• by Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2013 •
Tracking is bad educational policy and practice. It is damaging to many students. Its failure is well documented. Returning to bad policy as Texas is doing, will return us to a time of great failure. But successful policy and practice exists. Reneging of the policy successes requiring rigorous, high-level curriculum and instruction for every child is damaging to everyone, to our economy and our future. We must avoid policy that tracks students into low level curriculum and instead put in place practice that prepares all students to enroll in and complete college.
A form of tracking called ability grouping is a sorting approach schools used to organize classes and assign students. Decades of research point to the fact that it does not help teachers succeed more in their instruction of students and, even worse, castigates students (mostly poor, of color or English learners) to limited results. The data clearly show academic failure and subsequent limited access to, and success in, college. Ability grouping has helped very few and harmed many. It’s a myth that such clustering facilitates better and more appropriate instruction.
Instead, tracking of all kinds encourages bias toward students, and these classifications narrow the expectations of the teachers and the school community. Tracking has led to “disappointing and enduring outcomes.” Dr. Jeannie Oakes and others have done extensive research in this area. Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) is one of the most significant books on education in the 20th century.
On the positive side, there is evidence that diversity can be accommodated without sorting. “Since the late 1980s, policymakers and educators have recommended that schools dismantle structures that privilege so-called homogenous grouping” (Oakes, et al., 2012). Heterogeneous grouping has been successfully accomplished through a variety of approaches, including detracking; high-track classes for all; school-wide improvement rather than remedial “pull-out” programs; linked learning; inclusion of disabled and gifted students; and supporting English learners and biliteracy.
Texas policymakers have been considering bringing back policies that many decades of practice have proven unproductive, biased and student-limiting. Policy is crafted with euphemisms to mask underlying bias. A policymaker might repeat the phrase “college is not for everybody” with the assumption that students who are poor, of color or recent immigrant are given unrealistic aspirations. A policy target of facilitating students to be work-ready and giving them a variety of paths toward a career is in fact thinly-veiled bias, racism and class prejudice. As workplace spokespersons lobby for students to be prepared for jobs through vocational education, you can detect the assumption that “some students are best working with their hands.”
Battles were won over the last few decades to have high curriculum standards with all students required to have four years of high school English, math, science and social studies. Quality teaching, with variations to meet the learning styles and needs of diverse populations, hasn’t caught up with the raised standards. Schools of education haven’t modified teacher preparation enough to nurture high expectations wedded to effective teaching practice for the diverse populations that are the current majority student body. And in some cases as newly certified, highly motivated and expertly prepared teachers enter their first campus assignments, they face a culture of very limited expectations and even despair toward the students who most need high hopes. It is not uncommon to find high school math departments that despair of the majority of the student body ever mastering higher math. Policymakers, either for reasons of bias against certain populations or because certain voices in the community echo the “college is not for everybody” mantra attempt a rebirth of the Fundamentals of (Mickey Mouse) Math courses and, worse, the minimum requirement diploma.
Setting policy based on biases that are clearly unsupported by evidence and policy that dismisses the ample evidence accumulated through many generations of ineffective and damaging practice, is irresponsible and scandalous. The change toward high standards and effective instruction for every child will take persistence. It’s taken several generations to modify society’s views toward tobacco use and reduced the addiction so that the next generation is less disposed to use the substance. Likewise, we must persist over several generations in our vision for every student. Limited expectations, funding cuts, lack of excellent teaching and curricular resources, and old biases all combine to result in bad policy.
In policy, we must persist in these two recommendations (IDRA, 2013):
- Students should not be tracked into low-level courses nor into different diploma routes or graduation plans.
- Schools should provide a high quality curriculum that prepares all students to enroll in and complete college, supplemented by optional courses that prepare them to enter the workforce after graduation.
If we are to create true opportunities for all of our children, we must commit to high quality curriculum for all students, full funding of all our schools, especially those neighborhood public schools in our neediest communities, and we must create and voice a community will for an excellent public education for every child.
IDRA. IDRA Policy Issues in 2013 for Texas, online (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2013).
Robledo Montecel, M. “Time to Make High School Graduation the New Minimum,” in Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™, Robledo Montecel, M., & C. Goodman (eds) (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).
Oakes, J., & M. Lipton, L. Anderson, J. Stillman. Teaching to Change the World, fourth edition (Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm Publishers, 2012).
Oakes, J. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, second edition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985).
Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]