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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

October 27, 2013 at 4:00 AM

Roundtable: Can tracking ever work?

Joplin Plan shows promise for grouping students

Reading classes that separate students by ability, not grade level, allow for tailored instruction without stigmatizing students, writes Robert Slavin of the Center for Research and Reform in Education.

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Let's challenge all students instead of tracking by ability

Rationing our most demanding curricula is not the way to shrink our country's achievement gap, argues National Education Policy Center Director Kevin Welner.

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Is blended learning the solution?

Drawing on her daughter's own experiences with tracking in Seattle Public Schools, Alison Krupnick of ParentMap writes about how a combination of in-person and online instruction could enable students to rotate more fluidly through different groups.

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Joplin Plan shows promise for grouping students
Robert Slavin

Robert Slavin

By Robert Slavin

Although not all forms of grouping work for elementary reading, we use a grouping system in our Success for All whole-school literacy program that has been proved to work. This is called the Joplin Plan.

In it, children in grades one through six are regrouped during a 90-minute reading period according to their reading level, regardless of their age. That is, a teacher might have a third-grade, first-semester reading class composed mostly of third-graders, but also includes second- and fourth-graders.

Students get up and move to their reading classes, and the assignments are changed at least every eight weeks to reflect ongoing assessments of their reading levels. In particular, children are accelerated to higher groups as they make rapid progress. Children who are not keeping up with their group are likely to be assigned to one-on-one or small-group tutoring, rather than being held back.

The Joplin Plan has many advantages. Because there is only one reading group, teachers can teach to all, and need not have the “follow-up” activities teachers in ordinary three-group classes assign to keep kids busy while they work with a reading group. The groupings are flexible and, in fact, are changed constantly, so kids do not get locked into a given level.

Because groupings are across grades, there is no “high” or “low” group, avoiding the likelihood of stigma for the low groups. The Joplin Plan does require coordination across the school, but that is actually a good thing, as it makes the success of all children a schoolwide responsibility.

The Joplin Plan has been extensively evaluated in reading, both as part of Success for All and separately, and it is uniformly beneficial. It has been evaluated only once in math, but in principle it should work just as well there.

The Joplin Plan is not exactly news. It began in Joplin, Mo., in the 1950s. Yet it is rarely used in reading outside of the approximately 500 Success for All elementary schools across the U.S. and Britain. From our experience, any school could benefit from this approach.

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Robert Slavin directs the Center for Research and Reform in Education at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in Baltimore, Md., and is chairman of the Success for All Foundation.

Let’s challenge all students instead of tracking by ability
Kevin Welner

Kevin Welner

By Kevin Welner

At South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y., all 11th-graders take the toughest literature course offered: the International Baccalaureate Language and Literature higher level course.

Such academic demands are routine for the school’s students, even those living in the nearby housing projects and Section 8 subsidized housing. After all, they had also taken the most challenging courses in ninth and 10th grade.

The reason is obvious, according to the school’s principal, Dr. Carol Burris: “The best curriculum you have should be the curriculum for everyone.”

But that’s not how schools usually operate in the U.S. While South Side High has generated outstanding results, most secondary schools continue to ration the best curriculum. They provide their less accomplished students with lesser opportunities to learn. This practice of offering a weaker education to those who arrive behind is a major factor in driving the nation’s achievement gaps.

Over the past two decades, I have researched tracked classes and detracked classes. In some low-track classes, I have seen teachers overcome tracking’s structural barriers and create a demanding and well-supported learning environment. In some detracked classes, I have seen teachers flounder in their attempts to create a universally challenging classroom. But, overall, my research has been consistent with a vast body of tracking research in showing similar problems with tracking:

  • Track placements are arbitrary and rigid. This means that enrollment in a low- or high-track class is often heavily dependent on nonacademic factors, and it means that children placed in a low-track class — for whatever reason — are unlikely to ever escape.
  • Enrollment in a lower-track class results in lower achievement later. Studies from Germany and Israel even suggest that low-track placement results in a relative drop in IQ points.
  • Tracking is discriminatory. Students of color, students in poverty, students whose parents have less formal education, students with special needs, and students who are not yet fluent in English are all more likely to be enrolled in lower-track classes. In fact, the history of tracking is clear: lower-track classes were developed specifically to house students from groups expected to fill more menial positions in society — initially Irish and Southern and Eastern Europeans, then groups like Latinos and African Americans.

The system created by tracking undercuts American values about fairness. Schools cannot provide a route out of poverty if the supports and challenges offered to lower-income members of the school community are watered-down versions of the education offered to their more advantaged neighbors.

At the same time, simply removing the obstacle of tracking will not guarantee improvement. Meaningful detracking involves much more than the mere shifting around of students.

To be successful educationally, mixed-ability enrollment of students to classrooms must be accompanied by universal acceleration and associated supports for students and teachers. The most successful detracked schools combine a challenging curriculum with pre- and post-teach classes to help struggling students develop expertise in those demanding classes. They may also provide homework labs and even Saturday academies. For teachers, these schools provide strong professional development and common planning time.

Washington’s Federal Way school district, for example, has been moving in this wise direction. Most students are now automatically enrolled in the most rigorous courses. As a result, enrollment in those classes has increased by nearly 200 percent since 2009. This sort of approach works: even as more of Federal Way’s students enrolled in these most challenging classes, the overall passing rates in Advanced Placement exams rose 38 percent in 2012.

When children fall behind academically, we have a choice. We can choose to sort them into less demanding classes where they will fall further behind, or we can choose to include them in classes that maintain high expectations. The second choice is more difficult, but it is nonetheless clearly attainable and is the only option that is consistent with the most cherished goals for our schools and our society.

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Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the National Education Policy Center.

Is blended learning the solution?
Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

By Alison Krupnick

During the nine years that my daughter attended Seattle Public Schools, she experienced several different ability-grouping models at two different schools, starting with kindergarten, in an era when “differentiated instruction” was in vogue. Students worked together from themed reading boxes with tasks for those still figuring out phonics, those who were ready to tackle simple chapter books, and everyone in between.

As my daughter progressed through elementary school, she was placed in ability groups within her classroom, for reading and math. Some parents, not convinced their kids were being adequately challenged, moved them to schools with self-contained classrooms for “gifted” students, who tested into the district’s advanced-learning program.

Fast forward to our neighborhood middle school, where classes were tracked. It had advanced classes in language arts and math for those who had “tested in” and general education classes for everyone else, and we had to adjust to a new model. My daughter was placed in advanced math in sixth grade, effectively skipping one year of math instruction, and struggled with some, but not all, of the concepts.

The next year, she was forced to repeat the same class, with students who had never been introduced to the material.  There was no way, the school told us, for her and the 50-plus other students in the same situation, to receive tailored instruction on the concepts they had missed. From that point on, my daughter’s math confidence waned.

By the time she finished middle school, the school decided to jettison stand-alone classes for gifted language-arts students and move to classroom-based ability group “clusters.”

“All the hand-wringing is the result of a traditional classroom structure that doesn’t allow for differentiated learning,”  said Robin Lake, executive director of the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, in an interview for a ParentMap article I wrote on ability grouping. She introduced me to the concept of “blended learning,” which could be the solution to the ability-grouping dilemma.

Blended-learning classrooms use a combination of in-person and online instruction, enabling students to rotate through classroom-based “learning stations” at their own pace. Khan Academy, the popular education tutorial website, is an example of a delivery model that can be used to teach specific concepts within a classroom.

Looking back on my daughter’s experiences with ability grouping, it’s clear that some models were more effective than others and that the successes were teacher and school specific. But teachers should not be expected to be Superman.

Blended learning enables them to be “Batman” — humans armed with essential tools.

Comment on this entry

Alison Krupnick is education editor at ParentMap. Follow her coverage, including her weekly column “Education Matters,” on ParentMap’s education page. On Twitter at @alisonkrupnick

Comments | More in Guest opinion, Roundtable | Topics: ability grouping, blended learning, teaching methods

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