Bring Tracking Back to Classes

by Christopher Paslay


Ask any professor of education about differentiated instruction and they’ll tell you it’s the hottest thing since Joe the Plumber.  For those not up to date with current education jargon, allow me to give a textbook definition of differentiated instruction:


“To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process.”

          Tracey Hall, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, NCAC


In other words, differentiated instruction is the idealistic belief that a teacher can be all things to all students at all times.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that appeal to multiple intelligences: verbal/linguistic; logical/mathematical; kinesthetic; spatial; musical; and naturalist.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that accommodate every student’s learning style, whether visual, auditory or haptic.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons appropriate to students on multiple reading levels—anywhere from grade 3 to grade 11 in my case—and find ways to reach English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities who have IEPs.


Teachers who use differentiated instruction do all of these things for dozens of students at the same time, every period, every class, everyday. 


Sound wonderful?  Good. 


But before we start given each other high-fives, there are a few things to consider about differentiated instruction.


The first is the matter of standardized achievement tests.  Those who grade the PSSAs don’t differentiate their scores by ability level.  Below Basic is Below Basic; the state doesn’t care if the student is white or black, fat or skinny, a visual learner or a haptic learner (haptic is a cool word, isn’t it?).  If students don’t score Proficient or above, the school won’t make AYP.              


The second thing to consider is that the real world doesn’t stop to differentiate.  In other words, employers don’t hire differentiated workers.  Colleges don’t accept differentiated transcripts.  Engineers don’t build bridges according to differentiated blueprints.  No matter how hip or liberal the construction company, 1 + 1 will always be 2.    


Maybe this is why Americans are so far behind the rest of the world in science and math: Because you can’t B.S. your way around cold hard numbers. 


As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of this new learning fad.  In my opinion, differentiated instruction is educational socialism.  It’s teaching students via the path of least resistance, giving them endless choices so they don’t have to come out of their comfort zone. 


I am a dedicated educator so I do my best to reach all of the students in all of my classes.  I also work extremely hard to accommodate multiple learning styles in my classroom.  But teaching a room full of students with varied ability levels is an extremely difficult task. 


The way to effectively give a child a solid fundamental education is not through differentiated instruction.  In fact, it’s just the opposite: Schools must go back to academic tracking. 


The following is an article I published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 30, 2005.  It is titled “Bring Tracking Back to Classes,” and it is as relevant today as it was almost three years ago.


For more than two decades, writers of educational policy have been fighting to abolish academic tracking.  Grouping students by ability level, they argue, promotes race and class segregation, harms self-esteem and keeps students locked-in at lower tracks because of a limited access to information.


Although national studies have supported these claims, as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia, I believe academic tracking should be brought back into public schools—in the suburbs as well as the city.  Grouping students by ability level can strengthen a learning environment and make classrooms more efficient.


Arguments against academic tracking have lost their validity, in my opinion. Multiculturalism and promotion of diversity ensures that students will not be segregated by race or social class, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents children from becoming socially stigmatized. As for students getting “locked in” at a lower track, standardized curriculum guarantees that all students have equal access to knowledge and information.


Poor scores on standardized tests are proof that heterogeneously grouped classes—those not tracked by ability level—are failing to meet the needs of our children. In short, the “one-size-fits-all” model of education initiated in the 1980s is unrealistic.


The level of expertise needed to teach a class of 33 heterogeneously grouped students is beyond the reach of many educators. For starters, teaching a heterogeneously grouped class involves identifying each student’s aptitude level. A teacher might use the previous year’s scores from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) to do so.


Aptitude levels as identified by the PSSA are, advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. If there are students in the class at all four levels (and most non-tracked classes have all four levels of students) this would mean that the teacher would have to write four different variations of his or her daily lesson plan to meet the needs of all students.


Once ability levels are identified and materials are prepared, the teacher begins teaching the lesson. Not just once, but up to four times, modeling the activities for each unique group of learners. For example, if a 10th grade English class were composing a Shakespearean Sonnet, students at the various ability levels would have to be instructed and assessed separately. Advanced learners would be required to write the most complex form of the sonnet, following the correct rhyme scheme and syllable count, which is iambic-pentameter. Advanced students would also have to develop the poem’s theme.


Because writing a Shakespearean Sonnet is rather challenging, students at the proficient level would most likely be excused from writing in iambic-pentameter. They would develop the theme and write in a set rhyme structure, but be allowed to deviate from the cumbersome syllable count. Of course, these individualized instructions would still have to be modeled and explained to the appropriate students.


Students at the basic and below basic levels likely would be excused from fully developing the poem’s theme. In addition, they might be excused from writing in the traditional rhyme structure. Again, examples of these variations would need to be modeled and explained.


Is requiring an educator to simultaneously teach four different variations of a lesson to four different groups of students realistic? In my opinion it’s not. But, theoretically, this is the procedure a teacher instructing a class of non-tracked students is expected to follow. The alternative, of course, is academic tracking.


Academic tracking permits an educator to teach students who all are at one ability level. It allows for proper pacing, ensuring that slower students aren’t left behind and that advanced students don’t go unchallenged.


Despite current trends in education, acknowledging a child’s academic weakness is not something to be frowned upon. Neither is putting him in a specialized classroom where he can learn basic skills without the distraction of alternative activities going on around him.


In light of poor performances on standardized tests and the limited resources of many educators, academic tracking should be reintroduced into our public school system.

3 thoughts on “Bring Tracking Back to Classes

  1. Wow, this article was clearly written and had multiple points that are difficult to refute.
    Looking at it theoretically (not realistically) it seems like Differentiated Instruction should happen regularly and seemlessly. One main point that is missed by the “POLICY MAKERS” is that the teachers in the nation (especially in the inner city) are getting younger and less experienced every year.
    Big cities teaching staffs are 30 to 40% Rookies to 5 years experience. The worst schools have even younger staffs.
    These newer teachers can barely get through the normal strain of year one (anyone who has ever taught will tell you this is the hardest thing they have ever done in their lives.) To add on the deeper, complex knowledge of multiple learning styles, methods, etc. PLUS working with Inclusion of special needs, ESOL, behavior problems, and at-risk students—no wonder the rate of turnover is so high. Except for the SUPER TEACHER what is expected is absolutely overwhelming. The numbers bear out this truth. The students grades & scores, teacher turnover, high teacher absences, and burn out. If this is the best answer the POLICY MAKERS have, then it won’t go very far.
    A final point. The decision makers threw out the baby with the bath water–AGAIN– and completely denigrated tracking on one main point. Certain poor and minority students were excluded from rigorous courses. They should try again by keeping the tracking and rigor, BUT ALLOWING ANYONE THE FREEDOM TO TAKE THE RIGOROUS COURSE. Not everyone will be in classroom X, but everyone can take the course if they wish.

  2. And don’t forget inclusion, the buzzword for this year! We have classrooms (elementary) that include SPED and ESOL. No more pulling-out for smaller class size instruction. It’s push-in, baby, push-in! I have friends who are specialists and all they do is go from classroom to classroom and help-out. Sort of like an overpaid SSA. Really uneffective for everyone involved.

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