Schools question the benefits of tracking

Dividing kids by performance divides educators - even as it takes on

When Wellesley Middle School in Massachusetts moved to eliminate tracking - the practice of grouping students according to academic performance - no one was more opposed than eighth-grade English teacher Nancy Flescher. "I really thought it was a terrible mistake," says Ms. Flescher, a 34-year veteran.

Five years later, all the classes she teaches include mixes of students at different ability levels. And much to her astonishment, she prefers it that way.

The lower-achieving students, she finds, rise to new levels. At the same time, the stronger students perform as well as before, but now have the advantage of a more-diverse classroom atmosphere. "Tracking," she concludes, "doesn't benefit anybody."

But raise the topic at any parent-teacher meeting, and you won't get such a definitive conclusion. Across the United States, tracking can make sparks fly.

The goal of tracking is to allow students to move at the best pace for them through a given subject. But the perception of its success often depends on where a child is placed. Parents of top students worry they will be held back if they are not with other advanced students. Other parents are concerned that children will get locked into a lower track. They also question the quality of the teaching in the lower-ranked classes.

Tensions over the practice promises to intensify as higher standards and a new focus on testing puts greater pressure on classroom preparation.

What concerns many parents is whether their children will be offered everything they need to qualify for a diploma. "It used to be that we accepted a certain number of rejects in the assembly line," says Frank Smith, professor of education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. Today, he says, with the growing insistence that only students meeting high standards will graduate, there's "almost an absolute standard of no rejects."

Until recently, the decades-old practice of tracking seemed as integral a part of public school education as gym class or lunch period. Then, early in the 1990s, a number of schools - like Flescher's - moved to abolish the longstanding practice.

In the case of Wellesley, the new system, which mixed students of all abilities, was eventually proclaimed a success. But in other communities, chaos ensued. In some cases, angry parents blocked the reforms. In others, unprepared teachers struggled to teach mixed groups.

John Norton, an education researcher, says he visited Louisville, Ky., when schools there were experimenting with detracking. He recalls a gifted algebra teacher who tried to discuss the issue with him and ended up sobbing.

"Her frustration was incredible," he says. "She just didn't know how to reach the kids in heterogeneous classes."

Math is a particularly challenging area. More people support the elimination of tracking in English and social studies or history classes than in math or science classes. In fact, most supporters of detracking are willing to accept that a certain amount of tracking is necessary, at least in higher-level math classes.

Although some educators have criticized tracking for decades, much of the recent tumult over the topic can be traced to research done in the 1980s by Jeannie Oaks and Amy Stuart Wells, both professors at the University of California in Los Angeles. Their studies stated that while low achievers can benefit significantly from mixed groups, high achievers are not held back.

Their work also confirmed what many educators had said for years: that low-track classes tend to be negative, uninspiring environments that hurt the morale of both students and their teachers. They also tended to have an overrepresentation of minority students.

The research helped to spur a drive by some states - including Massachusetts and California - to eliminate or reduce tracking, especially in middle schools.

Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, estimates that hundreds of schools have since experimented with detracking.

Mr. Loveless is not a fan of mixing students of different abilities. "When schools detrack, higher-achieving students pay a price," he says. While he agrees that there have been misuses of the system, he also argues that eliminating tracking poses real dangers to achievement.

"Highly advanced students need accelerated classes," he says. To ignore this reality, he argues, is "to value self-esteem over intellectual substance."

Parents of kids on high tracks often agree. Numerous schools found themselves in an uproar in the early 1990s when they announced moves toward detracking. At top-ranked New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., for example, the administration launched a study of their five-level tracking system but kept it in place in the face of parental support.

In Pittsburgh, where Stanley Herman was superintendent of an urban district, powerful parental opposition stalled efforts to detrack the system.

But when Dr. Herman became superintendent of the suburban Woodland Hills district, he detracked English classes despite strong parental opposition. Since then, Herman says, the high scores students traditionally produced on Advanced Placement English tests have remained the same, while the number of students taking those exams has steadily increased. Opposition, he says, has faded.

But opponents of detracking argue that success stories like those in Wellesley and Woodland Hills are based on above-average teaching and schools with a high proportion of strong students.

Implementation is key, says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Tracking is neither inherently good nor bad. It's a tool, and it can have beneficial effects, but only if we use it in a careful fashion."


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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