Apr 11, 2019

To Differentiate or To Track?

Blog Submission By Zachary Wright, Assistant Professor of Practice, Relay GSE
Zachary Wright

A discussion of the benefits and shortcomings of two highly discussed practices in education. Those of us in education often forget that while nearly everybody is involved in education through their children, many aren’t familiar with the jargon we so often throw around. Two such pieces of jargon are differentiation and tracking, and they provide an effective means of identifying and discussing one’s attitude on education.

Let’s start with some general definitions. Differentiation “consists of the efforts of teachers to respond to variance among learners in the classroom. Whenever a teacher reaches out to an individual or small group to vary his or her teaching in order to create the best learning experience possible, that teacher is differentiating instruction.” It sounds lovely. But actually start imagining it, and it gets messy and, above all, incredibly difficult. Imagine having a classroom of 25 students. You teach English class. You have to assign an essay based upon a grade level text and are planning how to accomplish this. You think of the 25 students in yours class. Five students are English language learners. Seven students are students with special needs and have IEPs. 12 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. 18 students read below grade level. 3 students read at grade level. 4 students read at an advanced grade level. Most students have not written a paper longer than two pages in length. Some are still mastering basic spelling and grammar. A few are naturally gifted writers. So what do you do?

Differentiation, teaching to the individual child to ensure all students are supported, sounds beautiful, but given the very real classroom described above, is it even possible? How do you teach your lesson and support your students in ways that simultaneously ensure all students are being pushed academically while also ensuring that all students are receiving the support they need and are being taught in a way that speaks to their unique experience? If you stick to the curriculum, how many students are being left behind? If you slow down the curriculum, how many students are no longer being pushed? Do the benefits of heterogeneous grouping overwhelm the possible limitations? Wouldn’t it be better to organize classes based upon student ability? Why would we need differentiation, why adjust instruction for students of different abilities, when we have already created an educational caste system that separated children in the first place?

That’s called tracking “the practice of lumping children together according to their talents in the classroom. On the elementary level, the divisions sound harmless enough: Kids are divided into the Bluebirds and Redbirds. But in the secondary schools, the stratification becomes more obvious as students assume their places in the tracking system.” Tracking would seem to make differentiation strategies redundant. After all, if all students are entering the class on the same academic level, then what need is there to differentiate one’s instruction? But tracking is tricky, some might say insidious.

Here are a few things to consider before making a leap to tracking as another educational panacea. When does tracking begin? 3rd grade? 5th grade? 7th grade? If a student is placed on a remedial track in 5th grade, does that eliminate their chances for ever joining the honors track? If not, then a student’s entire future trajectory is impacted by their cohort placement in 5th grade. Is that what we want? How are students tracked? It is no secret that even the most “integrated” schools see segregated tracking wherein AP/Honor classes are whiter and more homogenous than general ed tracking. How are students demonstrating their abilities? Testing? Teacher recommendations? How can tracking be done in such a way that accurately places students into tracks aligned to their abilities, rather than their privileges? How do we as a society value these different educational tracks? Would we value the technical education track as a means for a solid middle class life, or deride it as tracks for those unworthy of a college education? Would we in a similarly misguided way equate college tracking with wealth and privilege rather than the more likely reality of debt saddled adulthood? Doesn’t differentiation happen even within homogeneous groupings?

Even when students are in groups of similar abilities, teachers who have earned their stripes know that they still have classrooms of individual learners that need to be understood, valued, and taught as a person rather than an emotionless, robotic pupil. Do we differentiate then? The differentiation / tracking debate is not only an important topic of educational discussion, it is also a valuable means of engaging those whose lives are not immersed in the world of education. So what do you think? What does your network think? To differentiate? Or to track?

Disclaimer: Statements and opinions reflected on Relay's Blog reflects the author's opinions and do not represent the views or policies of the authors employer, past or present, or any other organization with which the author may be affiliated. 

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