Should students of different abilities take the same class? Ability grouping became a source of conflict among parents, administrators and candidates during school board elections in Stamford, Conn., this past fall. Also known as "tracking," the practice sorts pupils into separate classes based on their perceived academic skill level.
Some Stamford parents pushed back when superintendent Joshua Starr introduced measures that would reduce the number of ability groups in the district's middle schools and make placement more flexible. Fearing an eventual move to one heterogeneous class that couldn't meet the needs of all children -- from average to honors students -- some parents launched a group to protest the proposals. The issue divided local school board candidates.
Starr was steadfast and criticized the stratified system for trapping lower-performing kids, an idea that's hardly new. In 1985, education researcher Jeannie Oakes wrote a seminal book, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, which can be seen as the informal beginning of more than two decades of research that, by and large, has chastised tracking for its detrimental effects on equality.
Yet many schools still practice tracking in varied forms. In 2007, 75 percent of schools nationwide tracked 8th-grade math classes and 43 percent tracked 8th-grade English, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And, despite tracking's negative reputation in the research community, its presence has remained relatively stable: From 1992 to 2007, the number of schools that track math in 8th grade increased by 3 percent; the number who tracked English classes dropped by 5 percent.
Tom Loveless, an education expert and senior fellow in the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, is critical of the indictment against tracking. In a new study he conducted of tracked and detracked middle schools in Massachusetts, schools with more tracks in math classes were associated with more high-performing students and fewer failures, and vice versa. Detracking means reducing the number of subject-area courses offered in a given grade in a given school, or in other terms, moving toward a heterogeneous class.
Loveless emphasizes that these findings are based on correlations and therefore can't prove that tracking is the direct cause of the observable differences in schools, but he maintains that the associations are clear. "There is a negative association for achievement with the detracking policy," said Loveless, who wants to protect classes for gifted students.
Another key finding of the study is that urban schools are more likely to detrack than suburban or rural schools. That's because urban schools drank the kool-aid, said Chester Finn, president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank that commissioned the study. Schools have been overly sensitive about claims that multiple tracks harm students, according to Amber Winkler, director of research at the Fordham Institute.
On the surface, whether to group by ability is a debate about best practices in education. But in practice, the discussion inevitably revolves around race and equality. This is because, predominantly, the students in low-track classes are minorities and low-income.
Education tracking in the U.S. began with the waves of immigration in the early 20th century. At that time, curricular stratification allowed for a deterministic style of schooling that sorted students toward their "appropriate" destinies. Nobody argues for a return to this old-style tracking but, as Oakes' book explains, the promotion of inequality via modern tracking worries many in the education field.
"[Detracking has] always been a target of people who want a more equitable outcome of education," Loveless said, "but that doesn't make them right."
Kevin Welner, professor of education at the University of Colorado, begs to differ.
"The research on tracking is as clear as anything in the field of education," Welner said. "It is a destructive practice that has the undeniable effect of lowering expectations and opportunities for students who have already fallen behind."
In Welner's estimation, the body of research documenting the harmful effects of tracking speaks for itself, the debate is over and it's time to move forward. Regarding Loveless' new work, "there's no 'there' there," Welner said. "The report presents data and analyses that are, by the author's own admission, not very strong."
For his part, Welner released his own report today providing recommendations on best practices for moving towards heterogeneous classes drawn from three case studies: South Side High School on Long Island, the Pruess School in San Diego and schools in Finland. Welner's co-author, Carol Burris, is the principal of South Side, which has detracked math and other subjects and found that their high achievers are now doing better than before the reform.
When it comes to tracking, Welner and Loveless can agree to disagree, but for educators, teaching students of varying abilities remains a perennial challenge.