Tracking is a Dirty Word

About Riina Hirsch

I have been a High School English teacher for 16 yrs. I love teaching like breathing. I am a former luddite turned blogger and professional development nerd. My BA in English is from Earlham Collect, my MAT is from Brown University, and my EdD in Teacher Leadership is from Walden University. I am also a Level 1 Google Certified Educator.

To track or not to track? Is that a question? Have I already lost you? Tracking has been a dirty word for decades. Mostly for good reason. But. Leveled classes might have a place. We all know that “tracking” happens when we offer advanced courses and co-taught sections. The limitations of scheduling mean groups of kids gets clumped: de facto tracking. If we were more strategic about creating courses that genuinely meet the needs of students, could we do better? How can we rethink grouping at an institutional level to better support a highly diverse student body? How can we develop criteria based on student learning and avoid bias? Can we do these things?

How can we rethink grouping at an institutional level? Click To Tweet

I think maybe we can. I even think maybe we should. But it also seems like a scary proposition.

The bad old days of locked tracks are not something I want to revisit. Deciding in kindergarten, as some European school systems have done, whether a kid is trade or college bound horrifies me. The risks of labeling kids, segregating them, conflating behavioral and academic needs, misplacing students, letting kids fall through the cracks in a hundred different ways, are immense and real. Lowering expectations or standards or the quality of educational experiences is a danger and is NOT an option I am at all comfortable with.

On the other hand, when I look at my classes, if I am really honest, I know I am not meeting 100% of the needs of 100% of my students every day. I try. I try hard. And I probably come closer than most. But it isn’t possible. The range of abilities, personalities, languages, behaviors, traumas, strengths, needs, is just too vast. Though I build strong relationships with students, there aren’t enough hours in the day to know them all as deeply as I want/need/try to. There aren’t enough hours in the day to guarantee every kid is getting exactly what they need every day.

It breaks my heart to admit this truth. But I also believe that knowing my limits, and the limits of the system I work within, is the only way to continue to improve, to seek out appropriate professional development, to innovate, to get closer to meeting 100% of the needs of 100% of my students every day.

So I ask, without knowing what the “right” answer might be, at the high school level, might it make sense to offer a variety of courses designed to meet some student needs? Would we be forced, as teachers, to develop a deeper understanding of what outcomes we expect from each course? Of what counts as mastery? Of what grading should reflect? Those conversations are happening already, and are undeniably meaningful. If we teach with a single monolithic curriculum, each in our isolated classrooms, to a breathtaking variety of students, will those conversations go deep enough, fast enough?

Would grouping kids based on some identifiable criteria make the breadth of student needs more manageable? Would teachers have a better shot of knowing enough about each kid? Of being able to create real, meaningful, specific opportunities for each kid to succeed, to grow, to learn? To capitalize on student interests and strengths? Is this a way we might innovate within the system?

Because, let me be clear, there is no such thing as a homogenous group of teenagers. There are too many factors. They are too complex and unformed for that. I have taught support level classes, advanced level classes, co-taught classes, “regular” classes. I have never taught a group of students who were not, in several different ways, highly diverse. In fact, over the years I have often argued in favor of more heterogenous grouping. Yet I still struggle with the realities of conflicting mandates: know every student well, but teach one curriculum; meet students where they are, but make sure they all end up with the same level of mastery; use student interests, but include the same anchor texts; help each student grow, but grade them all the same way. Ultimately, I wonder if a more diverse selection of classes based on student academic needs might help.

There is no such thing as a homogenous group of teenagers. Click To Tweet

I don’t have any answers. I have an opinion or two, but that is hardly enough to guide any decision-making process. Trial and error is probably the best course of action to find positive balance, as long as we are aware, and reflective, and willing to adjust based on what we see and can demonstrate is happening in our classrooms. Maybe it is time to try something new. Some other method than skim the best, combine the rest.

What do you think? Can “tracking” work? Is there a place for leveled classes? How do we avoid the pitfalls? Or is tracking still a dirty word I shouldn’t mention?

 

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About the Author:

I have been a High School English teacher for 16 yrs. I love teaching like breathing. I am a former luddite turned blogger and professional development nerd. My BA in English is from Earlham Collect, my MAT is from Brown University, and my EdD in Teacher Leadership is from Walden University. I am also a Level 1 Google Certified Educator.

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