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K-12 Schools: To track or not to track? #1
Subj:     K-12 Schools: To track or not to track #1 of 2
Date:     12/19/2001 4:33:54 PM Central Standard Time
From:     Gypsycurse7

In a message dated 12/17/2001 7:43:27 PM Central Standard Time, Michael Atherton writes:
>  As Mr. Mann points out there are two basic alternatives: you can place students in a class that matches their ability, or you can try to individualize instruction within one class.  There are a number of ways to structure the latter approach.  1) You can use what's called computer aided instruction (CAI).  This approach is expensive and has never been as successful as we would like.  2)  You can do the same thing using print materials, which is less expensive and depending of the instructional technique maybe effective.  3) You can use some type of cooperative learning, where students help each other. [snip]

   All of the above approaches are utilized in schools that differentiate the curriculum by ability-grouping as well as in schools that do not ability-group.  What distinguishes tracked from untracked schools are the goals, which in turn influence how different approaches to learning are used.

> This approach [cooperative learning] has been very controversial because while it is helpful for low ability students, it does very little for advanced students. The decision that you have to make for the third approach is whether you are willing to sacrifice the achievement of the stronger students for that of the weaker ones [snip].
  Actually, "cooperative learning" as such is not at all controversial.  Cooperative learning strategies are utilized by teachers at schools that differentiate the curriculum by ability-grouping as well as untracked schools.  Basically, whenever a group of students work together they have an opportunity to learn from and help each other.  

When it comes to cooperative learning, what advocates of ability-grouping object to isn't the concept of kids working together, it's the concept of kids of different ability-levels working together.  However, in any given subject area, some students will be stronger than others with whom they are grouped. A certain amount of peer tutoring happens when children work together, and many teachers deliberately put students of unequal ability together for this purpose.  Project STAR researchers noted a strong correlation between the use of peer tutoring and average test scores in grades K-3.  A common feature of the top-scoring 10% of all project STAR classrooms was the extensive use of peer tutoring.  Source: Pate-Bain, H., Achilles, C.M., Boyd-Zaharias, J., &  Mckenna, B.  (1992).  "Class size does make a difference [Project STAR in Tennessee]."  Phi Beta Kappan, 74, 253-256.

It should also be noted that few students are uniformly strong or weak in every subject area.  The brains of some kids process information in a way that makes them strong in some areas and weak in others.  By the way, if a thematic integrative curriculum is used, it is possible for most student to be strong, weak, and average compared to others with whom they are grouped for a particular project.

The alternative to ability-grouping is to keep kids with a wide variety of abilities on a single academic / college-preparatory track, and to individualize the curriculum.  In a one-track classroom, the teacher typically can spend a lot less time on group and one-on-one instruction, and more time actively observing and troubleshooting.  In a one-track classroom the teacher can be more focused on the educational planning process.  That's why it is possible to more effectively meet the needs of all students in an untracked classroom.
> And, this is not a racial issue because there are stronger and weaker students of all races...[snip]

Is it merely a coincidence that ability-grouping was not commonly practiced by elementary school teachers prior to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education?  I don't think so. Ability-grouping was promoted by self-identified white supremacists as a way to keep most blacks in their place at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Since the late 1950's ability-grouping has been adopted as the preferred educational model by departments of education in all 50 states and the federal government.  School districts throughout the US have also been encouraged or mandated to offer gifted education. Gifted / talented programs are used as a Trojan horse. If gifted / talented programming begins in grade 4, the sorting out process usually begins no later than the beginning of grade 3.  Stone, E. (1990, May 6).  "Gifted children's programs: a matter of class [New York City programs]."  The New York Times Magazine, pp. 48-49+.

Ability-grouping is a colorblind practice in the sense that the idea is to discriminate on the basis of ability, not race.  However, it has a disparate impact on whites and blacks.  Test score data collected by the Minneapolis Public Schools and disaggregated by race suggests that about 10% of the black students and 40% of the white students were placed in gifted and talented programs during the 1990s.  Black students are also greatly over-represented in the lowest ability-level groups, special education classes, and alternative schools for troubled youth.    

Doug Mann, Kingfield

Doug Mann for School Board