Is there a good way that schools could better serve their most advanced students?

This essay is co-authored with TracingWoodgrains, and is the result of our adversarial collaboration project.

TW and I have deep disagreements about education. I’m a pessimist about personalization software and our ability to gamify learning; TW is an optimist. TW thinks there very well might be a deep reserve of untapped potential at the upper ends of student achievement; I don’t really think this is true. I don’t think a radical restructuring of schools would change much unless you could simultaneously change the thoughts and desires of parents and students; TW thinks we should seriously consider rebuilding schooling on the grounds of mastery learning without age-grading. 

With all this disagreement, we set out to see if we could write something coherent about our areas of agreement. Not easy.

We also set out to win a cool $1K from the blog SlateStarCodex, who hosted a contest for the best adversarial collaboration and has published our essay but has not yet told us if we won. 

tl;dr THIS THING IS LONG. Here is the section breakdown:

Section One: Gifted underachievement is real, but there are no easy answers.

Section Two: Expanding or deepening tracking is unlikely to help even top students without deeper curricular modification.

Section Three: Acceleration could, though.

Section Four: The thing is that schools are not in the business of maximizing learning at all costs.

Section Five: Personalization software, as it exists today, is almost universally bad. The potential for software to help learning comes when it pays attention to the social, motivational aspects of learning.

Section Six: Our recommendations for parents, educators, kids.

Please skip around. Skip to Section 5 if you care about edtech and personalization software. If you only read one section, I’d personally prefer if you read Section 4, but hey, that’s just me. TW would (I’m guessing) want you to read Section 1. 

Also this was written for a non-teacher audience, i.e. not my blog. So apologize if the tone is off. Also half of this is TW’s voice, so it probably reads different than what you’re used to hearing from me. Anyway, enjoy, and please comment with thoughts, disagreements, agreements, etc.

***

“What do America’s brightest students hear? Every year, across the nation, students who should be moved ahead at their natural pace of learning are told to stay put. Thousands of students are told to lower their expectations, and put their dreams on hold. Whatever they want to do, their teachers say, it can wait.”  – A Nation Deceived, p.3

“There is an apparent preference among donors for studying the needs and supporting the welfare of the weak, the vicious, and the incompetent, and a negative disregard of the highly intelligent, leaving them to “shift for themselves.” Hollingworth, 1926

  1. Eager to Learn and Underachieving

Pretend you’re a teacher. With 25 students, who gets your attention during class?

There’s the kid who ask for it, whose hand is constantly up. There’s also the quiet kid in the corner who never says a word, but has been lost in math since October, who will fail if you don’t do something. There’s the student in the middle of the pack, flowing along. Finally, there’s the kid who finishes everything quickly. She’s looking around and wondering, what am I supposed to do now?

In a survey of teachers from 2008, just 23% reported that advanced students were a top priority for them, while 63% reported giving struggling students in their classes the most attention. A 2005 study found the same trend in middle schools, where struggling students receive the bulk of instructional modification and special arrangements. This was true even while 73% agreed that advanced students were too often bored and under-challenged in school. While teachers, it seems, are sympathetic to the smart bored kid, that’s just not a priority for them.

This isn’t to blame teachers who are under all sorts of pressure to carry low-performing students over the threshold and who, in any event, are only trying to do what’s best for their kids. Which is the most urgent concern? If you don’t equip a kid with the skills they need, next year’s class might be a disaster for them. Or maybe they’ll fail out of school. And behavior problems? Often those begin with academic struggles. Gifted children, on the other hand — they’re on the way to becoming gifted adults. They can take care of themselves, for a minute, the logic goes. More often than not, the teacher will encourage the early finisher to go read a book, or start homework, or do anything at all while the teacher works to help the quiet, lost kid in the corner.

If the kids are just a little bored, that’s nothing strange. It’s hard to find someone who wasn’t bored in school sometimes. For many top students, already poised for achievement, this turns out just fine. And yet, there are persistent stories of how the lack of challenge can turn into something more serious.

One version of the story goes like this: from a young age, a student finds the work in school easy. It doesn’t take long for them to expect school to be easy for them — it becomes a point of pride. Over years of floating through school, an identity takes hold. Then, one day, maybe after years of schooling, something finally becomes challenging for the student… but there’s nothing nice about this challenge. The challenge is now a threat. The student begins to find school challenging, and their world falls apart. They feel isolated and misunderstood at school. They lash out. They hate it, and they can’t wait to get out.

When we asked Reddit users and blog readers to describe their experience of school, we heard versions of this story:

  • Miserable waste of time, was almost never offered opportunities to learn. Largely ignored teachers and read books during class. I felt like it was a profound injustice that I was punished for doing so. I now have kids of my own and will be home-schooling them.
  • I was bored. The pace was too slow and work was not interesting. Being forced by law to get up early and go somewhere to learn things I already know means permanent and firm dislike.
  • I went to local public schools for kindergarten through high school, and the experience wasn’t good. Academically, the classes were slow and poorly taught. Even the AP classes were taught at the speed of the slowest student, which made the experience excruciating. The honors and regular classes were even worse: I was consistently one or more grades ahead of the rest of the class in every non-AP class except honors math. I learned not to bother studying or doing homework even in the AP classes which probably wasn’t great for my work ethic.

The stories of student pain and underachievement in school get more intense as we consider cases of extremely precocious children. The pressures on the student increase, and without help a student often experiences isolation from their peers and a whole other host of difficult feelings. Miraca Gross studied students like these in Australia and found that precocious students were often suffering in silence. Speaking particularly about precocious students who underachieve, she writes:

The majority of the extremely gifted young people in my study state frankly that for substantial periods in their school careers they have deliberately concealed their abilities or significantly moderate their scholastic achievement in an attempt to reduce their classmates’ and teachers’ resentment of them. In almost every case, the parents of children retained in the regular classroom with age peers report that the drive to achieve, the delight in intellectual exploration, and the joyful seeking after new knowledge, which characterized their children in the early years, has seriously diminished or disappeared completely. These children display disturbingly low levels of motivation and social self-esteem. They are also more likely to report social rejection by their classmates and state that they frequently underachieve in attempts to gain acceptance by age peers and teachers. Unfortunately, rather than investigating the cause of this, the schools attended by these children have tended to view their decreased motivation, with the attendant drop in academic attainment, as indicators that the child has “leveled out” and is no longer gifted.

What do we make of these stories? How common are such experiences?

From the literature on “gifted underachievement” we get partial confirmation — underachievement is a real phenomenon, supported by numerous case studies. According to a survey of various school practitioners, underachievement is the top concern when it comes to gifted students. By definition, advanced students are only a small percent of each student body, so few are affected in any given place, but on a national scale it becomes a more serious problem.

This is not just a problem for the affluent. It has persistent impacts on Black students, poor students, and students who are learning English, who are less often recommended for gifted programs or special accommodations. Here’s one way this manifests itself: in one study, 44% of poor students identified as gifted in reading in 1st Grade were no longer academically exceptional by 5th Grade. For higher-income families, only 31% of 1st Graders experience this slide.

The lack of attention to this group extends to the research. It’s difficult to pin down the number of students impacted. While underachievement is a real phenomenon, current research doesn’t tell us very much about the factors contributing to gifted underachievement. What studies have been done tend to focus almost entirely on things like whether students with ADHD or unsupportive families underachieve, rather than looking at controllable factors like the sort of teaching students experience in school.

Schools are the institutions in charge of educating kids. Those who rush into school, eager to learn, should not walk out feeling rebuffed and ignored. This is doubly true for talented kids from at-risk populations, who may not have the support structure outside of school to ensure their success if school has no time for them. It’s clear, though, that we cannot degrade the experience of other students to help those who already have an academic leg up. Is there a feasible approach to address this problem without making things worse?

We have good reason to think that personalized attention makes a huge difference to a student’s learning. Research suggests that tutoring that supplements a student’s coursework is a very effective educational intervention. Benjamin Bloom caught people’s attention with the idea of a 2 standard deviation effect in the 1980s. More recent research has lowered that sky-high estimate to more realistic numbers, and a meta-analysis found an effect size of 0.36, still a powerful impact, enough to take a student from the 50th percentile of achievement to the 64th.

If supplemental tutoring works, the dream goes, what if we replaced classroom work entirely with tutoring? Can’t we just do that for gifted underachievers and precocious students? We have tantalizing success stories of this kind in the education for precocious children. In a famous case, John Stuart Mill’s father decided that the philosophy of utilitarianism needed an advocate, and planned a demanding course for him. Mill didn’t underachieve: he learned Greek at age 3, Latin at age 8, and flourished as a philosopher. László Polgár declared he had discovered the secret of raising “geniuses” and went about showing it by tutoring his daughters in chess from the age of 3. It’s hard to argue with his results: two grandmasters and an international master, one of whom became the 8th ranked chess player in the world and the only woman ever to take a game off the reigning world champion.

Though this sort of tutoring seems like a dream come true for underachieving gifted students, in practice it’s a non-starter in schools. (It lives on in homeschooling, to an extent). In a world where schools are struggling to help every kid learn to read, the ethics of only assigning tutors to gifted students is dubious and almost certainly a political impossibility. The cost of assigning a tutor to every child, meanwhile, would do something special to property taxes. This simple answer, then, can lead to a clearer understanding of the complexity of educational questions: It’s possible to focus on simple practices that work while disregarding nonacademic concerns and political feasibility.

To be useful, educational ideas should be effective, politically feasible, and economical. If tutoring for gifted underachievers isn’t workable, might there be some other way to approximate the benefits of personal, human attention? Here are three of the most common tools that advocates for gifted education propose:

What follows is an evaluation of how promising each of these tools is, both in theory and in practice.

Our favorite one-stop reading on gifted education research: this.

Our favorite one-stop reading on tutoring: this.

  1. Ability Grouping (a.k.a Tracking)

The case for placing students of similar abilities together in a classroom seems like it ought to be as simple as the case for tutoring. Teachers will be more effective if their students have similar pacing needs. So, group kids who need more time in one class and those who need less time in another. It’s not tutoring, but it should be the next best thing.

Things in education research are rarely that simple, though.

Bob Slavin, a psychologist who studies education, is one of the most-cited education researchers around. He seems like a compulsively busy fellow. He writes, he runs research centers, he designs programs for schools. (He blogs.) A journalist from The Guardian once asked Slavin for his likes and dislikes, and in case you were wondering he likes work and dislikes complacency.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Slavin performed a series of meta-analyses of the existing literature on tracking and between-class ability grouping. Overall, he found no significant benefits from ability grouping, even for “top track” students across elementary, middle, and high schools.

But the other surprising finding of Slavin’s was that nobody was academically hurt by ability grouping — not even the lowest track students. Slavin argued that when you consider all the non-academic concerns, the scales weigh in favor of detracking, i.e. avoiding ability grouping.

What are those non-academic concerns? In the conclusion of his review of the evidence from elementary schools, he writes:

“Ability grouping plans in all forms are repugnant to many educators, who feel uncomfortable making decisions about elementary-aged students that could have long-term effects on their self-esteem and life chances. In desegregated schools, the possibility that ability grouping may create racially identifiable groups or classes is of great concern.” (p.327)

That’s Slavin’s view. So, where is the debate?

One thing that is decidedly not up for debate in the literature is that Slavin’s non-academic concerns are real. Opponents and defenders of tracking alike agree that low-track classes are often chaotic, poorly taught environments where bad behavior is endemic, and that this is a major problem. Tom Loveless is a contemporary defender of tracking, and writes that “even under the best of conditions, low tracks are difficult classrooms. The low tracks that focus on academics often try to remediate through dull, repetitious seatwork.” Jeannie Oakes made a name for herself by carefully documenting the lousiness of a lot of low track classes.

Some tracked schools seem to have done better with their low tracks. Gamoran, an opponent of tracking, speaks highly of how some Catholic schools handle lower tracks. Gutierrez identifies several tracked schools with strong commitments to helping students across the school advance in mathematics, and concludes that “tracking is not the pivotal policy on which student advancement in mathematics depends.” Making these experiences better is an important goal. These difficult dynamics are a genuine and widespread issue, though, and educators are rightly concerned about them.

Slavin’s concerns about exacerbating racism in schools are relatively uncontroversial as well. It’s not so much that race is a factor in track placement. Using a large nationally representative sample and controlling for prior achievement, Lucas and Gamoran found that race wasn’t a factor in track placement. (Though Dauber et al, found that race was a factor in track placement in Baltimore schools, so maybe sometimes racism is a factor in placement.)

But because of existing achievement gaps between e.g. Black and white students, there’s the potential in a racially mixed school that ability groups will effectively sort Black students into the lowest track and expose them to a lot of dynamics that are difficult to quantitatively measure but frequently discussed in education. A school where being Black is associated with poor performance and misbehavior will, according to many educators and researchers, lead to lower expectations and academic self-esteem for all Black students.

(Good news for people who like bad news: school segregation is getting worse, so the interaction between tracking and race is getting better.)

The main controversy surrounds Slavin’s claims about the academic impact of ability grouping. His meta-analyses were part of an extended back-and-forth with Chen-Lin & James Kulik, who wrote several competing analyses on the ability grouping literature. Slavin and the Kuliks each criticized the other’s methodology, but the core point the Kuliks made was that ability grouping did have positive effects on gifted students as long as curriculum was enhanced or accelerated to match, and that this typically did happen in dedicated gifted and talented programs. The Kuliks pointed out that both they and Slavin largely agreed on the data both analyzed, but that Slavin excluded studies of gifted programs from his research while the Kuliks made those studies a focus.

Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, summarized one important aspect of their dispute, which is that their debate centers more on values than their read of the extant evidence:

Slavin and Kulik are more sharply opposed on the tracking issue than their other points of agreement would imply. Slavin states that he is philosophically opposed to tracking, regarding it as inegalitarian and anti-democratic. Unless schools can demonstrate that tracking helps someone, Slavin reasons, they should quit using it. Kulik’s position is that since tracking benefits high achieving students and harms no one, its abolition would be a mistake (p.17)

Betts notes the studies the Kuliks and Slavin reviewed in their meta-analyses had some flaws, with relatively small N and non–nationally representative data. Using more nationally representative samples, a number of researchers (Hoffer, Gamoran and Mare, Argys, Rees and Brewer) came to the conclusion that conventional tracking benefits students in the high tracks and hurts those in the low tracks. But it’s really hard to control for the right factors in these definitely non-experimental studies, and Betts and Shkolnik raise questions about the results of these papers. And there was also a recent big meta-meta-analysis that found no benefits for between-class grouping, echoing Slavin, but that did find benefits for special grouping for gifted students, echoing the Kuliks.

Just to mess with everybody, Figlio and Page argue that by attracting stronger students to the school (because parents seek tracking) students in low-tracks benefit, secondarily.

So, in summary, what should we make of all this? Betts, an economist, says in a review of the literature that when it comes to the average impact of tracking or the distribution of achievement “this literature does not provide compelling evidence.” Loveless doesn’t disagree, but notes that for high achievers, the situation is clearer:

“The evidence does not support the charge that tracking is inherently harmful, and there is no clear evidence that abandoning tracking for heterogeneously grouped classes would provide a better education for any student. This being said, tracking’s ardent defenders cannot call on a wealth of research to support their position either. The evidence does not support the claim that tracking benefits most students or that heterogeneous grouping depresses achievement. High achieving students are the exception. For them, tracked classes with an accelerated or enriched curriculum are superior to heterogeneously grouped classes.” (p.22)

At the end of the day, all academic impacts of tracking are mediated by teaching and the curriculum. If a teacher doesn’t change what they teach or how they teach it, no grouping decision will help or hurt a student academically in a significant way. Tracking only could benefit gifted students if it came with some sort of curricular modification.

This is a conclusion with wide-reaching support. Even Slavin, who so staunchly opposed conventional ability grouping, was extremely impressed by something called the Joplin Plan, which involves three core features:

  • Grouping students based on reading ability, regardless of grade level
  • Regular testing and regrouping of students on the basis of the tests
  • A different curriculum for each group of students

Slavin, the Kuliks, and everyone else seemed to agree that students in the plan — at all ability levels — tended to get 2-3 months ahead of students in typical programs over a year of instruction. The Joplin plan involves ability grouping — the good kind of ability grouping.

So in 1986, when the Baltimore School Superintendent turned to Bob Slavin to design a program that would improve the city’s most dysfunctional schools, guess how Slavin grouped students?

Slavin worked with research scientist Nancy Madden (they’re married) to design Success for All for Baltimore, and it’s a prominent program in the school improvement world, implemented in thousands of schools and spreading. Those three features of the Joplin plan — assessment, regrouping along the lines of ability and targeted teaching — are core features of their program.

Success for All isn’t the only example of a successful curriculum implementing these ideas. Direct Instruction was created by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker in the 1960s, and it also groups students according to their current levels in reading and math while frequently reassessing and regrouping. DI has a strong body of research supporting its efficacy (for one, it was the winner of the famous-in-education Follow Through experiment), but fell largely out of favor outside of remedial classrooms. In early 2018, a new meta-analysis spanning 50 years of research reinvigorated conversation around Direct Instruction. It found an average effect size of 0.51 to 0.66 in English and math over 328 studies (p<0.001), — strong evidence that the program works.

While its effect on student performance is rarely disputed, the program remains controversial. Historian of education Jack Schneider writes: “Direct Instruction works, and I’d never send my kids to a school that uses it. The program narrows the aims of education and leaves little room for creativity, spontaneity and play in the classroom. Although test scores may go up, the improvement is not without a cost.” Ed Realist worries that its pedagogy is unsavory, has not been shown to work for older students, that wealthier parents are voting with their feet against the curriculum, and that DI could exacerbate gaps between students. Supporters, by contrast, paint the picture of a robust, effective system that has been ignored and disregarded.

Success for All and Direct Instruction are not simple programs for schools to adopt. Implementing them amounts to a major organizational change, and pushes at the extremely resilient notion that children in school should be grouped by their ages. Comprehensive ability grouping programs such as these seem to work, but in practice they are rarely used.

Our favorite one-stop source for reading on ability grouping: here, or maybe here to get a broader picture of the controversy.

  1. Acceleration

Forget the comprehensive approach, then. Does it work to simply move an individual student (e.g. an underchallenged and frustrated student) through the curriculum at whatever pace seems to make sense?

There are a few different ways schools can help some students access the curriculum more quickly. A kid can skip a full grade, or several grades in extreme cases. They can stay in their grade for some classes, but join higher grade levels for some parts of the day. They might be assigned to two classes in one year (e.g. Algebra 1 and Geometry). Or, in some cases, a young student might start school at an even younger age than is typical.

If a child is ready for a higher level within a subject and studies it instead of the lower level, it’s almost a given that they’ll learn more. The real research questions are (a) from an academic standpoint whether accelerated children do tend to be ready, or if they do poorly in classes post-acceleration) and (b) whether acceleration exposes students to non-academic harm (e.g. stress, demotivation, loss of love for subject, poor self-esteem).

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) is an ongoing longitudinal study examining thousands of mathematically gifted students. In one SMPY study, researchers compared the professional STEM accomplishments of mathematically gifted students who skipped a grade to those who remained at grade level. They found that, controlling for a student’s academic profile in a pretty sophisticated way, students who skipped a grade tended to be ahead of the non-skippers in terms of degrees earned, publications, citations accrued, and patents received. From this work it seems skipping a grade in the SMPY cohort did nothing to hurt a kid’s learning or enthusiasm for their passions.

Acceleration has been one of the focuses of SMPY studies. A 1993 piece about SMPY findings reported “there is no evidence that acceleration harms willing students either academically or psychosocially.” This is supported by various meta-analyses, going back to the 1984 Kulik & Kulik paper and confirmed by more recent work such as a 2011 analysis of existing studies. Beyond the “does no harm” findings, these meta-analyses also report academic benefits to students.

It can be confusing, when reading these studies, to keep track of just how gifted the students happen to be. For example, SMPY has studied five cohorts so far, ranging from students who assessed in the top 3% to those who assessed in the top 0.01%. As we consider students farther away from the mean of achievement, the need for acceleration becomes more acute.

Lots of teachers encounter “1 in 100” students every year, but the education of “off the charts” students is necessarily more a matter of feel than policy. Still, there are success stories to learn from, and they show a remarkable sensitivity to both the academic and social well-being of the student.

Terence Tao is a famous success story of this kind. He surprised his parents by discovering how to read before turning two, and as a child he started climbing through math at a blistering rate. He was identified as profoundly gifted from a young age, and his education was carefully tracked by Miraca Gross as part of her longitudinal study of profoundly gifted children:

His parents investigated a number of local schools, seeking one with a principal who would have the necessary flexibility and open-mindedness to accept Terry within the program structure they had in mind. 

This set the pattern for the ‘integrated,’ multi-grade acceleration program which his parents had envisaged and which was adopted, after much thought and discussion, by the school. By early 1982, when Terry was 6 years 6 months old, he was attending grades 3, 4, 6 and 7 for different subjects. On his way through school, he was able to work and socialize with children at each grade level and, because he was progressing at his own pace in each subject, without formal “grade-skipping,” gaps in his subject knowledge were avoided.

His education continued in much the same fashion, culminating in a Ph.D. by the age of 21 and a remarkable and balanced life since. He has since given his own advice on gifted education.

Given the success of acceleration, are we accelerating enough? On the one hand, it appears that acceleration is a widely used tool for giving gifted students what they need. When looking at the top 1 in 10000 students in terms of mathematical ability as identified by the SMPY, nearly half of the group skipped grades, and almost all of them had some form of acceleration, whether that meant advanced classes, early college placement, or other tools. About two-thirds reported being satisfied with their acceleration, rating it favorably across many categories:

acc1.png

[Source: SMPY]

The dissatisfied third of those 1 in 10000 students, for the most part, reported wishing they had been offered more acceleration. And advocates for gifted education strongly endorse the notion that acceleration is under-used. A Nation Deceived is premised on this idea — though besides for “more” the report doesn’t get specific concerning how many students ought to be accelerated, and the report mostly makes a cultural argument in favor of acceleration, citing stories like Martin Luther King Jr. graduating high school at 15.

We wanted to know more about how educators think about acceleration, so we surveyed (via twitter) twenty-one teachers, academic coaches, tutors and administrators. The survey prompted educators to respond to the following scenario:

In your school there is currently a 1st Grader who does math above grade level, e.g. he performs long division in his head. His parents initiated contact with the teacher after hearing their child complain that math at school was boring. They’re concerned that he isn’t being challenged. The classroom teacher knows that he is above grade-level in math, and is trying to meet his needs in class. The parents, however, do not think the current situation is working. The teacher reports that the student is difficult to engage during math class, and that sometimes he misbehaves during math.

From their responses, it certainly seems that acceleration was on the table, but almost always the last option after a number of in-class or non-classroom options (e.g. after school clubs) were explored. That acceleration in math should be a “break in case of emergency” response is also the line offered by the National Council of Teachers in Math: tracking is morally indefensible, acceleration should be viewed with suspicion but can sometimes be appropriate.

In many ways, mainstream education is living in Bob Slavin’s world. He was a leading opponent of tracking, but was impressed by certain forms of ability grouping. He took the research on ability grouping that actually works (through assessment, frequent regrouping, and curricular modification) and used it to create a program for failing schools. He expresses suspicion about acceleration of gifted students in general, but agrees that at times it is a useful and necessary tool. If you broach the conversation about acceleration with your child’s teachers, you might hear some version of Bob Slavin’s take.

There is more to say about where this skepticism comes from. But it’s important to note that just because a student could be accelerated doesn’t always mean that they should. While some gifted students fit the profile we sketched above — frustrated with school, bored and underchallenged, and finding it hard to connect to peers — many equally capable students are happy in their school lives. (We heard some, but not many, happy stories from online commenters.) If a child is happy and successful without acceleration, they are likely to remain happy and successful regardless of whether they are accelerated, and if they don’t want to accelerate, it should not be forced on them. At least some of the suspicion towards acceleration comes from parents who inappropriately push schools to accelerate their happy, satisfied children.

Acceleration is also not the only option. There is much more to learn than is taught in regular courses. Even in a normal class, a well-designed curriculum or an experienced teacher can create “extensions” to the main activity, so that students who are ready for more have something valuable to engage with. Enhancement or exposure to new, similar topics can serve students as well. A student who has jumped ahead in arithmetic may be entranced by a glance at Pascal’s triangle and number theory. One who is fascinated by English might find similar joy in learning Spanish or Chinese. Both of these, alongside acceleration, follow a simple principle: if a child wants to learn more and is able to do so, let them learn more. Overall, the balance of evidence suggests that acceleration is a practical and resource-effective way to help gifted, underchallenged students flourish in schools.

Our favorite one-stop source for reading on acceleration: here.

  1. Educational Goals in Conflict

Through acceleration, tutoring, or ability grouping, some kids could learn more. Why aren’t schools aggressively pursuing that? Shouldn’t they be working to teach kids as much as possible? Isn’t that what a school supposed to do? That educators are skeptical of ability grouping or acceleration can be maddening from the perspective of learning maximization: Why are schools leaving learning on the table?

Here’s something we don’t talk about nearly enough: schools are simply not in the learning-maximization business. It turns out that parents, taxpayers and politicians call on schools to perform many jobs. At times, there are trade-offs between the educational goals schools are asked to pursue, and educators are forced to make tough choices.

Historian David Labaree has one way of thinking about these conflicting educational goals, which he expands on at length in Someone Has to Fail. For Labaree, there are three competing educational goals that are responsible for creating system-wide tensions:

  • democratic equality (“education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens”)
  • social efficiency (“education as a mechanism for developing productive workers”)
  • social mobility (“education as a way for individuals to reinforce or improve their social position”)

As Labaree tells it, these goals end up in tension all the time. A lot of things that seem like gross ineptitude or organizational dysfunction are really the result of the mutual exclusivity of these goals:

These educational goals represent the contradictions embedded in any liberal democracy, contradictions that cannot be resolved without removing either the society’s liberalism or its democracy … We ask it to promote social equality, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten individual liberty or private interests. We ask it to promote individual opportunity, but we want it to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the integrity of the nation or the inefficiency of the economy. As a result, the educational system is an abject failure in achieving any one of its primary social goals … The apparent dysfunctional outcomes of the school system, therefore, are not necessarily the result of bad planning, bad administration, or bad teaching; they are an expression of the contradictions in the liberal democratic mind.

Ability grouping and acceleration fit nicely within the tensions Labaree exposes. These learning-maximizing approaches could find support from those who see education as a national investment in our defense or economy. Of course, the strongest demand for acceleration in schools can come from parents, who want schools to give their children every possible opportunity to be upwardly mobile. (“We want to make sure they can go to a good college.”)

Those act as forces in favor of ability grouping and acceleration. But schools also know that they are held responsible for producing equitable outcomes for a citizenry that sees each other as equals. A program that raises achievement for top students without harming others has an appeal an economist could love, but within schools this can count as a problem.

The way this plays out in practice is that many schools are inundated with requests to accelerate a kid. Parents — especially financially well-off, well-connected parents — can typically find ways to apply pressure to schools in hopes of helping their children reach some level of distinction. They’ll sometimes do this even when it wouldn’t benefit a child’s education (it would be educationally inefficient), or when it would exacerbate inequality (by e.g. letting anyone with a rich, pushy parent take Algebra 1 early).

In short, from a school’s standpoint those are two problems with acceleration. First, parents will push for it even when it’s not academically or socially appropriate. Second, it can exacerbate inequalities. That could explain where the culture of skepticism within education comes from.

This is meant entirely in terms of explaining the dynamic. The way this plays out can be incredibly painful. Systems designed to moderate parental demand can keep a kid in a depressing and frustrating situation:

My older son wanted to move up to a more advanced math course for next year. He took two final exams for next year’s course in February and answered all but 1/2 of one question on each. So roughly 90% on both and his request to skip the course was denied. (source)

Districts sometimes have extensive policies that can be incredibly painful to navigate when trying to get a student who truly needs acceleration out of a bad classroom situation. We heard from one educator who had a very young student expressing suicidal ideations. It was all getting exacerbated by the classroom situation — the kid said he felt his teachers and peers hated him because he loved math. The parents and the educator tried to find a better classroom for the child, and were met with all the Labaree-ian layers of resistance. Off the record, the educator advised the parents to get out of dodge and into a local private school that would be more responsive to his needs.

A happy ending: the 4th Grader moved to a private school where he was placed in an 8th Grade Honors class. He likes math class now. He seems happier, he’s growing interested in street art and social justice work.

But without a doubt, there are some unhappy endings out there.

  1. Personalization Software

acc2

[source: Larry Cuban]

“Ours is an age of science fiction,” Bryan Caplan writes in The Case Against Education.  “Almost everyone in rich countries — and about half of the earth’s population — can access machines that answer virtually any question and teach virtually any subject … The Internet provides not just stream-of-consciousness enlightenment, but outstanding formal coursework.”

The dream of using the Internet to replace brick-and-mortar classrooms is a dream that is entirely in sync with the times. This is reflected in the enormous enthusiasm directed towards online learning and personalization software. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg have all invested heavily in personalization and teaching software. And the industry as a whole is flush with funding, raising some 8 billion dollars of venture capital in 2017, while reaching 17.7 billion in revenue.

Finally — a way out of the school system and its knot of compromises! If schools are institutions whose goals are in tension with learning-maximization… then let’s stay away from schools and their tensions and give the children the unfettered learning they want. Let’s create the ideal tutor as a piece of software.

This dream isn’t just in sync with our times — it has a long history. This history is particularly well-documented by historian Larry Cuban (author of Teachers and Machines and Tinkering Toward Utopia) and by Audrey Watters (she’s writing a book about it). Watters’ talk “The History of The Future of Education” is as good a representative as any of the major thesis: that the dream is larger than any particular piece of technology. Motion pictures, radio, television, each of these was at times promoted as an educational innovation, able one day to free students from lockstep movement through school and into a personalized education. From Thomas Edison to B.F. Skinner, tech advocates have long envisioned the future that (at least according to Caplan) we’re living in now.

Then again, tech advocates in the past also thought they were living in the age of personalized learning. In 1965, a classroom that used a program called Individually Prescribed Instruction was described this way:

Each pupil sets his own pace. He is listening to records and completing workbooks. When he has completed a unit of work, he is tested, the test is corrected immediately, and if he gets a grade of 85% or better he moves on. If not, the teacher offers a series of alternative activities to correct the weakness, including individual tutoring.

For comparison, here is the NYTimes in 2017, and the headline is A New Kind of Classroom:

Students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.

The similarity between modern day and historical personalization rhetoric doesn’t settle the matter — in a lot of ways, clearly the Internet is different — but personalization software seems to have arrived at a lot of familiar, very human frustrations.

Anyone who has gone online to learn has, at some point, come face to face with this dilemma: On the internet, you can study almost all human knowledge, but usually you don’t. In a world with virtually every MIT course fully online for free, a world with Khan Academy and Coursera and countless other tools to aid learning, why has the heralded learning revolution not yet arrived?

In a way, the revolution has arrived — it just hasn’t improved things much. Rocketship Schools, a California charter using online learning for about half of its instruction, has had solid results. Lately, though, they’ve moved away from some of their bigger bets on personalization and rediscovered teachers, saying “We’ve seen success with models that get online learning into classrooms where the best teachers are.” School of One was a widely hyped high school model in NYC that was preparing to scale up its offerings… until a fuller picture of the results came in and it was pilloried. Online charter schools, meanwhile, seem to actively depress learning.

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to get solid research on the efficacy of various ed tech products. Many tools, particularly those sold directly to schools or used by online charters, are proprietary and stuck behind paywalls, selectively presenting their best data and limited demos. The ed tech sector in general seems to deliver mixed results to students.

Why is it so hard to make effective teaching software?

For one, teaching is complex. A good human teacher does a lot of complicated things — gets to know their students, responds to the class’ moods and needs, asks “just right” questions, monitors progress, clarifies in real time as a look of confusion dawns on the class, etc., etc. — and it’s simply hard to get a computer to do that.

Maybe, theoretically, a piece of software could be designed that does these things. But in practice, many software designers don’t even try. It’s easier and cheaper to make pedagogical compromises, such as providing instruction entirely through videos. Yes, there are some thoughtful tools made by groups like those at Explorable Explanations, such as this lesson on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But building high-quality tools well-adapted for a digital environment is difficult and time-consuming, and for prospective designers, destinations like Google or Blizzard tend to be more glamorous than working with schools. In practice, humans currently have a lot of advantages over computers in teaching.

Even if we overcame all the design issues, though, would students be motivated to stick with the program? Studies of online charters point to student engagement as the core challenge. When you put a kid in front of a computer screen, they jump to game websites, YouTube, SlateStarCodex, Google Images — anything other than their assigned learning. Many educational games that try to fix this resort to the “chocolate covered broccoli” tactic, trying to put gamelike mechanics that have nothing to do with learning around increasingly elaborate worksheets.

To be fair, student engagement is also the core challenge of conventional schools. But that’s precisely what the much-maligned structures of school are attempting to confront. The intensely social environment helps children identify as students and internalize a set of social expectations that are supportive of learning. The law compels school attendance, and schools compel class attendance. .And, once a child is in the classroom, their interactions with actual, live human instructors can set high academic expectations that a child will genuinely strive to meet.  

The conventional story is that school is incredibly demotivating, but compared to their online counterparts schools are shockingly good at motivation. MOOCs like those on Coursera have an average completion rate of 15 percent — public schools do much better than this. Popular language app Duolingo’s self-reported numbers from 2013 would put their language completion rate at somewhere around 1%. If all a user has to rely on is their daily whim to continue a course, the most focused and conscientious may succeed, but those are the ones who already do well in schools. That’s a big part of why people lock themselves into multi-year commitments full of careful carrots and sticks to get through the learning process. Writers such as Caplan think that people are revealing their true interests when they skip learning to fart around on the web, but we might as well see a commitment to attend school as equally revealing. People need social institutions to help do things we’d truly like to do. As such, even as computers become better teachers, the motivational advantage of schools seems likely to persist.

How might tech-based learning tools address these factors, so they might stand a chance at holding students’ attention long enough to teach them? Art of Problem Solving, an organization promoting advanced math opportunities to children, makes a good case study. It’s found a balance worth examining. First, it provides accessible gamelike online tools that center on a careful sequence of thought-provoking problems. Second, it offers scheduled online classes with the promise of a fast pace, challenging content, and a peer group of similarly passionate students taught by subject matter experts. The online classes are more expensive offerings, but they preserve the human touch.

What does that balance mean for students? If they’re in the conscientious, self-motivated crowd that wants to learn everything yesterday, they can gorge themselves on software designed to be compelling. No barriers keep them from progressing. Software can always point to a next step, a harder problem. On the other hand, if they want to lock a motivational structure around themselves and keep the social benefits of school in a more challenging setting, they can.

Not every successful tool need look identical, but that core idea is worth repeating: software should enable the passion and self-pacing of eager kids, but should not rely on that to replace the power of social, human motivational structures. Yes, sometimes even the same structures used in “regular” schools.

Online learning, then, fits squarely within the history of attempts to automate teaching. Over and again we make the same mistakes and forget the lessons of history: that teaching is more complex than our machines have ever been, that motivation is largely social, and that schools will have a hard time distinguishing between altrustic designers and opportunistic profit-seekers.

For those in the market for online learning there are a lot of mediocre tools available, and many truly bad ones. Right now, there’s nothing that seems ready to serve as a full-on replacement for school without consistent, careful human guidance.

That said, depending on your passions, there are some excellent resources for learning out there. Especially if a student has a caring mentor or a passionate peer group, they can learn a lot online. As educators and designers create more tools that respect both the power and limitations of machines, that potential can grow. But it’s not quite science fiction.

Our algorithm has determined that you should watch the following two videos: here and here to balance realism and idealism

  1. Practical Advice

Education is complex and resists easy generalizations. That said, here are some generalizations.

On navigating school for your child:

  • The brightest students do not thrive equally in every setting. Even the best students achieve more with teachers than on their own. Unless tutoring or some other private arrangement is possible, this means that a school is the best place to be for learning.
  • But school right now doesn’t work for all kids. One fix: if a child wants to be accelerated and seems academically prepared for it, acceleration will usually help them.
  • Most schools aren’t in the business of maximizing learning for every student, and in particular they tend to be skeptical of acceleration.
  • Therefore: If your kid needs more than what school is offering, be prepared to be a nudge.
  • But if you think your kid needs to be challenged more and your kid is perfectly happy in school, try really hard not to be a nudge.
  • Don’t fight to move your child to a class that covers the exact same material at the exact same pace but has the word “Honors” next to it. That sort of ability grouping makes no educational difference.
  • Prioritize free, open online tools. Don’t expect online tools to do the work for you or your child. Expect more distraction and less progress if online learning time is unstructured or unsupervised.

For educators:

  • If you are an elementary teacher or administrator and your school is looking to try new things, consider cross-grade ability grouping by subject, especially in math and reading.
  • Gifted kids are usually not equally talented in all fields. Consider options to accelerate to different levels in each subject based on demonstrated skill in that subject.
  • A lot comes easily to smart kids, and sometimes they never get the chance to learn to struggle. Find something they think is hard, academic or not, so they are able to handle more important challenges later.
  • If a child is bored in your class and knows the material, they probably shouldn’t be in your class.

For tech designers and users:

  • If you’re making online tools, make the learning the most interesting part of them. Don’t rely on chocolate-covered broccoli or assume that just presenting the material is enough. Take the problem of motivation seriously.
  • Look for passionate groups with robust communities, whether online or offline. Don’t overlook the social aspect of learning.

And for advocates of educational reform, in general:

  • People almost only talk about educational efficacy. But don’t be fooled — educational debates are only sometimes about what works, and frequently about what we value.

One last thing: if you’re an educator or a parent or just somebody who spends time around children, take their feelings seriously, OK? If a kid is miserable, that’s absolutely a problem that has to be solved, no matter what district policy happens to be.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to /u/Reddit4Play from reddit, JohnBuridan from the SSC community, blogger Education Realist, and many others who read drafts and offered ideas along the way.

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Questions and Answers about Tracking and Ability Grouping

[I am not an expert. Maybe you are, in which case I would greatly appreciate a comment pointing out things I’m missing. Much thanks to my anonymous partner in crime, the unlinkable TracingWoodgrains. We’ve been reading this literature together, and while we don’t agree entirely about tracking this piece is a result of our work together. Any good parts of this wouldn’t have been possible without his collaboration.]

What does “tracking” typically mean in American schools?

European-style differentiation into vocational/academic tracks is rare in the US, though it used to be very common earlier in the 20th century.

Now, most elementary classrooms have tables or little within-class groups for reading and math. As kids get older, it’s more and more common for schools to create high/middle/low classes for various subjects, but especially for math. By 8th Grade, most kids are assigned a class based on past performance, and sometimes those classes are “accelerated,” meaning they take Algebra 1 in 8th Grade. By high school, high/middle/low tracking is near universal in math.

(Some of this picture I get from Loveless. Loveless also notes that there’s a lot of terminological confusion between tracking and ability grouping. I’ll use the terms interchangeably here.)

In addition, though it’s not called “tracking,” a lot of school resources are dedicated towards students who aren’t performing highly. This amounts to a kind of ability grouping and is super-common throughout k-12. It’s federally mandated ability grouping, in fact.

Who benefits from conventional tracking? Who loses?

If anyone benefits, it’s almost certainly students in the higher tracks who gain and students in the lower tracks who lose. But the effects aren’t clear, and the impact of tracking isn’t particularly well-understood.

In 1987 Robert Slavin reviewed the existing literature for elementary and secondary students and found practically no benefits for anyone from conventional tracking — but also no real harm done to any group. On this basis he argued against conventional ability grouping, seeing as it helped no one and was morally noxious.

But the studies he reviewed had limits (small size, not nationally representative). Using better data, a number of researchers (Hoffer, Gamoran and Mare, Argys, Rees and Brewer) came to the conclusion that conventional tracking benefits students in the high tracks and hurts those in the low tracks. But it’s really hard to control for the right factors in these definitely non-experimental studies, and Betts and Shkolnik raise questions about the results of these papers (summarized, as is this whole story, in this review by Betts).

(Just to mess with everybody, Figlio and Page argue that by attracting stronger students to the school (because parents seek tracking) students in low-tracks benefit, indirectly, from tracking.)

Recently, there was an experiment in Kenya — one of the very few true experiments! — where they randomly instituted tracking into some schools and measured the impact. It was positive for everybody, but there are a million differences between this context and the one in the US, starting with the number of ability groups (just 2) and class size — over 45 kids are in each classroom! It’s hard to know what to take from this study for the situation in the US.

And there was also a recent big meta-meta-analysis that found no benefits and no harm for between-class grouping, echoing Slavin.

Loveless says the evidence is inconclusive, and that’s echoed by Betts, and the fact that it’s not a clear effect tells you something about how tangly this whole issue is. But if it helps anybody, it’s probably top-track students, and low-track students would be the ones hurt by tracking.

Wait, you said “conventional tracking.” What’s unconventional tracking?

Slavin, Destroyer of Tracking, has a school-turnaround program with good results called Success for All that depends heavily on grouping students by ability. How? By adopting something like the Joplin Plan, which assesses frequently and regroups students based on those assessments. Students across ability groups show benefits in these programs. (Though, not without controversy.)

Another form of grouping that isn’t widely used is acceleration, e.g. placing 1st Graders in 2nd Grade math if they’re ready for it, and continuing down the line. There is research supporting the notion that acceleration benefits the accelerated student in completely straightforward ways — they learn things that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. See that meta-meta-analysis for instance.

Does race impact where you’re tracked?

Using one of those large, nationally reprsentative samples mentioned above, Lucas and Gamoran (fierce opponents of tracking) found that race wasn’t a factor in track placement. Meaning, controlling for academic performance, race isn’t a further factor in deciding where a student gets placed.

Because of the gap in academic success that Black and whites collectively experience, this still means that Black students disproportionately occupy the lower tracks.

In contrast to Lucas and Gamoran, Dauber et al, found that race was a factor in track placement in Baltimore schools. It’s hard to know for sure how to fit Dauber with Gamoran’s bigger picture results.

What about other non-academic factors? Do they impact track placement?

Gamoran found that, unlike race, socio-economic status does statistically impact track placement (modestly) suggesting that, somehow, high-SES students tend to get tracked above their academic performance. Why? We don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s parents? Maybe it’s the intangibles, like being a good student with homework done and things organized because they have parents at home who can help manage the academic lives since they aren’t coming home at 10 PM from their second job?

But we can’t really know yet how precisely SES helps determine tracking.

What do we know about the quality of these low-track classes, as compared to higher-tracks?

Even defenders of tracking agree that low-track classes are often very poorly taught and that this is a major problem. Here’s Loveless: “Even under the best of conditions, low tracks are difficult classrooms. The low tracks that focus on academics often try to remediate through dull, repetitious seatwork.” Much of Oakes’ contribution is documenting the lousiness of a lot of low track classes.

How does this square with researchers who find no negative impact of tracking on low-track students? All this would mean is that instead of failing these students in low-track classes that schools typically fail these students at similar rates in untracked schools.

Speaking personally, it seems to me that the strongest argument against tracking is the state of low-track classes. Forgetting academic performance, these students need to be placed in safe, respectful, happy classrooms staffed by competent teachers who believe in and care for their students. I think we have plenty of reports showing that this is often not the case in low-track classes, and this is what I saw at the first school I taught at.

So is the tracking status quo bad for racial inequality?

Put it like this: if we immediately removed all US tracking and replaced them with heterogeneous classes, the result would possibly be narrowing of the black-white score gap somewhat — a bit from improving the performance of low-track students, but mostly by limiting the advancement of high-track students.

Those high-tracks don’t just contain white students (schools are also highly segregated remember), and another national priority is increasing the representation of Black and Latino students in the highest ranks of achievement. Some of the tools we have for increasing representation are universal screening for tracked gifted programs, and removing tracking would also remove these programs. Without public access to gifted programs, would wealthier, whiter students just pursue these out of school, exacerbating inequities at the highest levels of achievement?

Still, the net effect would probably be a narrowing of the black-white gap.

OK, so let’s get rid of tracking entirely.

Only if you’re willing to really restrict the amount of learning that some students are capable of — either through deliberate acceleration or by maintaining track differences — for the sake of equity. After all, the flipside of the evidence that tracking exacerbates inequalities is that it really does help some students, usually those in the top tracks. (And, if you doubt that evidence, there are still unconventional tracking methods that we could be using to further accelerate more students, deliberately, from younger years.)

The tough question here is what happens to the learning of students who are ready for more than their heterogeneous class is offering them.

But can’t you teach in a way so that everybody maximizes what they could potentially learn?

This is the golden snitch of teaching, right? You win the game if you can grab it, but it always manages to slip away.

Maybe there are schools that have pulled this off (Boaler, Burris Heubert & Levin), but they seem to be relatively rare. In general, schools that tended towards untracking amidst the heights of the anti-tracking movement inched back towards tracking (Loveless).

Another note: a lot of untracked elementary schools just use ability grouping within classes. Maybe there’s increased mobility between those groups, but teachers need to find ways to deal with heterogeneity. Pedagogies that benefit everybody with no costs are highly vaunted within education, but I’m skeptical, and there isn’t evidence that these schools provide widely replicable models.

But if you don’t remove tracking, is there any way to improve the status quo?

One approach might be to pursue some of the unconventional tracking options, though that would involve pushing against what Larry Cuban calls the “grammar of schooling.”

But there are also many examples of tracked schools that offer a good education to their lowest-tracks. In fact, Rochelle Gutierrez studied eight high school math departmenets, some tracked and some untracked. She came to the conclusion that “tracking is not the pivotal policy on which student advancement in mathematics depends.” What is crucial for her are a whole host of other factors, including strong pedagogy, school culture, and solid, shared curricular resources.

More examples of effective tracking programs that promote mobility come from Catholic schools. (Wait, Catholic schools are closing left and right as they lose students to those charter schools that politicians made such a big deal about? Whoops.) See Camarena and Valli.

Likewise, Adam Gamoran identified examples of schools with successful low-track classes, and identified features of these programs. It’s what you’d expect — high expectation, good pedagogy, making sure good teachers work with the low tracks too.

Which is more promising — expanding hetereogenous instruction or improving low-track classes?

Let a thousand flowers bloom, etc., but I think if you put me in charge of a district or a school I’d focus on improving low-track experiences. It seems to me as if there are more cases of working low-track classes than examples of successful heterogeneous programs. And, as a matter of experience, I am not sure I believe in cooperative learning as a pedagogy that mitigates the risks to high-achieving kids.

Tracking or untracking: what do you say?

Well, it really depends on the school. I think if you put me in charge of a school I’d want to follow Gutierrez in focusing on things like curriculum, high expectations for every kid, safe classrooms with comptetent teachers for every kid. Tracking or not wouldn’t necessarily be my most important decision.

I don’t think I could stomach a school that tracked strongly along racial lines. That’s not good for school culture or the experience of students in the lower-track, and so I’d probably want to untrack that school as much as possible. That said, I’d still want to see programs for students at either extreme of the achievement spectrum. (And I’d be federally mandated to provide a lot of such resources at the lower end of that spectrum.)

Otherwise, I’d be fine with tracking probably, as I’m fine with the tracking that my current school uses. And I’d be really interested in seeing if I could employ some of the unconventional tracking plans like the Joplin plan or reasonable acceleration, like letting 4th Graders take math with 5th Graders.

Does that include grade-skipping? That’s rarely used in schools, but it’s a form of acceleration.

Grade-skipping seems to generally benefit those who skip (Park Lubinski & Benbow). I’d want to be able to use it, mostly when kids aren’t happy and we think it’s because they’re unchallenged by their current grade.

Why don’t more schools use unconventional tracking?

There are two ways of putting this, I think. The first is to state, as Cuban and Tyack do, that there is a grammar of schooling that resists reform. The typical age-graded classroom is a strong feature of schools, and both of these unconventional tracking methods push against age-grading.

But why should age-grading be such a persistent element of schooling? I find David Labaree helpful in explaining this, because what educational consumers seek are either markers of distinction for their kids, or equitable access to those markers.

Learning is only of secondary value to most parents — they don’t seek learning without distinction — and so something like acceleration is very hard for schools to offer more widely without leading to chaos as parents demand ever-increasing acceleration for their kids.

Age-grading as a strong default is a compromise that helps schools manage the demands of the educational consumer.

But the Joplin Plan, and other plans that assess kids frequently to better determine and match their curricular needs, seem like they deserve more attention than they get.

So does anybody like the status quo?

Maybe not, but that’s by design. Schools aren’t designed optimally for learning or for equity. School as it exists is a sort of uneasy compromise between contradictory principles — fair access and award of distinction — and the competing demands of different groups. Some claim to have revolutionary solutions, but these probably don’t exist. You can reduce inequity, but only if you’re willing to curtail the learning of some. You can improve learning for all, but risk exacerbating inequity. This is an optimization problem with more than one possible solution. Or, as Rochelle Gutierrez says in a different context, the answer to the questions of tracking are usually “neither and both” sort of answers.

That said, in math education circles, tracking is unfairly maligned, in particular by NCTM. In Catalyzing Change they say that the research is “unequivocal” that tracking harms low-track students in permanent and irrevocable ways. Looking more broadly at the literature, it’s hard for me to agree with that take. 

Starting to think about tracking

I. 

I think my school does a nice job handling tracking for math classes.

When kids are in K-2, they stay in their classrooms and get taught math by their classroom teachers. But starting in 3rd Grade, kids split up out of their homerooms for math and get taught by a math specialist.

From 3rd through 8th, we teach six sections of math class for each grade. Three of these classes are “regular” pace class; the other three are “accelerated.” At the end of each year each grade’s math teachers and administrators get together with a huge stack of notecards and make classes for the upcoming year. We think about a lot of things — which kids would do well together, whether a class has a nice mix of personalities, and whether a kid would do better in a regular or accelerated section. And, by high school, students get to pick their pace, and kids absolutely do move between the “tracks.”

For the last few years I’ve been teaching an accelerated 4th Grade class, and it’s definitely not an easy class for me to teach (though consensus here is that accelerated tends to be easier teaching). The spread of interest and abilities is still high. (As you’d expect it to be at a school that has ~50% of students in accelerated sections.) There are two things that I find challenging. First, I don’t have nearly as many curricular resources for the accelerated 4th Grade as I do for the regular pace classes. Maybe you think it’s a social problem, maybe you don’t, but I have way more curricular tools for a struggling class than one that’s ready for more.

And the other thing is that I feel a real responsibility in this class for the kids who come in seeing math as their “thing.” There’s a special responsibility to make sure that these kids are challenged and engaged in my class since there’s nowhere else for them to go.

It’s sad but true: there’s more than one way to fall out of love with math.

Overall, I think it’s very good that my school has half the sections accelerated and half not. This gives us flexibility to make classes that we want, and it avoids some of the ways that tracking can make more problems than it solves.

II.

If we’re looking for a good example of bad tracking, look no further than the first school that I taught at.

Here’s what happened each of the three years I spent there. The school would put students in 9th Grade sections based on what they’d heard from the middle schools. The top two sections were “honors,” and they’d study Geometry. The bottom two sections were taking Algebra 1. Once that placement was made, the rest of their high school enrollments in math were more-or-less locked in.

I used to teach the bottom two 9th Grade algebra classes, 9C and 9D (as they were so lovingly called). At the start of the year the classes would be about the same size, maybe 18 and 18 kids. Slowly, though, the 9D kids would figure out where they’d been placed. They’d tell their parents, the parents would call the school, immediately the kids would be moved to the 9C class, which would typically blossom into a lovely group of 26-28 students, leaving the remaining 8-10 stragglers behind.

I really did love the kids in 9D, but WOW that was a hard class to teach. Thanks to this artificial selection process, all the kids in that class were there because either (a) they didn’t care what section they were in or (b) their parents didn’t but mostly (c) they had diagnosed learning needs that weren’t being met, because it was an under-resourced private school.

I sometimes fantasize about going back to that school and teaching that class again. It wouldn’t be fun, but it really nags at me. Could I do better now, if I tried again? I do know so much more about teaching now, but it’s not a class that sets up a teacher for success. If I’m honest with myself…I don’t know if I’d be any better.

The class was very hard to teach. I don’t want to say unteachable, because there were good kids in that room that needed a good teacher. There were also numerous behavior problems, really all the time, just sometimes punctuated with learning. This says something about me in my first few years teaching; it might say something about me now. I’ll never really know.

But it certainly says something about the school.

I taught other low-track classes at this school — 10D, 11E. The Regents exam was far out of their reach, for the most part. We’d have a couple of passes out of each group, but it wasn’t a realistic goal for most students. The environment in the classroom was often out of control, and the school overall had this reputation for barely contained chaos.

I think I did alright there, but this is just the reality. There are hundreds, thousands of schools like it. And while tracking was clearly not the major problem at this school, there was no question who the losers and winners of this arrangement were.

III.

How common are my experiences? How do they fit into the bigger picture?

I’ve been looking into the research on ability-grouping (within a class) and tracking (making classes by ability), trying to make sense of the state of things.

The story of this field is pretty interesting. It’s a field with a million meta-analyses — even a meta-analysis of the existing meta-analyses! All these reviews exist because there hasn’t been much first-order research since the early 1970s or so. So everyone is bootstrapping their analyses on top of the same old studies. If this is making you think that the evidence base isn’t particularly strong here, you’re getting the picture.

While there isn’t an incredibly strong research base here, there is evidence and even a sort of consensus. Tom Loveless does a nice job reporting on this for the Fordham Institute in a report titled Making Sense of the Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate. Loveless, as others do, frames the research around a debate between two researchers, Robert Slavin and James Kulik.

For those seeking a summary, here’s a condensed version of their debate:

Robert Slavin: booo tracking, you have no evidence

James Kulik: yay tracking, actually we do have evidence

Robert Slavin: no, that’s just evidence from gifted and accelerated programs that are poorly controlled, they no count

James Kulik: no they count

Robert Slavin: yo also I find tracking morally repulsive

James Kulik: really? i like it

That’s sort of it. If you like words, here’s Loveless’ summary:

Kulik finds that tailoring course content to ability level yields a consistently positive effect on the achievement of high ability students. Academic enrichment programs produce significant gains. Accelerated programs, where students are taught the curriculum of later grades, produce the largest gains of all. Accelerated gifted students dramatically outperform similar students in non-accelerated classes. Slavin omits studies of these programs from his analysis. He argues that the gains, though large, may be an artifact of the programs’ selection procedures, that schools admit the best students into these programs and reject the rest, thereby biasing the results.

Loveless is correct to point out that this debate is intractable, though, because Slavin actually finds tracking morally problematic and ugly. The burden of proof for Slavin is on schools that want to track, which explains why he can be so opposed to Kulik, even though they don’t seem to disagree very much at all about what the research shows:

Three things are striking about the Slavin-Kulik debate. First, the disagreement hinges on whether tracking is neutral or beneficial. Neither researcher claims to have evidence that tracking harms achievement, neither of students generally nor of students in any single track. Second, accepting Slavin or Kulik’s position on between-class grouping depends on whether one accepts as legitimate the studies of academically enriched and accelerated programs. Including these studies leads Kulik to the conclusion that tracking promotes achievement. Omitting them leads Slavin to the conclusion that tracking is a non-factor. Third, in terms of policy, Slavin and Kulik are more sharply opposed on the tracking issue than their other points of agreement would imply. Slavin states that he is philosophically opposed to tracking, regarding it as inegalitarian and anti-democratic. Unless schools can demonstrate that tracking helps someone, Slavin reasons, they should quit using it. Kulik’s position is that since tracking benefits high achieving students and harms no one, its abolition would be a mistake.

Loveless seems to be taking a compromise position in all this. “The research on tracking and ability grouping is frequently summarized in one word: inconclusive,” he writes. Since the research is inconclusive, he recommends a live-and-let-live strategy. Schools should have the freedom to choose their tracking structure, he says, but they need to be aware of the ways that each model can fail.

Tracking’s issues are well-known these days. Loveless calls for high-standards for the lowest tracks, and for ending what’s sometimes called the “teacher tracking” of putting the least skilled teachers with the lowest tracks. There need to be clear pathways out of the lowest tracks, a real effort to make sure that there’s room for students that start in one place to end up in another.

Untracked schools have problems of their own, though. “On the political side, anti-tracking advocates need to assuage the fears of parents that detracked schools will sacrifice rigorous academic training and intellectual development for a dubious
social agenda,” he writes, and this seems sensible to me also. The really ambitious students in my accelerated 4th Grade class do have needs, and their parents are legitimately concerned about meeting them.

If this seems wishy-washy and balanced, well, sometimes things just shake out that way.

IV.

If you think about it, isn’t it sort of weird that tracking doesn’t have clear and measurable benefits for the top groups in the research? Think about it. How often should ability grouping help strong students? Like, roughly, what percentage of the time should the top-group academically benefit from tracking?

I’d say 100% of the time. Roughly.

Teaching kids more stuff because they’re capable of learning more stuff is the single simplest idea in education I’ve ever heard. There is nothing to it. It’s just teaching more. Add to that the way they’re isolated from some of the toughest-to-teach students in the school, and this seems like it ought to be the clearest slam dunk on the educational menu.

So why should there be anything other than the clearest possible data signalling this? I’m not asking, why hasn’t the educational establishment recognized the evidence? I’m asking why the data isn’t super-clear. Why isn’t there a huge effect? Why isn’t it unambiguous in every single case that top-students benefit from ability grouping?

Two explanations:

  • Ability grouping is not necessarily acceleration. Some teachers don’t use a “top” class as a chance to do anything differently at all. You meet the standards? Great, you’ve met the standards. Let’s chill. (Or, let’s look at cool things on the side that don’t accumulate as knowledge.)
  • The skills students learn in a top group maybe aren’t measured.

Thinking about my own teaching, I think both of these things are probably happening in a lot of “top” track classrooms. I certainly do try to cover topics in my accelerated class that I don’t in my regular paced classes. But sometimes it’s just that we cover the same material but without as much stress, because there isn’t a clear vision I have of what an accelerated class ought to look like. I get little help from the available curricular resources, which are really all about fleshing out support for struggling students over kids who are ready for more.

I’m not complaining about this, mind you, but I think it’s true. There are probably a lot of teachers out there who aren’t making significant curricular changes between their tracks.

The second thing is true also. I try very hard to avoid racing ahead in the “standard” sequence of arithmetic skills with my accelerated class. The easiest way for me to handle an accelerated class would be to just march through the curriculum, teaching 5th, 6th, 7th grade standards to my 4th Graders. But this could create problems for the kids and my colleagues. If I unilaterally decide to teach e.g. fraction division, then I’m stepping on the toes of the 5th or 6th Grade teacher, who now has a handful of bored kids who are skilled at this because I decided to keep marching. 

OK, so the department should make a decision. But once you just set a class off accelerating through the curriculum, you’ve suddenly created a track that is relatively impenetrable to kids who start out of it. Somehow, they’ll have to catch up to join, and that’s going to have to happen outside of class. The only way to get ready for an accelerated class would be to be accelerated already, an unsavory Catch-22.

I think what I try to do is to flesh out the standard, grade-level topics with things that don’t have a strong showing anywhere in the standards. Right now my 4th Grade class is taking a deep dive into probability, a topic that only sort of shows up again in the 7th Grade Common Core standards. Earlier in the year I shared a bit of graph theory. We studied angles at a depth that will only really show up again when they’re studying diagrams in high school geometry.

My dream would be to have a curriculum that had a clear vision for what kids who are ready for more could dive into, beyond the grade-level expectations. There would be to keys to making this work. First, the additional skills would have to actually build and develop throughout the year — we want to equip accelerated students with something useful that builds their mathematical knowledge. But we also want a fresh start each year or so, so that kids can move in between the tracks without requiring some sort of catch-up.

I think something like this would give clarity and purpose to classes that otherwise have no choice but to plow ahead in the standard sequence.

V.

On the margins, should US schools have more or less tracking? I think the answer is probably “better tracking.”

Even Slavin, opponent of tracking, admits that there is evidence for certain kinds of tracking in the elementary years, especially something called the “Joplin plan.” (Named after Joplin, Missouri, the district that gets credit for its invention.)

Joplin-style tracking cuts across grade-levels. A school might have an hour for reading instruction, and each student in the school would go to a classroom they’ve been assessed as ready for. So a 4th, 5th and 6th Grader might be reading similar books together in the same room, working on the same vocabulary. It’s a kind of limited breakdown of the age-grading system, really an artifact of the early 1960s.

Slavin, opponent of tracking, calls the experimental results of studies of the Joplin plan “remarkably consistent” and in support of the program.

Which makes sense, right? This is the simplest possible educational idea: teach kids more when they seem to be ready for more. And, as an extra bonus, since the kids are heterogeneously grouped for most of the day, you don’t run the risk of creating really problematic tracks that lead to wildly varying places. By the nature of the plan, there is curricular guidance for kids who are ready for more. This should work 100% of the time.

And Slavin put his money where his mouth is, co-founding Success for All, a school improvement program that has something very much like the Joplin plan as its cornerstone. (His co-founder is Nancy Madden, another Johns Hopkins education professor. Madden and Slavin are married.)

And, ironically, Slavin’s program has been critiqued for its use of tracking. (Also for its use of scripted lessons, which will never make teachers happy.)

It seems as if the situation is that Slavin’s preferred sort of tracking would be good for students and good for equity and mobility. He’s a noted critic of tracking and ability grouping, and is deeply aware of all the traps. Success for All reassesses students every two months, and students are expected to move between groups. This is the form of tracking with the strongest research pedigree. And yet it comes in for criticism.

What’s confusing about this to me is that we aren’t a country that is shy about grouping students by ability. Loveless notes this: “Ability grouping for reading instruction appears nearly universal, especially in the early grades.” In the elementary years, this is usually within-class grouping, e.g. red group sits at this table and blue is on the rug, etc. But by the time students reach high school, the near universal pattern is separately tracked classes, more like what my old school did.

Here’s the puzzle: why do some forms of grouping and tracking attract more ire than others? Is it just a matter of the devil we know vs the one we don’t? Familiarity breeds begrudging acceptance? I don’t know.

But looking at programs like Success for All and thinking about what happens in the math classrooms that I’ve seen, it seems to me that purely from the standpoint of mathematical learning, there is probably a better way of doing things. Here, as bullet points, are my takeaways from all this, with the most doable items near the top:

  • We could use curricular materials that go beyond the standards for each grade level of math, so that classes who are ready for more can dig in without dashing through the standards.
  • Something like Slavin’s reading plan could be useful in elementary grades. Keep the heterogeneous groups, in general, but assess students every couple of months or so to place them in a class that’s right for them. (If we could clone Success for All minus the scripted lessons it would probably be more popular. Though I’m sure there’s probably something lost when we do that too.)
  • Maybe, even in the upper grades, it would be helpful to split the year into two halves, with an ability grouping move in the middle. Or maybe it wouldn’t help at all. But it might be interesting for a school to try something like that and see how it goes. Maybe?

But all these are speculative recommendations. Overall, I don’t get the sense that there is a huge gap between research and practice because (as Loveless notes) there isn’t a great deal of clarity from the research.

Instead, there are promising ideas with research support (like Slavin’s). This doesn’t exclude the possibility that there are other good ideas out there, and it seems likely to me that if a school or parent body thinks that tracking or untracking is necessary for their students, they’re probably correct.