Dear Dr. Shanahan,
Currently, I am a Kindergarten Reading Interventionist at our K-2 school. My team is struggling with some philosophical differences about how students are placed in classrooms. Most of the kindergarten teachers feel we should be looking at the whole child (academic, emotional, social…) and find the best match for each individual child. But our school places students by guided reading level. Each class would have a certain range of guided reading levels in their class. The idea is to lessen the range of levels in each classroom so there is not a huge spread, making instruction more manageable for the classroom teacher. However, some feel as this is "tracking" and that some of the lower level classes lose good role models. They also feel that reading level defines the child in this type of system and that a student who may excel in math or another area, but not in reading are at a great disadvantage. Help
This is a tough question… there is a lot of research on grouping and tracking and streaming, but none of those studies focus on this kind of kindergarten tracking (though the practice is quite common). This is a complicated research literature, as well, with lots of different methodologies and conflicting results. In other words, I can’t give you a solid answer, one way or the other.
Part of the problem has to do with whether one looks at the kind of tracking schemes that you are talking about (e.g., dividing 75 kids into one of three classrooms based on whether they are in the top 25, the bottom 25, or the group in between) or more the kinds of within-class grouping schemes in which the kids in a given classroom are divided up further for ability group instruction. And, what about assigning kids to heterogeneous classrooms, while facilitating cross-class grouping for reading instruction?
Another complication is whose achievement (or other outcomes) we are focused on. Often the research has suggested that the changes wrought by such tracking or grouping don’t show up for the overall classroom or school. That is there is not necessarily an overall benefit or disadvantage due to tracking; that is, the average achievement may stay the same. However, that doesn’t mean there would be no differences, just that the gains some kids would enjoy are balanced by the losses of their classmates.
I think the existing research—and remember one has to make some pretty big generalizations from these studies to get to your question—doesn’t suggest any kind of definitive answer… just lots of cautions. In any event, one way or the other, there don’t seem necessarily to be overall big benefits—or big problems—with the scheme, but it would be wise in this case to pay attention to the cautions.
- Many studies indicate that tracking is a problem… it often has provided small achievement advantages for the kids on top, with somewhat larger achievement losses for the low kids… and, overall no overall academic benefit. In fairness, almost all of these studies have been done with older kids, usually not with reading, and there are at least some contradictory findings (e.g., some small overall achievement advantages). Given that, if I were going to group classes by ability in this way, I would consider providing some additional advantages to the lowest achieving group. For instance, why not make the lowest ability classes smaller than the others—making it easier for that teacher to take advantage of the homogeneity? Or, perhaps this is the classroom that gets a push-in teacher from Title I or RtI funds? Just creating three equal size classes and equally resourced that have been formed based on the basis of who reads best would not be likely to create an “equal” learning situation.
- Many studies find that in such schemes the African American and Hispanic kids are more likely to be placed in the bottom groupings, meaning that the schemes may have a segregating impact. I don’t know the demographics of your situation, but if you are ending up with most of the minority kids placed in the low ability classroom, I would probably not do it. In our divided society, that kind of segregation is a really bad idea. If your school isn’t mixed demographically, or if the placements don’t exacerbate this kind of segregation, then that wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, there are other social segregation concerns as well (e.g., SES levels).
- Some of the studies—and reviews of studies—have found that tracking or grouping may have no independent impact on learning or socialization omits own, but that its effects come from interactions of such grouping with other variables. For instance, some studies have found that within-class grouping was problematic for the lower achieving kids, but that as larger amounts of teaching were available this grouping difference dissipated. Apparently, the longer instructional periods allowed those teachers to do a better balancing job with the lowest kids—something that didn’t happen under conditions of lower amounts of reading instruction. If the reason for tracking is to enhance literacy achievement then make sure that the kids are getting a lot of instruction!
- Tracking can be a social problem as opposed to an academic one. I’m obviously a big fan of higher reading achievement, and there are definitely some studies that find such grouping schemes can be academically beneficial (at least with the older kids who have been studied). However, that doesn’t mean that I think it is a good idea to socially isolate particular kids; remember, early reading tends to be correlated with lots of other variables (e.g., gender, race, SES, age, social-emotional functioning). Placing kids in kindergarten classrooms on the basis of their reading ability may create the kind of social isolation that is a concern. Given that, if I were in a tracking situation, I would try to find ways to combine kids across these classes for various other activities through their day—lunch, recess, gym class, bus partners, other learning activities, including some reading activities. As you point out, a lot of learning takes place across peers and through observation: cutting the low attainment kids off from those who are doing better, may reduce their opportunity to learn. Perhaps some kind of partner reading and writing activities across classrooms would be a solution.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of tracking, and, yet, at least some studies find benefits from it. Given that, I wouldn’t ban tracking, but if I were using it (or having it foisted on my classroom), I would seek to gain its benefits while mitigating its potential problems.