Tracking: the 1990s version of 'separate but equal'?

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Throughout the US, the major focus in education today is standards. The problem is that while all students are being held to high standards, only some are being prepared to meet them, despite the equity initiatives many states have undertaken.

One major culprit is tracking, the practice of grouping students according to ability or achievement prevalent in American high schools, middle schools, and some grade schools. Tracking takes many forms, but its effect is usually the same: to separate students along racial and socioeconomic lines. In 1999, just as in 1954, separate is inherently unequal. Students in lower tracks simply do not get the same education as those in higher tracks.

Students in "gifted and talented," "honors," and "advanced placement" classes learn how to read challenging literature, analyze complex data, engage in sophisticated discussions, and write in-depth essays. Students in lower-track classes benefit from these kinds of activities, too, but they often spend their time reading snippets, "going over" the questions at the end of the chapter, and filling in worksheets.

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Tracking makes good sense intuitively: Putting students of like abilities together is very efficient. It's easier for teachers to plan instruction; it's easier for students to work with their classmates; it's easier for college admissions officers to interpret transcripts. But these are mixed blessings, and they don't offset the negative consequences, which have been documented by research studies and confirmed by my own 20 years of teaching tracked classes. It's a practice that encourages students to think of themselves and others in stereotypical ways, and it reinforces race and class boundaries in the one social institution that seems to have a chance of breaking them down.

There are many obstacles to detracking America's schools, but they are more political and attitudinal than educational. My own experiences with detracking began 10 years ago. My department at Amherst (Mass.) Regional High School started teaching mixed-ability English classes almost as an underground movement. This effort, still a work-in-progress, remains controversial, but we are more convinced than ever that it is the right thing to do.

I taught my first fully mixed class in 1990. The student I remember best from that journalism class had significant learning disabilities in language arts. She worked hard and tried to compensate, but she had always been in lower-track classes. She was excited by journalism, though, and discovered a talent for reporting. She chose the difficult assignments, earned high grades, and soon became editor of the school newspaper. Eventually she went on to earn both bachelor's and master's degrees in communication.

Advanced students also benefit from working in mixed classes, whose members usually have a wider range of life experience than the typical "honors" class. And, as my department's experiment has revealed, detracking can raise teacher expectations (we now expose all students to advanced-level curricula) and improve teaching methods.

I don't want to oversell detracking. It doesn't solve all problems, and it's not always the best approach. It's also hard work -political as well as pedagogical. But most students, parents, and administrators have become supporters, though there are still skeptics.

In the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy, many Americans have been asking what can be done to create school communities that value all students rather than sorting them into winners and losers. Here's one idea: eliminate tracking.

*Bruce M. Penniman teaches English at Amherst Regional High School. He is the 1999 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and was one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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