Progressive Education and the Tracking Debate

By Graubard, Allen | Radical Teacher, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Progressive Education and the Tracking Debate


Graubard, Allen, Radical Teacher


In the first installment of this discussion I focused on the current state of vocational education, in historical context, with case studies of two actual school programs (Allen Graubard, "Could Vocational Education Be Progressive?" Radical Teacher 69). Here, in the second part, I want to consider the tracking issue in that style--historical context and current scene, with a case study. I will raise questions along the way about commonly accepted progressive views.

A story of how differentiated formats--especially the "comprehensive" high school--became universal in U.S. public schools is shared across the political spectrum. Bowles and Gintis write, from the left, that although the old, village school remained a nostalgic dream, "all agreed that the sheer increase in numbers of students alone necessitated bureaucratic control in the modern era. Thus Taylorism in the school was justified in the same technocratic terms [as] the hierarchical division of labor ..." (Schooling in Capitalist America; Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, Basic Books, 1976, p. 191). Democratic schooling in this view was to fit each student for his or her own life work. In conservative versions of the story (e.g., Diane Ravitch's Left Back), this was the original sin, a choice made by progressives when they could have done otherwise. For radicals, objective conditions such as the needs of capitalist elites provide explanation.

This story obviously does not include John Dewey's ideas about the conditions for effective learning, nor the "pedagogical progressive" experiments he and his daughter Evelyn described in their 1915 book Schools of To-morrow. Dewey explicitly opposed schooling that classified young people and assigned them to different programs according to likely vocational outcomes. In particular, he opposed letting the work relations of industrial capitalism govern the purposes of education. As David Labaree puts it, progressives see the process of tracking students toward eventual kinds of work as "a mechanism that blocks individual chances for social mobility and political equality by means of a self-fulfilling prophecy--predicting a working-class job role for a working-class student and then preparing him or her in such a way that any other outcome is unlikely" (How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education, Yale University Press, 1997, p. 40). In this perspective, progressives are those who historically have opposed the social efficiency approach, which responds to the interests of business most directly through tracking--ironically, the core innovation of social efficiency progressives.

There is little light to be cast by fretting about the historically or intellectually correct use of the term "progressive." What is important is staying aware that the term does not work as a clear reference, and that in any case the historical origins of an institution cannot fully explain its current meaning and role. In this essay I want to question rather than repeat the condemnation of tracking--which stance is not in any simple way "radical" opposition to the powers that be. First, a look at the educational research on "tracking." That the debate has reached a high level of public media visibility was marked by an item in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of September 28, 2003. In summarizing the opposed positions, it described a recent overview of the extensive and disputed research on tracking and ability grouping. (1) The main message was that the issue is complicated, the studies don't settle it, and experts disagree on what the research shows. No expert myself, I have read some studies, and understand the broad summary often given: that students in lower tracks, across the entire set of American public high schools, come out lower than their untracked counterparts in measured academic achievement; while high track students either do just as well in non-tracked classes, or (here the research is ambiguous) they do somewhat better in tracked classes. …

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