Over instruction through ability tracking appears to be attractive

Over the years, the American
classrooms have grown to represent a wide range of academic diversity. Classrooms
across the country have grown to typify students of different social
competences, interests, behavioral tendencies, emotional maturities, cultural
backgrounds, socio-economic status and language differences, to point out the
more obvious (Tomlinson et. al, 2003). As the population and influx of
immigrants grew, these realities which led us to question if school and
classroom reform needed to be further initiated to attend to, rather than
ignore the vast differences in student learning readiness and variance across
the spectrum. In the past, the practice of ability tracking, which is the
sorting of students into different classes according to their perceived
ability, was introduced to accommodate the discrepancies in our classrooms.

However, its impact has remained a source of controversy in the American public
education. While proponents continue to justify ability tracking in its purpose
and ability to create equal educational opportunities and outcomes through
their arguments on the synchronization of student learning speeds, teaching
efficacy and self-esteem, research on this reform forced me to question if
indeed the method of differentiated instruction benefitted academically diverse
populations. While homogenous instruction through ability tracking appears to
be attractive because it appears to address the discrepancies we discussed
earlier, my research has indicated that it falls short of its promise to
provide equal educational opportunities and instead, has a direct opposite
effect on our student population.

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of Student Learning Speeds

Proponents argue that ability
tracking allows for the synchronization of student learning speeds. This is the
notion that students learn better when they are grouped with other students who
perform similarly academically whether it is with regard to knowing the same
things to begin with or who learn at a similar rate. Through differentiated
instruction for the different tracks, students who are brighter will not be
held back and that the deficiencies of slow students are less easily remediated
if they are placed in mixed classes (Oakes, 1985, p. 6). In a study of 300
classrooms across the United States, Oakes’ findings indicate that the learning
of average and slower students are not more easily remedied when grouped
together with similar students and that there was no evidence to support the
belief that students learn best when they are grouped together with others who
learn at similar paces to themselves (Oakes, 1985).

Allowing students to learn at their
own pace may help with forming a strong foundation of the basics, but this
argument is only justifiable if these students were also covering the same amount
of modules as students in the faster tracks and if these students were being
challenged to learn modules that would make them as competitive as others their
age are expected to be. As Gamoran and Weisten (1995) noted in their research,
differentiated instruction for different tracks should be conceived and
practiced as an extension to the standard educational practice, but is often
implemented as a substitute for it. Thus, unless curriculum and instruction are
modified to be a good fit for academically diverse learners while still being
inclusive, student outcomes will be disappointing (Gamoran & Weistein,
1995). Therefore, if students are given the liberty and time to learn at their
own pace, it should be noted that these students will also require more
instruction time to cover the same modules as their peers in faster tracks to
ensure an equal education for all. Without the same modules being taught, the
achievement gap between the lower track students and higher track students continues
to widen.

Further, brain research has
concluded that when students encounter tasks at moderate levels of difficulty
and challenge, they are more likely to sustain efforts to learn than when the
tasks are under challenging (Brandsford et. al, 2000). When the pace at which
the students are taught at is adapted to the level of students from lower
tracks, the students are not challenged to learn at levels of optimal
development. That is, when material is presented at a pace that is below or at
their actual level of mastery, students will not be trained to grasp new ideas
quickly, to become independent thinkers or rapid problem solvers. These skills
are instilled through repetitive exposure to material at a slightly more complex
pace than the child can manage, which is often lacking in homogenous classes.

Thus, the segregation into tracks according to ability leads to ignoring the
difficulties of the slower students rather than adequately addressing and
correcting them (Oakes, 1993).

Teaching Efficacy

Teaching students in tracked
classes according to their level of ability brings a level of efficacy to the
teachers and their daily duties. The individualized attention that
differentiated instruction allows for directs attention to every student’s
particular shortcomings. Teachers’ awareness and knowledge of their students’ capabilities
provides a road map to their key concepts, organizing principles and fundamental
skills (Tomlinson et. al, 2003, p. 133). The teachers then use materials and
understanding of essential ideas and activities to ensure efficient
understanding of the core ideas and to solve meaningful problems (The National
Research Council, 1999). Therefore, in learner centered classrooms, teachers
are empowered to use a variety of instructional strategies and approaches to
ensure that students acquire the knowledge with complete understanding.

However, while I acknowledge the benefits research has found for teachers and
students, I would like to point out two factors that would affect the extent to
which these benefits would be indeed by received by the students.

Firstly, we have to realize that
customizing curriculum and teaching methods to account for different abilities
of students is not a minor modification in pedagogical practice. As Mehlinger
(1995) states, to “customize schooling for different learners, rather than
mass produce students who have essentially been taught the same thing in the
same way in the same amount of time…is not a superficial change; it is a deep
cultural change” (p. 154). The responsibility of adapting curriculum requires patience,
immense experience and transforming teachers and schools simultaneously.

Schools and teachers would have to dedicate attention and resources to
assessing students’ abilities, which is mainly done through testing, creating
strong conceptual frameworks, purchasing resources that support the conceptual
frameworks such as books and training and leadership programs for teachers, all
of which are systemic changes that extend beyond just the role of teachers and
modifying curriculum on paper. Therefore, the question here, in response to
ability tracking as a benefit for teachers and students, is indeed how many
schools have the resources and willingness to commit to these changes?

Secondly, for differentiated
instruction to be implemented successfully and fairly among all tracks,
distribution of resources such as teachers, has to be equal across all tracks.

Research by OECD for its member countries has shown that educational resources
tend to be unequally distributed across tracks and more than frequently, the
most capable and experienced teachers are assigned to the high tracks, while
the less experienced and motivated teachers are assigned to the lower tracks
(2012). The lack of experience and motivation would result in the lack of
informed reflection on students as individuals and their weaknesses and
strengths, less of an effort to explore and implement a wide range of
instructional approaches suited to the students’ abilities and initiate
effective classroom management routines. As highly experienced educators have
recognized, teachers have to be fully committed to reconstructing their sense
of students of different ability levels learn, how learning varies even among
students in the lower track itself, what students have to be taught and how
they should be taught, which is either absent or a struggle for teachers with
little experience and motivation (Tomlinson et. al, 2003, p. 134). Thus,
defeating the purpose of tracking students to ensure fair and equal educational
opportunities for all, despite their initial challenges.

Impact on Self-Esteem for Lower Track Students

            There has been constant debate on the effects of
ability tracking on self-esteem of the students. According to Oakes (1985), her
research indicated that the assumption is that slower students are more likely
to develop more positive attitudes about themselves and school when they are
not placed in mixed groups with students who are far more capable (p. 6). The
belief is that the constant comparison and competition with bright students would
have negative consequences on the self-esteem of slower students, thus
affecting academic performance even further. Without completely denying the
validity to that assumption, I offer the perspective of brighter students
setting benchmarks for lower ability students to aim for. According to the National
Education Association (2017), research has proven that in many schools, when
students are segregated into tracks, they are given labels that stay with them
as they move from grade to grade. For those placed in lower tracks, it
essentially establishes a standard of lower expectations, which leads to lower
levels of motivation toward school and a lower self-esteem. Moreover, the
research concluded that in high school, the lower and higher tracks eventually
evolved into the tracks of vocational and college preparatory without providing
every student with the opportunity to choose the direction they would like to
pursue a career in (National Education Association, 2017). Thus, being placed
in a heterogeneous class encourages students to strive for achievements and
goals that other students in their class hold themselves to, which would be
beneficial in the long term.

            In addition, self-esteem of lower
track students is directly impacted by the link between track placements and a
student’s socio-economic status and race. According to Oakes (1985), poor and
minority students are largely over-represented in low-ability tracks and
under-represented in programs for the gifted and talented. The characterization
of labels is carried over into the minds of students by unintentionally forming
links of high ability with higher socio-economic status and mostly the white
race, while the average and slower students are associated with a lower
socio-economic status and in the United States, mostly the African-American and
Latino ethnicities. When the picture is painted out for lower ability track
students, there is a lack of motivation to change that image and it instills a
lower self-esteem when this connection is publicly identified. Through the
tracking structures, the achievement gap is the widened instead of narrowed.


            I acknowledge that every student comes to school with
their individual differences in ability, but through my research, tracking
structures have led to the achievement gaps being widened rather than narrowed.

The purpose of equal educational opportunity for every student when students
were publicly labeled groups based on their intellectual capabilities and
accomplishments, without the access to equal resources. Such a reform is not
simple and quick, rather it requires personal and pedagogical reflection by
educators, conversation and action to generate knowledge, understandings and
skills that are largely lacking in our schools (Tomlinson et. al, 2003, p.

135). It is also valuable for educators who support ability tracking too
realize that learning differences stem and are influenced by a number of
factors beyond the settings in school such as categories to which an individual
may belong to (Tomlinson et. al, 2003, 130).

            Finally, we must value the
perspective that even within a system of early tracking, these adverse effects
may be mitigated to a certain extent. Researchers have suggested three methods
by which ability tracking may be improved. First, tracking can be made less
rigid by encouraging and facilitating track changes at every stage of one’s
education based on ability, determination and behavior (Lavrijsen &
Nicaise, 2015). Secondly, schools may find a middle point to enhance overall
cognitive development by leaving classes untracked for certain subjects such as
History and Music, to name a few, for which the need for and exposure to this
knowledge would count more than their ability to perform in these areas
(Lavrijsen & Nicaise, 2015). Thirdly, a larger school quality control by
the government to incentivize schools to invest in lower track students may
narrow the effect of social background on academic achievement in tracked
systems (Bol et. al, 2014).