Over the years, the Americanclassrooms have grown to represent a wide range of academic diversity.
Classroomsacross the country have grown to typify students of different socialcompetences, interests, behavioral tendencies, emotional maturities, culturalbackgrounds, socio-economic status and language differences, to point out themore obvious (Tomlinson et. al, 2003). As the population and influx ofimmigrants grew, these realities which led us to question if school andclassroom reform needed to be further initiated to attend to, rather thanignore the vast differences in student learning readiness and variance acrossthe spectrum. In the past, the practice of ability tracking, which is thesorting of students into different classes according to their perceivedability, was introduced to accommodate the discrepancies in our classrooms.However, its impact has remained a source of controversy in the American publiceducation. While proponents continue to justify ability tracking in its purposeand ability to create equal educational opportunities and outcomes throughtheir arguments on the synchronization of student learning speeds, teachingefficacy and self-esteem, research on this reform forced me to question ifindeed the method of differentiated instruction benefitted academically diversepopulations. While homogenous instruction through ability tracking appears tobe attractive because it appears to address the discrepancies we discussedearlier, my research has indicated that it falls short of its promise toprovide equal educational opportunities and instead, has a direct oppositeeffect on our student population.Synchronizationof Student Learning SpeedsProponents argue that abilitytracking allows for the synchronization of student learning speeds.
This is thenotion that students learn better when they are grouped with other students whoperform similarly academically whether it is with regard to knowing the samethings to begin with or who learn at a similar rate. Through differentiatedinstruction for the different tracks, students who are brighter will not beheld back and that the deficiencies of slow students are less easily remediatedif they are placed in mixed classes (Oakes, 1985, p. 6).
In a study of 300classrooms across the United States, Oakes’ findings indicate that the learningof average and slower students are not more easily remedied when groupedtogether with similar students and that there was no evidence to support thebelief that students learn best when they are grouped together with others wholearn at similar paces to themselves (Oakes, 1985). Allowing students to learn at theirown pace may help with forming a strong foundation of the basics, but thisargument is only justifiable if these students were also covering the same amountof modules as students in the faster tracks and if these students were beingchallenged to learn modules that would make them as competitive as others theirage are expected to be. As Gamoran and Weisten (1995) noted in their research,differentiated instruction for different tracks should be conceived andpracticed as an extension to the standard educational practice, but is oftenimplemented as a substitute for it. Thus, unless curriculum and instruction aremodified to be a good fit for academically diverse learners while still beinginclusive, student outcomes will be disappointing (Gamoran & Weistein,1995). Therefore, if students are given the liberty and time to learn at theirown pace, it should be noted that these students will also require moreinstruction time to cover the same modules as their peers in faster tracks toensure an equal education for all. Without the same modules being taught, theachievement gap between the lower track students and higher track students continuesto widen.Further, brain research hasconcluded that when students encounter tasks at moderate levels of difficultyand challenge, they are more likely to sustain efforts to learn than when thetasks are under challenging (Brandsford et.
al, 2000). When the pace at whichthe students are taught at is adapted to the level of students from lowertracks, the students are not challenged to learn at levels of optimaldevelopment. That is, when material is presented at a pace that is below or attheir actual level of mastery, students will not be trained to grasp new ideasquickly, to become independent thinkers or rapid problem solvers. These skillsare instilled through repetitive exposure to material at a slightly more complexpace than the child can manage, which is often lacking in homogenous classes.
Thus, the segregation into tracks according to ability leads to ignoring thedifficulties of the slower students rather than adequately addressing andcorrecting them (Oakes, 1993).Teaching EfficacyTeaching students in trackedclasses according to their level of ability brings a level of efficacy to theteachers and their daily duties. The individualized attention thatdifferentiated instruction allows for directs attention to every student’sparticular shortcomings. Teachers’ awareness and knowledge of their students’ capabilitiesprovides a road map to their key concepts, organizing principles and fundamentalskills (Tomlinson et.
al, 2003, p. 133). The teachers then use materials andunderstanding of essential ideas and activities to ensure efficientunderstanding of the core ideas and to solve meaningful problems (The NationalResearch Council, 1999). Therefore, in learner centered classrooms, teachersare empowered to use a variety of instructional strategies and approaches toensure that students acquire the knowledge with complete understanding.
However, while I acknowledge the benefits research has found for teachers andstudents, I would like to point out two factors that would affect the extent towhich these benefits would be indeed by received by the students.Firstly, we have to realize thatcustomizing curriculum and teaching methods to account for different abilitiesof students is not a minor modification in pedagogical practice. As Mehlinger(1995) states, to “customize schooling for different learners, rather thanmass produce students who have essentially been taught the same thing in thesame way in the same amount of time…is not a superficial change; it is a deepcultural 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 toassessing students’ abilities, which is mainly done through testing, creatingstrong conceptual frameworks, purchasing resources that support the conceptualframeworks such as books and training and leadership programs for teachers, allof which are systemic changes that extend beyond just the role of teachers andmodifying curriculum on paper.
Therefore, the question here, in response toability tracking as a benefit for teachers and students, is indeed how manyschools have the resources and willingness to commit to these changes? Secondly, for differentiatedinstruction 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 resourcestend to be unequally distributed across tracks and more than frequently, themost capable and experienced teachers are assigned to the high tracks, whilethe less experienced and motivated teachers are assigned to the lower tracks(2012). The lack of experience and motivation would result in the lack ofinformed reflection on students as individuals and their weaknesses andstrengths, less of an effort to explore and implement a wide range ofinstructional approaches suited to the students’ abilities and initiateeffective classroom management routines. As highly experienced educators haverecognized, teachers have to be fully committed to reconstructing their senseof students of different ability levels learn, how learning varies even amongstudents in the lower track itself, what students have to be taught and howthey should be taught, which is either absent or a struggle for teachers withlittle experience and motivation (Tomlinson et.
al, 2003, p. 134). Thus,defeating the purpose of tracking students to ensure fair and equal educationalopportunities for all, despite their initial challenges.TheImpact on Self-Esteem for Lower Track Students There has been constant debate on the effects ofability tracking on self-esteem of the students.
According to Oakes (1985), herresearch indicated that the assumption is that slower students are more likelyto develop more positive attitudes about themselves and school when they arenot placed in mixed groups with students who are far more capable (p. 6). Thebelief is that the constant comparison and competition with bright students wouldhave negative consequences on the self-esteem of slower students, thusaffecting academic performance even further. Without completely denying thevalidity to that assumption, I offer the perspective of brighter studentssetting benchmarks for lower ability students to aim for. According to the NationalEducation Association (2017), research has proven that in many schools, whenstudents are segregated into tracks, they are given labels that stay with themas they move from grade to grade.
For those placed in lower tracks, itessentially establishes a standard of lower expectations, which leads to lowerlevels of motivation toward school and a lower self-esteem. Moreover, theresearch concluded that in high school, the lower and higher tracks eventuallyevolved into the tracks of vocational and college preparatory without providingevery student with the opportunity to choose the direction they would like topursue a career in (National Education Association, 2017). Thus, being placedin a heterogeneous class encourages students to strive for achievements andgoals that other students in their class hold themselves to, which would bebeneficial in the long term. In addition, self-esteem of lowertrack students is directly impacted by the link between track placements and astudent’s socio-economic status and race. According to Oakes (1985), poor andminority students are largely over-represented in low-ability tracks andunder-represented in programs for the gifted and talented. The characterizationof labels is carried over into the minds of students by unintentionally forminglinks of high ability with higher socio-economic status and mostly the whiterace, while the average and slower students are associated with a lowersocio-economic status and in the United States, mostly the African-American andLatino ethnicities.
When the picture is painted out for lower ability trackstudents, there is a lack of motivation to change that image and it instills alower self-esteem when this connection is publicly identified. Through thetracking structures, the achievement gap is the widened instead of narrowed.Conclusion I acknowledge that every student comes to school withtheir individual differences in ability, but through my research, trackingstructures have led to the achievement gaps being widened rather than narrowed.The purpose of equal educational opportunity for every student when studentswere publicly labeled groups based on their intellectual capabilities andaccomplishments, without the access to equal resources. Such a reform is notsimple and quick, rather it requires personal and pedagogical reflection byeducators, conversation and action to generate knowledge, understandings andskills that are largely lacking in our schools (Tomlinson et. al, 2003, p.135).
It is also valuable for educators who support ability tracking toorealize that learning differences stem and are influenced by a number offactors beyond the settings in school such as categories to which an individualmay belong to (Tomlinson et. al, 2003, 130). Finally, we must value theperspective that even within a system of early tracking, these adverse effectsmay be mitigated to a certain extent.
Researchers have suggested three methodsby which ability tracking may be improved. First, tracking can be made lessrigid by encouraging and facilitating track changes at every stage of one’seducation based on ability, determination and behavior (Lavrijsen &Nicaise, 2015). Secondly, schools may find a middle point to enhance overallcognitive development by leaving classes untracked for certain subjects such asHistory and Music, to name a few, for which the need for and exposure to thisknowledge would count more than their ability to perform in these areas(Lavrijsen & Nicaise, 2015). Thirdly, a larger school quality control bythe government to incentivize schools to invest in lower track students maynarrow the effect of social background on academic achievement in trackedsystems (Bol et. al, 2014).