The Tracking Debate
A sharp debate has developed around the nation over ability grouping and tracking. Most multicultural education advocates oppose tracking. They see classes for the gifted and for low-track students as contributing to the problems of unequal access to the curriculum. Significant evidence supports this view (Oakes, 2005). Advocates of programs for the gifted and talented argue that heterogeneous classes prohibit “bright” students from seeking educational excellence. They, too, have substantial research to support their position (Darling-Hammond, 1995).
Although excellent work is being done by a minority of teachers to oppose tracking, most take ability grouping for granted. High school teachers accept that some students are college bound and others are not. Teachers often avoid low-track classes, and principals assign these classes to the newest faculty. Teachers in low-track classes find it difficult to establish positive, productive learning environments because many of the students recognize their low status and conform to the school’s low expectations. Students exhibit defeatism, alienation, and resistance to academic work. Soon both teachers and students develop low expectations of these classes. There is more authoritarian teacher behavior and more student-to-student violence in these classes. In racially integrated schools, low-track classes have an overrepresentation of African American, Latino, and Native American students (Darling-Hammond, 1995).
Not only are students tracked, but schools and teachers—particularly new teachers—are tracked as well. Schools in low-income areas of cities often have fewer resources and fewer fully credentialed teachers than do schools in more affluent areas. Schools in low-income areas have more teachers instructing in a field other than their major (e.g., physical education majors teaching social studies). Meanwhile, affluent schools have only math majors instructing math classes and only science majors instructing science classes. Tracking occurs when schools considered difficult have eight classes of general English or math and only one class of honors or advanced English or math. Even bright, motivated students in such schools will not have access to a demanding curriculum. When these students graduate, they compete for access to universities with students from schools where most students took Advanced Placement history, math, and English (Darling-Hammond, 2001; Oakes & Saunders, 2007).
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