Imagine teaching a classroom of 25 students. It’s an English class. You have to assign an essay based upon a grade-level text and are planning how to accomplish this. You think of the 25 students in your class. Five students are English-language learners. Seven students are students with special needs and have IEPs. Twelve students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Eighteen students read below grade level. Three students read at grade level. Four students read at an advanced grade level. Most students have not written a paper longer than two pages in length. Some are still mastering basic spelling and grammar. A few are naturally gifted writers.
So what do you do? You teach them all, using what educators call
differentiation, “the tailoring of instruction to meet individual student needs.” Sounds beautiful, but given the very real classroom described above, is it even possible? How do you teach your lesson and support your students in ways that simultaneously ensure all students are being pushed academically, are receiving the support they need and are being taught in a way that speaks to their unique experience without some becoming bored and others left behind? I may, for instance, assign a full page of text for classwork, but strategically ask some students to analyze the author’s main point as well as the author’s use of figurative language to convey that point, while another group solely focuses on identifying the main point. It’s difficult, but it can be done and it’s vital. But
some argue for grouping students according to their abilities.
Tracking Is Tricky
When we separate kids into different learning groups based on their ability or skill level, that’s called
tracking. While it may at first seem like a more efficient alternative to the differentiation approach I described above, tracking is tricky. Some might say insidious. Here are a few things to consider before making a leap to tracking as another educational panacea.
Depending on when a student is given a track and whether or not they can move in and out of tracks once they have been assigned, a student’s entire educational trajectory can be defined as early as third grade.
It is no secret that even the most “integrated” schools see segregated tracking wherein AP/honor classes are Whiter and more homogeneous than general education tracking. So if students are going to be tracked, it needs to be done in such a way that accurately places students into tracks aligned to their abilities, rather than their privileges.
Whether we care to admit it or not, tracks carry stigmas along with them. Often, instead of valuing the technical education track as a means for a solid middle class life, it is derided it as the track for those unworthy of a college education. In a similarly misguided way, we equate college tracking with wealth and privilege rather than the more likely reality of debt-saddled adulthood.
And most of all, we need to understand that tracking does not eliminate differentiation. Even when students are in groups of similar abilities, teachers who have earned their stripes know that they still have classrooms of individual learners that need to be understood, valued and taught as a person rather than a emotionless, robotic pupil.
As an educator who has taught both homogeneous as well as heterogeneous classrooms, I’ll take differentiation any day of the week. Remember, differentiation doesn’t necessarily mean changing
what is taught, but
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...