Academic tracking is not just a canker sore in our schools; it’s an educational system of segregation that’s like a “curable” cancer that if left unchecked leads to the demise of vulnerable citizens—our children.
The 21st century public education system’s challenges include closing the academic achievement gaps that persist between the races and classes. School administrators, educators, and policy makers are scrambling all over the nation in an effort to fix the gap problem and raise achievement as federally mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Academic tracking is an institutionalized practice in U.S. public schools that is at least a century old; dividing students into categories of “more able” or “less able” is used by schools to segregate students into ability groups, instructional levels, and classes. Segregated tracking undermines school reform, yet is often ignored as a primary component of academic achievement—for lack thereof---as the nation focuses on other perceived problems such as teaching to the standardized tests, funding No Child Left Behind, and making Adequate Yearly Progress.
Tracking allocates the most valuable school experiences -- including challenging and meaningful curriculum, engaging instruction, and high teacher expectations -- to students who already have the greatest academic, economic, and social advantages, while students who face the greatest struggles in school and in life receive a more impoverished curriculum based on lower expectation placed on them by school staff.
Anne Wheelock, Children’s Advocate
It’s an important reform matter because the 21st century post-industrialist “white-collar” economy does not need the larger “blue-collar--factory” labor pool of its predecessors. Today’s is a global world requiring highly skilled workers. Tracking disqualifies a huge segment of the population from becoming prepared to take advantage of future opportunities, particularly African Americans, Latinos, children with disabilities and those from low-income or immigrant families.
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Minority students and those from the lowest socio-economic groups have been found in disproportionate numbers in lower level track courses, and children from upper socioeconomic levels and Whites have been found consistently over represented in higher tracks. This is particularly true in Lower Merion where tracking starts in elementary school, takes shape in middle school, and becomes more formerly labeled in high school as modified, college prep, honors, advanced placement, IB, vocational education, or special education courses.
Tracking prevails because it is perceived by school staff to be a logical and expedient way to take account of wide differences in students’ academic abilities. The underlying presumption is that students are appropriately placed when tracked by standardized test scores or I/Qs or subjective measures. People get worried about the effects of heterogeneous grouping on the "upper" level students, fearing that the "lower" level students will hold them back; apparently they’re less concerned about the impact low level courses have on students placed there, or whether schools should hire and train staff who are capable of organizing curriculum and instruction so that all students can learn.
Schools that track tend to place a heavier emphasis on quantifying intelligence rather than releasing it and bringing out the genius in every child. They define (in)ability without nurturing effort, and sort according to weaknesses rather than building on strengths. For lower tracked students, educators cover content—focusing on worksheets, listening, copying, test taking, and graphic organizers--rather than stress concepts, problem solving and complex thinking. Typically, teachers contemplate whether students learn fast or slowly, are average or gifted, are adept or struggling, their ethnic, social and economic family background, and other factors before deciding on course placement levels.
Students of low tracked courses often experience school as an intellectually and physically inhospitable place for learning. Student complaints about boring classes or teacher are ignored as the question of whether they’re completing homework and sitting in their seats when the bells rings takes precedence. When students seem distant from their own learning experiences or become behavior problems, the inquiry of a school psychologist is employed evaluate whether the student has a specific learning disability or is emotionally disturbed.
Students need schools that provide quality relationships, curriculum, and instruction in every classroom. The decision to track students is essentially one of giving up on the problem, as is retention, social promotions, marginalization, and “dumping” kids into special education.
Academic tracking will maintain the status quo,
but not serve Americans well, especially African Americans.