Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Reform without Cost? A Reply to Our Critics

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Reform without Cost? A Reply to Our Critics

Article excerpt

The authors reiterate their contention that detracking is not a costless solution to the problems facing America s schools. Whether to detrack, then, depends on how we as a society weigh the competing notions of equity and efficiency.

IN RECENT years a number of reformers have advocated detracking America's schools, arguing that students currently in the lower tracks would benefit and that there would be little or no effect on other students' academic performance.(1) In our article in the November Kappan, we argued that this "conventional wisdom" is overly optimistic. The basis for our position was a review of previous studies of the effects of tracking and some new evidence of our own.

Our study, which used recent nationally representative survey data and statistical models that controlled for both track assignment and classroom characteristics, found that detracking creates both winners and losers.(2) Specifically, we estimate that detracking would lead to an 8.7% increase in the mathematics scores of individuals in classes composed of below-average students and an 8.1% decrease in the scores of students in above-average classes. The net effect, if all students in our sample were placed in heterogeneous classes, would be a 1.7% decline in average scores in mathematics.

Since outcomes other than student achievement may be important, since detracking is hardly a monolithic strategy, and since society may legitimately judge equity concerns to be paramount, we did not make policy recommendations about the future of tracking based on our study. While we believed our results to be strong, our purpose was not to pour cold water on detracking efforts or to argue that detracking might not be a valuable part of an education reform strategy. Rather we wanted to challenge the view that tracking can be ended with little or no cost. Nothing in the comments on our article by James Gallagher, Richard Jaeger and John Hattie, or Robert Slavin leads us to different conclusions. Their responses vary from qualified agreement with our findings (Gallagher) to outright rejection (Slavin). Here, we take the opportunity briefly to examine their comments.

Gallagher and the Importance Of the Curriculum

The main thrust of Gallagher's response to our article concerns the curriculum experiences that students receive. He asserts that the "true policy question" is, "Should students, regardless of their past performance or current aptitude or vocational interests, be receiving identical curricular experiences in secondary education?" A similar point is made by Hattie and Jaeger in their comments: "We have little assurance, then, that the differences in mathematics performance reported by Brewer, Rees, and Argys should be regarded as the effects of ability grouping rather than as the effects of differing mathematics curricula." We agree that this is an important issue.

It is likely that our estimates of the effects of "tracking" are picking up the effects of both curriculum differentiation and class composition. In the real world these factors go hand in hand, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to try to separate them. The very act of tracking allows students to be better matched to a curriculum suited to their needs. Teachers know that it is much easier to target specific curricula to homogeneous ability groups, which was one of the reasons tracking was instituted in the first place. The debate over the appropriate mathematics curricula for students in grades 8 through 10 is clearly a critical one, and detrackers seem to be divided among themselves as to what the curriculum should look like in a detracked world.

The "additional design issues" relating to our technical analyses that Gallagher raises do not amount to much. The NELS mathematics tests were designed by the Educational Testing Service to assess cognitive skills, and our sample consisted of only those students taking math in both eighth and 10th grades. …

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