ERIC Identifier: ED351426
Publication Date: 1992-10-00
Author: Ascher, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Successful Detracking in Middle and Senior High Schools.
ERIC/CUE Digest, Number 82.
In tracked schools, students are categorized according to measures of
intelligence, achievement, or aptitude, and are then assigned to hierarchical
ability- or interest-grouped classes. Although most elementary schools have
within-class ability grouping, tracking is most common at the middle and high
Recently, a wide range of national educational and child advocacy
organizations have recommended the abolition of tracking. Their reason is that
too often tracking creates class and race-linked differences in access to
learning. In fact, because of the inequities in opportunity it creates, tracking
is a major contributor to the continuing gaps in achievement between
disadvantaged and affluent students and between minorities and whites (Oakes,
Although tracking has declined nationwide in recent years, it remains
widespread. For example, in grade seven about two-thirds of all schools have
ability grouping in some or all subjects, and about a fifth group homogeneously
in every subject. Moreover, the prevalence of ability grouping increases when
there are sizable enrollments of black and Hispanic students (Braddock, 1990).
Not surprisingly, the changeover to heterogeneous groupings--generally called
either detracking or untracking--remains controversial. The greatest concern
among both parents and educators is that heterogeneous grouping may slow down
the learning of high-achieving students, for there is evidence that high
achievers do better in accelerated classes for the gifted and talented (Kulick,
1991). Oakes (1992), however, has pointed out that the benefits these students
experience are not from the homogeneity of the group, but from their enriched
curriculum--which lower track students would also thrive on, given sufficient
It is also clear that tracking can work against high achievers, particularly
where a large number of the students are above average. Districts vary
enormously in their cut-offs for slow and gifted learners. In fact, suburban,
middle-class districts, where students perform above the national average,
generally have high cut-offs for their gifted and talented programs, and are
therefore most likely to send many capable students to regular or unaccelerated
classes (Useem, 1990).
CURRENT DETRACKING EFFORTS
There is still much to
understand about the ramifications of both tracking and heterogeneous groupings.
Yet because the country is quickly shifting toward a belief in heterogeneous
groupings, and many schools have already begun detracking some or all academic
subjects, it is useful to summarize those changes necessary for detracking to
Based on the ethnographic study of schools around the country, Wheelock
(1992) outlines six factors which exist in schools that are successfully
1. A Culture of Detracking. Creating a new culture of detracking is probably
more important than any specific strategy. Perhaps the key to a detracked
culture is the commitment to be inclusive. Teachers, parents, and students alike
believe in the right and ability of students from every background to learn from
the best kind of curriculum. They are also convinced that all students can gain
academically and socially from learning together and from each other.
2. Parent Involvement. Since middle-class parents of gifted students can be
detracking's most powerful opponents, they must be assured that their children
will not be subjected to a watered-down curriculum, but that all students will
be offered "gifted" material. They must also be helped to rethink the
competitive, individualistic way in which they have come to view schooling, and
to see how learning improves when students listen to others from different
backgrounds, share knowledge, and teach their peers.
3. Professional Development and Support. Because the core of any detracking
reform centers on how teaching will occur in the classroom, it is critical that
teachers be actively involved in the change. This means not only that
discussions about when, where, and how to detrack must include teachers, but
that teachers must receive professional development prior to, during, and after
the detracking process. Wheelock suggests that teachers must receive three major
areas of training for detracking:
risk-taking, communication, and planning skills to work for whole-school change;
for working effectively with diverse students in a single classroom; and
curricula they may not have used or watched others use.
4. Phase-In Change Process. Detracking involves large changes at many levels.
Even once the commitment to detracking has been made, most schools proceed
slowly to allow teachers, students, and parents to adjust. Often detracking
begins with a single grade level, student cluster, or subject--say, science,
social studies, or language arts. Mathematics, with its aura of appropriateness
for only the best and the brightest, often remains the last to be breached by
detracking plans. The point is not that there is a certain way to proceed with
detracking, or even a definite time schedule. Rather, plans must be flexible
enough to respond to hesitations and concrete problems as well as unanticipated
5. Rethinking All Routines. Ultimately, detracking should be reflected in all
areas of school life. Thus, school routines that separate students from each
other, that exclude some students from the opportunity to learn, that
communicate reduced expectations for some, or that undermine a sense of
belonging must all be rethought. Instead of pull-out approaches, every attempt
should be made to keep all students within the regular classrooms, providing the
fast learners with needed stimulation and the slow ones with the necessary
6. District and State Support. Although detracking takes place at the school
level, a supportive policy coupled with technical assistance at the district and
state levels can nurture administrators and teachers, enabling more than the
most adventurous schools to proceed.
INSTRUCTION FOR HETEROGENEOUS CLASSES
In a fully detracked
school, most instruction is provided in heterogeneous groups. Teachers no longer
pace their instruction to the "average" student, but individualize learning
through personalized assignments and learning centers. Rather than dominate the
classroom, teachers act as directors of learning which takes place through such
multiple routines as cooperative learning, complex instruction, and peer and
Developed by Robert Slavin and his associates at Johns Hopkins University,
cooperative learning has been heavily researched; it is the most common strategy
used in detracked schools and exists in a number of models. In all, students
work in heterogeneous groups and share responsibility for one another's
learning. While some models insert a competitive element, others stress the
building of team scores by mutual cooperation (Slavin, 1990).
THE NEED FOR ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENT
has been the handmaiden of tracking, assuring teachers, students, and
administrators alike that there is a rationale behind the hierarchical sorting
of students. Although standardized tests will likely continue to be used for
some purposes, they tend to work against a detracked culture. First, they see
ability as static, not as dynamic, and they suggest what students already know,
not where they need help. Second, they create an emphasis on teacher talk, seat
work, and rote learning--all of which are antithetical to the interactive,
problem-solving and egalitarian workings of a detracked school.
While a variety of performance-based tests are being developed, so far they
are expensive, labor intensive, and imprecise (Maeroff, 1991). Thus their growth
will be dependent on a commitment not only to new ways of teaching and a
problem-solving curriculum, but to egalitarian school organizational structures.
One school restructuring model that
results in detracking is Accelerated Schools, developed by Henry Levin and his
colleagues at Stanford. Briefly, in an accelerated school, all students receive
the enriched curriculum and problem-solving techniques generally reserved for
gifted and talented students. As in any successfully detracked school, an
accelerated school curriculum is not only fast-paced and engaging, but it
includes concepts, analyses, problem-solving and interesting applications.
Dewey's notion of "collaborative inquiry" both informs how learning occurs in
accelerated schools, and guides the school governance process. Again, as with
detracked schools that depend for their success on bringing parents, teachers,
and students into the process, accelerated schools involve parents, teachers,
and students in formulating both the goals and the interventions (Levin, 1987).
Although tracking remains controversial among
both educators and parents, there has been a recent policy consensus that the
negative effects of tracking on lower track students are so severe that schools
should move towards detracking.
Successful detracking rests on an "inclusive" school culture. It also depends
on a curriculum that is interactive and problem-solving, as well as on
assessment processes that support such a curriculum. Schools embarked on
detracking must draw in parents, students, and teachers, not only to ensure that
these groups buy into the change, but to teach them new egalitarian ways of
thinking, and to use them to help reconsider existing school routines.
Braddock, J. H. (1990). Tracking: Implications
for student race-ethnic groups. Report No. 1. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
University, Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged
Students. (ED 325 600)
Kulik, J. A. (1991, November). Ability grouping. Report to the Office of
Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, Grant No.
Levin, H. M. (1987, Fall). New schools for the disadvantaged. Teacher
Education Quarterly, 13(4), 60-83. (EJ 366 858)
Maeroff, G. I. (1991, December). Assessing alternative assessment. Phi Delta
Kappan, 272-281. (EJ 436 781)
Oakes, J. (1992, May). Can tracking research inform practice? Technical,
normative, and political considerations. Educational Researcher, 12-21.
Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven:
Yale University Press. (ED 274 749)
Slavin, R. E. (1990). Cooperative learning: Theory, research and practice.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Useem, E. (1990). Getting on the fast track in mathematics: School
organizational influences on math track assignment. Paper presented at the
Annual Meeting of the AERA, Boston, MA, April 16-20, 1990. (ED 318 624)
Wheelock, A. (1992). Crossing the tracks: How 'untracking' can save America's
schools. New York: The New Press.