levels of achievement (with students who could work with equations with 3 unknowns and students who hadn’t learned basic math facts, etc., receiving different instruction)? If so, then we agree that homogeneous grouping is appropriate, and homogeneous grouping is of course the essence of what has come to be called “tracking.” We are apparently not disagreeing about basic philosophies of education, merely details about ways in which it is most appropriate to implement instruction when using homogeneous grouping.

    Comment by Joel — June 23, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  57. I think the difference between homogeneous grouping and differentiation is assumed to be the ‘group’ part. If you teach by tutoring students individually in a study hall, that’s differentiation. If you teach by finding all the kids in your class who are ready to learn to multiply by repeated addition, and presenting the lesson once, that’s homogeneous grouping. If you assume their ability to learn multiplication now correlates with last year’s ability to make patterns with beads, that’s tracking.

    And what is it called if you present multiplication to everyone, whether they’re still learning their numbers or learned to multiply last year?

    Comment by Linda — June 23, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  58. >>”And what is it called if you present multiplication to everyone, whether they’re still learning their numbers or learned to multiply last year?”

    In most schools that’s called “third grade.”

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 23, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

  59. I’ve had fifth graders solving equations with three unknowns on each side of the equation because they demonstrated mastery in all the skills that came before that. Not many kids are ready for that at eleven but for those who are, their needs should be met. In that same fifth grade classroom I had kids who not only had not yet learned their multiplication facts through the twelves table, they were still quite weak in their addition and subtraction facts.

    Translation: I’ve had fifth graders capable of doing Calculus who were only doing equations with three unknowns on each side, while at the same time having other 5th graders who were overlooked in K-4th grade mixed ability classes who deserve to have more attention, but alas will never actually perform at grade level because their teachers are to busy trying to differentiate or to really dedicate the intense one on one instruction that they need.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 23, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

  60. Sorry, the above anonymous comment was mine.

    Comment by Rory — June 23, 2009 @ 7:42 pm

  61. Joel,

    Hope you get to read this. I noticed this thread has essentially been terminated. Too bad. It’s a compelling topic. Robert’s not a big fan of this topic. Don’t think he’s threatened by it, it appears to be simply uncomfortable for him for some reason. Yes Robert, I know you’re out there.

    I employed ad hoc skill groups. I started everyone at the same point in September in each subject. If they showed me they had learned the skill/concept, I moved them ahead, individually. If they were unable to demonstrate mastery, I kept them on that skill/concept for additional time. There were no designated groups. However, groups formed themselves as kids moved ahead in the sequence or remained where they were for additional work toward mastery. Kids moved ahead as they were able to show they mastered the existing skill. It worked and kids and parents loved it. They knew where they stood. They knew what they had to do and what came next in the sequence. It empowered them. No one was bored and no one was overwhelmed. They were all challenged at their instructional level in each subject every day.

    So I guess the answer to your post is no, we don’t agree on the grouping/tracking issue. Linda has a pretty good handle on it. The difference is the “group” part. For whatever it’s worth, my class was NOT operated under differentiated instruction – too cumbersome and bureaucratic. My class was an individualized classroom, much more of a meritocracy and that’s what kids and parents loved about it.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 23, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

  62. Actually, Paul I *am* a big fan of this topic. Not sure why you’d say otherwise. I’m borderline obsessed by it, in fact.

    We’re all biased toward (perhaps hostages of) our own experiences. Mine tells me that mixed ability grouping benefitted the lower achievers and seriously disadvantaged the high achievers and potential high achievers. Yes, I know the homilies about differentiated instruction. I’m just not sure I buy them. I’m a reasonably smart guy and I was a seriously dedicated teacher. That doesn’t mean I was any damn good, but I have to wonder if mixed ability grouping can be effective for anyone but a master teacher. And as best as I can tell, there are millions of classrooms that lack master teachers. Thus any system that relies on master teachers seriously shortchanges children.

    We all have our personal obsessions in education. Mine happens to be high-achieving (and potentially high achieving) children in bad urban schools. I think they tend to be the most disadvantaged by our insistence on mixed ability grouping. In settings where most every kid is high needs, the ones who are at above grade level tend to be left to their own devices. They do just fine based on the crude metrics we have, but compared to similarly talented but more fortunate kids, like their peers in Palo Alto, they’re left at the starting gate. I think we have much to answer for in that regard.

    I accept the abuses of tracking; its come by its bad reputation honestly and has become a loaded word. Say “tracking” and some people seem to hear “eugenics.” I agree there is no excuse for labeling a child at an early age and setting his or her destiny. But neither is there an excuse for denying every child his academic manifest destiny. And I think that’s pretty much what we do every day by insisting on mixed ability classrooms. Again, I understand that it works for some, perhaps even many teachers. I just don’t happen to know any.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 23, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  63. My obsession is ideas. I do believe that philosophy, talking about ideas, matters on a practical level. Reading about the students you have who do not reach expected levels of math use makes me wonder if they actually had skillful teaching (which does not require a master teacher but does require a well-trained teacher) to prepare their foundation knowledge of math. Perhaps things have changed since that Law, but my experience as student, parent and teacher did not include systematic focused and in-depth teaching. Reading in education literature I learned about the ideas: children will naturally reach their level of competence and do not need to be taught any more than they ask for. Knowledge is good only when the student can expect to “use” it. Anything else is stressful and akin to forced labor. And so students are unprepared for exacting study. Furthermore, there is a massive lack of respect for knowing (the word should be in italics). That of course is not new in our culture, but our education practices emphasize and solidify that disrespect for acquiring knowledge.

    The ideas are there, but we cannot talk about them or about their impact.

    Comment by Susan T. — June 24, 2009 @ 8:28 am

  64. Robert writes, “I know the homilies about differentiated instruction…”

    Yes, I hear DI spoken about as the miracle cure for the chronic problem of wildly diverse ability levels within a grade-level. But who the heck knows how to do it well? Show me. And is there any evidence that those who SEEM to be doing it well are actually providing a good education? Any evidence that a differentiated lesson about the Enlightenment results in more net learning about the Enlightenment than a well-prepared, engaging undifferentiated lesson?

    From what I’ve been able to gather, DI is essentially tracking within a classroom in which the teacher has been banished to the sidelines. You give each group a text and a task; circulate around to make sure everyone is on task. I suppose a master teacher could manage to weave in some direct instruction at the board (though how to do this without distracting the other groups is unclear.) I find managing behavior when kids are in groups to be harder than during whole class instruction, and even harder when each group is doing something different. Planning in the DI classroom seems much more complicated that for an undifferentiated classroom. In short, DI seems HARD –probably impossible to be done well on a wide-spread basis –and for what? Does it really work?

    It seems to me that huge ability differences within a given classroom could be significantly reduced with a Core Knowledge curriculum. If my 7th graders had ALL undergone a rigorous, meaty K-6 curriculum, the REALLY low students in my classes would probably be merely low, or even close to grade level. But asking mere mortal teachers to single-handedly overcome this systemic problem –and natural and familial differences –with daily gold-medal-caliber teaching gymnastics –is folly.

    Comment by Ben F — June 24, 2009 @ 10:29 am

  65. Robert,

    It’s my belief that any teacher who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time can individualize instruction for their classroom – if they so desire. And I honestly don’t believe they have to be a master teacher. I was not a master teacher my second year in the classroom (or any year for that matter) but I saw the need for this approach, believed it could be done, and that it would be enormously beneficial to my students. I believed in it.


    You need to read up on the subject much more before you’re ready to dismiss it. It really does work. I did it for 33 years, quite successfully. It’s largest benefit; done correctly, it allows kids to traverses comfortably through school. Again, no one should be bored if this approach is done correctly and no one should be overwhelmed. All kids are where they should be sequentially based on what they’ve shown they’ve learned.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — June 24, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

  66. Paul,

    You have written (above) that teachers use tracking instead of individualizing instruction because they are lazy, and yet you now claim that individualizing instruction is easy, something anyone “who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time” can do. If it’s that easy, then it’s hard to argue that teachers don’t do it simply because they are lazy, is it not? There must be other reasons many teachers prefer homogeneous grouping. Teachers don’t reject an approach (as you say they do) that is easy to do without reason.

    You also suggest that Ben needs to read more about individualized instruction. I have read a great deal about it, both pro & con, and almost everything I read about it, including pieces by authors who advocate its use, suggests that it is very, very hard to do effectively. I’m curious what research you would suggest those who believe individualized instruction is difficult should read?

    Comment by Joel — June 28, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

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