[I am not an expert. Maybe you are, in which case I would greatly appreciate a comment pointing out things I’m missing. Much thanks to my anonymous partner in crime, the unlinkable TracingWoodgrains. We’ve been reading this literature together, and while we don’t agree entirely about tracking this piece is a result of our work together. Any good parts of this wouldn’t have been possible without his collaboration.]
What does “tracking” typically mean in American schools?
European-style differentiation into vocational/academic tracks is rare in the US, though it used to be very common earlier in the 20th century.
Now, most elementary classrooms have tables or little within-class groups for reading and math. As kids get older, it’s more and more common for schools to create high/middle/low classes for various subjects, but especially for math. By 8th Grade, most kids are assigned a class based on past performance, and sometimes those classes are “accelerated,” meaning they take Algebra 1 in 8th Grade. By high school, high/middle/low tracking is near universal in math.
(Some of this picture I get from Loveless. Loveless also notes that there’s a lot of terminological confusion between tracking and ability grouping. I’ll use the terms interchangeably here.)
In addition, though it’s not called “tracking,” a lot of school resources are dedicated towards students who aren’t performing highly. This amounts to a kind of ability grouping and is super-common throughout k-12. It’s federally mandated ability grouping, in fact.
Who benefits from conventional tracking? Who loses?
If anyone benefits, it’s almost certainly students in the higher tracks who gain and students in the lower tracks who lose. But the effects aren’t clear, and the impact of tracking isn’t particularly well-understood.
In 1987 Robert Slavin reviewed the existing literature for elementary and secondary students and found practically no benefits for anyone from conventional tracking — but also no real harm done to any group. On this basis he argued against conventional ability grouping, seeing as it helped no one and was morally noxious.
But the studies he reviewed had limits (small size, not nationally representative). Using better data, a number of researchers (Hoffer, Gamoran and Mare, Argys, Rees and Brewer) came to the conclusion that conventional tracking benefits students in the high tracks and hurts those in the low tracks. But it’s really hard to control for the right factors in these definitely non-experimental studies, and Betts and Shkolnik raise questions about the results of these papers (summarized, as is this whole story, in this review by Betts).
(Just to mess with everybody, Figlio and Page argue that by attracting stronger students to the school (because parents seek tracking) students in low-tracks benefit, indirectly, from tracking.)
Recently, there was an experiment in Kenya — one of the very few true experiments! — where they randomly instituted tracking into some schools and measured the impact. It was positive for everybody, but there are a million differences between this context and the one in the US, starting with the number of ability groups (just 2) and class size — over 45 kids are in each classroom! It’s hard to know what to take from this study for the situation in the US.
And there was also a recent big meta-meta-analysis that found no benefits and no harm for between-class grouping, echoing Slavin.
Loveless says the evidence is inconclusive, and that’s echoed by Betts, and the fact that it’s not a clear effect tells you something about how tangly this whole issue is. But if it helps anybody, it’s probably top-track students, and low-track students would be the ones hurt by tracking.
Wait, you said “conventional tracking.” What’s unconventional tracking?
Slavin, Destroyer of Tracking, has a school-turnaround program with good results called Success for All that depends heavily on grouping students by ability. How? By adopting something like the Joplin Plan, which assesses frequently and regroups students based on those assessments. Students across ability groups show benefits in these programs. (Though, not without controversy.)
Another form of grouping that isn’t widely used is acceleration, e.g. placing 1st Graders in 2nd Grade math if they’re ready for it, and continuing down the line. There is research supporting the notion that acceleration benefits the accelerated student in completely straightforward ways — they learn things that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. See that meta-meta-analysis for instance.
Does race impact where you’re tracked?
Using one of those large, nationally reprsentative samples mentioned above, Lucas and Gamoran (fierce opponents of tracking) found that race wasn’t a factor in track placement. Meaning, controlling for academic performance, race isn’t a further factor in deciding where a student gets placed.
Because of the gap in academic success that Black and whites collectively experience, this still means that Black students disproportionately occupy the lower tracks.
In contrast to Lucas and Gamoran, Dauber et al, found that race was a factor in track placement in Baltimore schools. It’s hard to know for sure how to fit Dauber with Gamoran’s bigger picture results.
What about other non-academic factors? Do they impact track placement?
Gamoran found that, unlike race, socio-economic status does statistically impact track placement (modestly) suggesting that, somehow, high-SES students tend to get tracked above their academic performance. Why? We don’t know for sure. Maybe it’s parents? Maybe it’s the intangibles, like being a good student with homework done and things organized because they have parents at home who can help manage the academic lives since they aren’t coming home at 10 PM from their second job?
But we can’t really know yet how precisely SES helps determine tracking.
What do we know about the quality of these low-track classes, as compared to higher-tracks?
Even defenders of tracking agree that low-track classes are often very poorly taught and that this is a major problem. Here’s Loveless: “Even under the best of conditions, low tracks are difficult classrooms. The low tracks that focus on academics often try to remediate through dull, repetitious seatwork.” Much of Oakes’ contribution is documenting the lousiness of a lot of low track classes.
How does this square with researchers who find no negative impact of tracking on low-track students? All this would mean is that instead of failing these students in low-track classes that schools typically fail these students at similar rates in untracked schools.
Speaking personally, it seems to me that the strongest argument against tracking is the state of low-track classes. Forgetting academic performance, these students need to be placed in safe, respectful, happy classrooms staffed by competent teachers who believe in and care for their students. I think we have plenty of reports showing that this is often not the case in low-track classes, and this is what I saw at the first school I taught at.
So is the tracking status quo bad for racial inequality?
Put it like this: if we immediately removed all US tracking and replaced them with heterogeneous classes, the result would possibly be narrowing of the black-white score gap somewhat — a bit from improving the performance of low-track students, but mostly by limiting the advancement of high-track students.
Those high-tracks don’t just contain white students (schools are also highly segregated remember), and another national priority is increasing the representation of Black and Latino students in the highest ranks of achievement. Some of the tools we have for increasing representation are universal screening for tracked gifted programs, and removing tracking would also remove these programs. Without public access to gifted programs, would wealthier, whiter students just pursue these out of school, exacerbating inequities at the highest levels of achievement?
Still, the net effect would probably be a narrowing of the black-white gap.
OK, so let’s get rid of tracking entirely.
Only if you’re willing to really restrict the amount of learning that some students are capable of — either through deliberate acceleration or by maintaining track differences — for the sake of equity. After all, the flipside of the evidence that tracking exacerbates inequalities is that it really does help some students, usually those in the top tracks. (And, if you doubt that evidence, there are still unconventional tracking methods that we could be using to further accelerate more students, deliberately, from younger years.)
The tough question here is what happens to the learning of students who are ready for more than their heterogeneous class is offering them.
But can’t you teach in a way so that everybody maximizes what they could potentially learn?
This is the golden snitch of teaching, right? You win the game if you can grab it, but it always manages to slip away.
Maybe there are schools that have pulled this off (Boaler, Burris Heubert & Levin), but they seem to be relatively rare. In general, schools that tended towards untracking amidst the heights of the anti-tracking movement inched back towards tracking (Loveless).
Another note: a lot of untracked elementary schools just use ability grouping within classes. Maybe there’s increased mobility between those groups, but teachers need to find ways to deal with heterogeneity. Pedagogies that benefit everybody with no costs are highly vaunted within education, but I’m skeptical, and there isn’t evidence that these schools provide widely replicable models.
But if you don’t remove tracking, is there any way to improve the status quo?
One approach might be to pursue some of the unconventional tracking options, though that would involve pushing against what Larry Cuban calls the “grammar of schooling.”
But there are also many examples of tracked schools that offer a good education to their lowest-tracks. In fact, Rochelle Gutierrez studied eight high school math departmenets, some tracked and some untracked. She came to the conclusion that “tracking is not the pivotal policy on which student advancement in mathematics depends.” What is crucial for her are a whole host of other factors, including strong pedagogy, school culture, and solid, shared curricular resources.
More examples of effective tracking programs that promote mobility come from Catholic schools. (Wait, Catholic schools are closing left and right as they lose students to those charter schools that politicians made such a big deal about? Whoops.) See Camarena and Valli.
Likewise, Adam Gamoran identified examples of schools with successful low-track classes, and identified features of these programs. It’s what you’d expect — high expectation, good pedagogy, making sure good teachers work with the low tracks too.
Which is more promising — expanding hetereogenous instruction or improving low-track classes?
Let a thousand flowers bloom, etc., but I think if you put me in charge of a district or a school I’d focus on improving low-track experiences. It seems to me as if there are more cases of working low-track classes than examples of successful heterogeneous programs. And, as a matter of experience, I am not sure I believe in cooperative learning as a pedagogy that mitigates the risks to high-achieving kids.
Tracking or untracking: what do you say?
Well, it really depends on the school. I think if you put me in charge of a school I’d want to follow Gutierrez in focusing on things like curriculum, high expectations for every kid, safe classrooms with comptetent teachers for every kid. Tracking or not wouldn’t necessarily be my most important decision.
I don’t think I could stomach a school that tracked strongly along racial lines. That’s not good for school culture or the experience of students in the lower-track, and so I’d probably want to untrack that school as much as possible. That said, I’d still want to see programs for students at either extreme of the achievement spectrum. (And I’d be federally mandated to provide a lot of such resources at the lower end of that spectrum.)
Otherwise, I’d be fine with tracking probably, as I’m fine with the tracking that my current school uses. And I’d be really interested in seeing if I could employ some of the unconventional tracking plans like the Joplin plan or reasonable acceleration, like letting 4th Graders take math with 5th Graders.
Does that include grade-skipping? That’s rarely used in schools, but it’s a form of acceleration.
Grade-skipping seems to generally benefit those who skip (Park Lubinski & Benbow). I’d want to be able to use it, mostly when kids aren’t happy and we think it’s because they’re unchallenged by their current grade.
Why don’t more schools use unconventional tracking?
There are two ways of putting this, I think. The first is to state, as Cuban and Tyack do, that there is a grammar of schooling that resists reform. The typical age-graded classroom is a strong feature of schools, and both of these unconventional tracking methods push against age-grading.
But why should age-grading be such a persistent element of schooling? I find David Labaree helpful in explaining this, because what educational consumers seek are either markers of distinction for their kids, or equitable access to those markers.
Learning is only of secondary value to most parents — they don’t seek learning without distinction — and so something like acceleration is very hard for schools to offer more widely without leading to chaos as parents demand ever-increasing acceleration for their kids.
Age-grading as a strong default is a compromise that helps schools manage the demands of the educational consumer.
But the Joplin Plan, and other plans that assess kids frequently to better determine and match their curricular needs, seem like they deserve more attention than they get.
So does anybody like the status quo?
Maybe not, but that’s by design. Schools aren’t designed optimally for learning or for equity. School as it exists is a sort of uneasy compromise between contradictory principles — fair access and award of distinction — and the competing demands of different groups. Some claim to have revolutionary solutions, but these probably don’t exist. You can reduce inequity, but only if you’re willing to curtail the learning of some. You can improve learning for all, but risk exacerbating inequity. This is an optimization problem with more than one possible solution. Or, as Rochelle Gutierrez says in a different context, the answer to the questions of tracking are usually “neither and both” sort of answers.
That said, in math education circles, tracking is unfairly maligned, in particular by NCTM. In Catalyzing Change they say that the research is “unequivocal” that tracking harms low-track students in permanent and irrevocable ways. Looking more broadly at the literature, it’s hard for me to agree with that take.