Tracking and the Project Method

A fifth grade teacher reflects on alternatives to tracking, and how he deals with teaching to a range of skills so that all the children learn.

By Bob Peterson

Illustrator: Susan Lina Ruggles

Students in Bob Peterson‘s class, at work on a project. Photo: Susan Lina Ruggles

Children enter my fifth grade classroom at so many levels that at times I feel I’m teaching in a one-room school house in the 1800s. A few of my students who are learning disabled struggle with basic sounds and letters, while other students read at close to a high school level. The same is true with math, writing, artistic, athletic, and verbal skills – although not all students remain at one end of the spectrum. Sometimes, for instance, I will have a student who has difficulty reading but is quite adept at math.

This range of skills is one of the most difficult dilemmas that I grapple with as a teacher. To deal with it, I draw not only on my years of practice in the classroom, but also my own experience as a student and my grounding in progressive educational philosophy. The result is an approach that combines curricular projects with an eclectic grouping of students, with the twin goals of promoting equity within my classroom and of pushing each child to perform their best.

The issue, however, is much broader than how I, as an individual teacher, decide to organize my classroom. Fundamentally, the issue involves important questions of how schools, especially in urban areas, can provide equal educational opportunities to all and avoid the tracking and ability grouping that are all-too-popular despite their stereotypical assumptions and disastrous consequences.

My Student Experience

I grew up in Madison and I recall how some of my teachers dealt with the varied skill levels in their classrooms. In elementary school, we were placed by “ability” in reading and math groups named after birds and animals, a thinly veiled attempt to mask who the teacher thought was smart and who was not. There was virtually no chance of moving from one group to another, a rigidity I remember well because my best friend and I were always in different groups.

As we moved into junior high, this tracking became more pronounced. Every kid in the school knew where they fit in the intellectual pecking order, and teachers held different expectations for different groups.

There were five gradations for the seventh grade student body – 7-1 being “the best and the brightest,” with the “losers” grouped in 7-5. Each gradation started the day together in homeroom and traveled as a group to all classes, except gym and industrial arts. Interestingly, during this time my family moved overseas for 18 months, and upon my return I was placed into the lowest track. School officials quickly changed my academic classes, but left me in the lower-track homeroom. It was there that I made my first African-American friends – not surprisingly, since then as now, racist assumptions about intelligence led to a tracking system in which African-Americans were often segregated and grouped into the lower tracks.

By high school, the tracks were even more rigid: vocational, general education, and college bound. It’s not hard to guess which kids were in the top track at my school, Madison West High School – the middle-class and upper-middle-class whites.

In my sophomore year, in a fit of progressivism, Madison West detracked the social studies courses. I have no clue whether school officials deemed the effort “successful,” but one incident in particular made me realize the negative impact of tracking on some of my friends. While I was leaving my tenth grade U.S. history class one day, a “lower-track” student – a cheerleader – approached me and apologized for being in the class. She told me she was sorry for “slowing down the class with her questions” and wondered why they put all the “smart and dumb” kids together in the same history class. I was taken aback by her comments, but recovered enough to tell her the problem wasn’t her lack of smarts, but the less-than-capable teacher that bored all the students to tears every day.

The teacher took the dreary but pervasive approach that students are empty vessels who need to be “filled up” with “facts” about names, dates, and places, so they can regurgitate those “facts” on tests filled with true and false, multiple choice, and short-answer fill-in-the-blank questions. In fact, according to researcher John Goodlad in his seminal work, A Place Called School, less than 1% of instructional time in high school is spent on discussion that requires students to form an opinion or use any reasoning skills.

Criticisms of Tracking

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a growing awareness of the negative consequences of ability grouping in the elementary grades and tracking in secondary schools. Research by Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, and books such as Jeannie Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality and Anne Wheelock’s Crossing the Tracks: How “Untracking” Can Save America’s Schools, helped alert educators and policy-makers to the problems with tracking; they also pointed toward potential alternatives. People such as Slavin, Oakes, and Wheelock argued that in many schools, tracking institutionalizes inequality and leads to lower expectations and less rigorous course work for students in the bottom tracks. They also found that such tracking does not benefit the students in the upper tracks, as is commonly assumed. As Oakes, an assistant dean in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, wrote, “No group of students benefits consistently from being in a homogeneous group.”

At the same time, community groups in some areas took up the issue, even to the extent of going to court. In essence, they viewed the struggle against tracking as a continuation of the movement to abolish separate but unequal schools – although in this case the focus was on nominally integrated schools that were highly segregated by classroom. In both cases, the unequal and segregated schooling denied African Americans full access to equal opportunities.

In the latter 1990s, with the stress on “high standards” and “back to basics” – and decreased emphasis on issues of equity and multiculturalism – the pendulum appears to be swinging back to tracking as an acceptable way to group students.

This August, the influential Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (headed by conservative education guru Chester Finn), published a 27-page report arguing that tracking isn’t really all that bad, and in fact may be good. The report, “The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate,” was written by Tom Loveless, an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard. In the report, Loveless argues that criticisms of tracking are “mostly unsubstantiated by research” and that “evidence does not support the charge that tracking is inherently harmful.” (See related article.)

This swing back toward tracking is complemented by rightward trends such as increased reliance on standardized testing, an obsession with phonics-based reading instruction, attacks on multicultural and bilingual education, and attempts to “de-certify” the teaching profession and undermine schools of education, which are seen as bastions of child-centered pedagogy.

What unifies these rightward shifts is a conservative conception of education itself – a view that education is little more than a transfer of subject matter and facts from the adult society to the next generation, best done through drill and rote memorization. The conservative approach stands in stark contrast to a progressive view of education, perhaps most notably articulated by John Dewey at the turn of the century. Dewey held that schools should start with the child, build on his or her interests, and link them to broader intellectual and social concerns through a curriculum that poses problems and actively involves the student.

If one’s conception of education is the subject-matter-set-out-to-be-learned approach (as the conservative approach has been characterized), then it’s understandable why ability grouping and tracking might be viewed as the most efficient and easiest way to “deliver” an education. If, on the other hand, one’s educational goal is to develop independent thinkers who can look critically at the world and solve real-world problems, heterogeneous groupings might make more sense. To cite just one reason why: the more social diversity there is in a class, the more the classroom mirrors the real world, and the more students learn to draw upon each others’ strengths to analyze and solve problems.

Let me explain by looking at my own classroom.

Grouping in My Classroom

I admit that I group students. I can’t imagine a teacher who has two or three dozen children in their classroom who never does so. But my groups vary a lot. Some are homogenous – kids who need work on certain skills or kids who are dominant in Spanish or English (I teach in a two-way bilingual school). But most often the groups are heterogeneous, with kids of varying skill levels working in cooperative groups on a common project such as a role play, dramatization, critique, or discussion. Sometimes students work in pairs, such as in peer conferences in which they give feedback on each other’s writing. Occasionally, I allow the students to choose their own groups.

But the most important thing is that the groups are always changing. No student is forever “stuck” in a “lower” group, as my best friend was in elementary school.

Take my reading groups. Every two weeks we start a new children’s novel as part of my guided reading instruction. I show the children four or five different books of varying levels, and they write their top three choices on a file card. I make up two or three groups based on student interest, my assessment of their reading skills, and their background knowledge about the book’s subject.

The composition of the groups changes every two weeks, and the activities vary as well. Sometimes the groups are self-directed “literature circles.” Other times I take a more active role and use the time to reinforce basic reading and vocabulary skills. I usually make sure that all the books for any two-week period have a common theme that relates to something else we are studying (for example, homelessness, the American Revolution, the Underground Railroad, immigration experiences of Asian-Americans, and so forth). This way, the groups can adopt additional projects that extend into other parts of the curriculum and can discuss common themes regardless of which book they are reading.

I take a similar approach in math, sometimes working with the entire class, sometimes in small groups, sometimes with pairs of students, and sometimes one-on-one. I especially use a varied approach when introducing a new topic, such as fractions, to ensure that students get as many opportunities as possible to understand the new concept. Depending on the concept and skill being taught, I might group by “ability” for a week or two (for instance when reviewing long division and it becomes clear that some students need extra help) and then rearrange both the groups and my approach. Sometimes the students do group math projects, such as using data they collect from their classmates to make graphs or solve problems.

In other curriculum areas, I group kids depending on the purpose, whether it’s brainstorming ideas, critiquing, or discussing. In social studies, for example, as we start studying a topic such as the American Revolution or the abolitionist movement, groups of three to five might generate a list of things they know about the subject, or what they’d like to learn. Often, when I have an assignment for the children – such as writing a dialogue poem or doing a book report – we look at examples of similar assignments by my previous students. Afterwards, the students break into different groups to evaluate what they think of the previous students’ work and generate ideas on how they will evaluate their own work. Students working in groups have also critiqued things like the bias in children’s books about Columbus, or the number of put-downs and stereotypes on popular TV shows.

These varied approaches to grouping and classroom organization are a beginning step toward dealing with the “range of skills” dilemma. I believe, for example, that cooperative groups done well, especially when there is a component of individual accountability, can boost academic achievement and improve the classroom’s sense of community. If done in a slipshod fashion, however, cooperative groups can lead to a situation in which the harder-working, more committed students do most of the work and little learning takes place for the students who might need it the most.

Even if done well, however, cooperative grouping is insufficient as a teaching strategy. My goal is not just to push each student to learn to the best of their ability, or to have students understand the value of working together. I also want to promote an anti-racist curriculum that encourages children to critically think about – and help change – the world. Cooperative learning is a worthwhile method, but we need to ensure that it isn’t used to more effectively teach a traditional curriculum replete with Eurocentric biases and stereotypes.

Structured-project Approach

Perhaps the most useful curricular approach that I have found is what I call the structured-project approach.

The projects are interdisciplinary assignments in which each student must make a booklet using reading, writing, geography, research, and other skills. Throughout the year, my fifth-grade students make a total of five magazine-size booklets; they follow a prescribed outline developed over the past several years by my partner teacher, Jesus Santos, and me.

The projects include a student autobiography, a report on an endangered animal, a bilingual poetry anthology, a report on a famous person who fought for social justice, and a report on the student’s journey through elementary school. The topics allow for significant student input so that the specific theme of each book is generated by the student. While each student is expected to complete their individual project, many components of the project are approached collaboratively in groups. For example, one part of the student autobiography is to write about their neighborhood. In groups, students will list all the things they might look for in their neighborhood – such as the type of buildings, the different kinds of people, and what they like and don’t like about their neighborhood – then write a draft in the evening and come back the next day and share their drafts in their group.

For the project on a famous person who worked for social justice, the students start by interviewing family and friends for suggestions of who might fit the category. As a class, we compile lists and I use mini-lectures to teach children about dozens of possible choices. Continuing as a class, we read parts of biographies on a few people. Then we break into groups and the students take notes on what we’ve read. Each student has to write down at least three things they’ve learned, but the whole group must compile a master list. Each group then shares their notes with the entire class and we draw lessons about how to take good research notes. Eventually we do the same kind of activity for turning notes into rough drafts.

The modeling and group practice help teach all students basic research and writing skills. The process also challenges the most skilled and assists the least skilled – so that no child is left behind, and no child is left bored.

Ultimately, the completed projects are shown at the student-led parent-teacher conferences in fall and spring, and also at an end-of-year 5th grade exhibition. These demonstrations of their work provide additional motivation for the students to do quality work. (See my article “Motivating Students to Do Quality Work,” Rethinking Schools

, Vol 12, #3.)

Interestingly, it was not until I was well into the third year of using this project approach that I recalled – and ultimately recovered from my parents’ attic – some similar projects I had done while in 5th and 6th-grade. My favorite was on jet airplanes, and I had written to a range of corporations and officials, from North Central Airlines to the U.S. Air Force, to get photos. I show the 84-page report to my students when we start our work on projects – they seem to comment most on the impeccably neat cursive handwriting, which is in sharp contrast to my current scrawl. More than one of my students has asked whether I had a serious accident with my hand at some point after 6th grade, which might account for my current handwriting.

Other Projects

Students do their book projects in the context of other project-like activities in my classroom. I try to make sure that some of those projects are more group-based than the books. I also try to ensure that some of them don’t take very long, so that students can see immediate results and build their self-confidence.

In the first few days of school, for example, each of my students does a name poem in which they reflect on how they were named, their name’s significance, and how they feel about their name. I do the poem in the context of a social studies lesson about the power of naming, and how enslaved Africans and many immigrants were forced to take on new names as they arrived in the Americas. Working on their name poem in pairs, the students edit, type, and print their poems, which are then framed on colored paper, laminated, and displayed. Later, a version of that poem will be incorporated into their autobiography and their bilingual poetry booklets.

Students also do lots of drama and role plays in my classroom. Drama projects range from reenactment of scenes from the literature books we are reading, to problem-posing situations where groups of students show how they might peacefully resolve peer conflicts, such as a playground quarrel or who gets to use a computer first.

In our study of U.S. history, I use more involved role plays to highlight key conflicts. Such role plays have specific parts and involve several days of student preparation. Some of my most successful role plays have been a trial of Columbus, a mock Constitutional Convention that includes groups not invited to the original convention, and a trial of a runaway slave.

Projects have also emerged out of discussions of current events. Last year, for example, a few students were particularly concerned after reading a Weekly Reader article about child labor. They did more research, writing, and discussing, which led to a couple of them speaking at a community rally against child labor and NAFTA. As a spin off, I helped them form a Stop Child Labor Club that met weekly during lunch hour.

These various projects help me deal with students who are at different skill levels. First, because of the combination of group and individual activities, the more-skilled students can help the lesser-skilled students, and in so doing both benefit. The student who is a good writer, for example, can help to revise and edit a weaker writer’s essay, and in the process learn more about writing. Second, because the book projects are individualized, each student can be challenged according to my assessment of their capabilities. For example, the learning-disabled or English-as-a-second-language student might write considerably less in English than another student. Nonetheless, both projects can challenge those students to the maximum. Third, because I do a variety of projects in my classroom and not all the projects are writing based, students have a chance to shine in different contexts. For example, students who have difficulty writing sometimes are among the best verbal acrobats in the class. They are sought after by other students to be in their groups when we do dramas or role plays. I remember how one year, a learning-disabled student who could barely write excelled in social studies because in the group work, role plays, and dramatizations he was among the most articulate. Had I just expected him to show what he learned through “end of chapter tests,” he would have been perceived as a poor student and quite likely would have been turned off to learning.

Final Reflections

The evidence is fairly convincing that tracking and rigid ability grouping lower expectations unfairly for many students and channel them away from rigorous class work. But proponents of equality must not only work to end tracking. We must also ensure that teachers in untracked classrooms use techniques that are effective with all students. Tracking and ability grouping can’t be ended overnight with dictates from above. We must create school cultures and staff development programs that help teachers deal effectively with their students’ wide-ranging level of skills. It should be unacceptable for teachers to rely on traditional whole-class approaches which use the textbook as a crutch and a substitute for good teaching. Such approaches either bore the more-skilled students or leave the less-skilled students behind.

If we don’t boldly confront this issue, dissatisfied parents and students will fall prey to the idea that the best way to resolve such problems is to promote admission standards for schools, increase tracking within schools, and use strict ability grouping within classes.

Our students demand more of us, and we must rise to meet that demand.

Bob Peterson ( teaches fifth grade in the Milwaukee Public Schools. He is an editor of Rethinking Schools.