Teaching Opinion

Michelle Newsum: Tracking Our Way to Wider Achievement Gaps

By Anthony Cody — May 29, 2013 9 min read
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Guest post by Michelle Newsum.

Under the fear created by NCLB/RTTT, large scale ability group tracking has made its way back into schools. Because tracking is commonly considered odious, and the research does not support it, no one calls it that. It is now given cuter or more palatable names like ‘Walk to Read’ or ‘Intervention Time’ even ‘Flexible Grouping.’ (Although some schools have flexible grouping and intervention time that takes place in classrooms and is quite lovely.)

Walk to Read/March to Math= Send your kids to other classes for math and reading for 90 minutes a day. If you have three teachers at a grade level, one teacher takes all the ‘advanced’ students, the fours; one takes all the ‘on levels’, the threes; one takes all the ‘twos; and a group of aides under the direction of a Title 1 or resource teacher take five to eight students each who are ‘well below grade level.’ Children receive some additional reading and math instruction in their classrooms.

The following is a statement I made at a school board meeting. Not surprisingly, it fell on deaf ears.

Dear School Board Members,
I am a teacher and I love this work. That’s why this is especially hard to do. I have been told that failure to toe the line will cost me my job, so I have thought long and hard before speaking out. It’s clear I have no rights in this area, but I still have a responsibility to speak out for my students.

Walk to Read is one of the many new names for achievement group tracking. In primary schools, this backward practice was long ago de-bunked, ostracized even, but it’s crept back under the test-score fear and mania of NCLB/Race to the Top.

We are told that this is not tracking; that it’s ‘flexible grouping.’ The experts disagree.

Carol Burris, award winning educator, administrator and ASCD author of Detracking for Excellence and Equity, says, “They can call it ability grouping, walk to reading, hop to math, or skip to social studies; when you group students for instruction based on achievement, that is tracking. Why don’t they simply do some flexible grouping within the class?”

Author/Speaker Alfie Kohn says: This is “Wretched. It’s a new name for segregating kids by performance, which has always been a terrible idea. The one thing we know about tracking is that it doesn’t respond to differences in what students can learn so much as it creates differences in what they will learn.”

Bill Bigelow, of Rethinking Schools says: “Wow. This seems wildly inappropriate -- in so many ways. First, how dumb to segregate math and reading from the rest of the curriculum. We need more curricular integration, not less. This is simply ability group tracking -- a practice with a past soaked in class and race bias. (This) is disrespectful of teachers’ professional knowledge and exemplifies so much of what is wrong with education.”

Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center says: It’s “Tracking for Tots. And it also appears to be part of the overall laziness we see of turning to a factory model of sort, select, target, etc.”

In the Heinemann research series, Catching Schools, Barbara Taylor and Nell Duke found that of the four school wide interventions they studied, only Walk to Read (or what they call a combination model) had a negative effect on all areas of student learning.

Ann Wheelock, author of Crossing the Tracks: How “Untracking” Can Save America’s Schools, says, “Ability grouping, or tracking, does not enhance academic achievement and research tells us that it is not a neutral or benign practice, either. Although it is widespread and widely accepted, ability grouping generally depresses student achievement and is harmful to kids.”

When asked if gifted children are challenged enough in heterogeneously grouped classrooms, she replied, “If the curriculum is rich and varied, yes. So teachers should commit to creating a high-expectations climate and an engaging hands-on curriculum for all.

When Carol Burris examined tracking in her school district, she found that, “Although we had been telling parents that it was possible for students to move to higher track classes after beginning in the lower tracks, we found no evidence that this upward movement was in fact taking place. Instead, the opposite was happening---it was not uncommon for students to move from the middle track to the lowest track.”

In his book Tracking Inequality, Samuel Lucas (1999) uses national data to demonstrate that track movement occurs in a downward direction far more frequently than it does in an upward direction. The (International) Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), analyzed successes and failures in education systems in 39 of the world’s most developed nations. It found that countries that divided pupils into ability groups at an early age tended to have higher numbers of school drop-outs and lower levels of achievement. Streaming by ability “exacerbates inequities” because immigrants and pupils from low-income families are more likely to be placed in low-ability groups. The UK and the US had the joint highest proportion of pupils in schools that divide according to ability. Countries, such as Finland, that are well-known for their high-performing education systems, had a far lower proportion. Indeed, In Finland, ability grouping was abolished for grades 1--9 in 1985.

According to the National Research Council (NRC), low-track classes have an especially deleterious effect on learning, since such classes are “typically characterized by an exclusive focus on basic skills, low expectations, and the least qualified teachers.” (Heubert & Hauser, 1999, p. 282). The preponderance of research regarding low-track classes was so overwhelmingly negative that the NRC concluded that students should not be educated in low-track classes.

This form of tracking will increase our already outrageous class size. In addition to the 30 students we need to bond with, know well and understand their learning styles and quirks and scaffold our lessons to meet all their needs, we’ll have about 36 additional kids (and they will be turning over.)

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) supports the instruction of students within heterogeneous classrooms that recognize and accommodate individual student differences in learning style, ability, and interests. NASP opposes the use of tracking because of its demonstrated negative effect for many students.

Research has demonstrated that the use of whole class ability grouping disproportionately impacts minority students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with lower ability. Related to individuals identified with educational disabilities, whole class ability grouping does not comply with the requirements of placement within the least restrictive educational (LRE) environment. Further, the practice of whole class ability grouping/tracking can deny many children of their statutory right to equal educational opportunity. Demonstrated best educational practice can lead to the establishment of excellence for all learners without resorting to the use of ability grouping. Such positive educational practices supported in the research and literature include:
Cooperative learning, differentiated instruction, small group instruction, curriculum modifications, scaffolding, essential understandings, structure of disciplines, learning communities and flexible grouping.

Using our professional development time to explore how to best meet the needs of all children using some of the research-based practices listed above would be a much better use of our time than dealing with paperwork for tracking.

Instead of tracking, we should engage in flexible grouping within the classroom, where young children feel comfortable with the structure, rules, materials, routines and teaching style in their own class. Teachers can and do make lessons accessible to all children with large, small and individual groupings, and high-level, open ended assignments.

We spent the first several professional development days exploring Daily 5, a workshop model that aligns with best practices (and lends itself to all the suggested research-based practices the NASP listed above.)The first two sessions really laid out the program and how and why it is done.

It was well received, but only teachers attended.

In real life, working and learning are heterogeneous and collaborative. I benefit from working with people who know more than I know, people who are deep thinkers, good questioners. I also benefit from helping others and seeing how others think and solve problems.

By keeping our kids together in a heterogeneous, consistent group:

  • We teach children with different skills how to work effectively together.
  • Children learn to accept differences as normal and desirable.
  • We take each child where he is and move him as far as possible.
  • We learn, respect and use individual strengths, interests and needs.
  • We give whole group, small group and individual instruction to meet the needs of all students.
  • We provide open ended assignments to meet the needs of all children.

Additional benefits of heterogeneous grouping according to educator/authors Carol Burris and Delia Garrity include:

  • Teachers get to know their students better. As teachers work to differentiate the curriculum, they develop an awareness and understanding of their students as learners.
  • Students feel respected and cared for by teachers who make the effort to reach them by developing careful, differentiated lesson plans./Such students become assured that their classroom is a safe learning environment.
  • Differentiation allows more students to feel invested in the lesson, thereby decreasing behavioral problems. Students who previously opted to be viewed as “bad” rather than “stupid” will have their learning needs met and other talents explored, allowing them to drop the “bad” act and become instead a valuable member of the class.
  • Students who might have been considered less intelligent because they learn in a nontraditional way become invaluable contributors to the heterogeneous classroom./For example, an aural learner who struggles with textbook assignments can add in-depth perspective in a social studies class discussion by contributing what he or she has learned through documentaries or tapes.
  • Struggling students who are part of heterogeneous groups and classrooms observe and learn the techniques of less-inhibited learners. They begin to see that “smart kids” don’t always know the answers, have to pause to think, and use questions to orient themselves. Students in low-track classes are cut off from exposure to the habits of successful learners.
  • Differentiated instruction encourages flexibility. Teachers thus become adept at adapting lessons to fulfill each student’s individual needs.
  • Detracking removes the limits that come with rigid thinking about how learning should and does occur. Fair does not always mean “the same.” For example, allowing a student who struggles with the physical act of writing to type his notes can benefit that student and the rest of the class. Not only does the student get access to the material, but the entire class has a reliable set of notes that can be used for those who were absent. This student now becomes an expert---and essential---note-taker who takes pride in his responsibility and sees himself as a member of the class.

Joanne Yatvin, education professor, long time primary teacher, principal, superintendent, author and lone educator on the National Reading Panel says:

The original reasoning behind keeping elementary age children with one teacher and one set of classmates was continuity: One teacher gets to know the abilities, behavior, and feelings of a group of kids really well and so can best meet their needs, plus the kids feel comfortable with that teacher in that classroom. Young kids should not be tossed around from one teacher to another and be separated from the rules, materials, and teaching style they have become familiar with. More recently, the concept of community has been emphasized: it is important for children to work in a heterogeneous group where they can help and learn from each other; that's what the real world is like. Besides, putting children of the same ability altogether encourages one-size-fits all instruction and treats them as if they were objects rather than human beings.

Primary education should be based on a family model, not a factory model.

What do you think? Are you seeing more tracking at your school? How has this affected your students?

Michelle Newsum teaches elementary school in Oregon.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.