The Practice of Tracking in Schools (page 5)
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.
In his classic analysis of class and school achievement, August Hollingshead discovered that approximately two-thirds of the students from the two upper social classes but fewer than 15 percent of those from the lower classes were in the college preparatory program." In midwestern communities, Robert Havinghurst and associates reported that nearly 90 percent of school dropouts were from lower-class families." The unfortunate tracking by class is one of the oldest of school traditions.
Parents and peers may influence academic choices even more than guidance counselors do. When family and friends encourage children with similar backgrounds to stay together, students of the same race and class typically find themselves on the same school tracks. When school norms and children's culture clash, the result can also lead to racially segregated tracks. For example, some students of color devote time and attention to "stage setting." Stage setting may include checking pencils, rearranging sitting positions, and watching others—all part of a pattern of readiness before work can begin. To a teacher unfamiliar with this learning style, such behavior may be interpreted as inappropriate or as avoidance of work. Some racial and ethnic groups value cooperation and teamwork, yet school norms frequently stress individual, competitive modes of learning. Such cultural clashes work to the detriment of certain groups, relegating them to lower-ability classes and tracks.
Several studies document differences in how students in high-ability and low-ability tracks are treated. In a classic study done in the 1970s, Ray Rist observed a kindergarten class in an all-black urban school. By the eighth day of class, the kindergarten teacher, apparently using such criteria as physical appearance, socioeconomic status, and language usage, had separated her students into groups of "fast learners" and "slow learners." She spent more time with the "fast learners" and gave them more instruction and encouragement. The "slow learners" got more than their fair share of control and ridicule. The children soon began to mirror the teacher's behavior. As the "fast learners" belittled the "slow learners," the low-status children began to exhibit attitudes of self-degradation and hostility toward one another. This teacher's expectations, formed during eight days at the beginning of school, shaped the academic and social treatment of children in her classroom for the entire year and perhaps for years to come. Records of the grouping that had taken place during the first week in kindergarten were passed on to teachers in the upper grades, providing the basis for further differential treatment.
Jeannie Oakes's Keeping Track (1985/2005) was a scathing indictment of tracking, adding momentum to the effort to detrack, or eliminate tracking practices from the nation's schools. Oakes found that race more than ability determined which students were placed in which tracks, and that the lower-tracked students had fewer learning opportunities. Other studies confirmed that low demands were placed on students in low-ability groups, and teachers expected little from them and offered fewer constructive comments to students in low ability groups. Low tracks suffered from more classroom management problems, and focused more on social rather than academic matters. Over the course of a year, a child in the highest group moved ahead as much as five times more quickly than a child in the lowest group. By the fourth grade, an achievement spread of a full four grades separated children at the top and the bottom of the class, a difference that increased with time. (See Frame of Reference: Tracking and Race.)
"True," tracking advocates argue, "it would appear more democratic to put everyone in the same class, but such idealism is destined to fail." They contend that it is unrealistic to think everyone can or should master the same material or learn it at the same pace. Without tracking we have heterogeneous, or mixed ability classes. Tracking advocates are quick to point out that mixed ability classes have their own set of problems: In heterogeneous classes, bright students get bored, while slower students have trouble keeping up, and we lose our most talented and our most needy students. Teachers find themselves grading the brighter students on the quality of their work, and the weaker ones on their "effort," which is a big problem (especially with parents!). Teachers get frustrated trying to meet each student's needs, and hardly ever hitting the mark. Putting everyone in the same class simply doesn't work.
Detracking advocates, as you might imagine, offer a different take on the issue. "No sorting system is consistent with equality of opportunity. Worse yet, the tracking system is not based on individual ability. It is badly biased in favor of white middle-class America. We must face the reality that poor children, often children of color, come to school far from being ready to learn. And the school, whose job it is to educate all our children, does little to help. The built-in bias in instruction, counseling, curricular materials, and testing must be overcome. Students get shoveled into second-rate courses that pre-pare them for fourth-rate jobs. Their track becomes 'a great training robbery,' and the students who are robbed may be ones with great abilities."
While the social pitfalls of tracking have been well documented, its efficacy has not. With little hard evidence supporting tracking, and a growing concern about its negative fallout, it is little wonder that the term "tracking" has fallen out of favor. By the 1990s, only 15 percent of schools had official tracking policies, down from 93 percent in 1965, a quiet but persistent change that has been termed the unremarked revolution.
Most schools today work hard to avoid using the term "tracking." Middle and high schools are taking their cue from elementary schools, where "ability grouping" has been in favor. Ability grouping sorts students based on capability, but the groupings may well vary by subject. While tracks suggest permanence, ability grouping is more transitory. One year, a student might find herself in a high-ability math group and a low-ability English group. The following year, that same student might be reassigned to a new set of groups. To-day, many middle and high schools talk about "ability grouping," but sometimes it is only the label that has been changed. (You may want to think of school tracking as a take-off on the federal "witness protection program": a reality functioning under an assumed identity.) By seventh grade, two-thirds of all schools have ability grouping in some classes, and about 20 percent have tracking or grouping in every subject. Many educators charge that the United States relies more on tracking than any other nation in the world.
Critics argue that we really can eliminate de facto tracking, whatever name it is given. They believe that detracking can work, if it is implemented correctly. Teachers, parents, and students should realize that although students arrive at school from very different backgrounds, learning from each other and together has great advantages. Instruction is best offered through individualized and cooperative learning, rather than the traditional approach of trying to teach all students simultaneously. Alternative assessments work far better than testing everyone with the same test (compare this view to the cur-rent emphasis on standardized tests). In fact, detracked schools can be authentic places of learning, academically challenging to all while teaching a living lesson in democracy. What is needed is time, careful planning, and adequate training for teachers so that they can succeed and all students can learn.
As these arguments suggest, tracking is likely to remain an area of controversy in the years ahead, especially for educators who find it "the most professionally divisive issue" in the field. One of the ironies of tracking is that it simply builds on an already divided school culture. What educators do not do to divide students, students often do to themselves.
Reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill Companies.
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