New Directions for Mixed-Ability Instruction

January 20, 2010

Adam Gamoran

Adam Gamoran

How can teachers best organize students for instruction? After a century of research on tracking and ability grouping, one might expect a definitive answer to this question. Yet every approach has disadvantages as well as advantages, and the consequences vary by context.

Here’s the dilemma: On the one hand, schools are asked to provide all students with a common set of cognitive and social skills essential for full civic and economic participation in adult society. On the other hand, schools are structured to sort and select students for different career paths based on their individual orientations and capacities. This tension between commonality and differentiation underlies the tracking debate. The former aim is consistent with mixed-ability teaching. The latter is consistent with tracking. The debate has no simple resolution because school systems embody both goals.

UW-Madison education professor Adam Gamoran says recent research has advanced knowledge of tracking in three areas.

First, international scholarship offers new knowledge about the consequences of tracking in contexts beyond the US and the UK, where most prior research has been conducted. International research shows that, despite the various forms of tracking, the results are broadly similar: student achievement tends to diverge, and tracking reinforces initial differences by social class.

Second, studies of attempts to reduce or eliminate tracking and ability grouping yield important insights into why tracking resists change. For example, teachers oppose detracking when they believe they are not equipped to successfully instruct students of widely varying abilities in the same classroom. Mathematics and foreign language teachers tend to be more resistant than teachers in other subjects due to beliefs about the sequential nature of knowledge in these disciplines.

Third, studies on classroom assignment and instruction point toward new possibilities. These new approaches don’t resolve the tension between commonality and differentiation. They may, however, capture the benefits of differentiation for meeting students’ varied needs without intensifying the inequality that commonly accompanies tracking and ability grouping. For example, the technical challenges of mixed-ability teaching have defied easy solution. Recent research, however, has identified conditions under which effective teaching in mixed-ability contexts may be more successful than in the past. Two approaches merit further experimentation in research and practice: (a) raising standards for low achievers in differentiated classrooms and (b) providing differentiated learning opportunities in mixed-ability classrooms.

Raising Standards for Low-Achieving Students
Years of tracking research show that low-level, dead-end courses should be eliminated. High school courses such as general math and business English do not prepare students for postsecondary opportunities. But this widely accepted conclusion still leaves open the possibility that providing meaningful instruction at all skill levels could make differentiated classes an effective way to organize students for learning. 
Gamoran says at least three changes are needed to make low-track classes more effective:

  1. The assessments toward which students strive need to be tied to futures that are more visibly meaningful to students than is currently the case.
  2. The assessments need to offer incentives for students as well as schools.
  3. The connection between the course curriculum and the assessments needs to be tighter than has typically been the case in the US.

Providing Differentiated Learning Opportunities in Mixed-Ability Classrooms 
Studies of effective instruction in mixed-ability classes show several common ingredients. First, the teachers in these success stories all recognized that students differ in the skills and interests they bring to class. Second, all of the successful cases involved differentiated instruction involving either supplemental instruction  or matching students’ varied skill levels to particular instructional strategies  within the mixed-ability setting. Third, the teachers in each case had access to important resources that allowed them to supplement instruction and tailor it to students’ needs.

The Bigger Picture 
Ultimately, how students are arranged matters less than the instruction they encounter. Research in the last decade has focused on the instruction provided to students assigned to classes in different ways. Bringing together research on tracking with research on teaching offers the most useful way to continue to shed light on this topic.