The greatest challenge facing America's schools today isn't the budget crisis, or standardized testing, or "teacher quality." It's the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom. How we as a country handle this challenge says a lot about our values and priorities, for good and ill. Unfortunately, the issue has become enmeshed in polarizing arguments about race, class, excellence, and equity. What's needed instead is some honest, frank discussion about the trade-offs associated with any possible solution.
U.S. students are all over the map in terms of achievement (see Figure 1). By the 4th grade, public-school children who score among the top 10 percent of students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are reading at least six grade levels above those in the bottom 10 percent. For a teacher with both types of students in her classroom, that means trying to challenge kids ready for middle-school work while at the same time helping others to decode. Even differences between students at the 25th and at the 75th percentiles are huge--at least three grade levels. So if you're a teacher, how the heck do you deal with that?
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In the old days, "ability grouping" and tracking provided the answer: you'd break your students into reading groups, with the bluebirds in one corner, tackling advanced materials at warp speed, and the redbirds in another, slowly making their way through basic texts. Likewise for mathematics. And in middle and high school, you'd continue this approach with separate tracks: "challenge" or "honors" for the top kids, "regular" or "on-level" for the average ones, and "remedial" for the slowest. Teachers could target their instruction to the level of the group or the class, and since similar students were clustered together, few kids were bored or totally left behind.
Then came the attack on tracking. A flurry of books in the 1970s and 1980s argued that confining youngsters to lower tracks hurt their self-esteem and life chances, and was elitist and racist to boot. Jeanne Oakes's 1985 opus, Keeping Track, was particularly effective in sparking an anti-tracking movement that swept through the nation's schools.
According to Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, this advocacy led to fundamental changes at breakneck speed. In a report for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute last year, he wrote,
An eighth grader in the early 1990s attended middle schools offering at least two distinct tracks in [each of] English language arts,history, and science. Mathematics courses were organized into three or more tracks. The eighth grader of 2008, however,attended schools with much less tracking. English language arts, history, and scienceare essentially detracked, i.e., schools typically offer a single course that serves students at every level of achievement and ability. Mathematics usually features two tracks, often algebra and a course for students not yet ready for algebra.
One of the reasons that detracking advocates claimed so many victories is that they painted their pet reform as a strategy in which everybody wins. Oakes and others insisted that detracking would help the lowest-performing students (who would enjoy better teachers, a more challenging level of instruction, and exposure to their higher-achieving peers) while not hurting top students. But by the mid-1990s, researchers started to compile evidence that this happy outcome was just wishful thinking.
In 1995, scholars Dominic Brewer, Daniel Rees, and Laura Argys analyzed test-score results for high-school students in tracked and detracked classrooms, and found benefits of tracking for advanced students. They wrote in the Kappan magazine, "The conventional wisdom on which detracking policy is often based--that students in low-track classes (who are drawn disproportionately from poor families and from minority groups) are hurt by tracking while others are largely unaffected--is simply not supported by very strong evidence. …