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Tracking Students – Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous Classrooms

During our posts this week we will look at the very hot topic of de-tracking, specifically the de-tracking of high schools. A movement towards that concept has long been underway at the middle school level and now the concept is pushing upward into the secondary level.

Defining Tracking
Tracking is the concept of taking a larger group of students and then breaking them into smaller groups based upon student ability. Tracking in essence attempts to group students homogeneously within a single classroom. For example, a freshmen high school class featuring 100 students might be broken into four groups of 25. The highest ability students would be assigned to the A track or Phase Four or Track 91 (or some other name denoting that these students are taking the highest level courses offered in math, English, science, social studies, and foreign language).

The next set of students would be assigned to the B track, or Phase 3, or Track 92. Those students would see slightly less in the way of curriculum demands than those in the highest level though their program should be designed to challenge these students at the level of rigor that is appropriate for their respective ability. Eventually, as a result there is a track D, or Phase One, or Track 94 that features students of the lowest academic ability. Staff theoretically would further adjust programming so as to again foster the best learning environment for students of that ability.

Tracking is still firmly embedded in most high schools even though there is growing evidence that tracking fosters lower expectations, in general, for both students and staff who are involved in the lower tracks. However, the research is somewhat subject specific, with math studies often indicating that tracking is the best way to handle that subject.

The latest in educational theory is to move towards heterogeneous grouping where students of all ability levels are placed in classes that offer the same general curriculum with potential differing expectations based on student choices. The newer approach theoretically offers all students access to the same educational curriculum and academic materials, something is not necessarily true for tracked classes. De-tracking also places unmotivated students in classrooms with more motivated individuals who serve as age appropriate role models for their peers.

The Debate Continues
Critics of de-tracking insist that such an approach impedes the progress of the students who are stronger academically. These folks insist that grouping high ability students together is the best way to maximize the potential of the higher aptitude students. The result of de-tracking, critics insist, is a more homogeneous academic environment because the students of higher ability are held back while those of lower ability are brought up.

Proponents insist that with proper teaching expectations, the best and brightest will still be offered access to the same curriculum they were exposed to previously. In addition by serving as role models to those students of lower aptitude, the other student’s achievement levels should indeed increase. Most importantly, de-tracking requires the teacher be skilled in both the use of social influence theory as well as the psychology of the individual learner to maximize the learning environment for all students. In the right hands, heterogeneous classrooms have proven to be very successful in English/Language Arts, Social Studies and many science courses.

1 comment

1 Kim { 02.25.10 at 6:39 pm }

I am in an elementary school that tracked students starting in FIRST grade up until this year. Now today, I have been told that we are going back to tracking in math and reading. I am AGAINST this completely. Students should have differentiated activities but should not be grouped homogeneous especially in elementary school. We are killing the idea of success in the lower level students and building an idea of superiority in the higher level students. AHHHHHH!!!!!!

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