Getting back on track

One of the dirtiest words in American education today is
“tracking.” Reformers and ed-school types alike deride the approach as racist,
classist, and worthy of eradication. And if they are talking about the practice
of confining some kids—typically poor or minority or both—into dead-end tracks
with soulless, ditto-driven instruction, they are absolutely right.

But they are dead wrong when they call for elimination of
tracking en toto—of removing all
“honors” courses, of putting all agemates in the same class regardless of their
level of preparedness. That’s a recipe for failure for kids of all achievement
levels—and more proof that today’s policy discussion is often devoid of common

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or even a cognitive
—to know that kids (and adults) learn best when presented with
material that is challenging—neither too easy so as to be boring nor too hard
as to be overwhelming. Like Goldilocks, we want it just right. Grouping kids so
that instruction can be more closely targeted to their current ability levels
helps make teaching and learning more efficient.

Click to play video from AEI debate on tracking

Click to play video of AEI debate on
student tracking featuring Mike Petrilli

Thankfully, we’re getting close to going beyond tracking—not
by grouping all kids together, but by moving in the opposite direction, by
customizing instruction to individual students. With the advent of online-learning
technologies and more targeted assessments, schools are discovering ways to
pinpoint exactly what students know and serve up instruction that meets them

Models like School
of One are starting to
deliver on that vision. At School of One, a middle school math program in New York City, students
are placed in specific learning modules based on their performance the previous
day, and on a sophisticated algorithm. Some kids are sent to small-group
instruction with similarly-abled peers; others head to one-on-one online
tutoring; others work independently on a computer; others get more traditional
classroom instruction. It’s all customized to match the students’ needs and
abilities. (Read more about School of One and other models
of individualized instruction in this excellent Education Next article.)

Proponents of detracking want to erase all of this progress.
Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and Carol
Burris, principal of a detracked Long Island high school, have gone so far as
to present a policy
pushing for states to ban
student tracking. They argue that heterogeneous classrooms will lift all boats,
ensuring that all students are afforded one “high caliber” level of
instruction. That sounds great, but what if some kids are six grade levels
ahead of their peers—adeptly solving proofs while their classmates struggle
with long division?

Of course, we don’t organize much of high school life this
way. We have “tracking” in extracurriculars. The most talented basketball
players hit the court together on varsity. The lesser skilled adolescents don
JV jerseys. The same goes for foreign-language instruction. Those on the way to
learning Spanish enroll in, say, Español IV, not Spanish I. But, with forced
detracking, those talented in math are corralled into classrooms with
lower-achievers to sit through 180 days of potentially under-stimulating

Why do we discriminate against academically talented kids
this way? Because “social justice” demands it, detracking proponents argue.
Tracking, they say, perpetuates our society’s pernicious divides. And, by
default, detracking will close them.

This is a difficult issue. It’s true that schools serving
both affluent and poor students will tend to face huge achievement gaps. Narrowing
these gaps—by bringing up the achievement of the kids who are behind, not by
suppressing the achievement of the top students—is absolutely a worthy goal. But
“social justice” shouldn’t require us to adopt a policy that could do material harm
to a broad swath of American children. And, based on a survey we administered
to teachers
a few years back, they agree. (See Figure E.)

Figure E: Teachers' Definition of "Justice and EqualityBut
in the detracking debate, that’s what we’re talking about: asking
students who are gifted in math or literature or science to expend
precious learning time helping other kids develop basic skills. In doing
so, we’re ignoring the needs of our strongest students—and we aren’t
doing our struggling students any favors.

Surely no child should be put in a classroom where she isn’t
challenged. The detracking contingent has that right. But it shouldn’t
be only our low-achievers who garner attention—and who demand “social
justice.” That push for a challenging education goes for high-achieving
kids, too.

A modified version of this argument was given by the author at an
American Enterprise Institute debate entitled “Should Schools Detrack?”
The event wrap-up can be found here.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on student tracking from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.