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This Time Everything Is Different. No, Really...We Have Data This Time

Note: Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Indiana University and the director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, is guest-posting this week.

I was recently interviewed for a story on ability grouping in Ohio by a reporter, Charlie Boss. We got into an involved discussion on the difference between tracking and grouping. I recycled a line from a recent talk: "The distinction is pretty easy. Tracking is evil. Grouping is good."

And I do see it as being that straightforward. Tracking is the systematic grouping of children by some demographic variable (economic status, gender, but more often than not, race) to keep them stuck in a specific academic track for the rest of their school years. The tracks for the less privileged groups tend to be poorly staffed and poorly resourced, leading to heightened inequality and a dereliction of our duty to provide education as a vehicle for improving one's life. Again, pretty bad stuff.

Ability grouping, on the other hand, is a flexible organization of students in curricular and instructional clusters that best fit their ability, achievement, and challenge levels. Research on tracking is very negative (beyond the obvious evil of intentional segregation); the research on flexible ability grouping is much more positive.

Charlie and I discussed this at length, with me on my soapbox decrying the political correctness that drove ability grouping out of our schools in the 80s and 90s, as everyone confused it with tracking. She listened patiently, then stumped me with a great question: "How do we know ability grouping won't become tracking this time around?"

Um, because this time it won't happen? Because we're smarter, wiser, and more enlightened than we used to be?

I don't believe that we're much more enlightened, and if forced to summarize our current situation, I'd probably say, "More divided than we've been in a long time." (See last week's Brookings report suggesting the Chinese are strategizing how to take advantage of our divisions.)

As a result, her question has hung out in my brain for a few weeks now, and it has slowly broadened over time. Now I'm asking myself, "How are any of our attempted education reforms and innovations different now from, say, a generation or two ago?"

After considerable thought and many discussions, I suspect we do have a tremendous advantage. Although it's tempting to say "We have infinitely better technology!", I don't think technology itself is the game changer. As a case in point, has PowerPoint really changed your life that much? For most presentations that I sit through, overhead transparencies would have done the job just as well. The added technology, in most cases, adds little value to the learning process (but it's nice not to carry around all those transparencies!).

Rather, the game changer is much more mundane: data systems. And we need to give the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act some props here (I'll deny having said that). It's important to remember that, before NCLB, some states didn't have the data systems to track student test scores (or students themselves!) from year to year. Creating and implementing those systems cost bazillions of dollars, but someone had to put those systems in place.

Now that we have them, discussions about education can be more informed, and the implementation of those reforms has greater potential for success.

Getting back to grouping, teachers with reliable data at their fingertips can make more informed, more objective decisions about the best placement and learning environment for a student. Without good data, the decision will be highly subjective; even the fairest people will occasionally fall back on stereotypes in that situation, it's just human nature. Data helps us figure out what to fix, and it allows us to provide evidence of how we are succeeding.

In closing, if I could get policymakers and educators to ask themselves one question before tackling any initiative, it would be, "Are the necessary data systems in place?" If not, efforts should be made to get them in place before people start moving forward, as the lack of a good, supportive data infrastructure will generally doom even the best interventions.

--Jonathan Plucker

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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