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What's So Bad About Tracking?

If there's one word that is guaranteed to get the attention of Americans, it's equity.  I don't know anyone who is against it when it comes to education.  Yet for some reason, we forget that equity applies not only to low-achieving students but to high-achieving students as well. Consider the practice of tracking ("Study Suggesting Benefits of High-Track Classes Doesn't Support Conclusion that Tracking Promotes Equity," National Education Policy Center, Apr. 26). 

According to a report from the Brown Center, tracking is important in providing high achievers, including students of color, with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the most demanding courses in high school. At first, that sounds like great news. After all, tracking benefits high-achieving students of all races.  The alleged trouble is that the report does not consider how tracking affects students who are placed in lower-track classes.

In other words, unless tracking can be shown to equally benefit everyone regardless of ability, it is at best problematic.  I say it's time to get real.  Only in this country are we fixated on engineering equal outcomes for all students.  Our competitors abroad have no problem whatsoever in tracking.  For example, Singapore begins the practice of differentiation with its Primary School Leaving Exam and continues doing so throughout the educational process.  I think that's far too early.  But even if differentiation begins in high school, most Americans oppose it. 

I don't understand why we persist in treating our academically gifted students as stepchildren.  They can be our future leaders.  But we feel guilty if we provide them with the environment in which they can flourish.  Perhaps we think it is elitist.  When classes are mixed, teachers have to design lessons that they hope will not bore the brightest nor discourage the slowest.  Most often, they fail despite their best efforts.

Unless we disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that college is for everyone, we will continue to squander the academic abilities of high-achieving students of all races.  Yet we can't seem to get comfortable with the notion that students are not being shortchanged by tracking.  I had countless students who were in my low-ability classes and yet went on to gratifying, well paying, steady careers.    What is inequitable about that?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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