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The Bottom Line Separate Students by Achievement, Not Ability


In an article published on Aeon, Oscar Hedstrom suggests that tracking, measuring a student’s ability to learn (i.e. ranking students as above average, average, or below average) is not a good idea. The author is right.

If you believe every child can learn, as I do, then you need to take into account where a child is in their learning. Rather than tracking, what I propose in the updated version of my book Every School is simply giving kids who are behind in their learning more time (longer day and longer year) and smaller class sizes with the best teachers. That is, give them the opportunity to catch up quickly so they can rejoin the others. This is not tracking; this is placement based off achievement or mastery of the subject. All children can learn—placing them in tracks based off the assumption of ability to learn is harmful.

Hedstrom also suggests “peer-to-peer learning” to help kids catch up.  This can also work but it is not a permanent answer to the issue.  Having students teach students seems to work better when older students teach younger students, since there is no peer pressure. It doesn’t work as well when they are the same age. A better solution is “team learning,” where students work together to master a subject or complete a project.

Treating all children the same, as we usually do in our current education system, does not recognize how different we all are from one another, not just in our learning styles and interests, but also in our overall readiness to learn. 

Regardless how prepared a child is to learn, we need a system that will meet the child at their learning level so they can grasp each new thought or skill and then move as rapidly as their capabilities will allow.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Program Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and chair of the Institute’s program on public education reform. He currently serves as Chairman of Lumenal Lighting, LLC., a business he purchased in 2004. Lumenal Lighting is in the commercial lighting business and serves companies, schools, government facilities and non-profit organizations in the Pacific Northwest.