Mixing or Tracking Students: Reflections on Voice, Accessibility, and Implications for Higher Education

As I reviewed our list of readings this week, I was drawn to the article by Margarita Pivovarova, “Should We Track or Should We Mix Them?”  for two reasons.  First, as a former eighth grade English teacher, my students were tracked to some degree as students’ math classes dictated schedules. Inevitably, high achieving math students were grouped together throughout day.  Secondly, as a community college administrator, we currently practice ability homogenous grouping in some disciplines as students take placement tests in order to determine what level of English, reading or math aligns to their current abilities.  So, the question of tracking or mixing students is one that has been part of my educational career for the past twenty years, and those twenty years of teaching and educational experience, along with our current development in this course, influence my reaction to this article.Voice

First, I must confess that I am biased regarding using equations, mathematical terminology, and statistics to exclusively discuss an educational topic.  So, I offer this reflection about voice not as a criticism of this study, but as my own development as a scholar-practitioner embarking on my research journey.  Pivovarova analyzes the interactions between classmates with varying achievement levels in the elementary and middle school classrooms.  She utilizes data from Ontario public schools and explains mathematically and statistically the effect of high-achieving (good) and low-achieving (bad) students on groups of students.  According to Pivovarova (2014), “The presence of low-achievers in a class does not impede the achievement of other students, and even helps students who are low achievers themselves.”    Furthermore, “being surrounded by good peers is beneficial for everyone independent of their own learning level.”  To sum it all up,  Pivovarova states that “peer group composition matters”  (p. 28).

In no way do I question the validity of the study, or the means as to which Pivovarova arrives at her conclusions.  But, I left this study wanting more – specifically, the voices of those instructors in the classrooms and the voices of the students (high, low, marginal, etc. – all the labels utilized in the study).  Each of the groups of students from Ontatrio whose data were used for this study has a story to tell.  Each of the teachers who worked with the respective students has a story to tell.  And, from our readings thus far in this course, I now have a sense that by not telling those stories, we may not have a true sense as to the impact of mixing or tracking students on the students themselves.  This study adds to the discussion of ability tracking or streaming, which was the goal of the author.  I offer that it is critical to also include the voices of the participants in the study to gain additional knowledge and insight about tracking or mixing students based on ability level.


As I think further about my development as a scholar-practitioner, I am beginning to question the accessibility of research studies.  How are they written?  Who is the audience?  Is the language used in an article accessible to those impacted by the research? In this case, the author uses very scientific language that includes descriptions of formulas and mathematical explanations, all necessary to fully understand the methodology and processes involved to derive the respective conclusions.  But, as I think of principals I have worked with over the years responsible for making schedules, or I think of the many teachers and administrator who struggle with this question each year, I wonder will studies such as these impact this particular audience?   As I reflect on my upcoming research, I hope I am able to connect my research to my audience and make it accessible to them, in order for it to have a positive impact on current practices and policies.

Implications for Higher Education

Finally, this study caused me to contemplate some current practices in higher education.  In some respects, a community college classroom has the most diverse (mixed) population a teacher could imagine.  Students will differ by age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, personal experiences, and religious affiliation.   But, community colleges also track students in some disciplines.  As mentioned earlier, students are initially placed into English, math and reading courses based on results of a single placement exam.  So, grouping in this instance is based on ability, granted only a single measure is being used to determine ability.  Four-year universities, for the most part, could be viewed as a glorified tracking system.  There are highly selective universities that only accept students who demonstrate a certain academic ability-level.  Isn’t this an example of tracking?  So what does this all mean for higher education?  I think it should cause faculty and administrators to pause and evaluate how our systems may unintentionally or intentionally track students, and discuss whether this tracking is in the best interest of students.

Regarding my line of inquiry with developmental education, is it beneficial to have college students who for varying reasons may be struggling academically in a particular discipline take classes only with other students experiencing similar academic challenges?  Are there advantages to rethinking this model, to allow for mixed classrooms that could benefit all students in some manner? Studies such as these help to shed light on the issue of tracking or mixing students by ability; however, I also believe student and educator voices need to be included in discussions before policies and practices are altered. 



Pivovarova, M. (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them? Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Tempe: Arizona State University.


Tracking = Resegregation?

Source (image): “Coming Clean Beyond the Fiscal Cliff”, http://solari.com/articles/beyond_the_fiscal_cliff

I am always amazed at how excellence in education is equated with equity. Although, I am not an elementary or secondary educator, I am often privy to my educator-friends who are assured that one of these concepts comes at the expense of the other; that a school lending itself to equity will undoubtedly sacrifice excellence. Or, that to be academically excellent, the school must limit its equity in order to properly serve high-achieving students who deserve academic consistency and progressiveness. Forgive me, but I am somewhat confused by this idea. Wouldn’t an environment that offers its best curriculum to all students be simultaneously achieving excellence?

In Margarita Pivovarova’s (2014) article , Show we Track or Should we Mix Them?, she explores the notion of tracking in elementary schools. Tracking refers to the grouping of students by ability; thereby placing high-performing students in an environment with peers of the same ability, while placing lower-achieving student with low-achieving peers. Basically, this is a fancy way of saying “put the smart kids in one classroom; put the dumb kids together in a different classroom.” You can tell by my tone, that I do not agree with this idea in any form. Pivovarova (2014) asserts that while positive effects can be seen through tracking, it greatly impacts lower-performing students in detrimental ways. She based her assertion on literature that implicitly showed that “the data does not support the linear-in-means model” (p.7), coming to the realization that the nature of peer effects within the learning environment are more complicated than the model suggests. While Pivovarova (2014) doesn’t clearly state which data set presented this finding, she mentions that some research indicated positive findings, while other research indicated no effect; she finds that peer interaction is a highly important component to achieving the success of tracking (Pivovarova, 2014). I agree with Pivovarova’s (2014) assertion here. Simply grouping students together based on ability alone is not sufficient to prove that this method achieves optimal results. Students must be able and willing to engage with peers and instructors in a way that fosters positive identity and confidence in the learning environment, therefore, producing desired results.

High school principle and author, Carol Corbett Burris (2014) discusses tracking in her book On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the Twenty-First-Century Struggle against Resegregation pointing out that previous literature documents tracks as “racially and economically stratified” (p. 112). For example, if a high-performing Black student who comes from a low socio-economic background is put into a classroom with a large number of White students from middle to high socio-economic status would the linear-in-means model be so clear cut? Would the student feel confident to perform? Would he/she be able to relate to the classroom climate or culture of privilege within the group? While some students may perform well in this environment, some may not. In addition to the inconsistency of this model, other learning theories come into play (i.e. stereotype threat, “performing whiteness”, etc.) that can easily blur the framework of academic tracking. Tracking also puts a great burden the teacher to ensure that equity is maintained between groups; a burden that lends itself to resources, tools, and institutional support. Pivovarova (2014) concludes that a mixed learning environment is optimal, asserting that the quality of peers has a great impact on both high and low achieving students stating, “…while the average quality of peers is more important for high-achievers, adding just one more smart kid in a classroom has a larger impact on marginal kids than it has on top students” (p. 28).

Tracking, in my opinion, lends itself to labeling as well. In a society where emphasis is placed on the level of coursework studied by the student, it is no wonder that parents will work the system to ensure their child is put into high-achieving classrooms to ensure that all social and academic opportunities are made available to them. Labels such as “gifted”, “honor student”, “special needs” and “remedial” are identities placed on the student which often confirm the student’ identity of self-worth, and so very often students perform to the label by which they are identified. Why not eliminate the curriculum gap in an effort to close the achievement gap? I am sure there is no easy solution to this issue, but we must work harder to ensure educational equity, or risk repeating the injustices of the past.


Burris, C. C. (2014). On the same track: How schools can join the twenty-first-century struggle against resegregation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pivovarova, M. (2013). Should we track them or should we mix them? Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.

Inequality in Education

Doyle, J. L. (2014). Cultural relevance in urban music education: a synthesis of the literature. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 32(2), 44–51. doi:10.1177/8755123314521037

During an observation I did last week, I was struck with the reality that, in comparison, I am a teacher at a privileged school. When I examined the differences between the campus I was visiting and the campus I work at, I started shifting on the direction of research I wanted to look into. Originally, what caught me off guard was the realization that the students in the classroom I was visiting had zero technology to use; nothing, unless we are going to consider a mechanical pencil technology. However, as I learned more about the school I was in, the more dismayed I became. (Truth be told I was all sorts of fired up!)

The school I was observing in has made some cuts to their staff, which is no different than any other school in Arizona, but this district made major cuts to their special areas team. The students never have art and they had a whopping two hours of music the entire year. I don’t imagine they made a year’s growth in those two hours. They did have, in alternating weeks, PE and technology class. Keep in mind, they have no technology in their classroom. There is a band program, but the students are only pulled out once a week.

In comparison, the school I work at has five Chromebooks for each grade level in addition to the laptops we have in every classroom and an iPad cart that is shared. That sounds more amazing than it is. For example, I had eight laptops in my classroom, but only three of them worked. The major difference, technology wise, is that our students are not only allowed, but encouraged to bring their electronic devices to school. In addition, we have a full special area team, which includes: art, music, college and career readiness, and two PE teachers. The students also have the option of joining band and/or choir.

The ramifications of not having music, art, or technology at a school are mind boggling. Think about the impact art has in the engineering and design of items like cell phones and tablets. I guarantee there is a lot of thought put into the visual effect of everyday items. The higher level thinking involved in each of these areas allows our students to problem solve and be creative in a way that is only possible in the arts and technology. The students I had the opportunity to visit with are going through their education without the same resources other students have.

I started researching anything that had to do with music, technology and achievement. I came across an article by Jennifer Lee Doyle entitled Cultural Relevance in Urban Music Education: A Synthesis of the Literature. Basically, the article is looking at the students of low socioeconomic status and how their social and academic outcome is affected by the arts. I have failed to mention thus far, that the school I visited is 94% free and reduced lunch, meaning the students who attend the school come from low socioeconomic status. The school I work at would be considered mid-level socioeconomic status; we have very few student on free and reduced lunch. The article says that “students who participate in the arts tend to have better academic and social outcomes than do students who do not participate in the arts.” She goes on to say that low SES students have increased civic engagement, better achievement test scores, school grades, graduation rates and college enrollment rates when compared to low SES students who are not in the arts. One point I found interesting was that she specifically pointed out that students “with a history of intensive arts experiences” score closer to the level, and sometimes exceeding the level shown by the general populations. This would definitely support my theory that a school without music or art will impact the students in a negative way.

The next section of her article she says there are indications that students of color, low SES and with low academic achievement are underrepresented in secondary music programs in the United States. From experience, I can tell you that there are many reasons for this and from what I have witnessed, is totally accurate. In high schools across Arizona students who participate in band typically pay $100 or more for supplies, uniform…etc. I have heard numbers as high as $500. This does not include the cost of any trips the group takes or their instrument. The non-existent funding for music programs in the high school means, that those costs fall to the families. Students from a low SES, struggle with this. Fundraising helps, but there are only so many scented candles one can sell. In regards to the students who struggle academically, from what I have witnessed, they are underrepresented because there is no more room in their schedule due to the remedial courses they are required to take. The same holds true for ELL students. A study that Doyle looked at said that 65.7% of music students, in secondary school are Caucasian and 90.4% of them are native English speakers. In the school the study looked at, only 50% of the students were Caucasian. Obviously, this does not match with the composition of the music program. A second study she looked at found a strong association between SES and music participation. “Only 17% of music students were from the lowest SES quartile.” It is baffling that we have areas in education today still, essentially, segregating our students.

Doyle suggests that in order to raise participation in music programs, specifically in junior high and high school, teachers need to create more culturally relevant courses.  She gives several examples of how to implement this: integrating multicultural music styles, offer nontraditional ensembles, teach courses that relate directly to local student interests and to be more present in the lower level schools. Making the classes more culturally relevant just means that one is being a good teacher. It is all about making connections and in middle school and high school, if a student does not feel connected, they will not stay in the program. However, music programs are unique in this way because of the amount of time the ensembles spend together, the community created is tighter than in a regular classroom. My theory is that students in general, have a higher rate of success in school when they are in such a community.

Overall, the article was easy to read and was thought provoking for me. It definitely has me looking at different ways to research. However, because it was a literature review and not quantitative research, I felt as though it didn’t dive very deep into each issue discussed, especially within data. Therefore, I don’t feel like it is or going to be very impactful.  If anything, I would have liked to see more information and statistics. However, she cited forty-two different references, which absolutely gives me a place to dive deeper.

Even though Doyle’s article is discussing secondary schools, there is still a connection to elementary. Elementary school prepares the students for secondary school. If the students are receiving an education that forces them to work at a high, more rigorous level and requires them to be creative, imagine how much farther they would end up in middle school and high school.  In the meantime, I will be looking at how the arts and technology impact student achievement and how that relates to students of color, low SES and English language learners.