How would you like to be competing on Master Chef as a novice where all the other students are semi-pro’s? Didn’t think so. In our proper criticism of student tracking we have completely lost sight of the sound idea of user-friendly grouping. Tracking is a dead-end for many; grouping smartly helps everyone reach their goals (including teachers). Grouping presumes that smaller affinity groups make it more likely that everyone will be comfortable as they move forward. Tracking, by contrast, means some students will be dead-ended. It is morally and pedagogically indefensible.

But doesn’t grouping inevitably lead to tracking? Not at all – especially with current AYP demands. While the fear that grouping leads to tracking may have once been well-founded, in the current world of school and teacher accountability it is no longer so. Schools are (quite properly) responsible for the progress of all sub-groups; teachers are (quite properly) held increasingly responsible for teaching everyone in their class, not just the already motivated.

Intelligent grouping is a sensible solution to the very real problem of teacher stress and burn-out. Think of it: we ask every teacher to teach the widest possible range of students simultaneously, in large classes – with accountability for results. Why in the world would we want to maximize diversity of ability in each classroom, as we now do via putting together students only based on date of birth, if the goal is to reach all students? “Differentiation” is a nice word for a bad deal: why should teachers be stuck trying to figure out how to reach the widest variety of students simultaneously?Intelligent grouping is a saner response to the eternal dilemmas of mass education than asking every teacher to more or less run tutorials for scores of students. Grouping done right means that we have the same hopes and expectations for all learners, while tactfully recognizing and responding humanely where people are in their progress and organizing, accordingly. We then make it more likely that more teachers can reach more students. I might even say that this is more thoughtful than just unthinkingly putting people of the same age in the same room.

In fact, we already have successful intelligent grouping in schools, with nary a protest. We have long placed kids in Advanced Math classes, Jazz Ensemble, ESL, JV soccer, or French II based on ability level and regardless of student age. As long as everyone can progress, we minimize the kind of unhelpful variation and range of ability in a class that would otherwise makes everyone’s experience, teacher and student, more frustrating than it needs to be.

When grouping is done right it suits your level and your interests. You’re not only free to move up to the next level, you are encouraged to do so by the way incentives and opportunities are presented. There is no self-fulfilling prophecy of doom about being a 10th grader in Spanish 1 or a junior in JV basketball. In fact, in France, the incentive to pass the Bac exam is so strong, many students take an extra year of high school by choice to improve their chances of passing. So, too, over the years have many student-athletes taken a post-graduate year after high school at a prep school to improve their chances of getting into a good college.

Why can’t the same be true for success in history, English, or math? Why, for example, don’t we pre-test incoming Algebra 1 students and place the less advanced learners in special sections in which we a) make the course a semester twice as long as the typical course, and b) make sure that the teaching in each section is explicitly designed to suit the needs of learners uncomfortable with math? What we are doing now sure isn’t working!  As it stands, about 25% of all Freshmen nationwide fail or barely pass with a D the same one-size-fits–all single-paced course in algebra. How is that an intelligent response to diversity?

When we begin to think this way what we should realize is that a huge impediment to better schooling for learners of all kinds is the totally linear and inflexible nature of curriculum as it is now written (as made clear by the dreaded “pacing” guide). The problem is not so much the variety of learners as the lack of options and responsiveness to diversity in the curriculum. When courses are defined and designed as a march through “stuff” covered once, it is inevitable that we end up exaggerating differences between learners and talking (wrongly) about too many kids “falling behind.” Falling behind what? Some mythical average “pace” of teaching in a single way? Not the point. The aim is optimal learning, not uniform “coverage” of content.

Better grouping would make school easier to run; it would require less differentiation and wasted time – especially if the work were designed to be more interesting, recursive, and performance-based, as it is in music, athletics, and foreign language. That way, failure to “get it” the first time around wouldn’t matter as much, because the core tasks would keep recurring. Grading would then finally match our goals: progress is what would be measured, not grades based on correct or incorrect responses on a quiz that occurs only once on a given day, regardless of where you are in your learning. Imagine, also, if we did extensive pre-assessments in the first week of the year, just as coaches do in early practices, so that we might place people more intelligently on the basis of pre-assessment results (as often happens in colleges).

The issue of inefficient and ineffective grouping is thus inseparable from the issue of time, in other words. When we demand that all students reach the same performance goal at the same point in time, we create a recipe for needless failure, shame, and frustration. When you then group everyone heterogeneously, it is a cruel bureaucratic nightmare for many. In the wider world, you take the time needed to achieve the goal – as in graduate school or getting a pilot’s license.

No one made this argument better than John Carroll over fifty years ago.

In his famous equation he asked: we currently vary achievement greatly when learners must reach a goal at the same time. What if we reversed it? What if we varied time to make achievement not vary? From his idea grew many worthy experiments in Mastery Learning, student contracts, and Competency-based education.

The rise of online learning and adaptive testing finally makes such a system feasible. Just this month an international online learning association issued a report outlining a sensible path forward:

I think the time has come to have another look at grouping and schedules if we are truly serious about ALL learners reaching Standards. As it stands now, the organization of learners, time, and teachers ensures that the Standards movement will fail to achieve its lofty goals.