I will never forget one of my first public high school class observations—part of a graduate education course I was taking back in the 1990’s. I was asked if I wanted to visit a “college-track” classroom or a “standard” class. These terms were unfamiliar to me; in my high school experience 15 years earlier, such “tracks” were non-existent. Every student was, ostensibly, being prepared for college and/or the work force. What I witnessed was shocking. Students who were in the standard classes often watched videos, engaged in vacuous “class discussions,” or participated in “learning sessions” that bordered on the criminal in terms of a complete waste of taxpayer money.
What I experienced then was something called “tracking,” which is basically assigning students to different classrooms according to perceived mental ability or subject-matter precocity. An associated practice, often confused with tracking is “ability grouping,” which segments students in the same classroom space based on ability. Tracking is generally found in high schools, and ability grouping in elementary schools.
Both practices were roundly criticized in the 70’s and 80’s, leading to their near elimination, but they have found their way back into most American classrooms, and teachers seem to be implementing them more and more.
As authors Carol Corbett Burris and Delia T. Garrity have explained, in some schools, tracking begins with kindergarten screening. IQ and early achievement tests designed to measure so-called "ability" can determine track placement in the elementary years, often setting in place an educational plan for their next 12 years of schooling. In other schools, students and their parents are allowed to choose a track, with certain conditions attached to the placement. Standards for track placement are uniform in some schools; in others, each department determines the number of tracks and track placement.
Proponents of ability grouping say that the practice allows teachers to tailor the pace and content of instruction much better to students' needs and, thus, improve student achievement. For example, teachers can provide needed repetition and reinforcement for low-achieving students and an advanced level of instruction to high achievers.
Unfortunately, tracking and ability grouping can perpetuate educational inequality by trapping poor and minority students in low-level groups. In many American high schools today, top students are selected for a college track, middle performers for a general education track, and low performers for a vocational track. Many elementary students are stigmatized by ability grouping, and dark clouds of self-doubt gather in their still-developing psyche. The practice of tracking can be exacerbated by institutional prejudice and economic classism that disproportionately affect minority and other low-income students – especially Hispanics and African Americans.
If you’re Hispanic, as I am, the social practice of tracking is nothing new. Many of my peers remember guidance counselors urging us to “follow in our parents’ footsteps” and “be a mechanic and/or a maid.” These narratives are ingrained in our cultural experience. Too many Hispanics still hear the dreaded phrase, “You’re just not college material.” Translation: Your ethnic background has already determined your educational and career trajectory, and you should simply lower your academic and personal aspirations.
Let me be clear: I am not against vocational training or apprenticeships. Nearly all work has its honor and occupational elitism is anathema to me. We can and should do far more to elevate the trades and develop true craftsmanship as we improve American technical and vocational education. We need to look no further than Germany, Australia or Switzerland to verify the efficacy of this approach. In Switzerland, children start learning about apprenticeship opportunities as early as fourth grade and nearly 70 percent of students take part in the program. In what is perhaps the greatest endorsement of this model, roughly half of all Swiss business leaders participated in the country’s apprenticeship programs in their early years.
We also know that there are examples of tracking that can be positive. A recent report notes that having a larger percentage of eighth graders in tracked math classes produced a larger percentage of high-scoring AP students four years later. Moreover, this enhanced performance held across racial subgroups—white, black, and Hispanic.
Another study demonstrated that black and Hispanic students excelled in “gifted” classrooms when given the opportunity. Many of the minority students did not meet the cutoff scores for “giftedness,” but were added just to fill the classrooms. The results showed that these students could thrive in this environment given the chance, supporting the idea that if we push students in every classroom with higher academic standards and skilled teachers they will succeed, no matter their background.
The point is we cannot allow any “system,” policy or administrator to unfairly and prematurely determine how our children will be grouped or tracked. Instead, parents and students must be developed educationally in an academically challenging culture of learning. Any student, regardless of race, income or ZIP code must be given the opportunity – and the support – to pursue his or her academic dreams. However, this will only happen if we are committed to preparing every American student.
Consider this: as of 2015, one-in-four children born in the United States is Hispanic and over half (50.2 percent) of all children born were minorities. As the minority population in America explodes, it is imperative that our educational priorities and policies evolve to meet new and growing realities in our country’s demographics. If we fail, we risk creating a permanent educational underclass of citizenry robbed of one of our most fundamental American freedoms – choice.
We need to once again raise a red flag of awareness to continue to examine the practice of educational tracking and grouping. We must carefully monitor how minority students are grouped and ensure that state systems have clear guidelines regarding content mastery and flexibility for students to move up. In addition, students must and should be presented with ample opportunities to pursue apprenticeships, co-ops and internships. Our collective socioeconomic future requires that the college track never becomes an elitist track. We must never intentionally or inadvertently exclude what will soon become the majority of America’s students from the immeasurable value of a traditional, college degree because we assume they are destined for something more accessible and “reasonable.” True educational equity demands that we elevate the status of vocational and technical education, as well as increase access to traditional four-year degrees, thus ensuring that students can choose their calling, and not have their educational destiny ‘tracked’ by others.