Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tracking: The Kenyan Experience

"Tracking," or "Ability Grouping," or "Readiness Grouping" as we sometimes call it here, is a controversial subject. While most schools engage in it to some extent (at least for reading groups and math), many educators aren't entirely comfortable with its broad use. The "diamond in the rough" concept is deeply ingrained in the American imagination, and people worry that an unpolished kid consigned to the Vo-Tech track will be forever limited in his achievements by the distinction.

So I'm always interested to see studies that examine whether tracking has a negative effect on children assigned to the "slower" track. The answer, according to one recent study of Kenyan school children, is a resounding no. In fact, not only do students in both higher and lower tracks do better on tests than their peers in heterogeneous classrooms, the teachers are actually more likely to show up for class.

This fascinating finding is part of a larger study looking at all sorts of school reform ideas that occasionally gain followings here in the US as well. For instance, in Kenya, reducing class size in and of itself did not boost test scores (though to be fair, the reduction was from 80 students to 40 per teacher -- a reduction to, say, 15, might have produced more results). However, reducing class size, coupled with instituting a 2-track system, raised test scores by 0.25 to 0.31 standard deviations, and not just in the upper track. "Both lower and higher achieving students benefited from tracking," the paper notes. Indeed, students in the lower track were more likely to be promoted to the next grade than their peers in the non-tracked classrooms.

The paper also puts to rest a worry about kids right on the dividing line between tracks. Students who scored in the 5th or 6th deciles (meaning the margin of error on their scores could have put them in either track) improved equally well whichever track they were assigned to, compared with their heterogeneously grouped peers. "The average quality of peers does not appear to matter, while homogeneity does," the authors write.

Perhaps one of the reasons kids learned more in the tracked classes is that the teachers actually showed up in the classrooms more often. From the data in the study, it sounds like Kenya has a reasonable problem with absenteeism in its schools. But civil service teachers were 8.6 percentage points more likely to be in class teaching in tracked schools than in non-tracked schools. "One interpretation is that teaching is easier and thus more pleasant when students have less heterogeneous levels of academic preparation," the authors postulate.

As we've discussed on this blog before, excellent, professional, brilliant teachers can teach a class of kids at various levels, and achieve great results for most of them. Unfortunately, excellent, professional, brilliant teachers are not as numerous as we might like for a variety of reasons including pay, training, working conditions, etc. Merely decent teachers have a harder time teaching kids whose readiness levels span the full bell curve. Teaching kids of vastly differing levels is frustrating and exhausting. In Kenya, the response is to not show up. In American schools, the result can be disengagement and mediocre results.

All of which leads me to this conclusion: It's one thing for de-trackers to talk about some ideal world where our learning communities are little democracies where students learn collaboratively and bring along slower learners out of a sense of shared responsibility. But most of us live in the real world. And the reality is that tracking fails better. If you get a mediocre teacher, you can still get OK results. That's what the Kenyan experiment found.

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