Thursday, July 16, 2009

To track or not to track: relenquishing a decades-old education practice

The concept of tracking students seemed almost foreign when I brought it up at a literacy department meeting at my school a few months ago. “Why would we do something like that,” the assistant principal replied as she raised a confused eyebrow in my direction. “Well, that’s how I was taught, why wouldn’t we do it,” was my na├»ve response.” The ensuring tirade on the meaninglessness of tracking opened my eyes to a paradigm shift in education that has been taking place since at least the 1970s. My A.P. went on to explain how tracking students helps “level the playing field” for lower-performing students and allows them to see how their peers are performing and, ultimately, to model their academic behavior themselves.”
According to social scientist Jeannie Oakes, tracking is “the practice of dividing students into separate classes for high-, average-, and low-achievers; it lays out different curriculum paths for students headed for college and for those who are bound directly for the workplace” (Oakes, 1986). In practice, tracking begins as early as first grade and continues through a student’s high school career (Kershaw, 1992). From a young age, students are grouped with other students who perform on a similar level as they do; thus, high-performing students are placed in classes together while lower-performers are placed in a separate room. In high school, this is what differentiates an advanced placement scholar on a college-bound track from a low-level student who may be enrolled in a trade program, bound for the workforce.
When tracking began, many supporters logically assumed that placing students of like levels in the same classroom would “socially reproduce” and “change their perceptions of their own status and ability based on where they ‘fit’ in the social structure” (Yonezawa et al, 2002). Under this guise, curriculum designers assumed students placed together by level would mimic each others’ success and behavior and reduce classroom management issues. Also, Oakes states there are several underlying assumptions about tracking; they include: tracking is the best way to address individual needs and differences and less-capable students will suffer emotional and educational damage if they have classroom contact with their brighter peers (Oakes, 1986). However, recent research seems to have turned against the idea of tracking. Oakes states that there is little evidence to support these assumptions or that tracking increases student learning.
Oakes goes on to list several consequences of tracking on student development. First, she states that those who are not in top tracks “suffer clear and consistent disadvantages from tracking.” Second, research does not support the assumption that low-level students suffer when enrolled in mixed-ability classes. She states tracking actually exaggerates initial differences between students rather than accommodating them better. Finally, her research favors exposing all students to a common curriculum, even if their differences prevent the students from benefitting equally (Oakes, 1986). Yonezawa, Wells, and Serna agree and state “low-and middle-track students resist entering high-track classes because of the relationship between their places in the tracking hierarchy” (Yonezawa et al, 2002).
Burris and Welner support Oakes’ opinions on tracking. They argue that tracking “denies a range of opportunities to large numbers of students, particularly minorities (Burris and Welner, 2005). They based their assertions on the results of a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll that reported that 74% of Americans believe the achievement gap between white students and African American and Hispanic students is primarily due to factors unrelated to the quality of schooling the children receive (Burris and Welner, 2005). They assert that all students should be offered a high-track curriculum in order to ensure all students have access to an equal education.
From my own teaching experience, I can see the pros and cons of the tracking argument. While our school does not track every subject, we do divide our literacy classes according to student performance on state exams, specifically, we focus on what skills the students need to focus on. We also have a Regents-level math course for our eighth graders that is dependent on the students’ scores on the 7th grade exam. However, because of the high percentage of English language learners (ELLs) in our building, we also experience a high matriculation rate of students passing the NYSESLAT exam and moving into the mainstream literacy courses. What is the appropriate placement for them? A tracking advocate would place them in a separate course for low-level literacy students, whereas a tracking opponent would encourage placing them in an inclusive classroom so the former ELLs could witness high-level student work habits. Is this a disservice to the ELL population? According to Oakes it is not, despite the reality that they may not benefit as much from the course as their peers. Simply put, the equalized curriculum better prepares them for achievement compared to a tracked one.
For me, the argument against tracking was further clarified by Burris and Welner. Their argument for a high-track curriculum for all students is hard to argue against. If all students are given the same level of education or curriculum, then the argument of disparity is no longer valid. While I am apprehensive (and excited) about the possibility of educational equality, I fear that such a practice could hinder educational development since this type of curriculum would require more differentiation of instruction from teachers. Minke et al’s study on teacher experiences with inclusive classrooms also calmed some of my fears about the high-track curriculum idea. They reported that most teachers held positive views on inclusion, ranging from special education teachers to regular classroom teachers (Minke et al, 1996).
While tracking’s initial purposes were valid in the middle part of the 20th century, their use and effectiveness have waned as new research has led to a variety of tactics for differentiating instruction, new teaching methods, and placed a greater emphasis on the social effects of tracked curriculums. However, until a new system is adopted on a nationwide, I feel that tracking will remain a dominate part of the educational system in schools across the country, even at my school, where such practices are done under a different guise.

Burris, C., & Welner, K. (2005). A special section on the achievement gap – closing the achievement gap by detracking [electronic version]. Retrieved from questia.

Kershaw, T. (1992). The effects of educational tracking on the social mobility of African Americans. Journal of Black Studies, v 23, n1.

Minke, K., Bear, G., Deemer, S., & Griffin, S. (1996). Teachers’ experiences with inclusive classrooms: implications for special education reform. The Journal of Special Education, v 30, n2.

Oakes, Jeannie. (1986). Keeping track, part 1: the policy and practice of curriculum inequality. Phi Delta Kappan, v 68, n1.

Yonezawa, S., Wells, A.S., & Serna, I. (2002). Choosing tracks: “freedom of choice” in detracking schools. American Educational Research Journal, v 39.

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