Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.


We received a question from a social studies department regarding leveling, or tracking. The school had taken steps to eliminate remedial courses, and in the first year of implementation, the department was questioning the loss of remedial social studies classes. Some members expressed concern that the more heterogeneous classes were stifling discussion because the students who had been in remedial classes in the past were not motivated to answer questions. The teachers also argued that teaching to the middle in mixed classes was doing a disservice to the high-ability students. It should be noted that the department does offer Advanced Placement and honors courses for presumably high-ability students.

This issue provides a teachable a moment--an illustration of how schools might address an issue. One way is for faculty members to share their impressions, observations, perceptions, and beliefs. Another is to examine what the evidence says. In this case, the research is clear. Putting the least capable and least motivated students together in a class with a curriculum that is less challenging and moves at a slower pass increases the achievement gap and is detrimental to students in the lowest level. Jeannie Oakes has been compiling this research for over 25 years, and John Hattie did a meta-analysis of it in his book Visible Learning. Furthermore, the research reports that remedial classes are typically taught by the least experienced teachers and that minority students are over-represented.

The department might also turn its attention to the research on expectations--assumptions teachers have about the future academic success of the students they teach. We have known for over 30 years that "high expectations" on the part of educators have a positive impact on student achievement, while low expectations have a negative impact. Given this research, the department might question the benefits of a program that conveys the unmistakable message to students, “We don’t think you have the ability to be successful in a regular class, so we have dumbed down the curriculum to meet your limited skills.”

The department might also examine the research of psychologist Carol Dweck, who has established the impact of a fixed mind-set versus a growth mind-set. The former operates from the premise that ability is fixed, that success or failure is determined by one’s innate ability. The growth mind-set operates from the premise that success is determined by effort, persistence, and tenacity. Dweck has concluded that the fixed mind-set discourages student learning while the growth mind-set leads to higher levels of learning and greater success in meeting the challenges of life. A remedial track conveys the fixed mind-set--“You will be successful here if you were born smart.” Dweck has concluded that schools must abandon the fixed mind-set and create structures and cultures that send the message, "Your achievement will be determined by your effort."

The argument that former remedial students lack the motivation to volunteer to answer questions in a more heterogeneous class raises issues about the questioning strategies being used. Once again, if the teachers examined the research on effective questioning, they would learn that relying primarily on volunteers is not good practice. Effective questions engage students in thinking, and to promote that engagement, the teacher must control who will answer by directing questions to students randomly. If every question is answered by the quickest or loudest students, other students can and will stop engaging. Nor is it effective to accept "I don’t know" as an answer. Good teachers will prompt, probe, and extend wait time. If the student is unable to respond, the teacher will say, "Think about it and I’ll come back to you in a minute." They have students react to each other’s answers. They make it clear that everyone will be engaged in the dialogue.

It is, in my opinion (note, not research based), that social studies teachers in particular should not resort to tracking with remedial courses. They are preparing students for citizenship, where all of us are assumed to be equal and the vote of the remedial student will count as much as the vote of the advanced student.

I suggest that the school engage in action research to assess the effectiveness of its program rather than relying on opinions. What was the failure rate in the remedial track? How many students in the remedial track met state standards? In the 1980s, the social studies department at Stevenson High School had four levels and defended the remedial track because it was better for those kids not to be challenged. A review of the data showed that students in the remedial program were three times more likely to fail. So the department went to two levels--regular and Advanced Placement--and the success rate of students who would have been assigned to remedial courses in the old system actually went up dramatically. Those students were surveyed regarding their perceptions about being in the regular program and they were uniformly positive. Students felt good about the fact that they were being successful in the regular program rather than being designated to a remedial program that they referred to with a derogatory term. Stevenson’s student achievement has increased every year since it eliminated leveling, so I question the argument that this is harmful to brighter students to have these students in their classroom, particularly if those students have access to an honors or AP course. as they do in this school.

Hattie contends that teachers have typically made decisions by swapping war stories rather than by building shared knowledge through the study of research or conducting their own action research. If this department looks at the evidence, it will not assign students to remedial tracks.

Adapted from Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Karhanek)

© Solution Tree Press 2010


Rick and Becky DuFour

For abunek,

Middle schools that function as PLCs have typically created a schedule that carves out time during the day so that students can receive additional time and support during the school day without missing new direct instruction. For example, Jane Adams Middle school in Schaumburg, Illinois advises students on Thursday that they are missing assignments or in danger of failing. If they don't resolve the problem by Monday, they are assigned to a 40 minute guided study hall each day for tutoring and support. If the student continues to struggle, the school will adjust the student schedule to extend their math period another 20 minutes each day. You can read more about Jane Adams on the Evidence of Effectiveness section of allthingsplc or contact the principal, Steve Pearce. We are all for older students tutoring younger students and believe it benefits both groups. Nothing helps someone understand a concept more deeply than calling upon them to teach it. We also endorse the idea of students being organized into heterogeneous cooperative groups during instruction. If a student struggles to understand a concept, his or her teammates can assist as part of the routine classroom practice. We discussed this practice of cooperative groups at length in a chapter of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work. Hope this helps.

Rick DuFour

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We currently have five sixth grade math sections at our school,spread out between three teachers. We do a good job of all being on the same lesson daily, so we can run small math support groups throughout the day. They work well, but can only reach about 5 kids at a time. Next year however, our aids are being cut. We are looking into what will work best to help our struggling kids. Our extra support time may need to be larger groups of kids. In that situation is mixing kids going to help them learn from eachother... be able to ask a higher level kid for help if needed? Or is it better to have the low kids grouped, so a teacher can go through much of the homework with the group or do extra review/practice? On top of no aids, we'll also have larger classes! Another hurdle to jump! Any ideas?

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Chris Jakicic


Your question implies that there are only two alternatives to making sure students get what they need in terms of math instruction. However, I suggest a different way of thinking through this problem. First, the research on tracking clearly suggests that students are hurt when they are put into remedial classes and not provided the help and support they need to move out of those classes. Teachers lowered their expectations and students often felt they weren’t capable of the grade level work.
One of the first steps a school takes when creating a system so that all students learn at high levels is to establish a set of essential learning outcomes for all courses/grade levels. These outcomes are determined by using the state standards for that subject/grade and deciding which of these standards meet the criteria of having endurance, leverage, or readiness. The outcomes chosen are NOT the easiest, but the most important. Then, these outcomes become the focus for formative assessments given by all teachers who teach that course. They also become the outcomes that students are given more time and support to learn.

In the middle school where I was principal, we offered several levels of math instruction at each grade BUT the lowest level was the traditional math program for that grade. So, for example, in seventh grade students could take a traditional seventh grade math program, a pre-Algebra class (traditional 8th grade program), or Algebra I (typically taught at the 9th grade). Some students in each of those classes needed additional time and support on concepts and topics taught. Teachers worked together to plan their pacing and used common formative assessments to monitor student learning. Thus, interventions were the same no matter which teacher the student had, because the team had agreed on topics to be taught during that week or weeks. Teachers then could regroup students who needed additional instruction or they provided more time and support during our regularly scheduled intervention time. There were a small number of students who needed even more support than this, particularly students who entered our system without having had the prerequisite classes. Those students could benefit from a second period of math with the purpose of filling in those prerequisite skills. The goal, however, was to provide instruction so that they could move into their grade level appropriate math class as soon as possible.

“Dumbing down” the curriculum doesn’t benefit students. Providing additional time and support to assure that all students are successful with the expected student learning outcomes does benefit them. Working collaboratively, teachers can assure students learn at high levels.

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I worked at a school where we split our classes up homogeniously and boy that was a disaster. I think it was my second year teaching and almost my last. I had the lower achieving students and all of the special education students.I cried many, many times! The students probably did as well. This, to me, was a form of tracking at its finest. I feel it didn't work for me nor the students. It did not work for the students because there were not many who could be used as role models for those students. Role models are so important in the classroom. Students learn as much from other students as they do from me sometimes and this was cut short in this classroom. I agree with Bahargett that sometimes it may be necessary to track in some situations but nothing can take the place of a student being with their friends of all abilities. There are so many of my students who look up to those students who are high acheivers and they try so hard to emulate this. It makes me smile to see those strugglers catch on when one of their peers explains something to them. Thank you everyone for your views on this matter.

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I was so happy to read your post on tracking. I went out on maternity leave from 2007-2009. During that time period, my school also did away with remedial level courses. When I was preparing to return last summer, I heard many complaints from colleagues about this decision. To be quite honest, I did not know what to expect.
Luckily, any doubts I had about the decision were proven incorrect over this past year. Perhaps it is because I returned in the fall with great expectations of my students - all of my students. I entered each class prepared to teach college-bound students, and for the most part, I feel as though my students are living up to the demands being made of them.
Believe me, some students still struggle but I feel that it is my job to provide the extra support they need in order to experience success. Many students underachieve because they have never had to produce. As educators, we should always challenge our students and ask more of them than what they think they can give.
I am glad that I did not compromise my beliefs. I am happy that my students have risen to the challenge. All children are capable; we just need to give them the tools for success and opportunities to experience it on their own.
I have several colleagues that still believe that our school has a place for remedial level courses. I forwarded this website/blog topic on to them in the hope that they will soon open their minds to the fact that all students can learn and achieve. Thank you for your insights regarding this issue.

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This is my fifth year teaching 3rd grade at a Title-1 school. I believe heterogeneous groups are appropriate in some situations but not in others. Just like most areas of education, there is no “one size fits all” model to use. I teach reading, writing, math, science, and social studies and have a mixed ability group of students. Generally speaking, reading lessons begin with a whole group lesson in which all students participate. I have tried to create a safe environment where my students respect each other’s ideas so, all students feel free to take a risk. I believe that my lower ability students benefit having higher ability students as role models. The higher ability students learn concepts more deeply by assisting their peers as well. During my small group reading time, I use homogenous groupings. I differentiate my instruction so that I meet all my student’s needs. They are learning the same standards as my higher ability students (i.e. grade level standards) but with material or support that is appropriate for their level.
I was very interested in the post by Nic. This year, we did just the opposite that her school with our math classes. In the past, we used mixed ability groupings and the teacher was supposed to differentiate the materials. At our professional development meetings I asked over and over for activities for my “fast-finishers”. Everything I was given required a lot of prep work on my part. Not surprisingly, we had behavior problems. This year, we have grouped students with closer ability levels together. It is not true homogeneous grouping, because there are still various levels, but the ability levels are closer together. We have even identified students who needed to be challenged more and created an “honors” type class for those students. Parents are happy, all the students are working hard, and learning is happening. We have data to prove it.
So, my opinion of tracking is this: it may be appropriate in some situations, but should not be used exclusively. I believe that all students benefit from being with their peers whether they are of the same ability or not.

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I am a remedial teacher at the elementary level and we are beginning to include more and more students in the gen ed classroom with outside support such as directed study time at the end of the day. I am seeing that this works well for only a few students. Instead of learning independence skills, many of my remedial students are shutting down in the classroom, not even making a effort until they come to me a the end of the day. I feel that training and giving teachers a chance to exchange ideas and strategies is important, but the instructors in our building have not yet been given those opportunities and are increasingly frustrated as to how to effectively teach everyone in their classrooms.
I do think that this model has validity with some students, but I don't agree that we are setting lower expectations for students in remedial classes. It is important to give them success at their level, this will increase confidence and willingness to try, which are key components to success when placed in the general education classroom.

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My school use to have tracking for math, on the elementary level, and it was loved by most teachers and parents. This year they have decided not to allow us to group them based on ability and it has been a nightmare.

The teachers at my school had it worked out that we pre-test each child at the start of a new unit and divided the scores across the grade level amongst the 4 teachers. This allowed for the teachers to see who already understood what we were about to teach and who clearly did not. Having the different groups allowed for the teachers to vary the amount of support that was needed without changing the expectation that all should master that particular standard.

With the new format, all of the teachers have found their struggling math students are requiring all of their time, while the students that already know the content are boarded and not challenged, which often leads to behavior problems. I have personally tried to give different assignments with in my classroom that challenge the higher kids while I help the lower students. However, I feel that if I really challenged the higher students then they would need my assistance to help them analyze and synthesize their required assignment.

We have been told to use the higher students as helpers, but I don’t feel that is the best use of their time. We have also been told that it is beneficial for the students to hear the discussion that they may not initially understand. Again, I don’t see how this helps my higher students.

I can't seem to see the advantage to this model and would love for someone to point out its advantages.

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I currently hold a position as an eighth grade math teacher. My school is trying to implement the idea of a support model for our more at risk students. I teach 3 blocks of support math and one block of regualar math, which follows the regular grade level course.

In my support classes, I have tried a number of stategies with the basic goal of giving students a double dose of the eighth grade standards. I have tried pre-teaching standards with the purpose of accelerating their learning and providing intervention after they have received initial instruction. I am fortunate to teach the one standard math course to increase my own familiarity in what material students are getting in their regular course. Although I think some students benefit greatly from the additionally instruction, some students complain about the different teaching methods from class to class, the amount of time spent daily on mathematics, and having to cover more than one topic at a time across their courses.

I am curious to hear from more experienced teachers who have taught within similar programs. What works best? Is it best to give more time and instruction on the regular daily topic or to stop and spend as much time as necessary on a difficult skill, or to try to give students a boost of background before they receive the more formal instruction?

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This is one area with which I am struggling at this point. I teach middle school mathematics and I have numerous students who could benefit from more time being spent on certain topics. We have tried the remedial model and we are currently doing more of a support model, but I see issues with both.

Unfortunately, we don't have enough teachers to allow each math teacher to offer a support class to their own students. So, we have one teacher, who supports all of the other classes. This is a challenge because she is dealing with students coming from at least 3 different sources. Those 3 different sources are on 3 different lessons and it all ends in confusion. She has been doing basic skill support, but that doesn't necessarily help the student with that day's math topic. Also, many of these students are in need of extra time, experience with manipulatives, and varied explanations - she cannot offer these to students who are on 3 different lessons.

In the past, we had a remedial math model. The lowest students were put in a class together and were given 2 periods of math instruction. This allowed the teacher to slow down and approach the topics from a variety of perspectives. It also allowed time for manipulative activities to be used to support the lesson. But, in this model, we were suffering from the same consequences that were discussed in the thread. Expectations were lowered, curriculum was "dumbed down", and students saw themselves as failures for being put in a remedial class.

If you had the choice, which of these models do you think you would choose for your students? What ideas do you have for combatting the negatives of that choice?

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I am a certified and experienced teacher, but I am substitute teaching this year. This experience has given me had the opportunity to observe a variety of classes. I have noticed a remarkable difference between the participation of high school students in honors classes and those in remedial classes, and this has called in question my own opinions about tracking.

I appreciate your comments in this article, Dr. DuFour, because they do more than address this specific problem - they cut to the core of our educational philosophies. Even your suggestion to re-examine questioning strategies confronts our traditions and assumptions.

I agree that action-research and a commitment check to the school's vision are great next steps.

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j brent

I have observed my behavior students and many of them are very talented. They have missed many basic concepts and do not follow the lessons. They take longer to process the information and many times the lesson out paces them and they are left behind. Once they recognize this they shut down. They no longer apply themselves and give up. They make comments like what is the use.

I disagree with mixing cognitive levels in one room. If the pace is slower these behavior students would be given the opportunity to learn the basics instead of being left behind. The concept that the higher level student can help the lower level child learn does not work in schools were the curriculum is given to professionals to use and expected to teach a new concept daily. The lower level students do not receive the additional practice they need to gain a full understanding of the new concept. A new concept is given the next day and adventually they just give up. Classrooms that move at a slower pace allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of the concept before moving on would enable them to move forward.

Mixing cognitive levels hinders other students from moving at a higher pace. Many of our students are bored due to having to go back over concepts they understand and yet the concept has to be repeated over and over for the lower cognitive level students. We impede the growth of the average or gifted and talented student to wait on others students.

All students deserve to learn. All students come in at a different level and learn at different paces. As students gain concepts they can leap to higher levels but they MUST learn the basics first.

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Bobby Cox

Dr. Dufour,

Thank you for the post I also feel that high expectations for students will allow them to rise to the level we expect of them. If we as teachers can provide support to students who struggle with more time and support we can expect and will find that they will perform. We have had students in our district who were challenged as all schools and districts have across the country. I feel that all students can learn and it is our responsibility as educators to support them in their learning. One strategy that we have used with students with disabilities and regular students alike in our high school is to use the "double dosing" approach so that students receive regular instruction in a regular education classroom then at some point during the school day they receive support and tutorial to help them learn. When the goal and expectation is student learning we as the educators must find the best way to turn our expectation into reality.

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This year I have kept the students who are in resource in my room for the entire lang. arts lesson. I have made accommadations when necessary, not on a fixed plan but when frustration impedes growth. They have soared and I am loving it! Middle level students are very peer focused so with the knowledge, the mindset and belief we can "ALL learn" growth is inevitable.

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As a new Principal in a new district where PLC's have developed slowly over the years, I have have had somewhat significant exposure to PLC's. What should would you suggest be my first steps to seeing exactly what level my new school is at?
Thanks for the help

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