Beyond tracking

To eliminate bad tracking — dumping some kids in dead-end classes — reformers have eliminated honors classes and dumped “all agemates in the same class” regardless of their preparedness, writes Mike Petrilli on Education Gadfly. He hopes to get beyond tracking by customizing instruction.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a cognitive scientist—to know that kids (and adults) learn best when presented with material that is challenging—neither too easy so as to be boring nor too hard as to be overwhelming. Like Goldilocks, we want it just right. Grouping kids so that instruction can be more closely targeted to their current ability levels helps make teaching and learning more efficient.

Online-learning technologies and more targeted assessments should enable schools to “pinpoint exactly what students know and serve up instruction that meets them there,” Petrilli writes.

At School of One, a middle school math program in New York City, students are placed in specific learning modules based on their performance the previous day, and on a sophisticated algorithm. Some kids are sent to small-group instruction with similarly-abled peers; others head to one-on-one online tutoring; others work independently on a computer; others get more traditional classroom instruction. It’s all customized to match the students’ needs and abilities. (Read more about School of One and other models of individualized instruction in this excellent Education Next article.)

Teachers are struggling to “differentiate instruction” to meet the needs of students with a wide range of abilities and disabilities, performance levels and English fluency. Half the teachers in high-need schools say they’re not able to do it well, according to the MetLife survey. I think this is a major cause of teacher burn-out.

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Comments

  1. Two stray thoughts:
    People often use the terms “tracking” and “ability grouping” to refer to the same policy. At one time, many schools sorted children by GPA or standardized test performance and put more numerate and literate kids on a college-bound track and others onto a manual trades track. This produces considerable overlap of career tracking and ability grouping, but the concepts are not the same, and it’s useful to insist on a distinction.

    (Petrelli): “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a cognitive scientist—to know that kids (and adults) learn best when presented with material that is challenging—neither too easy so as to be boring nor too hard as to be overwhelming.
    I wish he had avoided “challenging”. Self-confident students can handle failure and push on. Insecure kids can use the reassurance of success. Individual students vary in their appetite for “challenge” and their fear of failuire. You don’t need individualized instruction to address this fact in the Math curriculum. All you need is a self-paced curriculum. But then we could do without at least 50% of the Math teacher workforce (and probably English, History, and Science, once we get the hang of it).

  2. superdestroyer says:

    When schools eliminate tracking, those schools send a clear message to parents who are concerned about their children’s academic preparation. Of course, the message is: Get Out Now!

    The last thing a smart, interested student wants to do if suffer through a class full of anti-learning trouble makers.

  3. Superdestroyer, I’m guessing you are one of the parents to whom you refer and not a teacher. As an 18-year veteran educator, who has taught in both the heterogeneous and tracked class, I can tell you that the former works much better than the latter.

    Also, “anti-learning trouble makers” are created by boring classes with bad teachers. Give me what you think are trouble makers, mixed with high achievers, and I’ll show you a class of cooperative, engaged learners.

  4. LSquared says:

    Mark,
    I’m guessing you’re not a math teacher.

  5. I, for one, am so glad we’re finally re-looking at tracking. Is the pendulum finally swinging back? As a former teacher and a current school attorney, I welcome this discussion.

    Tracking is useful in many situations, for many students and teachers to improve teaching and learning. For those situations, it should be brought back.

    The reality is that one size doesn’t fit all. It never has. Thus, in my view, viweing all learners as ‘diverse’ learners (rather than advanced or not, etc) and lots of classes into ‘inclusion’ classes–is a one-size fits all approach. It is very very very hard to do. And what is the point? Where is the evidence that such an approach leads to more learning for more students? Rather, the goal seems to be a civil rights notion–not a pedagogical one. Where is the credible research? Would love to see it.

  6. Grouping students by ability makes sense, we had that concept when I was in public school 30 plus years ago, so you had low achieving students, average, and high achieving students.

    The pace at which the high achievers were taught at would have wound up leaving the low achievers hopelessly behind, and the average students struggling with the pace of the coursework.

    I don’t know what is more sad, getting rid of honors courses for students who really excel, or dumbing down the instruction so that everyone gets ‘just enough’.

    In society, people compete (and as many students find out later on), life is seldom fair (regardless of how many laws are put in place to try to correct the imbalance).

  7. As an 18-year veteran educator, who has taught in both the heterogeneous and tracked class, I can tell you that the former works much better than the latter.

    Um….

    I’m guessing you’re not a math teacher.

    I’m guessing he *is* a well-meaning but useless liberal. Which is nicer than my first thought, which was “Idiot.”

    In fact, all research shows that ability grouping leads to the best outcomes, particularly (but not exclusively) in math instruction.

    What bothers me about so many education reformers today is that they are trying to come up with technological whizbang solutions that are almost certainly unworkable and, regardless, unnecessary–but they’re so afraid of being called racist that they waste time with idiocy like “customized instruction”. I mean, as if. Speaking of idiots.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    The political leadership of the U.S. know that tracking works. That is why the elites of the U.S. send their own children to pirvate schools that require entrance exams and a minimum level of ability.

    Even in the most liberal areas of the U.S. like Northern Virginia, the politicians realize the benefit of tracking and thus promote Thomas Jefferson High School that requires an entrance exam and does not tolerate disruptive students.

    The real question for the U.S. is why is so much effort and resources put into the worst students while so little effort put into the average or just above average students.

  9. Superdestroyer; TJ is taking heavy fire for its lack of “diversity” and its admission criteria have been revised to the point that some top math students don’t get in and some (diverse) kids who struggled with MS math do – according to a top local math teacher and coach. The Washington Post has had at least 5 articles, over the past 6-8 months, with significant criticism of the school. Many of the comments call for its closure, because it’s “too elite” and “those kids will do fine, anyway.” Of course, many call for additional schools for the gifted, too.

    Regarding your last comment, I’d be more willing to spend effort and resources on the worst students if they were willing to put in serious effort. In many cases (probably most, in inner-cities), it’s the exact opposite; they reject the whole idea of effort and education. We are also spending inappropriate amounts on the uneducable and untrainable; they are at school, with many staff people, but it’s just babysitting. By pretending that “everyone can be proficient”, we are also placing kids with less severe disabilities into academic environments unsuited to them and denying them training tailored to their abilities. I’m willing to bet that other countries don’t admit the former group into school and likely not the latter. Directing resources to the top half of the curve tends to pay off and we really need this group to do well because they are the ones that pay disproportionate taxes.

  10. Cal’s right!.

    “In fact, all research shows that ability grouping leads to the best outcomes, particularly (but not exclusively) in math instruction.”

    And I agree with Petrilli that “grouping kids so that instruction can be more closely targeted to their current ability levels helps make teaching and learning more efficient”

    Sometimes though, even students entering a Pre-Calculus class, for example, in the same school may not be at the same level. Their preparedness is dependent not only on the prerequisite curriculum, which already exists, but also the quality of instruction and the level of expectation from their previous teacher(s).

    Maybe this gap will be bridged with tech advances in the future…

  11. Applicants to top private schools, like the ones politicians’ kids attend, not only have to take admission tests but those coming from public schools are likely to have to repeat a year. I have relatives whose kids did, even though they were very good students from solid public schools. They said this is almost universal when entering HS, unless kids are coming from one of their regular, private “feeder schools.”

  12. It’s interesting that for some subjects, grouping by readiness happens naturally, and without much fanfare, because the logic of it is obvious in those situations. We don’t skip students from Spanish 1 to Spanish 3. You have to complete Algebra 2 before starting Trigonometry. Even in grade school, a student who makes it to 5th grade without any ability to decode written text is going to be getting different instruction (maybe only through pullout) than s/he would get if s/he had at least some grip on decoding. And so on.

    The difficulty comes when a curriculum is conceived of as a multi-year blob (as they often are in elementary school, especially the content subjects like social studies and science). We operate on the hope that children who are poor readers or who haven’t shown any interest in the subject before will manage to keep their heads above water and “come alive” because of the high interest level of a set of lessons or by virtue of being with stronger students, whose knowledge or enthusiasm will rub off. And, in fact, this does happen to some extent. But there is an opportunity cost for the students who feel uncomfortable when all day, every day, they are being asked to learn faster than the rate that works best for them, or to understand content that depends on previous content that they didn’t really absorb.

  13. If schools were not wedded to grouping by age, then heterogeneous classes could work. It’s much easier for a teacher to “differentiate” with children of different ages but who are all at the same place in the curriculum than to “differentiate” with children all the same age but who are all over the map in terms of what they can do.

  14. The Nobel-laureate economist James Buchannan attributed his success, in part, to his education in a one-room schoolhouse. The teacher could not address the assembled students en masse, so she gave the older students their day’s assigned reading and helped the younger kids with reading and fractions.
    Self-paced instruction would demonstrate that education does not require real-time live instruction and so would threaten the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s dues-generated revenue stream. Ability grouping would expose the cartel’s schools to the risk of “disparate impact” race and gender lawsuits. The middle path is the lucrative, abusive, wasteful muddle that we currently inflict on kids.

    (mofo): “ I’d be more willing to spend effort and resources on the worst students if they were willing to put in serious effort. In many cases (probably most, in inner-cities), it’s the exact opposite; they reject the whole idea of effort and education. We are also spending inappropriate amounts on the uneducable and untrainable; they are at school, with many staff people, but it’s just babysitting.
    I will partially agree with Mark, here. The punks often are not stupid. They resent enslavement. Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery. Children work, unpaid, in a massive make-work program for dues-paying menbers of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel.

  15. Micha Elyi says:

    Objectors to ‘tracking’ or ‘ability grouping’ rarely apply their theories to athletics and PE programs.

    Schooling would be so much different if the aim was to move good students into being great students and great students into becoming champions of achievement.

  16. Schooling would be so much different if the aim was to move good students into being great students and great students into becoming champions of achievement.

    Wow, you mean having education be about helping each child maximize his/her own individual potential instead of trying to remake society to achieve so-called “social justice”? What a shocking concept!

  17. Charles R. Williams says:

    The real losers in heterogeneous grouping are the low S/E/S students with high motivation and high intelligence. If such students do not have access to differentiated instruction by about the 6th grade, they have little chance of high academic achievement. High S/E/S students live in a cognitively rich environment and have parents who understand what their children need to learn and have the resources to compensate for undifferentiated instruction.

    Differentiated instruction in heterogeneous classrooms is a sham.