First, what are the reasons that we put kids in tracks?
-it makes it "easier" to differentiate
-traditionally we have done it, it was probably our experience as students, so now we do it
-some parents want it
My experience is in middle school and for me tracking has always felt wrong. I'm sure high school is a little different but I bet some of my arguments below apply to high school too. For my first 10 years of teaching, I couldn't quite articulate what it was that bothered me about tracking. Now that I've been blogging, reflecting, and have a little more experience, I've been able to boil it down to five reasons.
Reason 1: Kids Get Stuck
Teachers are increasingly being asked to meet the needs of individual students. While this sounds great, and in a perfect world it would happen, it doesn't always work. Crowded classes, lack or resources, or lack of time are all things that prevent true differentiation. Because of this, some school turn to tracking as a fix but call it differentiation.
Tracking is labeling a student as "high" or "low" (or some other euphemism for the same idea) and them grouping them according to those labels. In this model, a student can get "stuck" in a certain track and it can be nearly impossible to move. In true differentiation, there is flexibility in grouping… a student doesn't get a topic? They go in the group that needs help… next unit they get it? They go in a different group.
Some students will spend their entire schooling in one track, stuck there because they started on that path at a young age. This method does not account for growth or maturity and holds many students back from meeting their potential. In addition, minority and low-income students are disproportionately represented in the "low" track. (read more here)
Reason 2: "Low" Students Have to Do Boring Stuff
If classes are heterogeneous, it allows the teacher to meet the needs of students because each student, depending on the topic can be "low" and "high." Getting labeled as just one is dangerous because it might prevent a student from getting what they need. Students labeled as "low" are stuck getting remedial instruction even if they are excelling in a particular topic. Also, thinking one is "bad at math" can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Read this for more on this topic.
Many tracks labeled for "low," "struggling," or "remedial" students involve a lot of "skill and drill" type instruction. Often little problem solving is involved and it is solely practice of procedures and a focus on how to get the "right answer." How boring! Taking a student that is already disillusioned with mathematics and then give them boring, repetitive work… and we wonder why some kids hate math?!
Reason 3: "High" Students Don't Ask Questions
Just as problematic is a student labeled as "high" getting stuck at an accelerated pace. If a "high" student is struggling they will often not ask the help they need. They might feel embarrassed or pressure to perform at a "high" level and might perceive this as needing to get an answer quickly with little or no struggle.
I have also noticed that students in my "advanced math" are less willing to problem solve. They often get frustrated easily if they do not get how to approach a problem right away. In addition, they are less willing to listen to others ideas of how to solve a problem and look to the teacher to tell the the "right way" to arrive at an answer.
Reason 4: Responsibility
This one is scary… if we assume students are innately "low" or "high" it lessons the responsibility on teachers for their mathematics education. A former NCTM president addressed this issue in a News Bulletin he wrote in May/June 2001:
"A principal factor contributing to the performance gap may be tracking--a remnant of the "new math" era, when separating students into different curricular tracks on the basis of their ability was a common practice. Although research indicates that tracking does not benefit students in mathematics, the thinking associated with it--that learning mathematics is an innate ability rather than one that is developed--remains with some mathematics teachers. Unfortunately, this belief can lead teachers to feel less responsible for their students' mathematics performance and undermine the equity in reform mathematics."
Reason 5: Discussion
One of the greatest resources I have in my classroom is not the Smartboard, or the 1:1 laptops… it's the students! Students learn from each other. A discussion about WHY a negative times a positive integer results in a negative answer is much more meaningful that me simply having student copy " + X - = -" in their notebooks. If a class is homogeneous, then the discussion will be too. You need diversity in understanding and ability to have a rich discussion. And this is not just about the "high" kids helping the "low" kids… having multiple perspectives and viewpoints helps us all.