Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

How to Make Detracking Work

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

How to Make Detracking Work

Article excerpt

Successful detracking is tantamount to school restructuring, the authors point out. Viewed and handled as such, it offers much promise both for ending an inequitable arrangement and for improving educational practice.

THE CASE for detracking the schools continues to be compelling, and the pressure to detrack is mounting steadily. It is still too early to cite a substantial research record on just how to go about it, but a recent study of 10 Long Island school districts with successful detracking efforts has yielded a number of suggestions.

We polled the area's more than 120 districts to learn which had been involved in such efforts. Then, to confirm and extend the reports, we visited those districts that had undertaken detracking. Conversations with key local figures -- teachers and parents as well as administrators -- revealed a number of suggestions on when and how to go about the process.

Tracking has a long history, growing out of early 20th-century efforts to prepare youngsters for the quite different careers and lifestyles awaiting them. As larger percentages of the nation's youth attended schools, their different talents, abilities, and destinies became increasingly apparent. Schools adapted to such an awareness first with differentiated programs (e.g., college preparatory and manual training) and later with tracking -- the practice of separating youngsters to differentiated classes of low-, average-, or high-ability students.

Over the years, we have had cause to become increasingly aware of the negative effects and injustices of tracking. Today the evidence clearly calls for its elimination. Yet tracking remains standard practice in a large majority of the nation's schools, probably 80% or more.(1) And programs at both state and federal levels support and perpetuate the practice.

In New York, for instance, the very existence of two sets of state tests serves to endorse course differentiation and homogeneous grouping. Upper-track students take Regents Examinations; lower-track students take Regents Competency Tests. At the federal level, legislation providing for the handicapped and for compensatory education has entrenched the practice of separating youngsters for targeted instruction given by teachers specially prepared to offer it. Not surprisingly, then, teachers have come to endorse tracking, believing that they can deal effectively only with groups of youngsters whose abilities all fall into the same narrowly defined range.

Yet the sense that tracking is unacceptable has been growing for some years and has come to challenge the widespread practice. It has been almost two decades since the first major expose of the extent of tracking in the schools and of the ills and injuries accompanying it.(2) And nearly a decade has now passed since Jeannie Oakes' classic Keeping Track was published in 1985, a study that both updated and underscored what we know about the harm done by tracking. We are now seeing works that look toward alternatives, such as Anne Wheelock's Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools.(3)

But, despite growing agreement that tracking is unfair and injurious, it remains a prominent organizational feature of most American high schools as well as most junior high schools, where the practice begins in earnest. (Many elementary schools also have grouping arrangements that are tantamount to tracking, but in most districts it is in junior high school that the practice becomes formalized and official.)

Tracking has been standard procedure even where it is unannounced and not generally perceived. For example, in one school where the principal denied the existence of tracking, nine distinct tracks were identified and acknowledged by the guidance office that maintained them.(4)

Teachers have been especially skeptical about the feasibility of other arrangements, since they tend to assume that alternative setups would simply remove ability grouping without making any other changes. …

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