Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Tracking" In Education

Education is always one of those tricky things to manage. We have so many students in the school system throughout the country that there is always a temptation just to throw everyone in the water and hope that they rise to the surface.

This article in Reason discusses the elimination of 'tracking', which is the practice of sorting students on the basis of their academic abilities. The argument against tracking is that every student in the school should receive the same education – and there is something to be said for that. However, there are certain fundamental assumptions that have to be made in order for this to work, assumptions that don’t stand up to scrutiny, such as....

1) Everyone has had the exact same educational background previously before coming to the current school.

2) Everyone has the exact same abilities.

3) Everyone has a ‘yearning for learning’.

The only one of these three assumptions that can even possibly pass the smell test is the first. If a freshman class of 250 kids all came from the same middle school, then that is possible. However, as it was at my school this year – a freshman class of 275 came from approximately 125 different middle and parochial schools – that assumption cannot be made in any realistic sense.

As for the second and third assumptions, anyone who has been in a classroom (as a student or a teacher) knows that there are kids who are the cream of the crop and there are the kids who struggle. There are the ‘average’ kids. No doubt, you have fallen into one of these categories. There are also kids who just don’t give a single solitary damn about going to school. These kids are a special case of their own (and another topic for another day), but I want to focus on the abilities part.

I favor tracking, for the most part. I prefer to track up, rather than track down; in other words, to have a ‘regular’ level, for the average and below-average kids, then a faster track for the higher ability students. The positives, in my opinion, outweigh the negatives. What are the negatives, though? There are a couple.

First, you have the ‘stigma’ of the different tracks and secondly you have the notion of familiarity, i.e. when you have the same students in every single course of a particular track. Familiarity will either a) breed contempt, so goes the cliché, or b) it will become a distraction, thanks to the chumminess that having the same classmates all day long fosters.

The positives of tracking are firstly, the ability of the instructor to steer the direction of the class toward the ability level of its inhabitants, a point to which the article also alludes. Without tracking, this becomes much more difficult since you it is hard to be either here or there. Secondly, it influences the vocabulary of the class. Having taught tracked and untracked classes, I can speak to the importance of this. There are not a lot of things that are more frustrating in teaching than having to explain yourself and the words you use four different times in four different ways to account for the different abilities. Tracked classes enable the instructor to calibrate his language to the students. The explanation of a concept will be done differently with a lower-tracked class than it would be with an honors or advanced placement class. This seems like common sense, but it doesn’t prevail in quite a few places around the country.

Unfortunately, the elimination of tracking seems to be motivated out of a desire not to hurt people’s feelings – and above I mention that issue of ‘stigma’. It’s going to be a side-effect, I will grant that, considering that we are discussing teenagers and they are at the age when the opinions of their peers still matter greatly above all else. If the goal is to provide the best education possible, then tracking should be a part of the deal. The motivated and bright students shouldn’t have to be in a group that will slow them down and drag them along, and that’s what we risk in eliminating the ability distinction.

Education has fallen prey to a lot of other vices of the culture – especially when it comes to a scorched-earth policy. If one thing is bad, the culture says, let’s just eliminate the whole thing. This is how we get to an over-emphasis on self-esteem, and elimination of final exams, tracking, and ranking of students. Feelings have become more important than actual learning; only once that is reversed, we will finally begin to see the results we keep claiming we want to have from our educational system. Until then, though?

All bets are off.

(H/T on the link to the story from Legal Insurrection)


Nick said...

As a teacher of so-called "high level" math students, I can attest to your claims that tracking does make a teacher's job just that much easier. In my science classes, I have everybody in the grade, so I very often have to backtrack and explain things to a few kids that other kids might have gotten the first time, which I have no problem doing at all. My goal is to see everyone succeed to the best of their ability. In my math classes, which are tracked, that happens far less often. As a result, I can get a lot more accomplished in my math classes. Now that's not to say that I don't get things accomplished in science...I certainly do. But I think it is a testament to the fact that all kids learn differently.

Tracking is not a perfect system, of course. We move kids between levels all the time, usually not after the first trimester, however. That's because there are 6 billion people...and 6 billion learning styles. It's virtually impossible to track a group of kids into neat and tidy groups. That's why good teachers are so important. They need to develop teaching methods as best as they can (it's almost impossible really) to meet the individual needs of all of their students.

Joshua Lattanzi said...

For most of my time teaching, I have dealt with untracked classes, as it has been decided that there shouldn't be tracks there for the reason that the students should have to be interspersed with each other for at least one course. It's not a bad theory, and it sort of makes our department special in a way.

The last two years, we have a low track for the underclassmen. It has good and bad parts to it - too much to get into here in a comment thread, but the negatives in the post proper are illuminated in the class.