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Student Tracking vs. Academic Pathways: Different...or the Same?

The most enduring feature of the American education system is its character as a sorting machine. But you would never know it from the way we think about our education system.

Many American teachers think of tracking students as a particularly European vice, characterized by assignment of students to irreversible roles in society as early as age 14 on the basis of their score on some exam, or, worse, on the basis of their place in the social order.  This perspective is reinforced by the structure of European secondary schools, which are typically differentiated by purpose, with some for semi-skilled vocational students, some for higher skilled vocational and technical students and others for those going to college. It is, they think, all there for anyone to see.

And these teachers think that Americans are uniquely free of this vice. In contrast to Europe, they say, the United States always offers its students a second and, if necessary, third chance, so that those students who are "late bloomers" have a chance to recover from a bad day and students from any social background can go all the way. Their lore is full of stories of students who did not seem to amount to much early on achieving great success later, their light switch turned on by some teacher long after everyone else had given up on them. Our high schools are typically comprehensive high schools, a single destination for students from all social classes where students from any of those social classes have a chance to move freely up the social ladder on the basis of their innate talent and drive to succeed.

With these lenses, Europe is tradition-bound, class-based and rigid, denying capable young people the opportunity for social mobility that education could afford. And the United States is the opposite: truly democratic, class-free, not so eager to deny opportunity based on a single exam score, very eager to lift up those who would be denied opportunity in Europe by giving them a second chance as often as necessary.

But before we tell the optometrist that we will buy these glasses, let's try on another pair we see over there in the adjacent case. If you look through these glasses, you get a different picture.  Here you see that unlike the Europeans, we sort kids into Bluebirds, Robins and other avian tribes when they first enter school. Before fourth grade is over, a large fraction thought to have low learning potential are almost certain to have the judgment verified, not because they could not learn, but because they were never given a curriculum challenging enough to learn anything. By the time they are in high school, if they have not yet dropped out—and many of these kids do, because they cannot read—they have been sorted into bins labeled selective college, college, vocational-technical and general. None of these kids, of course, have been formally labeled in this way, but they might as well have been. Because they know the kids on the underside of the sorting machine will get another chance, they just keep passing them up the system, unchallenged and uneducated.  What the OECD data show us is that in the United States social class and parental education are more predictive of educational achievement than in most other industrialized countries.  Our second chance system is among the most aggressive sorting systems in the world.  It provides less—not more—social mobility than the education systems of the other wealthy countries.


Most American educators are now determined opponents of tracking, although tracking of the kind I have just described is alive and well.  Now along comes the idea that we ought to provide pathways for the kids in our secondary schools.  That word means different things to different people.  Some, like my friend Bob Schwartz, use it to describe ways that schools, working with business, can provide real opportunities for kids who now leave school with no useful credential and can provide apprentice-like solutions that will lead to a far better future, something that some European countries do far better than we.  When those kids are offered a strong academic education, combined with a work-based training that can lead to a rewarding career with no dead-ends, everyone wins.

But, that bright light aside, I see the now-reviled-but-still-very-much-alive tracking system being replaced by another system that looks like the old one, just re-labeled. How about 1) headed for selective colleges (at least a couple of AP courses with scores of 3 or better), 2) headed for open-admissions state four-year colleges and lower-tier private ones (at least an 8th grade reading level and some college credit), 3) headed for community college (same as #2), 4) headed for minimum-wage work (high school diploma/managed to show up for four years of high school), 5) headed for unemployment, poverty and prison (couldn't read high school texts and so dropped out). Much is made now of giving high school students a chance to take college-level—especially community college-level—courses in high school.  But this seems to me to simply introduce another level in the sorting system.  Teachers will encourage some students to take such courses, just as they have been encouraging some kids but not others to take AP courses.  In both cases, this selection of some students to take a more challenging curriculum than others simply replicates the basic form of the sorting system. 

The most insidious aspect of the sorting—or tracking—system is the way it results in teachers making judgments about the innate ability of students and then adjusting the challenge of the curriculum they get to the judgment they made. This inevitably leads to self-fulfilling prophecies. 

There is only one antidote to the sorting mentality—new or old—and its insidious consequences. That is to stop adjusting the challenge level of the curriculum down to the presumed ability of the students. It is to set high standards for all students, not just some, and then to do whatever is necessary to get the students to those standards. That sounds impossibly naïve, but it is just what the top-performing countries do. Judging from their results, it works. 

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