When I think of the No Child Left Behind Act, the image that comes to mind is of a train pulling out of the station and a gruff conductor grabbing any wandering children on the platform and stuffing them onboard. They were not left behind, but were they on the right train?
With the federal law’s reauthorization pending, there has been much discussion of its strengths and weaknesses. Missing is a recognition that the metaphor chosen to describe the legislation—leaving no child behind in the journey through life—may contain much of the solution to underachievement in American education.
Some readers may, by virtue of my opening paragraph, guess where I’m going with this. For others, I need to give fair warning: There is a dirty word looming on the horizon, and that word is “tracking,” by which I mean not the slotting of students into pre-ordained academic paths, but their grouping by ability across the curriculum.
The story of tracking’s implementation in schools in the 1950s, and its later demise, starting in the 1980s, has been well documented. What has not is the poor research used to support its elimination. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has created a cottage industry researching this topic, and has written a number of pieces that review the research on tracking. According to his analysis, studies show not only that tracking does no harm, but that it is, in fact, beneficial to students of all ability levels. Similarly, James Kulik, a University of Michigan researcher, has found that grouping by ability and adjusting the curriculum to the different aptitudes in each group enhances achievement for all students.
Tracking is an ongoing solution to poor academic achievement that needs to be continued to be successful.
Tracking is like the wage and price controls initiated under President Nixon in the early 1970s: Their success produced their demise. Yet wage and price controls were a time-limited solution that could be discontinued when political and ideological pressure dictated. Tracking, on the other hand, is an ongoing solution to poor academic achievement that needs to be continued to be successful.
The abandonment of ability grouping has been particularly harmful to highly able students. These are the students who thrived in the advanced and accelerated classes that existed in a tracking system. In their report “A Nation Deceived,” Nicholas Colangelo, Susan Assouline, and Miraca Gross show how acceleration works to meet the needs of bright students. Though it can take many forms, what is fundamental is the placing of bright students with others of similar ability, according to the authors. The consequences of not providing such learning environments are examined by Jan and Bob Davidson in their book Genius Denied. Highly able students, they maintain, are as much “at risk” as any group targeted for help under NCLB.
The law makes no provisions for gifted students. Ironically, it does provide a definition of gifted learners that inadvertently acknowledges schools will not be able to serve them well: “Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”
This recognition that schools cannot “ordinarily provide” the appropriate services and activities that gifted students need prompts the question: Why not? It is, of course, because the law is totally focused on proficiency—making sure that every student reaches a level of minimal achievement. While the goal of bringing up underachieving students is certainly a good one, NCLB stops there. It provides no support for those students who can and must go beyond mere proficiency.
The No Child Left Behind Act provides no support for those students who can and must go beyond mere proficiency.
Ability grouping has been replaced primarily by two other instructional strategies: cooperative learning and differentiation. These are approaches that have proven to be challenging for teachers to implement. Each requires a great deal of training and class preparation. Both need to be done extremely well to be successful. And both are, in effect, compromises. Schools adopted them because they wanted to offer some recognition of differing student-ability levels, while not separating students into different classes. As with many compromises, neither goal is being achieved.
These techniques—cooperative learning, in particular—have proven to be especially unsuccessful with high-ability students, as research by Johns Hopkins University’s Carol Mills and others has indicated.
So, let’s return to having many trains leaving the station, traveling at different speeds, and even heading for different destinations, but each with a team of conductors and crew members who understand their passengers’ needs and can meet them all. That way, no child will be left behind, because no child will be put on the wrong train.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Gifted Express, Now Leaving on Track 1