The excerpt below is from the book “Transforming Schools Using Project Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards” by Bob Lenz, with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston. This section is from the chapter entitled “Transforming School Systems.”


At Envision Schools, there is no tracking. All Envision Schools students take the required courses for freshman admission to both the University of California and California State University systems. By not tracking students and by having heterogeneous classrooms, we have systematized our belief that all students can achieve success in college.

Tracking is a pervasive school structure that seems to be another sticky problem of practice. It simplifies master scheduling challenges that consume hours of counselors’ and school leaders’ time. While it solves administrative challenges, it also creates a structure that sorts and selects kids by ability, test scores, or grades and communicates and institutionalizes a fixed mindset about students’ ability to learn and grow. Schools and teachers often say that all kids can go to college, but when they don’t place some students in academically rigorous courses, these students (and their parents and guardians) learn to believe that “all” does not include them, that they cannot go to college. Teachers and students lower their expectations. This is detrimental to all kids, in our opinion, but it is even more so for underprivileged students who are living in poverty and/or who will be the first to go to college in their families. These students need the system to tell them, “Yes! You can do it!” Tracking says “Yes!” to some and “No!” to others.

At Envision Schools, we say “Yes!” to every student who enters our doors, even students who enter ninth grade reading at an elementary level. As at every other school serving a diverse student population, our students have a wide range of skills. Integrating them into heterogeneous classes is challenging. It is, without a doubt, harder to integrate students than to track them, but it is better.

Integrated classrooms are better for all students. How do we know? Because 100 percent of Envision students complete California’s college preparatory course work, and over 90 percent of seniors enroll in college and persist to sophomore year.

Integrated classrooms make a big difference for traditionally underperforming students because in such classrooms they learn to adjust to higher expectations and can see the connection between success and effort. Students who have not been in academically rigorous classrooms have not had exposure to high expectations from their teachers. They don’t understand the effort that high-performing students make in and out of class. They believe that those students are simply “smart,” and they really do not make the connection between effort and grades. For underperforming students, this is a wake-up call. Although that call can be very frustrating to low-achieving students at first, it also can inspire them to work toward the standards set by their peers.

High-performing students in integrated classrooms push their teachers to create challenging and fast-paced lessons and projects. Without these demanding voices, a teacher just might lower his or her expectations for students. That’s much less likely to happen in a class with well-prepared students, so teachers learn to keep high standards for all the kids.

A universal concern of parents and educators about integrated classrooms is that struggling students consume teachers’ time, taking away from what higher-performing students need. At Envision, we have observed that this is more of a fear than a reality. High-performing Envision students apply and are accepted to competitive colleges and universities, similar to their peers in other high schools.

Integrated classrooms provide all students with a diverse learning space to develop deeper learning skills that transfer to college and the workplace. By learning to collaborate and communicate with students with backgrounds different from their own, students will be more prepared to succeed in an increasingly diverse workplace.

Educators who are interested in dismantling tracking are frequently apprehensive about including all students in college-prep courses, and they typically have these three questions in common:

* Will we dumb down the curriculum?

* Is it fair to put so much pressure on students who are not prepared? Can’t we prepare them in remedial classes and then have them take college-prep courses?

* Isn’t all of this difficult for the teacher?

After ten years of persisting through ongoing challenges associated with integrated classrooms, we have answers to these questions. It is important to note that you cannot just create integrated classrooms and assume that the structure is self-sustaining. These classrooms need to be nurtured and adjusted to meet the dynamic challenges of changes in teacher and student assignments. The answers we offer in this section are not intended to be the answers, but rather to provoke your thinking about how you can liberate your students from the shackles of tracking.
Curriculum in integrated classrooms is not dumbed down at Envision Schools. As we have noted elsewhere, teachers use rubrics that align to Envision’s graduate profile and the Common Core State Standards. Well-designed projects offer multiple entry points into the curriculum for students performing at all levels.

Tranforming SchoolsOf course, not all students enter ninth grade academically prepared for these academically rigorous courses. This means that Envision teachers need to differentiate and scaffold their curriculum, using PBL and other teaching methods. They use teacher-created formative assessments and diagnostics to identify students who will require specific interventions in reading, language, or math to accelerate their learning.

We believe not only that it is fair to push underperforming students but also that it is our moral obligation to hold all students to high standards and provide targeted support to help them through high school and beyond. Envision’s mission—to transform the lives of students—drives our organizational energy and resources. We also believe in a growth mindset, which is why we created integrated classrooms that explicitly and tacitly communicate to students and their families that all students can do it. We think it is unfair not to push students.

Finally, integrated classrooms do pose challenges for teachers. Like teachers in tracked classrooms, Envision teachers have to have a high level of content knowledge and pedagogical prowess, and a deep understanding of what motivates students. In other words, teachers have to be at the top of their game. Other Envision Schools structures enable integrated classrooms, and integrated classrooms would not work at Envision without teacher teams, cohort scheduling, advisories, professional development, common planning time, and parent-student-advisor conferences.

In California, only 35 percent of students graduate from high school having taken the required UC and CSU courses. The percentages are much lower for poor students and African American and Latino students. At Envision Schools, 100 percent of students graduate having taken the required courses. Contrary to the statistics and some people’s expectations, it is possible for all students to be college-prep kids.

Reprinted from “Transforming Schools Using Project Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards” by Bob Lenz, with Justin Wells and Sally Kingston, with permission from Wiley. Copyright ©2015.

What Students Gain From Being On the Same Track For College 6 April,2015MindShift

  • Louisla4

    I believe a college education is one of the main Class indicators in our society.
    I also believe there should be some sort of National Service required of all citizens at a certain age….perhaps combined with a free 2/3/4 year educational opportunity.
    That said, I certainly wouldn’t mind (might even encourage) if my child wanted to apprentice as a plumber or other trade…..end up making more money than their college-educated father!
    And…my experience is also ….the grass is always greener….chefs want to be lawyers and lawyers want to be chefs.

  • violinsensei

    Lets give all children better access skills from the very beginning to make use of the education they can get by making sure they get the early childhood music education their privileged peers are getting that prepares them with the technical and emotional skills for more academic rigor.
    Don’t wait until children are past the sensitive periods for acquiring music and languages and then re-introduce them at an age when these skils are difficult to learn. Stop putting the cart of education before the horse that pulls it!!!

  • violinsensei

    The same tracks for college start in Preschool or earlier. What are we waiting for?

  • Alana Castro

    I think that the idea
    behind this program is nice but I also see problems in the theory. In the psychology
    world, we talk about stereotype threat and how a student simply having a belief
    that they can’t succeed can actually have a pretty big effect on their academic
    outcomes, although this generally applies to minority groups and gender (Steele
    2002). I feel that you are trying to apply the idea of integrating minorities
    into similar programs as majority populations instead of mixing children of
    different levels of capabilities. I can see that you said that you feel that it
    has worked but you also mixed some of the information in the ending paragraph. “In
    California, only 35 percent of students graduate from high school having taken
    the required UC and CSU courses. The percentages are much lower for poor
    students and African American and Latino students. At Envision Schools, 100
    percent of students graduate having taken the required courses. Contrary to the
    statistics and some people’s expectations, it is possible for all students to
    be college-prep kids.” There is a difference between ethnicity and
    whether or not a student can overcome their level of preparedness. Research
    shows that this idea of stereotype threat, by overlapping the ideas of
    minorities and people of lower-achieving scores, is actually what can cause
    lower student performance (Okagaki 2006). If you’re discussing the differences between
    ethnicities and how they can perform better if put into an environment where
    they are told that they can do just as well as any ethnicity, then this is
    correct because ethnicity isn’t actually tied into success, it is just
    correlated most of the time with socioeconomic status and can be deceiving when
    analyzing capabilities of a student (Miller & Halpern 2014). However, if
    you’re saying that you can mix people of different abilities and that both
    groups will benefit, I don’t see much scientific research to back this up. In
    my own experience, the people that benefit from this generally are the
    lower-achieving students while the higher-achieving students can suffer when
    doing group work. Also, the statement that “high-performing students in
    integrated classrooms push their teachers to create challenging and fast-paced
    lessons and projects” can be a little too quick to jump to for my comfort because
    motivation of the student is more complex than this. Motivation includes the
    complex interactions between students, parents, teachers, and school
    administrators and has been categorized into a mixture of several different
    theories, none of which have been completely favored (Anderman et al 2012).
    While the student’s motivation is important in this process, it involves a lot
    more external factors. It might also be important to note that there will
    always be a small group of students in a classroom that are extremely
    motivated, the ones that are not motivated at all, and the larger group that is
    moderately motivated; it is all dependent on the personality of the student
    group. The success of these schools is probably largely due to the environment
    provided by the teacher and their social and emotional competence/ qualities
    (what makes a good teacher is still largely debated (Goldhaber 2002).) I’m a
    little skeptical to point the success of your schools towards the group mixture
    instead of the quality of teachers because I’m also unsure of how you are
    evaluating the mixture of these students. Is it a mixture of lower-achieving
    and higher-achieving students or if it is actually just with a mixture of
    ethnic groups?

  • Joshua Raymond

    The article is wrong is so many facets, but primarily where it comes to high ability students.

    While removing tracking has worked for many struggling students, it has
    been a disaster for gifted learners. While studies have shown academic
    gains for students who would have been in the remedial track, they show
    academic losses for students who would have been in the honors track.

    2) Lack of honors courses results in an easy curriculum for high ability students and INCREASES the Fixed Mindset for them.

    Most of the highest performing students in a heterogeneous classroom do
    not put in more effort inside and outside of the classroom, but less.
    Observing this INCREASES the Fixed Mindset for average and struggling

    Students tend to choose role models of similar ability, so mixing
    students will not cause low-performing students to emulate
    high-performing students.

    This article focuses on proficiency, not growth by focusing on the
    percentage of students who complete certain courses. Proficiency is
    very Fixed Mindset.

    Proficiency is also the standard that most government laws and teacher
    evaluation systems focus on. In a heterogeneous classroom, this means
    that teachers are required to focus more on ‘bubble kids’ and
    discouraged from focusing on students already proficient or students who
    will not become proficient.

    Setting the same ‘high’ standards for each is inherently unfair. It is
    equivalent to creating a 5 foot fence to peer over for a group of kids
    ranging from 3 ft to 6 ft and then giving them a stack of wood to build
    platforms. Some will have to expend considerable effort to build tall
    platforms, some can simply stack a few pieces of wood on top of each
    other, and some don’t need to build a platform at all. Instead,
    individual high standards that require growth should be set for each

    Since studies have shown the role that demographics has in a school’s
    academic achievement, higher income schools will be able to set higher
    grade level standards. High ability students in lower income schools
    will quickly exceed the often lower grade level standards set in those
    schools and suffer more due to the removal of tracking.

    The workplace is not becoming more intellectually diverse. While it is
    becoming more racially and gender diverse, jobs are narrowing in
    intellectual diversity. The heterogeneous classroom should not be seen
    as preparing students for the work world, which is far more tracked than
    schools ever were.

  • Lê Hương Giang

    As a student who attended both tracking and integrated classes, I want to speak from my experiences (which were somewhat different from what was described in the article). It is perhaps true that students perceived as “lower-achieving” do not often enjoy the benefit of having high expectations from their teachers, parents, and friends, who simple assume that they will not finish their homework, that their answers are wrong, and that they will not make it to college. But that faulty assumption is something that teachers and parents have to reflect upon themselves, not a fault from these students’ end, and it is definitely not because “they don’t understand the effort that high-performing students make in and out of class” as the article states. The emphasis on effort assumes that students fail simply because they are not trying hard enough, and ignores many other factors contributing to students’ performances that aren’t related to learning ability,
    teaching methodology, or curriculum, and of course the amount of effort put into taking an exam. Most students do understand that effort should be put into learning, but it’s not only a matter of “how much” but also of “how to”. The “wake-up call” shouldn’t only be for the students but also for the “teachers” who will need to provide individualized instructions that take into consideration students’ learning styles, former learning experiences, and beyond that.

    While advocating for equal access to the similar learning content and holding expectations for all students, the articles also deindividualizes students’ overall learning experiences, by focusing only on how one performs in comparison one’s peers and asking all students to achieve a set of standardized learning outcomes. The “integrated class” envisioned by this article is one that puts all students into the same room but does not erase the dividing line between so-called high-performing and low-performing students. It isn’t one where all students are regarded as equally capable and motivated to learn.

    That being said, I am not convinced that tracking is the solution. I believe that students should not be categorized by their so-called “learning ability”, simply because we don’t (yet) have a comprehensive way to measure it (perhaps it doesn’t even exist.) I also think that students should have equal access to learning materials and teacher’s guidance. The kind of materials and the level of support should be decided based on students’ interests and their own insight of what they want to learn about, what they are capable of doing and what areas they will need help, etc. Then by nature the class will be integrative, but not in the same sense as endorsed by this article.

  • bridget

    I too disagree with this article. Gifted students get much less attention in a heterogenously grouped class. Lower achieving students take much attention from the teacher. This article read like a promotional advertisement to recruit students to Envisions!

  • Abby Rose

    As a semi-recent high school graduate, the tracking system is a fresh wound to me. For years, I thought that it was acceptable to call my lower-than-average arithmetic class “dumb math.” I felt enormous pressure to join honors courses to get into college, especially since all my classmates were my regional competition going into schools and I thought that if they took more honors classes than I did than I would never be as likely of a candidate as they were. I think that my perception of my abilities would be very different had I been brought up in integrated classrooms and I would not have had a “smart” math class to compare my “dumb” one to.

    I do think that this type of model could benefit from a strong classroom community since students of all different skill levels and abilities would be lumped together, it would be ideal if they felt comfortable and encouraged to ask each other for help. This kind of environment would definitely help children develop skills that would benefit them in all aspects of life that involve communication and collaboration with others.

  • Enzro Greenidge

    After reading the comments I am dissapointed. The article has highlighted the main problem with our system. We do not challenge our children enough. However, the article does not go far enough. Our expectations are too low for all our children, especially of minorities. Raise the bar America.

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