I am not philosophically opposed to “tracking” in the elementary schools, provided it does not occur too early.
I am aware, for example, that in Singapore, each student whose individual performance in a math test administered at the end of the third grade reveals an insufficient grasp of mathematical concepts and basic skills for that level is identified and subsequently “tracked” during fourth and fifth grade. This ensures that by the time the tracked students reach the end of fifth grade, they are on par with their non-tracked classmates in math. In other words, when the whole class moves on to sixth grade, virtually nobody is suffering from a deficit of knowledge or skills. Everyone has an opportunity to move forward with confidence and pride.
Admittedly, the questions naturally arise: 1) How is such “tracking” handled?, and 2)Won’t “tracked” students miss out on certain things that non-tracked students receive in terms of non-math instruction?
In answer to the first question, I understand that the “tracked” students experience a 4th and 5th grade math curriculum that involves a relatively heavier emphasis on repeating and reinforcing math concepts, both with respect to such concepts as are covered in earlier grades, as well as new math concepts that are appropriate to the grade they are currently in. By contrast, the non-tracked students spend a proportionally smaller amount of their time in math instruction. The net result is that by the end of 5th grade, the tracked students have completely caught up to their non-tracked classmates in math.
The answer to the second question is apparently “yes”. But since the remedial program experienced by the “tracked” students is spread out over two years, the differential in terms of exposure to non-math subject matter is kept to a minimum. The people of Singapore have clearly decided that the most costly deficit from which a child at the elementary school level can suffer is in math conceptual knowledge and basic math skills. They have molded and shaped their overall elementary school instructional program accordingly.
In my view, Singapore was particularly wise to do this. It has set itself up for success by taking the early steps necessary to provide as many students as possible with the valid option to pursue educational paths leading to financially rewarding and intellectually stimulating careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Most of us in the U.S. who never opted to pursue a STEM career are easily convinced that early preparation and diligent practice is essential for musicians who will eventually seek a fine arts degree in instrumental performance, just as much as such behavior is critical for the success of budding professional dancers, or for aspiring collegiate athletes. Why it it that so many in this country resist coming to a similar concluson when it comes to students who will eventually pursue STEM careers? This is a problem that only time and patient argumentation can overcome.
The challenge faced by elementary students worldwide in aquiring critical mathematics concepts, and in developing automaticity with important math facts and processes (like the Standard Algorithm), is well documented. At the same time, premiere public school districts in the U.S. seem particularly unwilling to address this problem head-on. I am beginning to view this as a dysfunction that has its origins in a misplaced concern for egalitarianism. Administrators seem loathe to take specific action to address deficiencies in math instruction, fearing that if they do so, they will be seen by district parents and teachers as regarding non-math subjects as less important than math. Based on my experience thus far, I would say that the Ridgewood administrators are suffering from this syndrome in spades.