Research has provided compelling evidence that tracking is detrimental to most children. The negative consequences of tracking, including reduced educational opportunities and lower achievement, are experienced disproportionately by African-American, Hispanic and low-income students. Organizations, such as the National Governors’ Association, the Carnegie Corporation, the National Education Association, and the College Board, all recommend that schools discontinue the practice of tracking.
Although many schools are trying to dismantle their system of tracking, no comprehensive study of successful detracking efforts has been carried out. In recognition of this, Jennie Oakes, professor, Graduate School of Education, University of California at Los Angeles, and Martin Lipton, English teacher, Calabasas (California) High School, studied the detracking efforts of several schools.
According to these researchers, the experiences of these schools provide important information. While the specific details of detracking programs varied, those schools that succeeded in detracking had developed:
-recognition that tracking is supported by powerful norms that must be acknowledged and addressed before alternatives are created
-willingness to broaden the reform agenda, so that changes in the tracking structure become part of a comprehensive set of changes in school practice
-a process of inquiry and experimentation that is idiosyncratic, opportunistic, democratic and politically sensitive
-changes in teachers’ roles and responsibilities, including changes in the ways adults in the school work together
-persistence over the long haul that is sustained by risk-taking leaders who are clearly focused on scholarship and democratic values
Change in beliefs about tracking
Abandoning the long-held values and beliefs which have supported tracking practices is critical to successful detracking. Oakes and Lipton believe that two commonly-held beliefs continue to make it difficult for educators to accept that detracking can improve student achievement. These are: (1) the belief that the capacity to learn is a fixed, unalterable ability which varies greatly among children, and (2) the belief that learning is the accumulation of a sequence of knowledge and skills.
According to Oakes and Lipton, educators must confront their personal views on intellectual ability, individual differences and the purpose of education. For the purpose of reevaluating these views, they suggest that teachers familiarize themselves with new theories of intelligence and learning, such as those developed by Howard Gardner at Harvard, Robert Sternberg at Yale, and others who argue that “intelligence is multi-faceted and developmental and that learning is a complex process of constructing meaning.”
Successfully detracked schools view classroom diversity as a way to enrich the learning environment and thereby facilitate learning for all students. Usually, they begin the process of detracking with a commitment to the idea that all students – different from one another as they may be – are capable of learning. Oakes and Lipton warn, however, that simply mixing all students together in classes and then teaching them the same curriculum, at the same time, in the same way, will probably fail.
Schools must address student differences by creating curricula appropriate for the diverse learning styles found in heterogeneous classes. A simple mandate to detrack is not enough.
Successful detracking programs tend to be based on course curricula designed around sets of complex ideas or concepts, rather than focused on discrete topics and skills. Oakes and Lipton report that such instruction challenges the abilities of all children. Students in these classrooms frequently work in teams on long-term academic projects using the library and teachers as resources. In such classrooms, not all children will learn the same things, but all are expected to understand the core ideas in the curriculum.
Potential problems in heterogeneous classes
Controversy continues over how to provide for students with special learning needs. Most parents of such students are anxious for them to be included in heterogeneous classes. Extra help is still needed, but Oakes and Lipton report that once educators accept the idea that tracking cannot be used, they devise other strategies (such as tutoring) to help these students.
More difficult than integrating students with learning problems is integrating gifted students who previously attended special or honors classes. Even successfully detracked schools report that this was accomplished only after considerable time and effort spent persuading parents. In some school districts, parents of high achievers have used their political power to stop detracking efforts and, indeed, many schools continue to provide special activities for high achievers either within the classroom or after school.
Senior high schools have been less successful at detracking, particularly when their students have been tracked for many years before entering high school. This is especially true in highly sequenced subjects, such as math and science. Many high schools have chosen to leave their 11th and 12th grade honor classes in place. However, some schools have adopted an “open admissions” policy for these classes, allowing or even recruiting students of varying achievement levels into advanced classes.
Oakes and Lipton report that traditional assessment policies are a potential hazard in heterogeneous classes since using only written assessment and openly comparing grades can have a negative effect on student effort. It can lead students to underrate their capacity for learning and to believe that success or failure in school is beyond their control. Some successfully detracked schools offer heterogeneous classes in which students can choose to meet the standards for either an honors or a regular grade.
These authors believe that every school must develop its own solution to the problem of tracking. Attempting to detrack a school solely through organizational changes is likely to fail. Detracking must be understood to be more than just a way to make schools more “fair”. It must be viewed as a practical method of increasing student achievement.
The most successful detracking programs start with some form of collective problem solving that encourages thoughtful evaluation of research and existing programs and avoids establishing rules, regulations or specific prescriptions for change. Several years may be necessary to complete the detracking process. Oakes and Lipton warn that when schools attempt detracking, they usually discover that:
-a portion of teachers retain some residual suspicion about heterogeneous grouping
-the curriculum is not set up to accommodate heterogeneous grouping
-teachers must expand their perception of useful instructional strategies
-unintended or covert tracking must be identified and anticipated
-flexible, skill-adjusted grouping and other potentially beneficial grouping practices should be acknowledged and efforts taken to curtail any negative effects
-teachers must receive appropriate training and preparation
Most teachers in successfully detracked schools say they would never have achieved such sweeping changes working alone. Teaming was the most common way that teachers developed the techniques and found the emotional support to make the major changes that were necessary.
Teaming takes several forms. Sometimes teams of teachers in the same grade or subject area work together to create new lessons appropriate for heterogeneous classes. In other classes, particularly in middle schools, teachers are part of interdisciplinary teams that share responsibility for a group of students, often for more than one year. Working together takes time, and some of that time must be available during the school day.
Oakes and Lipton concede that tracking is an entrenched practice that is difficult to end. However, successfully detracked schools can suggest directions for change and can serve as models. Because complex characteristics and beliefs specific to each school tend to sustain tracking practices, these researchers are reluctant to make prescriptive recommendations. They suggest that educators critically examine their beliefs and practices before making dramatic changes.
Successful alternatives to tracking can be complicated, are sometimes counter-intuitive, and are often controversial. Educators need to be willing to experiment and persevere over a number of years to bring about the substantial changes necessary to detrack their schools.
“Detracking Schools: Early Lessons from the Field” Phi Delta Kappan February 1991 Volume 73, Number 6, pp. 448-454.
Published in ERN May/June 1992 Volume 5 Number 3