Want to start a fight in education? Suggest that ability grouping or “tracking” is a good idea and someone (usually not a parent and seldom a teacher) will accuse you of being indifferent to struggling students. And that’s one of the milder forms of criticism.
A new study by Brookings’ Tom Loveless issued by the Fordham Institute concludes, among other things, that tracked schools produced more high-achieving students than nontracked schools. The study, Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools, finds schools with more tracks produce more math pupils at advanced and proficient levels and fewer failing students. The opposite is found in nontracked schools: more students failing than in schools that track.
Commenting on Loveless’s report Fordham’s Checker Finn and Amber Winkler offer two “bottom lines”:
Bottom line number one: American education needs to care more about taking all of its students to the next level and less about how we get them there. Anna Penny, a former teacher in New York City, said as much in the New York Daily News this past summer: “Anyone who has ever taught knows that kids progress at dramatically different speeds in different subjects. When our schools resist tracking even when it’s clearly needed, they wind up valuing homogeneous classrooms over effective ones.”
Bottom line number two: In the name of equity, gap closing, political correctness, and leaving no child behind, American education has been a bit too willing to neglect its higher-performing students and the school arrangements that best meet their needs. A recent report by the National Association for Gifted Children finds that eighteen states can’t even tell us how many children have been identified as gifted within their borders. Further, the vast majority of gifted children are placed in regular classrooms (no surprise, given Loveless’s findings), places with teachers not ordinarily trained in gifted education. In fact, thirty-six states don’t require regular teachers to have training in gifted education at any point in their careers, nor do most teacher-preparation programs include coursework on gifted learners. That’s obviously unfortunate for high-achieving youngsters and the ill-equipped teachers who teach them, but it’s also damaging to our long-term national interest.
I agree. As a teacher, I thought tracking made sense if for no other reason than pure pragmatism. In my 5th grade classroom I had kids functioning anywhere from a first to eighth grade level. “Differentiation” (a.k.a intra-room tracking) among such a disparate group of students sounds great, but it’s an idea that’s more honored in the breach than the observance. It’s awfully hard to do well, especially in a classroom with serious behavior problems and students who struggle to work well independently. Moreover, there will always be a natural tendency in heterogeneous classrooms to regard your high achievers as doing just fine. Compared to where the rest of the class is, that’s true. Compared to where they could be is another matter.