New York school district gets ‘creative’ by tracking students for reading instruction

by Grace

Everything old is new again.  A Westchester County school district is trying a “new approach” of tracking students for reading instruction.

PORT CHESTER — After cutting a staff of reading specialists from the budget, the schools are starting a new approach for children who need extra help in literacy.

All four elementary schools will dedicate one period a day to specialized literacy instruction, based on students’ needs. That replaces a practice of pulling particular children out of classes for reading assistance.

“It’s pretty creative,” said Carlos Sanchez, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the district. Those with the greatest needs will be grouped accordingly, and those performing above grade level will take part in enrichment programs.

Tracking, or separating students into instructional groups based on their proficiency levels, begin to fall out of favor in the 1960s because it was considered inconsistent with “equality of opportunity”.  I remember hearing one local school administrator tell parents that grouping students by ability before 8th grade would permanently scar them.  But since it’s now portrayed as a “creative” method of “specialized literacy instruction”, it may have found new acceptance by the PC police.

The fact is that meta-analysis supports ability grouping.

The academic benefits are clearest for those in the higher ability groups, but students in the lower groups are not harmed academically by grouping and they gain academic ground in some grouping programs.

Today’s proponents of ability grouping stress that it should be based on proficiency levels and should offer flexibility so students can move between groups when appropriate.  Instead of “tracking”, a more descriptive term is “flexible proficiency grouping”.

Pull-outs and differentiated instruction are problematic

To replace grouping, schools have tried pulling students out of class for additional services and offering differentiated instruction within the classroom.  But there are problems with these alternatives.

“In a pullout program, kids miss something to get something,” Sanchez said.

“In this type of set-up, everybody gets what they need. Nobody’s falling behind because they miss a half-hour of curriculum,” Sanchez said.

Differentiation places an unreasonable demand on teachers, with a recent survey finding that 83% of them find differentiation difficult to implement in practice.  No surprise there, with many classrooms including students three or more grades levels apart in academic skills.

Lumping all students together is not the best option, and could be a factor in the growing achievement gap.

This approach stunts later achievement levels for many students of varying ability levels.  But it’s the students on the lower end of the distribution curve who probably suffer the most, with fewer resources to make up for an inadequate educational process.

Cutting costs while improving student achievement
The Port Chester schools turned to proficiency grouping after budget cuts forced staff reductions.  A silver lining to the new era of controlling public education costs may be that more schools begin to try new “creative” approaches.  Over the years, heterogeneous grouping fueled the need for smaller class sizes and bigger staffs, so an unexpected outcome of “new” instructional methods could be improved academic outcomes at lower costs.


9 Comments to “New York school district gets ‘creative’ by tracking students for reading instruction”

  1. Interesting that the highest group didn’t work for your son; he must be off the charts. Now the next thing they should do is separate the math classes – that would be nice.

    My kids were never placed in reading groups like Port Chester is doing, but they did have informal groups within the class. IIRC, it was only for auxiliary “free reading”, but not for their main instruction.


  2. The highest reading group is usually the top 1/4 or top 1/5. For kids in the top 5% (still one twentieth of all kids) even the highest group may be far behind where they are.


  3. I am ambivalent about what schools should be required to do for the top 5% (perhaps the the top1-2%) as well as the bottom 5%. I can see arguments FOR spending inordinate amounts of resources for those students at either end of the spectrum, but sometimes it’s hard to justify pulling valuable resources away from 90% of the student population to benefit only 10% of students. (it’s also probably true that the top 5% do not need as much in the way of resources as the bottom 5% do.)

    If a school is already grouping by proficiency level, then it would seem that differentiating instruction to address the top 1-2% G&T type of students would not be a huge challenge.


  4. There is an essentially no-cost solution for kids in the top 5% which used to be very common but became rare, despite piles of research that it worked well: acceleration, either full-grade skipping or subject acceleration.


  5. I fully support acceleration of advanced learners but I strongly oppose “enrichment” as commonly practiced in public schools. There is a big difference between the two, and enrichment often becomes as Bonnie suggests, some fluffy artsy activity. When my kids were in elementary school, they started to offer “enrichment for all” because they felt that was more egalitarian than the “G&T” enrichment they had previously offered. I put “G&T” in quotes purposefully because I believe they did not have a good method of choosing these G&T students; mainly it was teacher recommendations.

    Acceleration is sometimes a problem when the academically advanced student finds it difficult to be placed among older kids who are more socially advanced.


  6. I don’t think our micro-districts are much of an impediment to specialized G&T schools. We already have specialized locations for vocational and special ed students that are a collaborative effort among many school districts, so I think the ideological objections are more of an issue that work against G&T specialized schools.


  7. “Acceleration is sometimes a problem when the academically advanced student finds it difficult to be placed among older kids who are more socially advanced.”

    A relative is sending her son to school in an affluent, techie-influenced Seattle suburb and her son is in a dual 7th grade/8th grade math class. The 7th graders are advanced and the 8th graders are normal track. If you had tried that in our home district (where a lot of the 8th grade boys were big bruisers), things would have gone very poorly for the 7th grade boys.


  8. Proficiency grouping, whole grade acceleration & subject acceleration have all been useful for my kids. I was noticing that the best situations for them are those that are open to using all of the above.

    A relative is sending her son to school in an affluent, techie-influenced Seattle suburb and her son is in a dual 7th grade/8th grade math class. The 7th graders are advanced and the 8th graders are normal track.
    My son is in an analogous class this year, top 6th grade math students + middle 7th grade. From my POV, the biggest problem is that there is a difference in approach needed for the top students and those who are less facile with the subject. (Though, part of the problem for him is that this class is a repeat of his math class last year. Still working on getting that changed.) His math class last year was entirely made up of the best students in the district in math and he had a wonderful year. The teacher covered material rapidly, gave them verbal information that went well beyond the level of the class, and ran a lot of competitions among the kids.

    So last year math was his favorite class, this year it’s neck and neck at the bottom of the pack with PE. Actually, that’s a complete flip-flop for PE too.


  9. kcab, you raise a good point about acceleration not working well if a fast learner is simply placed into the next grade’s class with average/slow learners. I’ve read this problem often occurs when advanced high school students take community college classes, where a poor fit for instructional styles often occurs.


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