Mention the word tracking in a faculty lunchroom and the temperature rises. Bring it up at a PTSA meeting and the rest of the agenda will go untouched. Everybody has a theory to espouse and a story to tell. What is remarkable is that each storyteller is convinced, passionately, that his or her solution is what is truly best for kids. Passion, however, is rarely a sound foundation for policy.
In a Council for Basic Education publication, Ruth Mitchell writes that "while research has established that academic ability is distributed evenly throughout all racial and ethnic groups, the lower tracks in schools are still disproportionately populated with Latinos, blacks, newly arrived immigrant groups, and poor white children.... Few today would suggest that this phenomenon - predominantly white middle-class students in the upper tracks and poor, minority, and immigrant students in the lower ones - is still based on perceived destiny."
Upon what, then, is this phenomenon based? Why are traditional, academic classrooms comfortable learning environments for some and utterly foreign territory to others? In an effort to be fair to all their students, teachers purposely ignore differences among them. Treating students identically whatever their color or culture feels democratic. The only problem with this assumption is that curricula and textbooks are designed by predominantly middle-class, white, native-English speaking educators for students of the same ilk. No wonder some students are uncomfortable.
We also misjudge students by confusing intellectual ability with speed. Faster isn't always better. But again and again on tests and in class, we reward the one who gets there first. Jeannie Oakes, an education professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and a researcher in tracking, has observed, "Gifted students are often contrasted with those 'who don't get things quickly' or those at 'the slow end.' Such views justify sorting students into groups that could work through material at the same pace."
I do it myself. In 10th-grade honors English I expect students to read 20 books in the course of an academic year. Anyone who has difficulty reading quickly or making time for 30 to 50 pages of reading per night will simply not be able to keep up. Should I slow down? Should I rethink my curriculum so that performance isn't so closely linked to pace? What about the sense of achievement that students who do keep up feel in June when they look at the list of books they have read?
I know I am guilty of talking out of both sides of my mouth about tracking, especially when it comes to my own son. Given that James is not a natural scholar, I want him surrounded by peers who come to class on time, respect the teacher, and do their homework. Their behavior will help to modify his.
Unfortunately, there simply aren't enough such paragons to go around. I don't know what system will most effectively ensure that all children have equal access to a rigorous education. I do know that without that opportunity, the waste of human talent may be this country's undoing.
* Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica (Calif.) High School, and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA.