Rethink Tracking: A Shift to Educational Lanes

It seems educators are all too quick to jump on any sign of separating students who learn differently and call it “tracking.”

Rather than offhandedly dismissing ability-based grouping, we need to rethink the traditional concept of tracking and consider how we can best serve students of varying skill levels.

Tracking: The Dirty Word in Education
I have students in my ELA classes who read on levels ranging from third to tenth grade. My colleagues teaching on the 9th, 11th and 12th grade have a mixture of the same.

* “What if we put all the students reading on a 3rd to 5th grade reading level together,” one teacher suggested recently at a department meeting. “We’d be able to concentrate on reading strategies and vocabulary on the level they’re at.”

This logical suggestions was quickly met by the question:

* “But isn’t that tracking?” (Subtext: Tracking is evil and to be avoided at all costs).

Jumping the Track
I think the negative connotation that comes with tracking stems from the idea that once on a track, there’s no getting off of it. Perhaps we should instead think of lanes. Just because you are in a slower moving lane at one point of your journey down the highway, it’s not impossible to move to a quicker lane by signaling and waiting for the right opportunity. Classes could be thought of the same way. Students may spend some time in one lane, and then change lanes midway through the year or even the semester if they’re ready.

We have students who come to us from different countries speaking little English, but who are highly motivated. They begin in ELA classes which best support them as ELL’s but there is nothing that says that after a semester or a year, they can’t move into an ELA class with the rest of their cohort if they have the skills. Many have. Why do we treat students born in this country but with different sets of skills, differently?

A Shift to Educational Lanes
I’ve recently been to a few workshops around personal mastery learning. The idea is to create more opportunities in schools to meet the needs of each student as if the school were designed with her or him alone in mind. Students would meet with others in their same skill set or learning style, or interest group for a portion of the school day and work with students from other skill levels or styles at other times.

In this way, students shift lanes throughout the day, and are not stuck on one track per se. We all recognize that students learn at different paces and in different ways and yet the standard model of education today insists that they all be taught together in the same room at the same time, only with all the different levels and styles of learning offered at once. As utopian as this sounds, what happens more often than not is traffic. Students who could be moving quicker are held up. Students who need more attention are left behind.

There is a need to exist a variety of lanes in education today, where students have options and outlets to meet their learning levels, styles and interests. Similar to a college model where students select majors, students, at least on the high school level, should be given more options for changing lanes instead of either stalling on the track they’re in or rear ending the car in front of them.