To track or not to track? That’s not the question

With 2010 fast approaching, I’ve been hearing from several reporters asking about the best or worst education ideas of this decade. (A decade that never really had a name, did it?) No Child Left Behind will no doubt be on both lists, depending on who you ask, and it surely qualifies as A Big Deal. But was it really the most significant education idea, for good or ill?

Here’s a sleeper issue that might deserve that moniker: the trend, seen in middle and high schools nationwide, to collapse the number of “tracks” offered to students in order to push more kids into challenging courses.

On its face, this is a worthwhile shift. Our education system has a shameful history of writing kids off—especially poor and minority kids—and diverting them into “general” or “vocational” tracks that were highways to nowhere. Adopting the adage that “all kids can learn at high levels,” schools have lopped off the bottom tracks and worked to encourage more disadvantaged children to take a crack at the highest ones. We see this most clearly in the dramatic expansion—democratization really—of the Advanced Placement program.

But here’s where the debate gets confused. It’s one thing to argue that children shouldn’t be given watered-down courses. But it’s something else to say that, therefore, all students should be taught together, in the same classroom, regardless of their current ability level. In other words, you can be against “tracking” and still be in favor of “ability grouping.” But instead we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

That’s one implication of a new Fordham study by Brookings scholar Tom Loveless, Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools. What Tom finds is that middle schools have, by and large, eliminated tracking, though this is particularly the case in schools serving large proportions of disadvantaged kids. (Some affluent suburban schools are still holding out.)

The practical implication of this policy change is that high achieving students now regularly attend classes with low-achieving peers. And anyone telling you that this isn’t harmful for the academic progress of the high-achievers is selling you a bill of goods.

In 2006, Caroline Hoxby published a paper with a student, Gretchen Weingarth, which examined “peer effects” in Wake County (North Carolina) Public Schools. And they found evidence for what they called the “boutique model” of peer effects, “a model in which students do best when the environment is made to cater to their type.”

So does that mean students should be sharply sequestered by ability? Not exactly. Here’s how Hoxby and Weingarth put it in their conclusion: “Our evidence does not suggest that complete segregation of people, by types, is optimal. This is because (a) people do appear to benefit from interacting with peers of a higher type and (b) people who are themselves high types appear to receive sufficient benefit from interacting with peers a bit below them that there is little reason to isolate them completely. What our evidence does suggest is that efforts to create interactions between lower and higher types ought to maintain continuity of types.”

Note the phrase “continuity of types.” What they mean for classrooms is that it’s OK for there to be a range of students (say high and average achievers), as long as that range is not too wide. But what’s pernicious is when there is a “bimodal” distribution of students in the same class: When there are both very high achievers and very low achievers. And it’s not hard to understand why: how on earth would a teacher instruct such a group of students effectively?

The answer, according to de-tracking proponents, is “differentiated instruction.” One teacher customizes the curriculum to magically meet the needs of all 25 kids in her class. Through small group instruction, one-on-one tutoring, different homework assignments, and the like, all children get exactly what they need. Count me as skeptical. Sure, it’s possible in theory, but it sounds awfully, awfully hard. (In another Fordham study, we found that more than eight in ten teachers said “differentiated instruction” was “very” or “somewhat” difficult to implement.”)

Yes, all kids should be challenged to fulfill their potential. But “all kids” includes “high achieving kids”—and sometimes that means offering courses where they get to study with other children of their same achievement level. Maybe we’ll get this right in the next decade.

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