The Practice of Tracking in Schools
Excerpt from: Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education p. 80-84
We have seen that teachers function as gatekeepers, controlling the amount and flow of student talk in the classroom. Let's step back a moment, and consider an even more basic question: Which students sit (for sit they mainly do) in which classrooms? That very crucial, political decision falls on teachers, counselors, and administrators. Many believe that it is easier for students with similar skills and intellectual abilities to learn together, in homogeneous classes. Educators following this belief, screen, sort, and direct students based on their abilities, and as a result, send them down different school paths, profoundly shaping their futures. Students of different abilities (low, middle, and high) are assigned to different "tracks" of courses and programs (vocational, general, college-hound, honors, and AP). Tracking is the term given to this process, and while some teachers believe that tracking makes instruction more manageable, others believe that it is a terribly flawed system.
In the 1960s, sociologist Talcott Parsons analyzed school as a social system and concluded that the college selection process begins in elementary school and is virtually sealed by the time students finish junior high.'Parsons's analysis has significant implications, for he is suggesting that future roles in adult life are determined by student achievement in elementary school. The labeling system, beginning at an early age, determines who will wear a stethoscope, who will carry a laptop computer, and who will become a low-wage laborer.
Several researchers consider students' social class a critical factor in this selection system. Back in 1929, Robert and Helen Lynd, in their extensive study of Middletown (a small midwestern city), concluded that schools are essentially middle-class institutions that discriminate against lower-class students. Approximately fifteen years later, W. Lloyd Warner and his associates at the University of Chicago conducted a series of studies in New England, the deep South, and the Midwest and came to a similar conclusion.
One group [the lower class] is almost immediately brushed off into a bin labeled "nonreaders, first grade repeaters," or "opportunity class," where they stay for eight or ten years and are then released through a chute to the outside world to become hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill Companies.
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