Voices in Education

Why Writing Instruction Works Best in Inclusive Settings
American educators have long debated the impact of tracking—here defined as between-class ability grouping—in secondary schools. Although tracking advocates argue that the practice targets instruction to individuals’ varying needs and cultivates excellence for the most talented, critics contend that inequities related to race, language, and social class segregate students from one another and limit the most vulnerable students’ opportunities to learn.1 A good deal of recent discussion has focused on how some students’ reduced access to gatekeeper courses, such as algebra, can undermine future achievement in the STEM fields.2

Less attention has been paid, however, to relationships between tracking and writing, perhaps because course assignments  are rarely made solely on the basis of perceived writing ability. That said, anyone who has spent time in schools knows that kids with particular writing profiles often end up clustered together in similarly leveled classes because of their disability labels, language status, state test scores, or eligibility for accelerated curriculum in other subject areas. For many practitioners, the collateral damage of this sorting on students’ writing development may go unnoticed or seem justifiable in service of other goals.

I take a different view.

Four years of collaborative teaching and research in the Robinson Summer Writing Institute, a free enrichment program open to all ninth graders assigned to one urban school in the northeast US, convinced me that writing instruction works best for youth when it happens in inclusive settings.3  A commitment to educating students with and without disabilities—as well as native English speakers and English learners—alongside each other in responsive learning communities can help ameliorate some of the flaws that plague low-track classes, including lowered teacher expectations and reduced opportunities to compose complex disciplinary texts.4

Heterogeneous groupings can also leverage learning advantages for student writers, advantages not offered by more stratified schemes. Many youth, for instance, find it a challenge to imagine what to include in their writing so that readers can understand a given argument or follow a compelling narrative.5 Rosters created by tracking can impede the development of this habit of mind: when peers have many shared reference points and experiences, they often fill textual gaps for each other, undermining the need for precision in their actual texts. In the institute, in contrast, the heterogeneity of the overall population—and of the smaller, temporary groupings our staff crafted within it—allowed students to brainstorm and share drafts with attendees whose backgrounds, interests, and school histories were often dramatically different from their own. Divergent or unexpected peer responses helped authors to realize what they needed to make more explicit for their audiences, which improved the particular piece of writing and more generally sharpened students’ skills.

Another benefit of heterogeneity in the Robinson program was that students provided diverse peer models for each other, in ways not well predicted by their grades, course assignments, or test scores. Students who were avid, fluent readers (including those of texts not sanctioned by school) modeled complex syntax and atypical vocabulary for peers less enamored of literary discourse. Multilingual students sometimes drew on more than one language to create atmosphere and authenticate dialogue, particularly after our staff praised and encouraged this practice. When it came to revision, an area of great emphasis in the program, some of the best models were provided by newer English learners who worked hard to improve the quality of their writing over time; some who most needed that model of authorial persistence were native English speakers who were used to earning strong grades with first-draft writing. Our emphasis on recognizing discrete strengths and skills and our rejection of reductive labels such as “high-achieving” or “struggling” helped to construct a context where all students had things to teach and learn from each other.

Even in settings where staff are not ready to dismantle their tracking systems entirely, there are ways to promote useful heterogeneity for writing instruction. With such heterogeneity as a goal, I recommend the following:
  • Schedule English language arts and other writing-intensive courses with balanced rosters for as long as possible. Resist using reading or general literacy scores to assign students to levels and pay attention to how assignments to single-section courses (e.g., accelerated mathematics, orchestra) may skew rosters.
  • Combine sections when possible to allow for bigger, more variable groups of students while maintaining the same teacher-student ratio. Having more than one adult in a shared space can also facilitate teacher conferences and closer monitoring of peer interactions over drafts.
  • Group and re-group students intentionally within classes, using youth-selected partnerships sparingly if they tend to re-segregate students by predictable variables. Keep track of who works together over time to ensure that all youth writers interact with a wide-ranging mix of peers.

1 Jill Barshay, “The Upside of Academic Tracking,” The Atlantic (March 31, 2016),   https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/03/the-upside-of-tracking/475956/; William J. Mathis, Research-based Options for Education Policymaking (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2012) https://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/options; Jeannie Oakes, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005). ​

2 US Department of Education, A Leak in the STEM Pipeline: Taking Algebra Early (2018),  https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/stem/algebra/index.html.

3 Kelly Chandler-Olcott, A Good Fit for All Kids: Collaborating to Teach Writing in Diverse, Inclusive Settings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2019).

4 Kristen Campbell Wilcox, “An Urban Secondary School Case Study of Disciplinary Writing in Tracked Classrooms,” Education and Urban Society 47, no. 2 (2015): 242–286.

5 Steve Graham, Charles A. MacArthur, and Jill Fitzgerald, eds., Best Practices in Writing Instruction, 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford, 2013).

About the Author: Kelly Chandler-Olcott is the Laura J. & L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence in the Syracuse University School of Education. Her most recent book is A Good Fit for All Kids: Collaborating to Teach Writing in Diverse, Inclusive Settings (Harvard Education Press, 2019).