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Tools for Critique: Chapter 10
School Structure: How Grouping and Tracking Shape Students' Opportunities to Learn


Chapter 10, “School Structure: How Grouping and Tracking Shape Opportunities to Learn,” deals with the often-controversial ways that schools respond to differences in students’ abilities, achievements, and behaviors. The chapter explains how the categories and labels schools assign to students reflect social and cultural constructions, rather than natural “facts,” and how labeling and sorting students became part of American schooling. We then review some of the evidence showing that these practices often do as much to create differences as they do to meet students’ special needs. Finally, we describe the work of educators who attempt to give all students the attention and resources they need without isolating or alienating them.

Chapter Headings

  • Labeling and Sorting, and Grouping in Today’s Schools
    • Sorting by Academic Ability and Achievement
    • Sorting by Postsecondary Prospects
    • Sorting by “Giftedness”
    • Sorting by Disabilities 
    • Sorting by English Language Competence
  • Why Do Schools Label and Sort Students?
    • The Social Construction of Difference
    • The History of Biased Sorting 
  • Grouping Dilemmas
    • The Arbitrariness of Labels and Sorting
    • The Illusion of Homogeneity
    • Race and Social Class Bias
    • Ties to Behavioral Learning Theory and Transmission Teaching
    • Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and Processes
    • Disappointing and Enduring Outcomes
    • Controversy Surrounds Homogeneous Grouping
    • To Change or to Fix
  • Accommodating Diversity Without Sorting
    • Implementing Heterogeneous Grouping 
    • Technical Skills, Norms and Beliefs, Politics and Power 
  • The Struggle for Heterogeneous Grouping

Generative Questions and Activities

    Grouping, Tracking, and Categorical Programs: Can Schools Teach All Students Well?
  1. Mauro Bautista describes how he worked to increase the number of “reclassified” students (i.e., students whose designation has changed from “Limited English Proficient” to “Fluent English Proficient”) at his middle school.  Think about the English Learners (i.e., “Limited English Proficient” students) at the school with which you are most familiar.  In what ways does their language designation help teachers meet the students’ instructional needs?  In what ways does their language designation deny them access to equal educational opportunities?   In your opinion, do the “pros” of this type of labeling outweigh the “cons” for these students?  Try to give some specific examples.
    Labeling, Sorting, and Grouping in Today’s Schools

  2. The authors discuss how students are often sorted by academic ability and achievement, postsecondary prospects, “giftedness,” disabilities, and English language competence.  First, explain the logic behind these “common sense” ways of grouping students.  Then, discuss whether or not you agree with such sorting.  Is it “sensible” to you?  Why or why not?  Do some of these reasons for sorting students make more sense to you than others?  Explain. 

  3. The authors note that schools are legally required to teach students with special needs within “the least restrictive environment,” which encourages schools to “mainstream” such students through special “inclusion” plans and/or programs.  How might ideas such as mainstreaming and inclusion apply to other student categories (English Learners, “gifted,” etc.)?  How might we better meet all students’ instructional needs without segregating different groups of students?

  4. Observe a “special education” class and interview the teachers or talk with a parent of a child in a “special education” program.  Ask which characteristics tend to set children with special needs apart from other children.  How do schools discover which children are “special”?   How does this educator or parent describe the “special education” as different from what other children receive?  How does the school decide what each “special” child needs?  How do they judge whether their “special” efforts are successful?  To what standards are these programs held accountable?

  5. Observe a “gifted” class and interview the teachers or talk with a parent of a child in a “gifted” program.  Ask which characteristics tend to set “gifted” children apart from other children.  How do schools discover which children are “gifted”?  How does this educator or parent describe the “gifted education” as different from what other children receive?  How does the school decide what each “gifted” child needs?  How do they judge whether their “gifted” efforts are successful?  To what standards are these programs held accountable?

    Why Do Schools Label and Sort Students?

  6. Review your own personal history of grouping identification—that which you experienced and/or that which you have observed.  Describe the satisfaction and/or disappointments you felt.  Did you, your parents, or anyone at school ever question or challenge the label or identification?  Did you have friends or siblings who had a different label?  Did “your” group represent a racial or ethnic cross section of the school, or did you notice that it and/or other groups had overrepresentations or underrepresentations by race, gender, or ethnicity?  How did you make sense of this at the time?  How do you make sense of it now, given what you know about the history of these sorting/grouping practices?

  7. The authors note that African American and Latino students are disproportionately identified as less able and placed in lower-level groups and classes.  Because of this, they argue, “no discussion of grouping can take place without paying careful attention to the racial and social class characteristics of the resulting labeled groups.”  Given the racist history of intelligence testing, what aspects of current “ability” grouping do you find problematic?  In your view, to what extent have historical patterns of inequality influenced current “ability” grouping?

  8. Some schools make an aggressive effort to recruit students of color into their “top” tracks, such as honors, gifted, or AP classes.  What can be some unintended consequences of such efforts?

  9. Once again, the authors set a current schooling practice in its historical context—in this chapter, grouping students.  Many widely used survey-of-education books place far less emphasis on connecting particular school practices, such as curriculum decision-making, classroom management, or grouping, with their historical antecedents—particularly those antecedents that have political and social bearing.  Is this historical context necessary?  Interesting, but not essential?  A distraction from the real issues surrounding how today’s schools operate?  Of course, the authors would defend their practice.  Would you?  To support your arguments, review copies of other textbooks that are commonly used for courses similar to the one in which you are now reading Teaching to Change the World.  Compare the books’ treatments of several topics—including sorting and grouping.

    Grouping Dilemmas

  10. In discussing the current standards movement, the authors assert that grouping practices must be judged by whether they help teachers meet the goal of educating all students to high academic standards.  Using this criterion, evaluate the grouping practices that are in place at the school with which you are most familiar.  Discuss whether or not that school’s grouping practices are helping all students to meet high standards.

  11. The authors argue not only that grouping categories themselves are inaccurate or unfair ways of organizing students for instruction, but also that the actual assignment of students to those categories is deeply flawed.  They identify several factors that make students’ placements inaccurate, subjective, and open to manipulation: arbitrarily designed and enforced placement criteria and procedures; the fallibility of testing; parents’ and students’ own activism; and structural constraints such as limited resources and scheduling problems.  Select a school and determine whether and how exceptions to these grouping practices are made.  First, ask for public documents (course descriptions, grouping policies, waiver policies, etc.) that have bearing on grouping practices; then interview school personnel (e.g., counselors, administrators) regarding exceptions to placement criteria, paying particular attention to patterns of exceptions according to race, gender, language, or economic status.

  12. Many advocates of ability grouping and gifted programs in academic subjects argue that these practices make sense in the same way that selecting the “best” athletes for competitive sports teams and the “best” musicians for the concert band makes sense.  What similarities and differences do you see in these practices?  Does the argument make sense to you?  Would you argue the same way if you were labeled a “gifted” student as you would if you were labeled a “slow” student?

  13. The authors share an example of one West Coast school district in which “white and Asian students with average scores on standardized tests were more than twice as likely to be in ‘accelerated’ classes as Latino students with the same scores.”  Examine the tracking in place at the school with which you are most familiar.  Do you see similar patterns there?  Interview teachers and administrators at that school.  How do they explain those patterns?  How do you explain them?

  14. As the authors clearly document, academic tracking often serves to perpetuate existing social inequalities by providing “lower-track” students with less access to equal educational opportunities.  They note: “Placement in a low, middle, or almost-but-not-quite-top class often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—a cycle of lower expectations, fewer opportunities, and academic performance that usually matches (but does not exceed) the expected performance.  In every aspect of what makes for a quality education, kids in lower tracks typically get less than those in higher tracks and gifted programs.”  Compare the patterns described by the authors with the educational opportunities available to “lower track” students at your school.  In what ways does placement in a lower track affect their access to equal educational opportunities? (See Concept Table 10.1 for some common differences between “high-track” and “low-track” classes.)

    Accommodating Diversity without Sorting

  15. Judy Smith describes how, in an effort to provide a more equitable education for all of her students, she sometimes groups students heterogeneously.  In what specific contexts and for what specific purposes might it make sense to group students heterogeneously?  In what specific contexts and for what specific purposes might it make sense to group students homogeneously?  In your view, is there a way to use flexible and temporary groupings that target students’ instructional needs?  If not, explain why.  If so, what would you do to ensure that such groupings did not turn into permanent categories or labels for students?

  16. Seek out examples of schools or school districts that are attempting to reduce, modify, or eliminate tracking.  Identify and describe the changes in structures or procedures, the successes, and the difficulties.  Look for provisions that attempt to preserve some of the “privileges” of high-track placement.  Look especially for evidence that detracking has or hasn’t prompted the teachers or schools to base their instruction more strongly on sociocultural learning perspectives.

  17. View the video, Off Track: Classroom Privilege for All. As you watch, consider the dimensions of the detracked classrooms that seemed to have the most positive impact on students’ learning and overall experiences. What had to happen at the school and community levels in order to make detracking in these two classrooms a possibility? What role did teachers play in the effort? Administrators? Parents and community members? Why, after only one year, do you think the school opted to return to tracked classes, even after seeing how successful the students from the detracked classes were? What would it have taken to sustain the detracked classes? How do you imagine you might apply the lessons learned from this detracking “experiment” to your own practice, even if you work in school where tracking is the norm?

  18. Linked Learning schools purport to prepare all students for college and careers (i.e., not preparing some students for college and others for careers). They are based on “the core idea … that a combined academic and technical program will increase both the rigor and relevance of the high school curriculum for a broad range of high school students, and, as a consequence, boost academic achievement, motivate students to stay in school, and improve their workforce outcomes.” (See also Focal Point 10.2.) What do you think about the philosophy and practices behind Linked Learning? Why might it make sense for high schools to partner with community colleges and prepare students for college and the workforce? Do you know of any schools in your area that implement similar practices to Linked Learning? If so, try to visit those schools and/or interview students, teachers, parents, and administrators about their experiences.

  19. In earlier chapters, the authorsportray the history of race-based segregation in American public schools.  How are segregation and tracking related?  In what ways are detracking efforts and desegregation measures, as well as the responses to them, also alike?  Different?

  20. The authors note that, “efforts to move away from [ability grouping and tracking] nearly always engender resistance from those whose children are advantaged by them.”  As a new teacher, how would you work with parents, administrators, and other teachers to “make common cause around serving all students well”?  How would you explain and justify your efforts towards detracking and heterogeneous grouping?  What strategies and tactics would you need to employ in order to build support for your efforts?


    Fine, M., Anand, B. T., Jordan, C. P., Sherman, D., & Hancock, M. (Creators/Directors and Producer) (1998). Off Track: Classroom Privilege for All. Hancock Productions, 1998. New York: Teachers College Press [Distributor]. One videocassette (30 min), ISBN: 0807737860. (Tracking in schools, or the practice of segregating students by "ability", has long been an issue of debate among educators and researchers alike. As shown in “Off-Track,” the practice of tracking raises fundamental educational questions about how we define intelligence and who we deem to be intelligent. The setting of the video is an untracked World Literature course in suburban Montclair High School in New Jersey.)
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