Is tracked education promising or problematic? – Opinion
I want to take a few moments to address some misconceptions I am encountering in my own community around the role and impact of “tracking” or leveled classrooms on the acceleration of student achievement. The concept of tracking has been around for decades and is often messaged as a programmatic strategy to provide targeted instruction to students within their zone of proximal development, or “ability level.” In theory, this may sound like an effective and efficient instructional approach. However, the reality often looks much different. Tracking doesn’t ensure high quality teaching and learning for all learners. It doesn’t guarantee research based practices aligned to targeted, data-driven instructional practices. In fact, while a minority of studies have shown favorable results for some students, the current research on tracked learning is inconsistent at best.
Furthermore, it has been consistently found that tracked programs are more likely to track white, middle-income and neuro typically developing students into high levels and track out students who identify as Black/African American, Latin-x, students who are neurodiverse and/or multilingual learners (Ferri & Connor, 2006; Losen & Orfield, 2002; Garcia & Ortiz, 2011, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). To be clear, this is NOT because those students are intellectually inferior, less motivated or incapable of high academic achievement. In contrast, it is because in general, public education has not consistently provided the same, rigorous and affirming educational opportunities to diverse learners inside and outside the classroom (Bishow & Fontenot, 2013). Tracked classrooms serve to exacerbate these opportunity gaps, not narrow them.
Finally, it is important to note that most systems that track in upper elementary and middle school years, use standardized assessments to inform placement. This means that an assessment a child takes as young as 9, 10 or 11 years old can be predictive of the courses and content they have access to in middle school and high school. This can have a profound impact on their educational trajectory and ultimately, the development of their intellectual identity. In essence, tracked classrooms, much like “leveled texts,” lead to tracked lives.
In contrast, there is significant, current and compelling research on the benefits of inclusive education, both academically and socially for all learners (Rae, McLaughlin & Walter-Thomas, 2002; Clarke, Dyson & Millward, 2018; Florian, Black-Hawkins & Rouse, 2016; Rojewski, Lee & Gregg, 2015, Scanlon & Theoharis, 2020; Hehir, 2010). This is because successful inclusive classrooms embrace diverse learning profiles, strengths and needs while maintaining high expectations. Inclusive educators are knowledgeable and skilled in designing instruction to engage, challenge and support a wide range of needs. This may look like differentiated learning tasks that have the same rigorous goal, but allow learners to show understanding in different ways. This may involve collaborative group work, project based learning and strategic small groups, informed by instructional data. In short, inclusive classrooms have been shown repeatedly in studies to produce higher growth and achievement for all learners, because they require educators to be more knowledgeable and skilled practitioners. Every child benefits from a strong educator.
Furthermore, inclusive classrooms provide invaluable opportunities for students to learn from and with peers with diverse strengths and needs. Educators who work in inclusive classrooms understand that developing a strong, trusting and supportive classroom community is the foundation of all learning. As a result, inclusive educators set the conditions for students to learn from and with each other, both academically and socially. This serves to cultivate empathy, develop perspective taking, promote flexibility and respect for human differences. It provides all learners with opportunities to see, learn about and celebrate one another. And perhaps most importantly, it prepares all students to live, learn and work in a diverse, global society.
I don’t just believe this; as a parent, former teacher and school leader, I have seen it through direct experience. As a school leader in Boston, I worked collaboratively with my faculty to transform an underperforming urban public school with tracked educational programming to a high quality and high achieving inclusive school community. Inclusive education was a core value, but it was also seen as a pathway to academic excellence and student agency. As such, we worked together to build educator knowledge and skill to meet diverse needs in heterogenous classrooms, foster strong, culturally and linguistically affirming classroom and school culture and engage all families as valued partners in our learning community. As a result, we became and remain one of the highest achieving elementary schools in the city of Boston and were recognized by the district and state for significant growth across racial, linguistic and neurodiverse subgroups. This is certainly a testament to the collaborative efforts of talented, committed educators and the incredible students and invested families we serve. It also demonstrates the power of inclusive education for ALL learners.
As a parent, I have also seen the power of inclusive education in my own child’s growth and development. My son is a student with neurodiversity. This manifests in many academic strengths, but it can also impact his ability to self-regulate and understand diverse perspectives. His elementary school provides him and his peers with intentional opportunities to learn from and with students who are neuro-typically developing and neurodiverse in the academic environment every single day. These experiences have helped to build empathy, compassion and flexibility. As a result, he is a more successful student and person. This has impacted his self-efficacy as a learner, but also his confidence and skill socially and emotionally. I truly believe that inclusive education has had a profound impact on his educational trajectory and his character development. I would choose an inclusive classroom over a homogenous, tracked classroom for my children, every single time.
I have never met a parent who does not want the best for their child. All of us want to see our children supported and challenged to realize their full, unbridled potential and achieve at the highest levels. I do not fault any parent for considering diverse pathways to set their children up for success. However, as a life-long educator, former school leader with a track record of success and committed Milton parent, I want to make sure all parents have equitable access to current, complete and accurate information about high quality teaching and learning. The research is very clear; inclusive education benefits all learners. Tracked classrooms not only have mediocre results, they can cause lasting harm, stifling the educational trajectory of students. Inclusion is more than just a tagline. It is a strategic lever for rigorous, high quality, excellent education for ALL. That is the promise and potential and public education. That is the Milton education I want, not just for my child, but for every child we serve.
Julia Bott Nosek; Milton parent and educator