What is tracking?
Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.
What are the perceived benefits of tracking students?
Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.
Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.
Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.
What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students?
There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:
- Students learn from each other!
- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.
- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.
- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!
- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.
- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.
- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.
Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).
What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?
For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)
But my absolute favorite of these college students' projects were the ones that interacted directly with young children. They created playgrounds in the slums made from reused materials (tires, bamboo scaffolding). They hosted interactive art festivals fostering creative self-expression. And they performed plays inspired by the oral history of Mumbai on top of buildings next to public squares. Who said a rooftop can't be a stage?
Through these initiatives, read: university projects, these students have begun to transform the largest city in the world. Living in India I'm all too aware of the filth and forever-accumulating garbage in the streets preventing public gatherings. One college student began stenciling an image of Gandhi which ignited into a public-cleaning campaign and now, these inspiring college students, are also cleaning the streets of their beloved city. This is the next generation of India.
This is what higher education could be.
In most professions employees receive warnings that lead to getting fired when they do not perform their job to a certain level of standards. Imagine that teachers who fail their students by ignoring IEPs, playing favorites, grading inconsistently from their colleagues or the Common Core Standards, got fired. When students and parents complain enough, in the current system, teachers who are a year away from retirement can be convinced to retire early. This only accounts for a very small portion of poor-performing teachers. What if teachers had to always do their job well in order to keep their job? What if teachers couldn't hide behind tenure with poor-performance? What if teachers worked hard because they had to? What if teachers didn't have unlimited job security? What if tenure didn't exist?
What if there was a way for parents to spend more time with their children? What if more parents worked from home? What if more parents got time off from work to volunteer in their child's school or chaperone field trips? What if being a parent was socially viewed as a priority over your job? What if your job recognized, appreciated, and allowed for this too?