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Tracking Is a Hot-Button Issue—Follow-Up to Recent Post


As you know I'm new to this curriculum beat, and I gather from the comments on the blog entry I just posted today, "The Problem of Tracking in Middle Schools," that I've hit on a hot topic.

Prompted by reader Jginberg, I just called Stacey A. Kopnitsky, the assistant principal at Cabin John Middle School, to ask her what happened to the performance of the gifted and talented students at her school after they were mixed in English-language arts classes with the low-performing students.

She says that those students scored "advanced," the highest of three levels, on the Maryland state English-language-arts test both before and after the change in policy. "They were maintaining and doing as well as before," she said.

But she also acknowledged that the teachers and administrators in the school didn't look at the test-score data in any more detail than to make sure that the top-performing students were staying within the advanced level. She said they were more focused on the progress of the students with basic skills.

Kopnitsky added that no parents have complained about the policy change. She believes that with her school's reducing tracking in English-language arts, it was important to have two teachers in the classroom (before the change, each class had only one teacher), so that instruction could be differentiated. "When you have two adults in the classroom, it makes the opportunity for groupings, transitions, and delivery of curriculum much smoother," she noted.

Which causes me to wonder, what's the difference between "tracking" and "differentiated instruction" within a classroom? I can see how one answer leads to another question.


Thanks so much for the follow-up posting. As you probably know, many gifted students are capable of scoring "advanced" before the year begins. Are the gifted students making gains in academic achievement for the year that they are spending in class?
If they are not, most people will find this particularly troubling in underserved areas where academic performance is generally low. I always find it troubling when any group of students is kept from making the academic progress that they deserve to make in public school.
Are the poorest athletes starting on the sports teams with the best athletes in this school?

I'm going to use a crude metaphor of multi colored blocks to represent varried intelligence levels in a school.

Tracking is basically sorting the colors into general categories. For example light pink-dark red would go into one track, yellow hues would go in another and then all blue hues would go in a third. It's not exact, and the people at the top and bottom of any given range may not be in the perfect class for their abilities, but it will be a lot closer on the whole to just putting everyone together.

Differentiated instruction, on the other hand, says that it is not better to split everyone into students with similar abilities (usually because they claim it disadvantages one group of these students, the low ability children in whatever given subject is under discussion).

Usually, with these groups of different types of students, differentiated instruction then advocates setting up small groups within the larger classroom with different more individually tailored assignments with each type of similar students working as a sort of cell within a greater student body. The red gifted kids might get more leadway and less instructions, or be allowed to bring in more outside information and do more research while the blue low achievement children are given much more direct instruction from the teacher along with constrained research options to better ensure success in the project.

This is mixed with overview sessions the entire class participates in, and so is a mix of two approaches.

As to which approach is more effective, it really depends on priorities. Given that No Child Left Behind creates a strong incentive to pay more attention to low kids and almost no incentives to help high kids (the paltry 7.5 million, or 2 dollars per gifted child the fed govt provides is on the chopping block this year) what helps high kids takes a back seat to mandates.

It is telling that the admin you interviewed talked just about how being in the proficient tier was good enough, as if being in the 70th percentile and 99th percentile is functionally the same. Given how competitive later education at the college level is, good enough really should not be the standard gifted instruction is held to. Why kids in the bottom 10% get billions in direct funding and kids in the top 10% get almost nothing screams inequality to me, but it seems the judgement is that if the low kids are brought up to the middle, its worth the high kids falling from exceptional to just a bit above average.

When properly implemented, differentiated instruction within a mixed classroom results in advanced students getting more challenging learning opportunities designed specifically for them as well as struggling students getting additional help or disabled students getting needed accommodations. As you might imagine, this can be time consuming and intellectually rigorous for the teacher as well--which is why teachers must be both highly qualified and have ongoing support (time for collaboration with peers, planning time, resources) to get it done right. The good news is: It can be done and is in some places.

The bad news, of course, is that it is not being done properly in many more places. Tracking, on the other hand, not only academically but often physically separates students by ability and generally sets them on paths from which they cannot escape or advance later. In the high needs schools in which I have worked, students who are tracked as low achievers (or some similar label)in middle school, were diverted from any hope of ever being prepared for college or even a decent post-high school job.

> She says that those students scored "advanced," the highest of three levels, on the Maryland state English-language-arts test both before and after the change in policy. "They were maintaining and doing as well as before," she said.

Like most state tests, the MD state test is aimed at a level of proficiency that 80 percent of the students can be expected to achieve -- i.e., it is aimed at the 20th percentile student. So it is a very low-level test. An "advanced" score on such a test is a poor measure of what high achievers are learning, and therefore a poor measure of the impact of this policy shift.

And, of course, the reality may be that the students who were "doing as well as before" weren't learning much before or after the change in policy. Montgomery County Public Schools has a long history of hostility to learning opportunities for gifted children in the regular classroom.

"When properly implemented, differentiated instruction within a mixed classroom results in advanced students getting more challenging learning opportunities designed specifically for them..."

Aye, there's the rub. So when it fails, differentiated instruction is a failure of implementation, not theory.

Isn't it pretty to think so? Alas, teachers have cognitive limits, a point argued persuasively by Dan Willingham in his critique of the ideas behind teaching "21st Century Skills" (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/03/flawed-assumptions-undergird-the-partnership-for-21st-century-skills-movement-in-education/). That doesn't mean teachers are dumb, but rather there are literally limits to the number of things to which the mind can attend at a given moment. This makes effective differentiation at a high level extraordinarily difficult for all but the most gifted teachers, if it's possible at all.

Alas, you go to school with the teachers you have, not the teachers you wish you had. Insisting on differentiation "properly implemented" is like insisting on hitter on a baseball team hitting .300 and hitting 60 homeruns. The talent pool doesn't exist.

Without the talent, it' not a plan. It's a pipe dream.

As a parent, I have two children who were formally identified as "gifted" by their district. We live in a state that requires identification of students who are gifted. In my older child's case, I received a letter some five years later, informing me--when the legislature added the requirement that parents also be notified of identification. In my second child's case, the identification did not come until fairly late in the game--when there were actually classes in the arts that allowed for identification of creativity. Before that, he only had labels pertaining to deficits (LD, ED).

In neither case did the identification mean anything at all with regard to either the instructional approach, or the content. I would also add that in neither case would a "gifted and talented" class have been helpful. My older child made a habit of hiding her intelligence, so as not to stand out among her peers. At the same time, she set personal expectations so high that she frequently refused to hand in work that she considered to be inferior. She had a terrible time in high school and had a GPA that reflected it. In fact, the gifted coordinator for the district had little interest in such a poorly performing student. Her take was that if her grades were better they could put her in an advanced math class. Otherwise, there was the chess club.

In my son's case, the earliest contact with the gifted office offered up this definition: "gifted students are ones who can sit in their seats for 1-2 hours at a time." In kindergarten, being able to color in the lines counted more heavily than being able to recognize a Van Gogh painting out of context ("unfortunately, in real life, he will have to know how to color in the lines." actual direct quote).

I grew up in a well-educated upper middle class district. I was identified as "advanced" (we didn't have the term "gifted") and placed in a top track. My parents were proud. I was saved a lot of drill work that did my brothers in (and they were likely of the same intelligence level as I was)--and have learned to rely on intelligence as an ego boost when needed. But when I reflect on whether this was a good system--I would have to say that a more greatly enriched curriculum across the board would have served me as well--and done so without overlooking the needs of my brothers for intellectual stimulation.

It is true that if "differentiation" means nothing more than substituting within class groups for tracked classes, then it is not well implemented. It is also important to make a distinction between differentiating content and differentiating instruction. The former is the stuff of tracking, the latter addresses the reality that students learn in different ways.

My work with children--for the most part outside of schools--has been primarily in cross-age and diverse groupings. I have never found this to be a hindrance to teaching, in fact, quite the opposite. While some "gifted" advocates suggest that this means that the "gifted" children are always cast in the role of teachers, my experience is that all children have something to teach/share with others. I have never yet experienced a child so "gifted" as to need nothing from other children less defined.

I have lost most of the fights to have my son with the deficit labels included with non-labelled children. We have such a hierarchical notion of "intelligence." The roots of this belief are not always sound, and frequently ugly, when we look at the ways in which the definitions are interlaced with such traits as parental education, income, race, etc. I have also worked with children in suburban enclaves that worship at the idols of IQ and income, where the cultural preference is for highly sorted social structures. Not only do I find these children to not receive superior learning, I often regret the limitations of their experience. They have much to fear in the world because so much is unfamiliar. They harbor infantile assumptions about others who are different because their experience of others has not been nurtured.

These are things that we do not typically measure in schools, although some districts have begun to implement such things as surveys of school climate. I would agree that an advanced score on the state test is not a complete picture. But, the measures that need to be applied are of the things that we seldom think about.

Margo, it's good to have your input. I love the idea of arts-integrated schools, which it seems like could have been helpful for your kids. I wondered, though, when you said that GT classes would not have been helpful for your kids and then you followed it up with a comment about how your daughter hid her intelligence so as not to stand out. Wouldn't a class where her intelligence was the same as her peers have encouraged her to show it?


Well--do ED and LD classes keep kids from standing out, or paint a target on their backs? My experience is the latter. But--in discussions with my daughter, at the time, and now, 6 years later--she had no interest in a "placement" into a class determined by intelligence. Her underachievement is by no means atypical of kids with smarts--for many reasons, mostly associated with a perfectionistic streak (my older brother was much the same--although in his case her just rejected the value of carrying out a lot of written assignments when he already grasped the material). What was really needed--and she responded to when it was available--was a lot of encouragement and nurturance. I believe that for her--as well as others--an acceptance of all the available gifts--and support for overcoming challenges--is far more important than trying to sort out all of the green squares from the purple circles. Sometimes a geen square needs to relate to a purple square--and a purple circle to a green circle--and sometimes a red triangle needs to see what a yellow rectangle has to offer. We cannot perform a sort without also attributing a hierarchy and a value--this is not only false, it is hurtful.

Instead of creating homogeneous classes of students all the same age, why not create mixed-age classes where students of a particular skill level are grouped together? You'll still get a mixing of high- and low-ability students but with less of negative impact on the bright kids.

My daughter's freshman English class was honors for some students, regular English for others. (Actually, it was called "Critical Thinking," but it just English.) She did extra work and was evaluated at a higher level; her grade was weighted. It worked fine with one teacher, but there wasn't a huge performance spread in the class.

I was horribly bored in school till high school, which was tracked. I read quietly while class droned on, which is how I developed my book-a-day habit.

I think de-tracking often benefits slower students and almost always means less teacher attention for faster students. Some kids can challenge themselves; others will just goof off -- and ace the end-of-the-year tests.

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