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Is Differentiation the Answer to the Tracking Debate?

Voice of ExperienceMax Fischer is taking steps to transform his classroom into the "differentiated" model Carol Ann Tomlinson describes, but he's confronting some roadblocks along the way. How different, he wonders, will his classroom might look like a year from now... Included: Resources for learning some more about differentiation.


Max W. Fischer


During this election year, political debates are as commonplace as middle school students playing "classroom attorney" as they argue the merits of weekend homework. From the cozy town hall forums through the November general elections, candidates across the nation will be engaging in multiple opportunities to state their cases.

If there is one issue in education that I venture would lead to earnest debate among normally even-keeled teachers, it would be the concept of tracking. Tracking -- grouping students by ability -- has been part of the American education landscape for more than a century. During the past several decades, in particular, the tracking vs. "detracking" argument has raged without definitive conclusion. Like politicians jockeying for the support of voters, one side claims significant achievement via tracking, while educators on the other side of the issue express cynicism about those achievements and fear that tracking threatens damage to students' self-concepts.

Two Sides of the
Tracking Debate

Generally speaking, at the elementary level, a degree of concurrence between classroom performance and the empirical data seems to exist. Students in self-contained elementary classes in which such disciplines as reading and mathematics are ability grouped have demonstrated achievement in the classroom. Research studies also find student achievement gains in those subjects across grade level classes.

At the secondary level, however, the results have been anything but definitive. Low-ability students appear to achieve better in heterogeneously mixed classes, and research has suggested the existence of a lower self-concept among students in low-ability-grouped classes. Other studies indicate that high-ability students stagnate in heterogeneously mixed classes, but thrive in classes with students of equal ability.

The following articles provide additional background and research:
* Homogeneous or Heterogeneous: Which Way to Go?
* Is Ability Grouping the Way to Go---Or Should It Go Away?
* Education Week: Tracking

As an educator, I have experienced both sides of the tracking debate. I spent the first 20 years of my teaching career in a self-contained elementary classroom; for the last decade, I've taught in a 7-8 middle school. As an elementary teacher with multiple ability groups in math and reading, I witnessed the rationale for tracking within those subjects. Not permanently cemented into their ability groups, students' mobility depended on their progress. From time to time during the year, a student was moved into another group -- almost always a higher-ability group.

Although my current middle school only officially tracks students for math classes, a sort of "shadow tracking" also occurs; when pre-al/algebra classes meet, for example, classes in science, English, and social studies include a smaller number of high-ability students.

I think we would track more, however, if parents had their say. Parents of high-ability students are usually the most involved in our school. Generally speaking, they are the most outspoken proponents of tracking all subjects; often, they don't think their children are being significantly challenged in heterogeneously-grouped classrooms.


With all that as a backdrop, a relatively new concept now is getting wide play in schools; instructional differentiation, as I perceive it, is the ultimate compromise to the tracking vs. not tracking debate. Differentiation happens in a heterogeneous classroom. In such a classroom, students are arranged according to the ability-appropriate assignments they receive at the end of the lesson. Theoretically, students even have some choice in the assignments they complete; they might select the assignment that appeals to their learning strengths and interests. In this best-of-all-worlds "differentiated" scenario, lower-ability students stand to benefit from learning sparks thrown off by higher-level students.

Last year, prompted by an enthusiastic colleague, I attended a workshop on instructional differentiation. A year later, the words of presenter Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia, still echo: "Differentiation is not a methodology or series of steps; it is a philosophy that one accepts."

One has to buy into the philosophy of differentiation in order to successfully meet its goals of truly individualizing education within a heterogeneous setting, Tomlinson said. According to that philosophy, the tasks that comprise a lesson or its subsequent assignment are categorized according to students' learning styles, interests, or readiness.

I recall how conflicted I felt as I left that Tomlinson workshop. As a proponent of individualized learning styles and multiple intelligences, I realized that I was not far removed from Tomlinson's philosophy. The realms of interest and learning styles were very compatible with my approach to teaching. In spite of those compatibilities, I recognized that my classroom was far from the differentiated model she described.


I teach social studies, and I know that the social studies are ideal subjects in which to differentiate. With my newfound knowledge about differentiation and my desire to implement some of the approach's strategies, I began looking for opportunities to offer students some choice in their assignments.

One of the first facts I have had to face is that I cannot possibly provide for my students daily assignments that match the range of levels in my class. It is not always possible, for example, to find or create leveled reading resources on topics such as the fall of Rome or the Magna Carta. So, several times a week, I assign my students the same text material. Once or twice weekly, however, I do provide a choice of assignments. In time, I can see how I will be able to offer my students more and more choice.

It is another major concept of differentiation -- flexible grouping -- that I really have had to wrestle with. Arranging my classes into adjustable groups for skill work or assignments has proven difficult, at best.

According to the differentiation philosophy, student groupings should fluctuate according to a variety of highly engaging tasks the teacher presents.

  • Some tasks or assignments call for groups based on interest.
  • Some call for groups based on learning style.
  • Some call for groups based on student readiness; whether they have the skills -- reading, writing, analysis, organization -- required to complete the work.


Classroom teachers, depending on their discipline and experience, will have to tackle differentiation on their own terms. The approach poses many challenges to veteran teachers; internalizing the differentiation approach requires teachers to undergo an attitude adjustment, relinquish engrained instructional patterns, and break old habits to embed new ones.

Many veteran instructors will throw up their hands and plead professional ignorance about the concept. The rest of us will work hard to adjust pedagogy to embrace the principles of differentiation.

I can't help but wonder how different -- and differentiated -- my classroom will look a year from now...

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient and medieval history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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