The Problem with Tracking


You could fill libraries with the research on the negative impact of tracking on students, especially those placed in the lower tracks. The definitive study on those negative affects was written by Jeannie Oakes ( Oakes argument is tracking is an institutional means of resegregating populations within schools—relegating students—mostly minorities—into lower track classes where students are buried in worksheets that are procedurally based with no opportunities to learn the conceptually understandings of subject matter.

The more tracks you have in a school speaks to the socio-economic status of the school. The higher the socio-economic status of the school the more tracks, which has nothing to with finer distinctions in ability grouping or treatment of subject matter, but everything to do with bragging rights at social gatherings: “oh, Jane is in honors…., Bob, is in advanced honors,…I consulted at a school that had eight tracks for Algebra—no subject or young person can be so finely categorized. But, as the principal said to me, it was all about bragging rights.


As a curriculum specialist, this is my problem with tracking and with the entire high school curriculum. I will not go into the history of struggle over the American Curriculum, but essentially we have a curriculum designed around artificial constructs we call subjects—which bear no resemblance to the source of these subjects—which were real world problems that were solved employing a variety of real world disciplinary tools—mathematics, science—which, when schools got their hands on them, were then reduced to doing all the odd and even problems at the end of the textbook.
Study after study has documented the overwhelming boredom expressed by adolescents with their schooling experience. The source of this boredom is a curriculum designed to award credits, certify teachers, and organize schools. From an educational standpoint, however, the all-important connection between knowledge and meaning is ignored: all knowledge is relational–>experience precedes pattern–>meaning is socially constructed by particular people for particular purposes—A subject matter curriculum violates all of these fundamental principles of learning. Ask any student why they are taking a particular subject (or for that matter, ask any teacher) and you will always receive an institutional answer: “this is a required subject,” “you need this subject to get a well-paying job,” “you need this subject to get into college,” “this subject is a prerequisite for…” on and on and on. Rarely do you get an answer that expresses the educational goals and values expressed in school mission statements.

Even the subject centered curriculum is organized in ways that defy the natural organization of the discipline: ask any scientists how the discipline of science works and they will tell you: Physics–>Chemistry–>Biology. Then why do high schools do the opposite. Not to belabor the history of bureaucratic schooling—but, how would a bureaucrat organize subjects? Would they look at the substance of the subject or might they look at how to organize them in a course catalogue–> think alphabetically.


There are three types of “readiness:” college readiness, career readiness, civic readiness. Our academic subject readiness model, which dominates our high school curriculum, prepares you for a narrow band of academic skills (e.g. textual analysis, writing research papers, supporting claims, developing a hypothesis). These skills are valuable if you are planning to remain in an academic job, but, have little or nothing to do with career or civic readiness. I believe all of us reading this piece were told along the way that if we didn’t take Algebra, or didn’t do well in physics, I’ll lives would be in ruin—and then find out, that in our real-world careers none of these academic subjects has little or no value at all. To truly prepare young people for the real-world career readiness would include: priority setting, inventory management, teamwork, recognize many solutions—Civic readiness would include: negotiation, compromise, participating in a dialogue, formulating good arguments, recognizing bad arguments, challenging accepted rules, policies, procedures (this last one could get you suspended).


OK, then would be the ideal high school curriculum. Again, entire libraries could be devoted to this answer but briefly put: problem/project based—>interdisciplinary–>performance outcomes (not grades, but real-world products). Taking a page from John Dewey, there would be no subjects, but merely big questions to be answered/big ideas to be questioned/themes running through literature/history, etc. Instead of departments, you would have broad areas of study: “World of Physical Nature,” “The consequences of human values,” Great forces molding contemporary civilization,” Natural, social, and technological forces shaping the world.” You must admit these areas of study sound much more intellectually engaging then Biology, Chemistry, Physics…


If learning and curriculum theory do not support the subject centered curriculum, why is it the dominant model of schooling? The simple answer is it is a curriculum designed for the efficient implementation of institutional functions: credentialing, accreditation, standardization, regulation, accounting. While these institutional functions effectively control student behavior and student outcomes, they are poorly suited for developing the diverse talents, abilities, and interests of students. The more complicated answer is the set of institutional norms that have been governing our schools since the turn of the century have become the norm for how most school communities believe schooling should be conducted. Seven period days, starting school at 8 in the morning, classrooms, grades, credits, teachers standing in front the room, the test on Friday, and yes, homecoming –all of which the educational research would dispute—are how parents believe school should be conducted. As I have found out in my personal career, deviating from this factory model of schooling, is not looked upon favorably by any school community. In fact, in the real world of schooling, when you enhance the factory model of schooling —e.g. tracking—the school community applauds your “visionary thinking.”

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