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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Reply / More Students Learn More with Untracking

    Instructional Strategies
      In his familiar arguments for tracking, Ralph Scott sounds several notes of caution with which I agree. Like him, I fear the retreat to homogenized instruction in heterogeneous (or any other) classrooms. Like him, I worry that American students are not sufficiently challenged. In fact, in making the case for alternatives to tracking, I have cited evidence that many middle grade students are under-engaged and bored (Epstein and Mac Iver 1992, Lounsbury and Clark 1990).
      Given these concerns, I have also emphasized that untracking requires more than just regrouping students (Wheelock 1992). Classroom teachers tell us that successful multiple-ability classrooms depend on professional development for teachers, innovations in pedagogy, and a curriculum incorporating an array of activities to stimulate students of diverse abilities. All school routines must support the assumption that all students deserve the learning opportunities traditionally reserved for those students described as most able. Educators using curriculums that help diverse students thrive in heterogeneous classes have produced achievement, discipline, and attendance data that suggest that their reforms have a payoff for all.
      Those like Scott who find such stories counterintuitive might want to review recent analyses of data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 by two social scientists who report that low-track 8th graders in heterogeneous classes performed much better than their low-achieving peers in homogeneous classes. And, once they reach the 10th grade, the untracked students are much more likely to be enrolled in a meaningful course of study (Braddock and Slavin 1992, 1993).
      Talking to students in Boston about tracking, I learned how quickly many absorbed the implications of their track placement into their views of themselves as learners (Dentzer and Wheelock 1990). Seventh grade students in “low” groups assured me that they should not be in heterogeneous classes because, they said, “We would hold the smart kids back.” Even younger students clearly understood that what they learned depended on what they were taught. One “average” 3rd grader, asked what would become of her classmates in the “high” groups, replied that by the time they reached high school, they'd be “smarter.” “They've been taught more,” she said simply.
      I started looking for alternatives to tracking because I was determined to find schools that were teaching more students “more” so that they'd be “smarter. ” I found a few schools that met these expectations (hardly enough to affect the U.S. economy). I hope Scott will join in efforts to understand the process and resources needed so that more schools can help more students realize our highest hopes for their learning.
      References

      Braddock, J. H., and R. E. Slavin. (1992). Life in the Slow Lane: A Longitudinal Study of Effects of Ability Grouping on Student Achievement, Attitudes, and Perceptions. Baltimore, Md.: Center for Research on Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

      Braddock, J. H., and R. E. Slavin. (1993). “Why Ability Grouping Must End: Achieving Excellence and Equity in American Education,” Journal of Intergroup Relations 20, 1: 51–64.

      Dentzer, E., and A. Wheelock. (1990). Locked In/Locked Out: Tracking and Placement Practices in Boston Public Schools. Boston: Massachusetts Advocacy Center.

      Epstein, J., and D. Mac Iver. (1992). “Opportunities to Learn: Effects on Eighth Graders of Curriculum Offerings and Instructional Approaches.” (CDS Report 34). Baltimore, Md.: Center for Research on Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

      Lounsbury, J. H., and D. C. Clark. (1990). Inside Eighth Grade: From Apathy to Excitement. Reston, Va.: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

      Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the Tracks: How “Untracking” Can Save America's Schools. New York: New Press.

      Anne Wheelock has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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