Tracking is an instructional management practice in which students are assessed on achievement or intelligence and then assigned to differentiated curricula to match their abilities. The importance of tracking stems from its impact on student achievement and its broader implications for schools. Today, many countries throughout the world implement tracking in their schools. However, tracking is still viewed as a highly controversial practice because it is perceived as a source of educational inequality. In some cases, schools have actively sought to “detrack” their curricula by creating more heterogeneous classrooms. This entry provides a brief history of tracking, surveys leading perspectives on its advantages and disadvantages, and discusses the issues raised by detracking.
Tracking has a long history and close connections with the purposes of education. Socrates, through his spokesperson Plato, provides one of the earliest examples that links differentiated education directly to social needs. In his ideal state, the Republic, Socrates argued that society requires three classes of citizens. Using the analogy of citizens as likened to bronze, silver, and gold, these classes were (1) artisans or workers, (2) guardians, and (3) rulers. Because each role in the hierarchical social structure required different skills, education was to be differentiated on that basis.
Socrates’ “Myth of the Metals” may seem quaint, if not outright undemocratic, by today’s standards. However, his notions were significantly more progressive than those of many later thinkers. In particular, Socrates believed that individuals would be happiest if they were able to use their natural abilities. He also believed that a person’s assignment as a worker, guardian, or ruler should be determined according to those abilities. A person’s station in life was not inherited on the basis of family position or wealth. In making these points, Socrates anticipated that questions of fairness and equality would long remain central in debates over how education should be used in addressing social needs.
In the United States, tracking as a widespread practice can be traced back to the era of urbanization, industrialization, and the resulting growth of the common schools. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, educational leaders argued vigorously that tracking was efficient for what historian David Tyack called “the One Best System.” As schools became larger and more bureaucratic, educational leaders sought more differentiated forms of school organization. Yet beyond efficiency, tailoring instruction and curriculum to the abilities of varying pupils was seen as a morally justifiable course of action, for educational proponents argued that the same levels of education for all disadvantage both faster-learning and slower learning students alike.
The Logic Of Tracking
The logic of tracking can be traced from two different perspectives—the pedagogical and the public.
In most schools and classrooms, students are likely to differ in their intellectual abilities, interests, and achievements. Recognizing such inequities, many learning specialists have tried to keep students at roughly similar levels of achievement by using curricular or pedagogical strategies. Mastery learning approaches, for example, seek to reduce inequities by extending time and resources for low achievers. In mastery learning, materials are subdivided into units, and students are given a test at the end of each unit. If students do not reach mastery on the test, they are provided with more time and more teaching until they have achieved mastery on a retest. By doing so, mastery learning is intended to ensure minimal levels of achievement. However, providing extra time for slower-learning students to master each unit seems to introduce new forms of inequality. Striving for similar achievement levels leads to unequal time and resources, whereas equal time and resources leads to unequal achievement. In short, educators face a time equality-outcome dilemma. If extra teaching time for slower students is needed, will teachers have to neglect fast learners? Will faster-learning students be held back while waiting for slower-learning students, or will the slower-learning students be left behind? Tracking is often viewed as a way to address these questions.
Policy makers and the public at large may view tracking as necessary for three reasons. First, students naturally vary in their abilities. Second, education should address a wide range of social needs. Third, schools can best accommodate individual abilities and prepare students for a productive career by sorting them according to their abilities. In short, tracking is seen as a way to produce the skills and knowledge needed for a differentiated workforce.
Criticisms Of Tracking
Although many educators and members of the public support the need for educational tracking, critics also abound. In particular, critics of tracking argue that low-track classes tend to receive inferior instruction compared to the high-track classes, and that over time, this unequal allocation of instructional resources results in greater disparity in academic achievement. So, what are the outcomes of tracking that concern these critics? These are discussed below.
First, critics worry that curriculum content in low-track classes focuses exclusively on fragmented and irrelevant information; that is, information at the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. In contrast, curriculum content in high-track classes presents broader, more complex, and more demanding concepts. These qualitative differences may be especially pronounced with today’s popular high-stakes tests, where low track classes are likely to receive commercial “test prep” curricula.
Critics also worry that teachers of high-track classes spend a larger proportion of class time on instruction, whereas teachers of low-track classes spend relatively greater amounts of class time dealing with management and classroom behavior. Instructional activities in high-track classes often involve high levels of cognitive content, whereas instructional activities in low-track classes emphasize following the rules. In other words, the fast get the lecture and the slow get lectured.
Skeptics also worry that differences in instruction are compounded by teacher assignments. Many studies have suggested that more experienced teachers and teachers who are regarded as more successful are disproportionately assigned to the higher tracks, whereas teachers with less experience, less training, and generally weaker reputations are often assigned to teach lower-track classes.
Teacher Attitudes Toward Tracking
Skeptics are also concerned that teachers assigned to higher tracks may put more time and energy into their teaching than their low-track counterparts. More time may be spent in class preparation because teachers are more challenged by teaching in a high track. Conversely, low-track teachers may become demoralized because they perceive themselves as less successful. As a case of what psychologists call need achievement, low perceptions of success may reduce the motivation of lower-track teachers.
By the same token, critics worry that by tracking students, teachers view high-track students positively and low-track students negatively, leading teachers to hold high expectations for high-track students and low expectations for low-track students. This concern is the well-known “Pygmalion in the classroom” effect. High-track students respond to high expectations with improved achievement. Conversely, lowtrack students respond to low expectations with reduced motivation and achievement levels, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Finally, critics cite studies that have examined how tracking affects patterns of student friendship. Specifically, students are likely to make friends with others in the same track rather than between tracks. In fact, high-track students use their perceptions of student academic rank as a major criterion for choosing their friends. High-track students form cohesive cliques, often helping each other with homework or preparing for exams. For low-track students, peer acceptability is often associated with negative attitudes toward school and disruptive behavior in the classroom. In some situations, failure may even become a badge of honor.
In light of the criticisms described above, both individuals and groups have advocated “detracking.” Detracking is a process in which students from homogeneous classrooms are reshuffled into heterogeneous instructional groupings. Advocates of detracking believe that heterogeneous classrooms can challenge teachers to influence a wide range of students’ learning, thereby increasing the rewards of teaching. They also believe that this empowerment can enhance lowability student achievement without diminishing the achievement of high-ability students. Finally, advocates argue that detracking can increase nonacademic school outcomes, such as respect for diversity.
Nevertheless, supporters of detracking reform face significant challenges. The first challenge may stem from parents. Many parents believe that tracking practices raise their children’s opportunities to achieve success in the future. It is not uncommon for parents to intervene by lobbying schools to retain tracking and to ensure that their children are assigned to tracks in a favorable way. At the very least, parents of academically advanced students or parents with high socioeconomic status are likely to feel threatened by detracking policies. Another challenge may come from teachers who view tracking as an efficient way to reduce an already overburdened workload. Whereas some teachers may see heterogeneity as a source of job satisfaction, others may see it as demanding, burdensome accommodations.
Although considerable research has suggested that tracking often contributes to unequal achievement outcomes, researchers have yet to thoroughly examine the effects of detracking on school practices. Research is needed to determine whether detracking is able to reduce the learning gaps between high and low achievers, and, if so, which dynamics are at work. Evaluation of curriculum and instructional strategies, forms of school organization, and community outreach is also needed.
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- Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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- Schwartz, F. (1981). Supporting or subverting learning: Peer group patterns in four tracked schools. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 12, 99–121.
- Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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