The case for detracking in our schools
Monday, December 16, 2019
Secondary schools have historically relied on tracking as a way to sort students into ability groups for the purpose of providing appropriate instruction at a “just right” level.
Last week, I visited a high school with no fewer than five different tracking levels for its 1,500-student population. When talking with teachers in the school, I had to ask the seemingly obvious question: What is the difference between a level 3 and a level 4 student? Not surprisingly, the responses I received from the teachers in this school had little to do with academic ability and more to do with work study skills.
I couldn’t get a clear answer from the group, with each teacher putting their own spin on what the distinction between the levels meant for them and their approach to their classes.
Here in lies one of the fundamental flaws with this broken system. It is a system filled with inequity, bias and, at the very least, a lack of consistency and rigor. It’s time to look at this practice in light of schools’ increased emphasis of mastery, competency, and proficiency-based learning systems.
In a recent Hechinger Report article, Stanford Professor of Education Jo Boaler discussed how separating “gifted” children hasn’t necessarily led to better achievement. Boaler referenced a National Assessment of Educational Progress study, finding that elementary schools that reported using reading groups regularly scored lower on average than those that used them sparingly.
As Boaler explained, the biggest reason tracking fails is that it relies on a fixed rather than a growth mindset. “We are at a point where the negative impacts of fixed-ability thinking are undeniable. And when we separate students into different classes, the message we send them is that their ability is fixed. When students, instead, embrace the knowledge that there are no limits to their learning, outcomes improve. When students develop a ‘limitless perspective’ positive changes go through their lives, but when they get the opposite message — you’re smart, or you’re not smart — they constantly evaluate themselves against these fixed ideas.”
Boaler went on to explain how the fixed mindset leads to limits set by teachers working with students in lower-level classes who make the assumption that their students simply cannot rise to the highest levels of achievement, thus stifling their ability to grow.
Boaler’s insights provide context for a question that educators have long wrestled with when trying to determine whether or not homogeneous or heterogeneous grouping is best for students. This is not the first time that I have written on this topic. In this July 2018 MultiBriefs Exclusive, I highlighted a San Francisco initiative, then four years old, where middle and high school students are heterogeneously grouped for math instruction. Early data was showing success.
I wrote, “Comparing the Class of 2018 with the Class of 2019, the repeat rates for Algebra 1 dropped dramatically from about 40 percent to less than 10 percent.” I went on to reference this full report, released by the school district, which showed that students enrolled in the detracked math program were outperforming their peers who were in a tracked program.
For the past eight years, the New Hampshire high school that I work at has offered a contract-for-honors-credit option for all grade 9 and 10 students in the areas of ELA, Science, and Social Studies. Our school focuses on personalizing the pursuit of honors work and the work produced by students by providing students with this contract opportunity, and it is open to all.
Our teachers have a common expectation that “honors work” is a product that shows that a student has delved more deeply into methodology, structure, and/or theory, addressed more sophisticated questions and satisfied more rigorous standards with regards to the course content.
Over the years, we have found that allowing students to direct their own learning creates a definition of achievement that has no walls, just possibilities. Students’ learning outcomes demonstrate that they have had to analyze problems, evaluate possible decisions or actions, and draw reasonable conclusions or generate unique solutions.
It is time that we look at the “how” and “why” for our tracking systems in schools. It is time that we rethink how we provide students with opportunities to grow in their learning. It is time that we provide all students with opportunities to demonstrate mastery in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them.
Homogeneous grouping is a convenience for the adults in this pursuit, but it is not a convenience that is not working for our students. We can do better, and we must do better!
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