It’s the age-old question: “Should we track them or should we mix them?” (Pivovarova, 2014). Usually, this question pertains to student placement in classrooms, especially in regards to academic achievement levels. For me, this is both a philosophical question and a real life one.
Philosophically, I believe mixing kids is a good thing. I agree that higher student models are necessary for lower kids, and sometimes peers are able to explain things in a way that makes more sense. I also try to remember that students are more than just their academic abilities. They bring so many more things to the table! They have artistic talent, leadership skills, social know-how, persistence, calmness… We need students with all these skills in a classroom so that they can all be models and can learn from one another. We would never dream of putting all the “leaders” in one class and the “followers” in another – no one would want to be in either room!
But in life, it is much harder to make heterogeneous classes happen. To start, in Arizona, English Language Learners (ELL) students are put in a separate ELD (English Language Development) class depending on their score on the ELL test. No English-only students are placed in an ELD class, so these kids are essentially tracked. (They are usually lower academically, because they are still learning the language.)
Then there are the gifted kids. My district changed the way it enriches gifted students a couple of years ago. They used to be mixed throughout all the classes, and the gifted teacher pulled them out once or twice a week. Now each grade level has a class with all the gifted kids. This, too, creates tracks, because they tend to do well academically (even though gifted does not necessarily mean high academics).
And then there are all the other kids in the middle. They’re not gifted and they only speak English. They have to be divided up among the rest of the teachers. When we create class lists each year, we try to even out the number of boys vs. girls, the number of students with special education, the number of well-behaved students with the ones who have more trouble. But it’s hard when the classes are already half-determined!
In my school, they have utilized both models as best they can in the younger grades. Classes are, as much as possible, heterogeneous. This allows for mixed groups, differentiated instruction, and hopefully lots of peer modeling. But for 45-60 minutes a day, all the kids at a certain grade level (say, 2nd grade) are mixed up and move to homogeneous groups during part of their reading block. The kids who are above grade level get extension activities, and the below grade level ones can focus on the parts of reading that are hardest. It has worked pretty well at my school, and helps to off-set some of the drawbacks to heterogeneous classes.
In her article, Pivovarova (2014) found that “peer group composition matters.” She compared low, marginal, average and high students. She found that all groups benefit from being placed with high students, and low students generally didn’t impact the other groups (aside from bringing down marginal learners). She also found that all groups did better when placed with others of their own level. As I mentioned earlier, this philosophically makes sense to me. For her research, though, Pivovarova (2014) only examined academic ability as measured by a specific test. I would love to see something like this completed for other qualities, like leadership or social skills or behavior. I think that if we focused on improving other areas, like the ability to get along in groups or problem-solve in real-time, academic achievement would ultimately go up, too.
Pivovarova, M. (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them? Mary Lou Fulton
Teachers College. Tempe: Arizona State University.