Why tracking is controversial

Ability grouping of students is coming under fire once again (“It’s The Lower Ability Students Who Lose Out Through Streaming,” Forbes, Mar. 22).  The latest charge is that low-ability students are being shortchanged because their teachers adhere to a narrower curriculum and inferior instruction.  As a result, students fall behind by one or two months a year on average compared with students of similar levels of attainment in mixed ability classes.

But what would be the effect on other students if low-ability students were not tracked?  Don’t the former have the right to curriculum and instruction geared to their needs and interests?  What about the effect on teachers who would be saddled with preparing different lessons during the same class period?

I had several remedial English classes during the 28 years that I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  I was far more effective with them than I was when they were included in regular classes.  I say that because I was able to design lessons specifically in line with their capabilities.  There are few things more demoralizing than to see students struggling and failing.  They tend to be those who drop out of school.

I see nothing wrong with placing students in classes in line with their needs and interests.  After all, don’t educators constantly talk about the importance of doing precisely that?  Tracking is a strategy that serves them well.

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4 Replies to “Why tracking is controversial”

  1. For me, the pro-tracking arguments are compelling and the anti-tracking arguments are based in politics rather than reason.

    It’s obviously more efficient to match instruction to ability/achievement levels. If not, each year a few 9th graders could be randomly selected to skip high school and enroll directly in college — if the anti-tracking folks are right, the randomly-selected 9th graders who skipped high school would be brought up to college-level quickly by being placed in classes filled with college-level students.

    Likewise, if the anti-tracking folks are right, everyone who tries out for a high school sports team should have an equal chance to be randomly selected to make the varsity and be in the starting line-up. Of course, when the not-so-talented players get into a game against a rival high school that put the best players in the starting line-up, the not-so-talented players would be severely embarrassed and perhaps physically hurt (like what happens to the below-grade-level students placed in a class with at-grade-level and above-grade-level students).

    Perhaps at some point in the past, some school systems used tracking to discriminate against black or low-income students — that is, placing all the black/low-income students in the lower track classes regardless of their ability and placing all the white students in the higher-track classes regardless of their ability. If so, this might have played a role in the court cases — and public opinion battles — that caused school systems to abandon tracking. However, the obvious response to such discrimination should have been to continue tracking while stopping the discrimination. (I think that what was probably happening, more often, was that school systems tracked based on achievement + black students, on average, had lower achievement than white students + a much higher percentage of black students than of white students ended up in the lower tracks — all causing the outside observer to jump to the conclusion that the school system was tracking based on race rather than on achievement. If so, again the obvious answer was to continue tracking while implementing reforms to raise the achievement levels of the students who were entering kindergarten far below “grade level”.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I totally agree. In the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I never had students who were able to keep up with other more able students when they were placed in mixed classes. Yes, there may have been some benefit that was not observable. But we’re talking now about measurable achievement. Moreover, when students realize they can’t compete with their classmates, they either act out or drop out. Nevertheless, we persist in the fiction that givezn enough “grit” all students can overcome their deficits.


  3. I hate the word “TRACKING”, but to place students in their appropriate level class is a necessity. For years there used to be two years to complete Algebra 1. The courses used to be called Algebra1A and 1B. When I taught the 1A classes, I would always find a few students who I would recommend to switch to the “regular” Algebra 1 class. Unfortunately this plan has been eliminated in most school systems. In order to meet a high school requirement, you will find a large number of seniors still taking Algebra 1. How is that idea working out?
    In Florida they solved(not really) the problem by only requiring a 30% grade to pass the state Algebra 1 exam. That plan really causes a problem when the students arrive in Algebra 2.
    If “TRACKING” is wrong, why isn’t every student taking all A.P. classes?


  4. John: Actually a movement is underway in New York City, home of the nation’s largest school district, to open up AP classes to almost everyone. It’s a guaranteed way to destroy academic quality. But its supporters hate anything that they believe is “elitist.” Germany, which has Europe’s lowest rate of youth unemployment, has long used tracking. Even more pronounced is Singapore, which administers its primary school leaving exam to determine the track that children will follow for their entire education. The US hates differentiation in education, even though it has proved to be successful in other countries noted for the quality of their systems.


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