The Tracking Debate (page 3)
A sharp debate has developed around the nation over ability grouping and tracking. Most multicultural education advocates oppose tracking. They see classes for the gifted and for low-track students as contributing to the problems of unequal access to the curriculum. Significant evidence supports this view (Oakes, 2005). Advocates of programs for the gifted and talented argue that heterogeneous classes prohibit “bright” students from seeking educational excellence. They, too, have substantial research to support their position (Darling-Hammond, 1995).
Although excellent work is being done by a minority of teachers to oppose tracking, most take ability grouping for granted. High school teachers accept that some students are college bound and others are not. Teachers often avoid low-track classes, and principals assign these classes to the newest faculty. Teachers in low-track classes find it difficult to establish positive, productive learning environments because many of the students recognize their low status and conform to the school’s low expectations. Students exhibit defeatism, alienation, and resistance to academic work. Soon both teachers and students develop low expectations of these classes. There is more authoritarian teacher behavior and more student-to-student violence in these classes. In racially integrated schools, low-track classes have an overrepresentation of African American, Latino, and Native American students (Darling-Hammond, 1995).
Not only are students tracked, but schools and teachers—particularly new teachers—are tracked as well. Schools in low-income areas of cities often have fewer resources and fewer fully credentialed teachers than do schools in more affluent areas. Schools in low-income areas have more teachers instructing in a field other than their major (e.g., physical education majors teaching social studies). Meanwhile, affluent schools have only math majors instructing math classes and only science majors instructing science classes. Tracking occurs when schools considered difficult have eight classes of general English or math and only one class of honors or advanced English or math. Even bright, motivated students in such schools will not have access to a demanding curriculum. When these students graduate, they compete for access to universities with students from schools where most students took Advanced Placement history, math, and English (Darling-Hammond, 2001; Oakes & Saunders, 2007).
You must consider several important issues when developing a professional view on tracking and ability grouping. Substantial evidence indicates that students are frequently identified and placed into ability groups based on poor measures and inadequate placement decisions (Oakes, 2005). Oakes and others have demonstrated that race and social class strongly influence the placement of individuals. High-track programs are available in middle-class schools, whereas urban schools have a preponderance of low-track, remedial, and terminal programs. The placement process itself is unequal and unfair (Oakes & Rogers, 2006).
A major problem is that placement in low-track classes or low-ability groups is unnecessarily and inappropriately rigid. Students change and mature. Schools help students to learn. But rigid placement systems punish students for poorly informed or biased decisions made by students and faculty in prior years. The rigidity of ability grouping reduces the value of hard work (Sapon-Shevin, 1999). A fixed conception of ability and intelligence has long been abandoned by most serious researchers (Gardner, 1999).
Being placed in a low track contributes to the several attacks on self-esteem that devastate many students—particularly adolescents, girls, and students of color. Ability grouping, as presently practiced, frequently contributes to racial, ethnic, and class isolation. Lawsuits in Boston, San Francisco, and other cities have challenged school integration plans that guarantee access for African Americans and Latinos to prestigious high schools by limiting access for European American and Asian students (Guthrie & Brazil, 1999; Walsh, 1999).
If these criticisms of tracking are true, then what about the arguments of advocates for gifted and talented programs (Ford & Harris, 1999). Aren’t bright students bored and held back in “regular” classes? Haven’t magnet schools and programs for the “gifted” kept European American students in urban public schools when they would have otherwise fled? These arguments also have merit. Changing to heterogeneous classes will not, by itself, overcome the failure to motivate and interest students common in too many classrooms. Without other significant improvements in the quality of education, ending ability grouping might simply bore all students equally.
In real-world classrooms, the two positions on ability grouping should not be treated as only polar opposites. Concern for equal opportunity leads to the conclusion that students should be primarily taught in heterogeneous classes. Teachers can change their teaching strategies to encourage all students to learn. Cooperative learning strategies are some of the fundamental strategies for teaching in heterogeneous classes (Cohen & Lotan, 1997).
In a few subjects that are highly sequential, such as math, students can be grouped based on their demonstrated abilities. That is, some students can study math, while others study calculus. Some students can study Spanish 1, while others study Spanish 5. But these groupings are less harmful if they are not rigid. That is, while the students may be placed in a “gifted” class for math, they should be in heterogeneous classes for social studies, physical education, and other less sequential courses. Schools should offer advanced classes in art, music, and other subjects where students might also be “gifted.” In addition, students with special needs sometimes require special services to gain access to the mainstream curriculum. For example, limited-English-proficient students might be separated for part of the day to give them increased opportunities to learn and practice English at their appropriate level. At other times, these students might be in a class that studies literature or some other appropriate subject in Spanish.
A change to a less-tracked curriculum requires teachers to adjust their strategies. Most important, teachers need to consider multiple definitions of intelligence (Gardner, 1999) and abandon current fixed and static views.
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