Not So Easy To Do In Real Life

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.

Mixed classes: pre-tracking(?) a realization(?)

The achievement of students on whether or not they are mixed together based on their achievement levels, and if there were positive or negative implications of these groups is the central theme of the article by Pivovarova(2014).  This article brought me to a realization that I may have been in such an environment during elementary school.  I find it interesting that the timing of my experience it what I remember being called “quad learning”/”group learning”,  took place during fourth through sixth grade, very close to the grade levels of those in the research. 

“Quad learning” was introduced to us as a way to learn to work with peers, in groups of four desk clustered together, and to assist each other when problem solving, reviewing readings, etc.  Now understanding that I went to a small school, average class size was 25-30 students, and we were with the same group through all classes, but in each course we were assigned different groups of 4.  Looking back on some of my classes and groups I can almost see that we were mixed based on our achievement.  Each cluster had what would be considered in the article, one high, two average, and one low achieving student. Although we did not know this as students, we just knew that this was our group.

Throughout the course of the year, usually after a midterm, and always after winter break, the groups would be rearranged and we would have a new group that we would work with.  I now wonder, was this because of test scores, remixing the groups to maybe put some higher achieving students with a new peer group of average and lower achieving students to see if the new group would improve the others.  I can remember during our group work, that those of us that really enjoyed the topic would be engaged and continue discussion/debate, or would race to solve problems, and those that did not enjoy the topic would work with the group, get the work done, but it was more of a task to check off a list, but asking questions from time to time.

What I find most interesting after reading the article and thinking back to my elementary years, is the fact that after sixth grade, we entered into high school where we took our standardized test, then began our “track”, college prep, agricultural tech, or vocational tech.  Being in such a small school, you pretty much knew who was at the top of the class, and who was not.  Those that were higher achieving went into college prep, and further into advanced placement classes.  The average kids went college prep or a tech class, usually depending on if the family owned a farm or not, and those that would be low achieving went into the vocational tech. 

Overall I really wonder how our groups were decided in my classes. What, if any were the benefits that the teachers and administration saw in these groups?  Especially that after sixth grade there was no more focus on “group” learning and it was all individual work in the classrooms, outside we made our groups and studied, but that was usually more due to proximity of who you lived by, and if they were in your track. 



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

To Track or Not to Track

To track or not to track, that is the question. All administrators grapple with this question because there are pros and cons to ability tracking students. Personally, I have experienced student placement based on ability tracking as well as placement based on a more heterogeneous approach but I have yet to decide which approach I prefer. Pivovarova’s 2014 article opened my eyes to the pros and cons of particular classroom designs and allowed me to begin formulating a better understanding of best practices for placing students in classroom.

During my first four years of teaching, I was asked to be involved in the student placement process for the middle school students. Our process for placing students was not a fine science but instead based on teacher observations such as, student behavior, gender, and grades. With these traits in mind, we attempted to evenly distribute the students into each homeroom with the intention of creating heterogeneous classrooms. This type of distribution seemed to be effective but I always had to wonder how the lower achieving and behavioral issue students were affecting my higher achieving students. I felt a sense of guilt every time I had to stop the class to handle a behavior or begin my lesson with foundational pieces that my higher achieving students already understood. Although I saw some negative aspects to this classroom design, I also was able to witness outstanding cooperative learning moments where higher achieving students would help instruct lower achieving students. I believe this was not only beneficial to the lower achieving students but it was also incredibly advantageous for the higher achieving students. With that being said, Pivovarova (2014) stated that both low and high students benefit from these exchanges and there is a “positive effect of diversity of abilities in the classroom supports the idea that students learn from each other not only from their teacher, and class interaction play an important role in learning and transmission of knowledge” (p. 24).

During my fifth year as a teacher, I was introduced to the concept of student achievement tracking. The middle school students were placed according to achievement on Arizona’s high-stakes test, AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards). All high-performing sixth through eighth graders were all placed in the same class, all middle achieving students were placed in another class, and all low-achieving students were placed in a class. The first thing I noticed upon walking into the classroom was the morale of the students; the high-achieving students were upbeat and motivated; the middle-achieving students lacked motivation and were complacent; and the low-achieving students had poor morale and continuously referred to their class as the “dumb class”. Pivovarova (2014) came to a similar conclusion; she stated “while grouping by ability seems to be beneficial for high-achieving students, there is no evidence to support the tracking model for all students” (p. 27). Although it was extraordinary to watch the higher-level students excel and work on more advanced assignments, I knew my lower students were academically stagnant.

By utilizing achievement tracking are we perpetuating the intellectual perceptions that the students already have? I believe so, because it was a daily struggle to get our middle and low achieving students to believe that they can achieve at high ability levels. Unfortunately, I watched as my middle-achieving students, who were capable of meeting our standards and excelling, simply gave up because they were not labeled as “high-level” students. Placing students in these levels, I believe will select an educational path that students will be confined to for the remainder of their academic careers. Is this fair? Is this the message we want to send to our kids?

I still do not have a definitive answer to the question: should we track our students? There are valid pros and cons to both sides of the argument and as a school administrator; I am left to make this challenging decision for my students. After reviewing Pivovarova’s 2014 article, I believe that it would be in my students’ best interest to remain in heterogeneous classes due to the moral obligation I have to do what is best for all students, not just a select few. All students deserve to have access to an excellent education.




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


Tracking = Resegregation?

Source (image): “Coming Clean 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.

‘High ability’ does not equal ‘high achieving’

In the article “Should We Track or Should We Mix Them?” (Pivovarova, 2014), the issue of class tracking is tackled. Though I fear this will be a controversial statement, to put it in more simple terms, this article sought to answer whether its okay for the ‘smart’ kids to be together in one class and have a separate class for the ‘slower’ kids. As a teacher, this is a question that I have been struggling with for the past seven years, and truthfully, I still do not have a clear answer. I can see both sides. I get the argument that Pivovarova (2014) summarizes that ability tracking allows teachers to specialize, meaning that they can really individualize the curriculum and instruction for the particular ability of their students. In this model, teachers can more efficiently plan lessons that align to student needs and more easily pace the curriculum.

I myself have benefited from ability tracking as a teacher. When I taught 7th grade English language arts, I had a group of the ‘high ability’ students in one class and ‘low ability’ students in another class. Just as a side note, I will not refer to the high ability group as the high achieving students, because that implies that all high ability students are high achieving students, which I can assure you is definitely not true. Anyway, within this context, it was very easy for me to form a rigorous curriculum for my higher ability students specifically. Throughout that process, I realized that there were modifications that I could make to make my instruction as strong for the lower ability students and get them to reach the same outcomes. I had much more guided practice of the instructional objective for that day with my lower ability group. I chunked out larger pieces of text so they were not overwhelmed by so many words on the page. They were doing the same work and taking the same tests, but the strategies I used were unique to the ability level of the group. To be truthful, I felt like I was a better teacher with my lower ability group. The achievement level in my lower ability class was equivalent to my high ability class, making the need for these ability groups fairly obsolete the following year.

Pivovarova (2014), however, argues that though there can be benefits to ability tracking, overall, it negatively affects lower ability students. Previous literature that she reviewed asserts this, though I am a bit skeptical about what data suggests that. There was some research that suggested that there was no positive or negative effect from tracking and some that suggested tracking was a positive thing. From my own experience, I really think the effectiveness of ability tracking as to do with how well the teacher is at ensuring that all classes are getting the same curriculum and being held to the same high standards. Another point that I most definitely agree with Pivovarova (2014) on is that the effectiveness of this model has a lot to do with peer interactions. For me personally, I think I was successful because I had students engage in the same projects and discussions, no matter what class there were in. Though, I cannot ignore the fact that the author brings up that having high achievers is good for everyone and low-achievers are not harmful to achievement of everyone else (Pivovarova, 2014), I question this notion that low-achievers and low-ability are synonymous. One of the reasons why I believe my ‘low-ability’ class was so successful was due to certain students being able to really shine. They proved that they were and could be consistently high achieving because they had the confidence to move up and be considered one of those higher ability students within this group of peers. They were not lost and timid to speak up, unlike when they were in the same setting as the higher ability students. So, though I definitely see the argument for not tracking, I do not agree that high ability means that you are high achieving and vice versa.

I also assure you that I do not love the term ‘low ability’ but have yet to find a great alternative; hope everyone can give me the benefit of the doubt here.


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

Some good can come from this

Kevin was not the name of my sixth grade bully – it is the name I’ll use here to reflect upon him, though. I could just as easily call him Voldemort, the dark lord, or he who will not be named. Yes, I have been watching and reading a lot of Harry Potter this summer with my children in between all the readings and papers in the three doctoral classes I’m taking right now.

harry pI’ll never forget Kevin. He was the new kid back in sixth grade. He was the bully. He was the boy who was constantly in trouble. And, he was the boy who struggled to read. I learned a lot from Kevin that school. It was his one and only year at my school, and in that year, I learned a lot about what not to do. When I think back upon Kevin, there was real value in me knowing him because his behavior reinforced all of the good things I’ve been taught by him doing the opposite. Kevin wasn’t the only “Kevin” in my school career. He and people like him taught me a lot over the years, and I wonder who I’d be today if all my classes were homogenized, and I wasn’t able take classes with all of those Kevins.

Schools, it seems, are trending towards classroom grouping.  Any given fourth grade at any given grammar school might have its “high-achieving” class, its group of middle or average students grouped together, and a “low achieving” class.  The thinking, of course, behind this grouping is that it allows teachers to concentrate their teaching on all the low students at once or all the high.  No longer would a teacher have to teach multiple lessons at once considering both his or her high group and low group in the context of a single lesson.  This seems much easier for teachers.  It seems as if these manufactured, homogeneous classes would benefit learners as well, but do they?

Is there value in having “slow kids” in your classroom if you are a high-achieving student?  Do heterogeneous classrooms further learning for low-achievers since they can learn and model themselves after some of the higher achievers in the class?  If schools and teachers edit out all types of heterogeneous-ness to coin a phrase, does that ultimately benefit learners?

I think of classrooms from 50 or 60 years ago.  There wasn’t a movement back then to mix classrooms according to standardized test data.  All sections of fourth grade classrooms at that same hypothetical school referenced prior were mixed up randomly in that era.  This may have been okay because schools tended to me more homogeneous themselves back then.  Now, with immigration, refugee populations, and more movement from state to state than prior, schools are decidedly more heterogeneous.

Pivovarova’s “Should we track or should we mix them?” explores issues related to the “to be or not to be” of the current state of education. Pivovarova (2014) starts with this premise, “The standard argument in favour of tracking is that it is easier to teach a group with small variance of abilities” (p. 2). It does follow logically that tracking does make teaching easier. The question that then arises is: are things that are easier for teachers necessarily better for students? Pivovarova goes on with her studies and uses mathematical formulas to advance arguments on whether or not schools should track. She (2014) writes, “To put the numbers into perspective, a high-achiever being surrounded by good peers gains a quarter of standard deviation in test score for every standard deviation increase in the average ability of classmates, while a low-achiever gains 0.15 of standard deviation – still a sizable improvement” (p. 16). The numbers seem clear here. High-achievers make everything better. Still, high-achieving students are a limited resource in classrooms. Is it better to group them to promote the learning of all high achievers or should they be better “utilized” helping low-achieving students – and, is that even ethical, to use high-achievers consciously to better other students? Pivovarova (2014) relates, “For instance, a teacher might need to adjust her instruction to tailor it to the largest share of students in class – the high achievers. That might have an adverse impact on low achievers and even on the average students. At the same time, if there are spillovers from good students, then a larger share of high-achievers would have a positive impact on everyone in the classroom” (p.18). These decisions remind me a lot of playing chess, or possibly there are the decisions a general would make in war. How do schools and teachers best utilize their students to best promote growth in classrooms?

I do not envy these types of administrative decisions. I almost couldn’t blame them if they all just decided to randomize classes again if only for the ease of it all. Again, though, I do think there is value in this type of randomization. I probably wouldn’t have met Kevin otherwise, and in doing so, I may not have learned all those valuable lessons of what not to do.


Pivovarova, Margarita (2014). Should we track or should we mix them?