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On Thursday, May 3, more than 50 people attended a meeting to discuss a change in the math program throughout the Washington West Supervisory Union. Rather than offering algebra I to a subset of students, all students will follow the eighth-grade Connected Mathematics Program instead. At the meeting two main issues were raised by the public:
As a participant in the meeting and an educator, it occurred to me that additional information about these issues may be helpful for the general public in consideration of these matters that affect all of our students.
The Connected Mathematics Program (CMP) is a standards-based curriculum developed two decades ago through grants by the National Science Foundation for grades six through eight. CMP is heavy on algebraic concepts and also includes probability, geometry and statistics. CMP is highly rated by those in the field of mathematics instruction and used extensively in middle schools throughout the U.S. and in Vermont (evident in the fact that it is used in virtually every middle school in our area).
“Tracking” is the practice of assigning students to classes for all or part of their day only with other students at the same perceived ability level. With “ability grouping” students may be similarly placed, but the grouping may be flexible, allowing students to move in and out of groups in response to their development in relation to specific skills. In practice, ability grouping is desirable at times. At other times, it is desirable to have mixed groups (for example, for exposure to different perspectives – the ones who "get it" quickly are often procedurally oriented rather than creatively oriented).
With "tracking" (which is when you have ability grouping that is not flexible) teachers lose the ability to group students responsively – responding to what student needs are in relation to a specific activity at a specific time and also responding to what would best serve the class on a particular day.
There are abundant arguments and research findings for and against tracking to be found making it difficult to wrap one’s head around the issue. Luckily, there are some who do have the expertise to synthesize what is out there, weighing the various arguments and the integrity of the research. Various organizations have done so and issued position statements regarding grouping models.
The following organizations have all issued position statements advocating for flexibility in grouping models and warning against tracking specifically:
WHY DENOUNCE TRACKING?
According to their position statement, the NASP “opposes the use of tracking, a permanent approach where students are assessed and placed into specific classrooms with peers of similar ability, because of its demonstrated negative effect for many students.” To these policymakers, tracking practices in schools amount to institutionalized inequality and serves to widen the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
Some at the meeting on May 3 raised concerns that children who are “gifted” are not having their needs met without tracking mathematics. “Giftedness” is not the same as “high achieving” per se and, unfortunately, giftedness is difficult to define and assess with definitions ranging from IQ thresholds and population percentiles (5 or 10 percent of the population which would account for approximately 5 to 10 students per grade level throughout our entire six-town district) to personality traits. Experts in the field caution that measures of giftedness are sensitive to differences in a child’s environment, meaning that gifted children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds that do not nurture them are likely to be overlooked.
While there is more support for tracking among those in the field of gifted education, the National Association for Gifted Children recommends a flexible grouping practice known as “cluster grouping” for gifted children, and they are careful to emphasize that this is different from tracking. The NAGC recommends grouping clusters of three to six students who are defined as “gifted” within a mixed ability classroom.
Within the mixed classroom, the NAGC recommends that students’ needs be met through an instructional practice called “differentiated instruction.”
Differentiated instruction is a more individualized approach to classroom instruction and includes (among other things) a high degree of student choice and goal setting, flexible grouping strategies and activities that encourage a high level of critical thinking and allow for a range of responses.
At all levels, students have strengths, needs, interests and challenges that are entirely their own. Encouraging our schools to improve differentiated instruction has the potential to engage and challenge all learners. Let’s support instruction that honors a child’s differences rather than seeks to funnel them into categories that may limit them unfairly.
Ellen Dorsey is a grade 7-12 mathematics teacher, curriculum consultant and school board member from Waterbury Center.