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Alternatives to Tracking

by Rose Sanders
Selma, Alabama

  • A. High Expectations
  • B. Heterogeneous and Skill-based Grouping
  • C. Providing Compensatory Education in Heterogeneous Classes
  • D. High-level (Unified Required Core ) Curriculum for All Children
  • E. Student Aspirations and Detracking
  • F. Steps to Detrack Schools

Tracking pervades all aspects of a child's educational experience, because it is often accepted as a necessary component of an appropriate educational system, ridding a school or school system of tracking is complex. The first step in the elimination of tracking is to conceptualize what would need to be changed in order for a school to operate without tracking.

The process of detracking requires a commitment from teachers, parents and school administrators to create a learning environment that alters the climate of classrooms and entire schools. There are no easy answers to the question of how to best eliminate tracking from the classrooms and schools, but there are a set of principles that guide a school's effort to eliminate tracking.

Educators must explore their own capacity for change, examine their beliefs about the nature of intelligence, assess their preparation for working with academically integrated classrooms and launch "catch-up" efforts to learn about effective teaching approaches for heterogeneous classes.

Parents must overcome their concerns that the loss of traditional classrooms will outweigh promised gains or that the end of tracking will result in fewer forms of support or challenges for their children. Throughout our communities, parents need information about the nature of purposed changes, and teachers need the information and confidence to proceed. Once a school or system is committed to the elimination of tracking, parents and teachers must develop a plan for that process. Detracking proceeds more smoothly when everyone affected is informed and involved. The following are some principles that can be used to guide parents, teachers and community organizers in their development plan for the elimination of tracking in their schools.

A. High Expectations

High expectations are essential for a student success. All of our schools must be committed to having high expectations for all students. Studies of schooling consistently find that differences in teacher expectations for student learning vary dramatically according to group label and placement, which in truth, justifies those expectations. Students from whom more is expected produce more than students from whom less is expected. Tracking institutionalizes the perception of intelligence as a fixed characteristic that some students have "more," while others have ''less."

Detracked schools have high expectations for all students and reject the inevitability of a bell-shaped curve or achievement. In a detracked school, there is the expectation that all students can and will learn at the highest levels, and there is a school-wide commitment to create learning environments necessary to help students "become" smart.

In detracked schools, every teacher, counselor and staff member- must put the principle of high expectations into practice in every aspect of school life from the classroom to the most mundane school routines. It is essential that the school staff consistently act on the belief that this practice will open doors to further opportunity. Whereas, tracked schools rely on practices that compare students to one another. This process lowers expectations for all but those at the top. Detracked schools assume that nearly everyone can achieve ;1l high levels, thereby raising expectations for all. What counts most is the effort and motivation that both teachers and students bring to every task.

Most important, it is not left to individual teachers to communicate high expectations of effort. In detracked schools, the "norm" of high expectations is institutionalized in the choices that each school makes about school routines. That norm is further put into practice in the school's grouping arrangements, curriculum, classroom instruction and access to experiences that will raise students' aspirations for their future.

B. Heterogeneous and Skill-based Grouping

Heterogeneous grouping takes many forms, including flexible grouping, grouping for multiple "intelligences," integration of "regular" students and students with disabilities, non-stigmatizing approaches for Title I students, and multi-age groupings. The common denominator of innovative grouping arrangements is the belief that learning in heterogeneous groups enriches learning for all.

A goal of heterogeneous grouping does not necessarily mean the elimination of all so-called "ability" grouping. Flexible grouping arrangements can be implemented in such a way that students' primary identification is with a heterogeneous group, but that allows for skill-based grouping in certain subjects. Skill-based grouping can be effective when ( I ) students remain in heterogeneous classes most of the day and are grouped by performance level only in such subjects as reading and math, (2) grouping results in reducing homogeneity in the specific skill being taught, (3) group assignments are both flexible and frequently assessed, and (4) teachers adapt to the level and pace of instruction to accommodate students' differences in learning. However, one must be cautious about skill-based grouping. It should only be temporary and done to accomplish a targeted learning task. The bottom line, however, is that all children will eventually master the same skills and subject matters. This is totally contrary to what happens in schools were tracking is present.

Specific structural and program changes are essential to make controlled heterogeneity work for all students. The detracking program should emphasize ( I ) increased attention to individualized learning so that students working at an accelerated pace have opportunities for enrichment while vulnerable students receive additional support, (2) tutoring support in all classes. (3) ongoing, multi-year staff development in cooperative learning, and (4) scheduling to allow for a common planning time and an extra preparation period for teachers.

New grouping arrangements in detracked schools reflect both a commitment to providing equal access to knowledge and the view that diversity is itself a resource for learning. Without heterogeneous grouping, equal access to knowledge may be elusive.

C. Providing Compensatory Education in Heterogeneous Classes

In a detracked school, segregating students by perceived "ability" is viewed as harmful to students learning. Schools without tracking develop alternative approaches to reduce labeling and isolation of students from the mainstream. These approaches engage students, not with a low-level curriculum, but with a challenging and nurturing program designed to improve learning.

Educators must take both small and large steps to ensure that students get this help without being publicly labeled or remanded to a low-status position, never to be retrieved into the school's mainstream. School routines need to be reorganized to reduce isolation of students that are receiving services through special compensatory programs. For example, every child in need of effective programs (like Title I programs or those for children-at-risk of academic failure) is enrolled in heterogeneous classes for all subjects. In these grade-level classes, trained specialists for all subjects work with children who need extra help, providing tutoring in language arts and math within each of the content areas. Also, as much as is practicable, students should receive their "effective program" services in addition to, rather than instead of, their regular classroom instruction.

D. High-level (Unified Required Core ) Curriculum for All Children

Eliminating tracking from the schools involves more than the regrouping of students. It also demands innovative curriculums and instruction to offer all students the learning experiences often reserved for the "high" students. These innovations that organize learning around investigation and discussion of meaningful problems are multidimensional and involve students in hands-on activities that offer diverse routes to knowledge.

Designing a challenging and interesting curriculum for everyone leads detracked schools to extend the learning opportunities frequently reserved for students labeled "gifted and talented" to all children in all classes. This strategy is not one of watering down traditional curricula to an "average level;" rather, it aims at adopting approaches often available only to the "high" groups and making them accessible to more students.

Mixed "ability" grouping calls for changes not only in curriculum but also instruction and assessment. Classes that treat students as individuals rather than as categories require the orchestration of all the resources of the school and community so that there are many or multiple routes to learning. This new way to teach and assess children in mixed groups and mixed classrooms shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning.

In those rare instances where a student demonstrates total mastery of a subject matter, there is an option. The simplest option is to allow the student to advance to the next subject even though the school year has not ended. For example, a student who has demonstrated mastery of Algebra I can begin Algebra II immediately.

Once children are required to master the high-level curriculum, specialization allows for individual interest and differences. For example, some students may choose to concentrate their electives in the Arts. Others may choose to take more advanced classes. such as Calculus II or Spanish IV. Under this system of specialization, however, all students will have the opportunity to specialize in any area and have the academic preparation to excel in the chosen area.

    1. Instruction

The most commonly mentioned teaching change in a detracked school is the shift from traditional teacher-centered instruction to cooperative learning. Cooperative learning involves (1) heterogeneous grouping, including special education students, (2) teachers and students sharing leadership appropriately, (3) activities that emphasize task accomplishment and maintenance of skills, and (4) students sharing responsibility for each others learning, with the most effective learning evolving from positive interdependence among students. Although some may think that this promotes cheating, it allows each child to share and teach what he or she knows to others. One of the major criticisms of cooperative learning is that some students will be held back; however, the best way to learn is to teach. The teacher, however, is always present and is the master teacher and guide. Although students learn together, each student is tested individually and must show a mastery of the subject. However, team testing is sometimes used to reinforce what has been learned in the group and to enhance the self-esteem and confidence to perform individually. Common to the different approaches to cooperative learning is the expectation that all children will gain both academic and social skills by sharing information, knowledge and personal opinions while completing a group task.

    2. Assessment

Traditional approaches to assessing student progress are not adequate. Standardized, multiple-choice tests, in particular, are not designed to reveal the process of students' thinking, their approach to solving complicated problems, or their inclination to form hypotheses or ask probing questions. These methods of assessment are therefore inadequate methods of assessing the success of a cooperative learning classroom.

More complex instructional approaches are necessary for heterogeneous classes. Also, a set of more complex assessments particularly focusing on evaluating what students can do with their learning are needed. A shift to performance assessments may both stimulate and respond to change in curriculum and instruction. A variety of alternative methods, used separately or together, can enrich what is available to educators responsible for evaluating students in heterogeneous classrooms. These include ( I ) teacher reports based on observation, (2) interviews and conversations with students, and (3) projects and demonstrations. In schools without tracking, these approaches diversify assessments to math multidimensional curriculum and instruction. While each has potential for heterogeneous classrooms, they require teachers, administrators and policy makers to have a thorough understanding of both the promises and pitfalls of such alternatives.

E. Student Aspirations and Detracking

In tracked schools, differences in learning conditions and school responses to perceived differences in ability frequently work together to undermine students aspirations for future success. In some cases, a discussion of aspiration is simply not a part of a school's routine. In other cases, tracking practices may directly close students off from access to opportunities that would help them turn their dreams into reality. Schools without tracking understand that some form of post-secondary education beyond a high school diploma -- whether technical or commercial .school, community college. four-year college or university -- is a necessity for anyone who will enter adulthood at the turn of the century. It is no accident that 95% of the students at the inner city Frederick Douglas School in New York, go to college. In this public school. that serves traditionally low achievers, there is no tracking, but there is high aspirations for all students.

Access to guidance counselors and resources can make a significant difference in the lives of students. School counselors provide information and assistance to student’s about high school course enrollment, and in some settings, counselors, may assign students to particular "gate keeping" courses that determine their track throughout high school. To the extent that school counseling in the middle grades provides access to critical information that links placement in college preparatory courses to post-secondary opportunities, guidance itself is a critical "gate-keeping resource. ' However. high-level curriculums should be required of all students, which would minimize the counselors role as "gate keeper."

Until this is achieved, counselors must work with students to widen their opportunities. Local schools should be encouraged to take four critical steps to action. (I) Establish a broad-based process in each local school district for determining the particular guidance and counseling needs of the students within each school and for planning how best to meet those needs, (2) develop a program under the leadership of each school principal that emphasizes the importance of the guidance counselor as a monitor and promoter of student potential, as well as coordinator of the school’s guidance plan, (3) mount programs to inform and involve parents and other influential members of the family in the planning, decision making and learning activities of the student, and (4) provide a program of guidance and counseling during the early and middle years of schooling, especially for students who traditionally have not been served well by schools.

F. Steps to Detrack Schools

Alternatives to tracking will be most effective if begun early. Where strong consensus for change exists, steps to detrack elementary schools may include (1) preparing all elementary schools in the system to offer all students the same teaching and curriculum offered to "advanced" students, such as smaller class size, continuity of teaching staff over several years, varied curriculum, access to library and other resources. (2) phasing out advanced classes but not advanced courses, (3) eliminating practices that publicly label students by assigning them to separate classes or 'pull-out ' programs. and (4) grouping children for instructional techniques such as team teaching, cooperative learning, interdisciplinary curriculum, and accelerated learning to ensure that all students are taught at the same grade level by the time they complete the sixth grade.

The above strategy may not be possible in a system where the resistance to tracking is strong. Gradual steps to detracking under adverse political conditions might include, (1) designing lower tracks as vehicles to prepare students to enter higher grades, (2) reducing the number of tracks within certain subjects, (3) cutting tracks out altogether in a few subjects or in certain grades, (4) combining ability groups for instruction around specific skills and employing team teaching or multi-grading to encourage flexibility, (5) employing after-school peer or adult tutoring to allow less prepared students to be mainstreamed into regular or more advance classrooms, (6) blurring the distinction between vocational and academic programs by introducing academic concepts into vocational study and hands-on, real life activity into academic courses, and (7) maintaining racial, ethnic and income balance in all classes at all levels. Yet, beware of the pitfalls of proportional equality. Some schools boast that they have equal percentages of Blacks and Whites in their advanced levels or in their magna schools, but little effort is given to provide the majority of excluded Black and White students the same academic opportunities. Consequently, these students remain victimized by the same ills of tracking. Remember, proportional equality is inequality; therefore, it is no solution.

In crossing the tracks, Anne Wheelock effectively characterized the basic components to the process of eliminating tracking. They are as follows:

  • A clear school mission articulated in terms of the belief that all students can learn and the conviction that schools must play the major role in intellectual development by ensuring equal access to knowledge;
  • School-based leadership with teacher, student and parent support for change. A plan for change grounded in research-based practices;
  • Ample time for staff development;
  • A phase in process supported by school organizational arrangements;
  • Changes in school routines to create a climate that reflects a commitment to involve all students in equal learning opportunities;
  • Explore ways to provide equal access to knowledge for all students in groups that reflect a diversity of background learning styles and abilities; each will aid in eliminating tracking

The road to a school without tracking is a difficult one. It will take a strong effort to convince teachers, parents and citizens that a school without tracking is a school that does better by all students. The effort is directed towards changing minds and presenting alternatives. By getting involved in the debate, you have taken the first step toward making educational opportunity a reality for all children.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 2, 1999.

Also by Rose Sanders:

Rose Sanders

Rose Sanders is a civil rights attorney, education activist, songwriter, and playwright living in Selma, Alabama. She is the mother of three children.

She is president and co-founder of the 21st Century Leadership project for youth across the South. 21st Century uses the L.A.C.E. (Leadership - Academics - Culture - Economics) philosophy.

Rose Sanders was Alabama's first African American woman judge.

Rose Sanders has also co-founded CARE (Coalition of Alabamians Reforming Education). In response to CARE's recommendation, Rose Sanders was appointed by the Governor of Alabama to co-chair the state Commission of Standards, Performance and Accountability which is drawing up a blueprint for education reform in Alabama.

Rose Sanders co-founded McRae Learning Center where children learn to read at age 3 and 4.

Also, she has co-founded the National Summit Against Tracking and the Miseducation of Children which convened at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fall of 1996.

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