One Track to Rule Them All

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Tracking has been out of fashion for years. Districts spurn tracking because of its reputation for holding students back, especially minority students and students from difficult family backgrounds. Tracking was part of that era where self-contained, special education classrooms were the norm, where some students might be channeled into vocational or technical education, an era that has fallen into disrepute even if its students performed significantly better on standardized tests than today’s students do.

I live in a district that has some of the best schools in the nation. The high school where I live does track students, in the sense that the district looks at past performance to pick future classes. Strong mathematicians receive a chance to go beyond calculus in high school. The district where I work has far less money. That district also doesn’t have the tiers of strong students that might populate true, upper-level classes. Indiscriminate inclusion thus becomes the norm, with sporadic attempts made to funnel stronger students into classes together where possible. Districts with less money and fewer teachers can’t afford to create separate classes in which students of similar academic levels are placed together.

The district where I work has been lumped in the bottom few percent of the state of Illinois, based on standardized-test scores, for years now. As a result, we have been obliged to bring in experts to help solve our test-score problems. These consultants are responsible for creating the current system. All teachers in a grade are required to present the same material at the same time, using the same tests to check for understanding. This is true for regular classes and for special education classes. Very minor tweaking is allowed, but no one’s quite sure how much tweaking. The left hand of administration cannot be trusted to agree with the right hand.

I expect this system to work. Why? Because we have created the correct track. We are demanding that all students master the material on the Common Core test for their grade. Students in special education are hopelessly baffled by much of this material. Bilingual students often can’t read the material. But those students near the top of the curve are receiving challenges. These are the students who can master part or all of the material presented in those common tests. These are also the students best equipped to deliver real score increases. I expect us to win this game.

Eduhonesty: I’m glad for the kids at the top. They have deserved this break for awhile. I wish I could be equally happy for the children on the bottom, the thirteen-year-old students who are testing at an early elementary level and who are confronting test after incomprehensible test that they cannot pass or can only pass with multiple repetitions that do not necessarily indicated understanding. By the third time students take the same test, some of them probably have memorized that number seven is “C,” for example. Teachers are supposed to differentiate to make this all work, taking special time with groups of lower students. But when a student does not know the value of 3(4 + 2), no differentiation exists that can make 4x + [–1(–2x – 1)]2 intelligible, not without more small group and tutoring time than exists under the current system.

One track to rule them all, that’s what we have created, with administrators aggressively advocating that we group students based on their level of understanding so they can somehow be pushed up onto the track, even if that track stands five years above these students’ overall academic level. Good intentions abound in this scheme. I suspect more cynical administrators have climbed on board the train as well, knowing that score improvement is likely even if lower groups will be unable to fully participate when they can participate at all.

The problem I see here is that no one at the top seems to be considering the cost to the kids at the bottom. What is the cost of failure after failure after failure? What is the cost of losing all your fun activities to do bell-to-bell instruction from books you can’t read? The cost of always being the kid in the group who doesn’t get what is going on?

When you can only differentiate instruction, but can’t choose the actual materials presented, you are hardly differentiating at all. The cost of that lack of differentiation will be paid by this latest generation of No-Child-Left-Behind kids, the lost kids who don’t fit on the One Track. These kids deserve better. These kids deserve a comprehensible education.