There are several concepts that do not make sense to my Chinese friends. I have given up trying to explain the O.J. Simpson verdict and indeed why our trials drag on for weeks and months. And I simply cannot explain why “tracking” is considered a bad practice by U.S. schools.
Tracking is the practice of sending students off on separate tracks depending on their abilities. It is institutionalized in Commonwealth countries where testing at the middle school level in Canada or the United Kingdom results in a student being tracked into academic A-level courses or ordinary O-level vocational training.
“Teach children according to their ability” is a translation of a Chinese saying that probably dates from the Song Dynasty or about 1000 years ago. It is a clear recognition of the fact that children are different both in the scholarly abilities they bring to a classroom, and also in their work-study ethic and interests.
It seems only natural that a child who learns faster and achieves more should be allowed to move into advanced coursework. Other children that can barely master the introductory level are not ready for advanced work and may never be. Yet, American education is caught up in egalitarian phrases such as “all children will succeed” and “Science for All Americans.” We are so focused on providing every child with a uniform floor of achievement that we are increasingly leaving the best students behind.
No worse form of this attitude can be found than the so-called upstart program found in some schools, including some in Wichita, where students who have barely passed the introductory high school science course are allowed to enrol in advanced science courses. Having not shown the prerequisite science skills, they now move into a course for which they are not only unqualified, but where they also hold back the legitimate advanced students. This is nothing short of malpractice.
China does not have the resources to waste teachers and classroom and laboratory space on students who have shown no or limited ability in a subject. They see advanced coursework as a privilege that students earn by performing well in the prerequisite courses. They reserve advanced coursework and advanced teachers for advanced students. We pretend every student can achieve, and as a result are squandering resources on trying to equalize educational achievement while shortchanging our truly advanced students.
Still today, the word “tracking” will get a teacher in trouble in their hyper-political vocation. They might be able to advocate for their advanced students by using the term “ability grouping.” For readers who may seize on the value-added “growth model” as a solution, well it isn’t. Again, such a model still lays down the same route and goals but just lets some students get there slower.
The Chinese saying “teach students according to their ability” never says that they all have the same ability to meet NCLB scores in math or reading. It says that students have different abilities. This ancient saying recognizes diversity and respects individual differences. How odd that U.S. educational philosophy insists on forcing all students to fit like pegs into the same uniform holes.