One of the things I discuss when working with schools and districts to affect lasting change through inclusive teaching practices is the pitfalls of tracking and the value of grouping students productively. I have an ethical responsibility to define what inclusive means and why inclusive requires differentiated instruction. Inclusion and inclusive classrooms gained momentum in the early 90’s because several research studies indicated that separating students with special needs into self-contained classrooms did not allow them to have as equal an education as their peers. Also, statistical evidence indicated that when schools grouped students of low ability with other students of low ability, the outcome was low achievement.
In 2001, in Robert Marzano’s “Classroom Instruction that Works,” on page 87, he states, “As shown in figure 7.3, students of low ability actually perform worse when they are placed in homogeneous groups with students of low ability as opposed to students of low ability placed in heterogeneous groups. This is evidenced by the negative effect size of a -.60. In addition, the effect of homogeneous grouping on high ability students is positive, but small (.09). Alan Fiero, in his study, concludes that “All students benefit from ‘thinking about their thinking’.”
Heterogeneous groups provide a wider range of ideas to examine. Having students think deeply to explain their ideas and critique the ideas of others brings out the “genius” in all of our students.”(Fiero, n.d.) Proponents of gifted education counter some of these studies with research that indicates that gifted youth were not properly represented in much of the research on ability grouping. However, despite the fact that studies that include gifted students often do not replicate the same research results indicating negative effects of ability grouping, they do overwhelmingly state that the key to success of all students is flexible grouping.(Tieso, 2003)
It appears as though research on tracking has been nonexistent in the past five years. Consequently, there is no new research to provide evidence for or against tracking. I, however; have taught low ability classes where students’ misbehavior is exacerbated by the fact that students feed off one another, where teachers’ expectations are low, even when they believe they are challenging students, and where the segregation of low ability students significantly impacts students’ self-esteem.
In some of the research, authors have claimed that including students with low ability in a heterogeneous group perpetrates low self-esteem. I disagree. I have seen, with my own eyes, in my own classrooms and in the classrooms of powerfully effective co-teachers, students who exceed low expectations and achieve more than I ever dreamed possible. Teachers who teach effectively, who differentiate instruction, who use data to ability-group flexibly and as needed to re-teach before students fail have classrooms where students make gains.
When I walk into a classroom, where low is grouped with low, I see a very different level of teaching and expectation by both general education and special education teachers, even today. The keys to student success are complex. There are no magic bullets and no simple answers. What I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that low-level classrooms yield low-level results.
Given that the classes that students take in middle school and high school determine their future, including their ability to make a decent living or go to college, we have a moral responsibility to ensure that we are not limiting students’ life choices based on standardized test scores. I conclude with one question that each school leader needs to ask them self, “Do we have the right to decide a child’s future based on test scores when they are as young as the sixth grade?”
Fiero, A. (n.d.). Hetero Genius Classes- Why inclusion and mixed grouping.
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom Instruction That Works: research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Tieso, C. L. (2003, September). Ability groupin is not just tracking anymore. Roeper Review. doi: 10.1080/02783190309554236
For more information on differentiation and Response to Intervention, see Susan Fitzell’s book, RTI Strategies for Secondary Teachers.
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