There’s an article in today’s New York Times about the resurgence of “tracking” in schools. “Tracking” is when students are grouped into class sections based on ability, so the students earning the highest grades are in one group or class, the next highest-achievers are in another group, and so on. As you might expect, there are supporters and detractors for this: some argue that tracking damages students’ self esteem by labeling them bright or not-so-bright. Others argue that keeping all kids at the same level is a disservice to students at either end of an achievement spectrum by teaching to an artificial–and sometimes meaningless–middle ground.
Of course, there are people on both sides of this argument who seem to forget one key factor: kids are incredibly perceptive. In my own kindergarten class, I remember that we had three reading groups: the red birds, the blue birds, and the yellow birds. It was completely obvious to every kid in the room that these were the strongest, intermediate, and weakest readers–giving us color names didn’t hide that fact from us. I was an early reader, and I don’t think I felt embarrassed about being a red bird or that I was somehow better than my friends who were blue birds and yellow birds. Indeed, we went right from reading to recess, and my lack of athleticism and frequent tumbles from the monkey bars kept any reading-inspired ego in check. Heck, between my sub-par painting ability and my struggle to tie my shoes, reading was one of the only things I was good at.
I still can’t decide who’s right on this issue, though my heart lies with a basic truth that follows great teaching: great teaching differentiates to match every learner to the right challenge. If tracking is done with that level of personal attention and with that eye toward promoting growth, then I think it’s done in the right spirit. If it ends up depriving the lower achievers of opportunities without offering increased support, then it’s hugely problematic and inequitable.
Read the article here and let me know what you think in the comments.