To Track or Not to Track? Outcomes of Serving All Students in the Same Classroom

Teaching (2)

Today is the first post in a short series about some of my favorite current and past colleagues reflecting on this past year’s teaching experiences. This first entry comes from Dr. Taylor Cross who shares insights gained from his recent research.

By Dr. Taylor Cross

“When I was in high school growing up in the northeast Georgia mountains, I was in ‘honors’ or “accelerated” classes. I didn’t put myself there; it just happened…. Who I mostly did not have classes with were the students whose parents were the hourly blue collar workers, most of which had not gone to college, and some who had no real concept of what a college education would look like.”

When I was in high school growing up in the northeast Georgia mountains, I was in “honors” or “accelerated” classes. I didn’t put myself there; it just happened. I don’t think at the time I really processed what that meant or why I was in those classes, but I knew generally that I was “smart” and that the other kids in my classes were also “smart”. In these classes the other kids were, for the most part, other kids whose parents went to college, like mine did. Their parents were the lawyers, business-owners, realtors, medical professionals, educators, etc., that kept our little town churning along. Most of these kids’ families weren’t originally from this small town, but had found their way to it by virtue of job placements.

Who I mostly did not have classes with were the students whose parents were the hourly blue collar workers, most of which had not gone to college, and some who had no real concept of what a college education would look like. The majority of these students’ families had lived in this area for generations, and the culture of many of them was native Appalachian. I was “sheltered” from these students because as a student who had shown academic promise, I was lumped with others like me. As a matter of fact, when I look back in my high school yearbook, I don’t recognize about half of the students I see because I never had classes with them, even though my school was very small.

This was my high school education experience. I was put in classes with other kids “like” me because it was perceived that putting us together would benefit us, and having the kids who were “unlike” us together would be right for them. This is also what the majority of schools across America do today with their core subjects to a large degree. They track their gifted and talented students together, and they group their average and struggling students together. Is this good? Is it a problem? Do these situations truly benefit the students who are separated from one another? These are complicated questions for which the answers can vary from context to context.

Tracking is a long-held practice in American schools that is very hard to reverse (Archibald & Keleher, 2008; Oakes & Wells, 1998). While tracking is intended to benefit students, one negative consequence of tracking is that it tends to result in segregation of classrooms mimicking the dichotomy of higher-level classes that include White and Asian students and lower tracked classes including Black and Latino students (Oakes, 1985; Oakes & Wells, 1996; Oakes & Wells, 1998). No one intends for this to happen, but in many cases this is the reality.

As a ten-year veteran educator in Georgia’s public schools, I have worked in three different high school settings. The first two schools I worked in tracked their students into classes that grouped students of like ability levels together, similar to my personal experience. One school so specifically tracked students that at the 9th grade level where I taught there were classes specifically for gifted identified students; “honors” classes for students who weren’t identified as gifted but designated themselves, or were identified by teachers, as requiring an advanced curriculum; and the “college prep” classes, which were the students whose educational experience lent that they were adequately challenged by the standard curriculum. The next school at which I worked grouped students similarly. I taught both “college prep” classes which served the “on level” learner, and I taught “honors/gifted” classes which served the high-achieving population of the school.

The school where I now teach does not track its students in this way, at least not in the 9th and 10th grade years, leaning on the research of Oakes (1985) that stated that detracking students can benefit lower performing students while having no impact on higher performing students. At this school in 9th and 10th grade, all students are heterogeneously grouped regardless of test scores, previous experiences, parents wishes, etc. This is how the students are grouped in middle school as well, so it is something that the students are very used to.

To give an idea of what teaching and learning in the mixed ability classroom is like, I’ve provided a case study below of actual students whom I teach, that learn together in the same classroom every day. All proper names are pseudonyms:

Andi is a mixed race white/Asian-American female freshman student at Dunbar High who has recently scored in the 99th percentile on her most recent standardized test for reading. She is a nationally ranked lacrosse player and performs with the All-State chorus and is the freshman class vice president. Her father is a tenured professor at a prestigious local university, and her mother is a college-educated Chinese immigrant who runs an exchange program for American students to learn in China. Andi is an extremely high-performing student who is in the top 3% of her class academically and aspires to attend an Ivy-league school.

Maddy is a white female freshman student at Dunbar High who has recently scored in the 83rd percentile on her most recent standardized test for reading. She participates on the swim team and competes year-round in swimming; she is also in the Key Club. Her father is an auto mechanic, and her mother went back to school later in life to get her nursing degree, and is a night nurse at the local hospital. Maddy displays very high effort in class and is in the top 25% of her class. Her desire is to attend the local junior college until she is comfortable enough to move on to a four-year university.

Antonio is a black male freshman student at Dunbar High who has recently scored in the 49th percentile on his most recent standardized test for reading. He made the freshman baseball team, even though this is his first year playing. Antonio’s father is not present in his life, and his mother is a waitress at a local diner and on some nights works security at a local office building. Antonio displays effort in the classroom, but sometimes struggles due to deficiencies in reading and writing. His academic goal is to graduate high school, which would make him the first person in his immediate family to do so.

“In many schools across America, the Andis all learn together, the Maddys all learn together, and the Antonios all learn together. For better or worse, they do not mix.”

At the majority of high schools in America, even though Andi, Maddy, and Antonio attend the same school and have since elementary school, they would not see much of each other during the school day, if at all, due to the tracking of classes that would occur putting each of them into different types of tiers of classrooms, due to their academic differences. One potential issue with scenario is in that tracking is a long-standing method of separating types of learners that tends to mirror racial and socioeconomic divides (Oakes, 1985; Oakes & Wells, 1996; Oakes & Wells, 1998). In many schools across America, the Andis all learn together, the Maddys all learn together, and the Antonios all learn together. For better or worse, they do not mix.

At Dunbar High, I’ve watched all three of these students learn in the same environment all year. They are extremely different in the ways that they learn and the speed at which they process and apply knowledge, but I have watched each of them grow and succeed this school year together in the same class.

The key to this success has been differentiation by the classroom teacher. Teaching a mixed-ability class is a difficult and complex issue for today’s educators (Dixon, Yssel, McConnell, & Hardin, 2014). Recognizing that there are different types of learners in the classroom, the teacher who differentiates incorporates different strategies or assignments to meet the specific needs of different students (Juntune, 2016).

Teaching different levels of content to the same grade level is not a foreign concept to most teachers. When a teacher has multiple preps within the same grade level, for example a 9th grade “on level” English course, and a 9th grade “honors” English course, that teacher is not going to give those students the same exact experience because clearly, they have different needs as defined by their placement in different classes. When a teachers has a mixed-ability class, that same level of differentiation must occur within the same classroom for all learners to be adequately served, but due to the challenges of trying to do so much for so many students within the same time frame, it does not always happen.

“One of the most important advantages of having mixed-ability students in the same classroom, is that while it allows the higher-level students the same opportunity to experience challenging work that they would have in an “honors” class, it allows the other students to be exposed to that higher level work as well…”

After several years of teaching in this context, I have learned how to maximize this opportunity for all groups of students. I usually offer multiple versions of assignments, varying levels of texts over a concept, and at times varying approaches to assessment so as to adequately challenge each student. One of the most important advantages of having mixed-ability students in the same classroom, is that while it allows the higher-level students the same opportunity to experience challenging work that they would have in an “honors” class, it allows the other students to be exposed to that higher level work as well, either through the choice to attempt it within the mixed-ability classroom, or even just seeing other students learning the same material in different ways. The fact that there are different things going on within the same classroom causes curiosity within the different types of learners. I’ll hear things like “Wait, what is she doing? Why is she doing something different? Can I do that too?”

One of my greatest achievements as a teacher this year has been watching Antonio inquire about work that some of the other students were doing within a unit, and through this curiosity ignited from being around these high-level learners, he has challenged himself to do some of that same level work. If Antonio were in another classroom with only like-ability learners where there may not be as much differentiation occurring, then opportunities like these for students like Antonio may not be possible, and the “track” that students like Antonio find themselves in when they are in the 9th grade, may become the expectation of them for their entire high school careers. In this way tracking runs the risk of leaving much potential undeveloped. This can be tragic because sometimes these tracking decisions are decided upon by a small group of individuals early in a student’s career, and they may never be revisited throughout a student’s entire educational experience. In the mixed-ability classroom, all students, regardless of any designation they may have, can work with other types of learners and be compared against and motivated by all types students every day, and their potential can be stretched as they are exposed to challenging material and students who challenge them as well.

Another benefit that I’ve witnessed from students like Andi, Maddy, and Antonio being together is that since the de facto segregation referenced earlier is not occurring, students are exposed to a wide variance of cultural experiences as they are learning. Antonio was exposed to Maddy’s presentation on knitting and its influence on her family dynamic as her grandmother was an influential cloth artist in the Southeast US. Andi took notes and gave feedback on Antonio’s project on the impact of musical beats on the motivations of athletes as they are training for their sport. Maddy asked clarifying questions about Andi’s project on the global economic impact of the burgeoning economies of Central and East Asia. Were these students only with other students “like” them, then perhaps these types cultural exchange would not have occurred.

Having experienced both the typical tracked environment and now teaching in the mixed-ability classroom, I prefer to teach in the mixed-ability classroom because of the exposure and opportunity it can provide all students both academically and culturally. If teachers understand the importance of ensuring that differentiation is occurring for different groups of students in their classroom at all times, then not only are all students adequately served, but there are multiple approaches to content happening at the same time, allowing students to understand and appreciate the diversity of how learning can occur and allow themselves to adapt over time and meet their potential.

Knowing what I knew now, I believe that if I were 15 again, sitting in my 9th grade English class in the northeast Georgia mountains, I would rather be surrounded by all of my peers, learning about them and from them, rather than just from and about people just like me.

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