A District without Spectrum?
Who, if anyone, would benefit? Who, if anyone, would be harmed? Recent research suggests that getting rid of tracking can be beneficial to all students, but that the students who benefit most are those who have been identified as "low achievers." One of the reasons behind this is that in a mixed-ability classroom, the curriculum is often more interesting and engaging than what the "low achievers" are offered in tracked or segregated classes. Another is that many of the types of instructional methods used in Spectrum or other "high achieving" classrooms would benefit all students.
And separate from the achievement issue, getting rid of the Spectrum program change might also improve the social climate of Seattle schools. Read the comments by Whitter parents and teachers on the Leadership thread on this blog to see what effect having two separate instructional tracks at that elementary school has done to create antagonism and divisions in the school.
Of course, getting rid of tracking, by itself, does not necessarily lead to positive outcomes. The curricula and instructional methods need to match the class structure. Mixed-ability classes need to be taught in a way that every student is not only able to work to their highest potential, but is actually encouraged to do so. This is a difficult task, but with the right kind of training and support, many talented teachers are able to do this quite well. (Visit Pathfinder to see teachers excel at teaching mixed age, mixed level classes.)
Another key issue that would need to be explored, if Seattle decided to get rid of the Spectrum program and other ability grouping in the schools, is teachers' beliefs about intelligence, achievement, and students. Some teachers believe that higher-order critical thinking tasks are beyond the ability of some students. Other teachers believe that students without sufficient parental support or individual motivation cannot succeed at school, no matter what the instructional method. Those beliefs create huge barriers to effective teaching in a multi-level classroom.
Here's a quote from an article called "Detracking: The Social Construction of Ability, Cultural Politics, and Resistance to Reform" from the Teachers College Record in 1997. "Detracking" refers to getting rid of ability grouping.
For the most part, however, these powerful parents’ resistance to detracking is cloaked in extremely rational and self-interested language about the quality of education their children will receive in tracked versus detracked classes. Yet these arguments are made even when reform-minded educators provide evidence that the curriculum and instruction in heterogeneous classes can be such that all students are challenged.
...In fact, oftentimes we found the pedagogy in detracked classes far more creative and engaging than that in more traditional classes in which teachers basically lecture at the students and then test them on specific information.
In a district with the stated goal of closing the achievement gap, why is the idea of eliminating tracking and getting rid of the Spectrum program not even being discussed?
(Last sentence rewritten at 4:30 pm, 1/19 to replace "ability grouping" with a more accurate description of what I was trying to say. Use of the term "ability grouping" as replaced with "tracking" in several other places in this post. BB)