Perhaps the most controversial of all philosophical dilemmas concerning the structuring of people within the middle school is the homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping debate. Homogeneous ability grouping, or tracking as it is commonly called, has been the norm in most levels of schooling for many years. It seems to make sense to test students and put them into classes based on their abilities and achievement levels so curriculum and instruction can be tailored to meet their specific needs. It appears reasonable to expect teachers to teach at their best when presented with groups of students who fall within narrow bands of intelligence and aptitude. What “makes sense” and “appears reasonable” dictates what often prevails in practice, in direct opposition to middle level philosophy.

Turning Points 2000 clearly calls for heterogeneous grouping of students, meaning that students in any given class represent the spectrum of ability levels in the school student population. Still, homogeneous grouping is prevalent in schools that otherwise follow the tenets of middle grades education. The arguments for and against ability grouping/tracking have been the same for decades (Pool & Page, 1995). It seems clear that ongoing research is needed on the topic of homogeneous versus heterogeneous grouping.

The case for tracking

The literature available on the topic of tracking indicates that the case for ability grouping is based on the following propositions: tracking helps schools meet the varying needs of students; tracking provides low-achieving students with the attention and slower pace they require; high-achieving students are provided challenges when tracked; tracking is necessary for individualizing instruction; and tracking will prevent low-achievers from hindering the progress of high-achievers. Among the proponents of tracking are some administrators, teachers, and parents (mostly of high-achievers, as you might imagine).

It is easier to plan for instruction of a homogeneous class. Materials and teaching methods can be chosen specifically for the ability level of the students. High-achieving groups can sometimes “teach themselves.” They often seem to thrive regardless of the curriculum and instruction. At the other end of the spectrum, teaching a class of low-achievers has been, and often still is, a matter of drill and practice in a worksheet-rich environment if the teacher is not committed to a type of instruction that is more interesting and challenging to students, and more difficult to plan. Perhaps it’s not the grouping but the quality of instruction that makes a difference.

The case against tracking

The literature available on tracking indicates that the case against it relies on the following propositions: tracking is detrimental to young adolescent peer relationships; it is harmful to the self-esteem of low-achievers; it perpetuates class and racial inequities; the grouping process is often biased; it reinforces inaccurate assumptions about intelligence; and the least experienced teachers are typically assigned to low-achieving classes. Those who oppose tracking again include administrators, teachers, and parents.

In Beyond Tracking (Pool & Page, 1995), author after author refers to the preponderance of research involving many schools and students that has failed to show positive effects of tracking for any subgroup of students, with the possible exception of the students considered to be gifted and talented (3% to 5% of the total student population).

Finding balance

George (1995) contends that “the claims and counter-claims about the research are so confusing and contradictory that practitioners must come to their own conclusions about the most reliable generalizations that can be drawn” (p. 47). So while middle level philosophy in Turning Points 2000 states that “Classes should include students of diverse needs, achievement levels, interests, and learning styles, and instruction should be differentiated to take advantage of the diversity, not ignore it” (Jackson & Davis, 2000, p. 23) the reality of what actually occurs in our schools often does not follow this philosophy. A major benefit of the team structure, which we will discuss later in the chapter, is that it supports heterogeneous grouping of students while allowing for grouping and regrouping as determined by individual student needs and the curriculum.

To make heterogeneous grouping successful, instructional practices need to respond to student needs. There are numerous teaching practices that give students opportunities to learn in diverse ways. This variety of teaching practices is essential in creating a developmentally responsive classroom, one that embraces heterogeneous groups.

Some middle schools restrict grouping to subjects that are overtly hierarchical in nature. A common configuration of courses involves tracking in math and language arts with heterogeneous grouping in science and social studies. For those adamantly opposed to any kind of tracking, it may be difficult to accept this compromise. However, tracking is deeply embedded in our schools and is unlikely to be eliminated, regardless of the mounting evidence against it (George, 1995). Chances are you will encounter some form of it in your school, and may have no choice as to whether or not to practice tracking.

To track or not to track is a serious issue with potentially far-reaching consequences. It’s therefore an issue that merits our best thinking and our most thoughtful actions. We’ve only scratched the surface; please take time to explore the homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping issue in greater depth. Keep in mind that a homogeneous middle school class is an oxymoron. There are not 2, much less 20, middle school students who respond in the same way and at the same time to any given scenario.