What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

At a family celebration this past weekend a friend shared that her daughter had just been accepted into a Gifted and Talented kindergarten class at their local school and she wanted to know my thoughts about putting her child there vs. letting her child experience, what she perceived would be, a less anxiety-producing mixed-ability classroom environment. Here are my thoughts (and research):

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)

What if teachers were the most prepared people to do the teaching?

As a country we spend more money per child than any of the top performing countries in the world. When I say "top performing" I am referring to countries that focus on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and persistence as the gateway to deeper learning in academic areas like reading, writing, and mathematics. In these countries, while spending less per student, teachers have class sizes that are noticeably larger than here in the States and they have considerably less outside support for student's with special needs. And the students are still outperforming ours. How is this happening with less money and less individualized support? The reason is teacher training. In Finland, which is so often talked about as a model for better education, teachers spend 6 years training!!!! Teach for America and NY Teaching Fellows churn out teachers in less than 2 years and place them in extremely difficult schools. No wonder there are crazy high teacher attrition rates! In some countries teachers get a Masters in their intended field so they can become experts, and then they go to a teacher-training school for 2 years. In order to get licensed, teachers write persuasive arguments about how they would solve hypothetical classroom problems, instead of taking 3-hour multiple choice tests about content that's often not even related to what they'll be teaching. What if instead of pouring money into students we poured it into teacher training? 

What if great, progressive graduate programs got some state funding to train more teachers?

What if a degree from a "critical-thinking school" meant a higher salary? Unfortunately, spending $1.3B on smaller class size or more professional development for teachers is not hitting the target. Teachers need to be prepared BEFORE they are in the trenches. Teaching is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming job. And it should be. As a teacher you usually have more than 20 children's lives in your hands for 180 days. And that's often more time than they are spending with their families. Being able to have that large an impact on someone's life is a huge responsibility and not something an hour of coaching once a week in a subject area is going to improve that much. Teachers need to learn how to teach critical thinking and creative problem solving. Not better reading. What leads to better reading are children who can come up with strategies on their own instead of being given them by the teacher. What's needed are way more restrictions to become a teacher, with teacher assessments that match those high expectations. If we want our students to do better we need our teachers to be better.

What if ALL teachers had certification in general AND special education?

Can you imagine a classroom where all teachers have a "toolbox" to work effectively with all kinds of learners? Teachers who can read a child and know what strategy to use in a particular moment are rare. In my experience they are not the teachers who have had the most experience, rather they are the teachers who had a variety of experiences and time to reflect on them and share them. We live in a world where everyone, including typically-developing children, needs a little extra help at least once in their lives. Teacher training programs, in essence, Masters in Education programs, give teachers 2 important pieces of becoming a skilled teacher for all populations. In both general and special education programs, the 2 components are taking classes (ie. reading and learning within a teacher-community), and real world experience, often called field work or student teaching, where the student shadows a master teacher and gets first-hand experience in a particular educational setting. I am here to invent the possibility that there's only ONE license and it is a combination of BOTH general and special education. If this were the case, all teachers would have field work from a special education setting. They would have seen master teachers in action, tried out lessons as well as created their own in a master teacher's classroom with feedback from that master teacher, and networked with master teachers through email and social media, and develop relationships with them so that years down the road when they are confused about a child they have a network of professional colleagues to connect with for ideas, resources, collaboration, and help. Special education teacher training programs differ from general education ones in that the field of special education is aware of and celebrates the whole child. As a teacher in a special education program you learn about all kinds of child development, what it looks like in the child, in the home, in the classroom, and what kinds of strategies teachers can use to reach all students. How invaluable! This is how we can meet every child's needs. This is how we can best prepare teachers.