Is tracking a form of segregation and oppression?

There’s talk in our building of eliminating the academic math classes. My initial reaction was: This is a terrible idea. Students need these classes. We need to meet them where they are. Maybe I should go on the record and send an email to admin. I shared my frustration with a trusted colleague who held a very different opinion. She basically said, “You’re going to the wrong person if you think I agree with you.” She believes the academic level students need positive role models. Eliminating that track and placing them in an at-grade level math class is a good thing. I respect her opinion, but I still disagreed. I felt we would be doing the students a disservice.

I couldn’t let it go so this morning I spent some time re-reading portions of Linda Darling-Hammond’s book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. In part, her position on tracking is that it denies equity and access. It caused me to begin reassessing my position. I was still uncertain because I teach in an upper middle class community. I’m thinking Darling-Hammond is talking primarily about poverty. That doesn’t apply to my district.
Then one of Diane Ravitch’s posts caught my attention: Rothstein: Cannot Close Achievement Gap without Ending Segregation. The article struck me and I began to think…

Could tracking be considered a form of segregation in that a tracked curriculum denies students access or equitable access? Could tracking be considered a form of oppression?

I never before thought of tracking in those terms. I learn so much by reading Ravitch’s blog that I posed the two questions in that thread.

Here’s part of the discussion.

Ponderosa says:

February 23, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Mary –I was thinking the same thing. Tracking is segregation within the school. And I think tracking is GOOD because it allows me as a history teacher to tailor my instruction to meet kids in their “zone of proximal development”; that is, to give them knowledge that makes them stretch but is not beyond their reach. Tracking is differentiated instruction, but without the pretense that all kids of the same age are getting the same education. Can’t we live without this pretense? Or will we continue to lie to ourselves about the real state of the content of our kids’ minds? Will we continue to preserve the pretty-looking heterogeneous classrooms that frequently bore the top kids and bewilder the low kids? (And will we divert this argument from one about substance to one about semantics [“He said, ‘top’ and ‘low’ kids!”]?)     

teachingeconomist says:

February 23, 2013 at 6:19 pm

It is widely held here that poverty is the greatest disadvantage that poor and disadvantaged students face. It is the explanation for poor assesment scores and can not be overcome by what happens in the school. It seems perfectly reasonable that poverty would also have a significant impact on learning in the classroom.

This is an important and very interesting thread, tying together discussions on tracking within schools, “skimming” between schools, the relationship between poverty, test scores, and student performance, and the role of traditional zoned school in SES segregation in the country. I look forward to seeing more comments.

I wonder how the grades taught influence perceptions about the issues here. Would an elementary teacher have the same intuition and experience as a high school teacher?

DNAmartin says:

February 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Rothstein argues, “When disadvantaged students are grouped together in schools, their challenges are compounded and build upon each other.” The knowledge deficits that you speak about in this post are compounded when students are place in segregated or tracked school environments. Disadvantages students need to interact in classrooms with many speakers and readers who have this powerful general knowledge that you describe. Research shows that they make greater progress in achievement when they have access to peers with the general knowledge. When they interact and talk with students with the same deficits as their own then these deficits are compounded. Disadvantaged students can bring great assets of creativity, problem solving, compassion, unique and valuable cultural experiences, perseverance, empathy, morality, patience, story-telling, and funds of knowledge in areas of nature or music to their more advantaged peers. Their assets are many and diverse when we look.

I do agree with you that we need to give these kids what upper class parents have been giving their kids. However, I don’t see upper class parents assigning their kids the KIPP boot-camp style school discipline that you mention. Kids do need the daily one-on-one annotation and thinking about daily life events that you describe.

I’m beginning think tracking is a form of segregation and oppression. Have I been a party to academic apartheid?

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2 thoughts on “Is tracking a form of segregation and oppression?

  1. This was a hot topic when I was in education grad classes a few years ago. I was studying math education at the time, but one outspoken colleague was a science teacher and was adamant that mixed classes were essential. The math teachers’ concerns had to do with exactly the concerns you voiced, about the “zone of proximal development”: Students who are ready for Calculus simply cannot learn Calculus at the same time in a classroom with students who are only ready for Algebra I. The science teacher talked about group work, differentiation, and all these other great ideas, but when it comes down to it, students learn math at different speeds.

    Since then I’ve actually taught science classes (Chemistry and Physics) at a small high school where we don’t have the capacity to differentiate those classes, and I totally agree with that outspoken science teacher in grad school… when it comes to science. I still struggle having one Physics class with students who are in Calculus alongside students who haven’t yet had Geometry (crazy, right?), and while it is working, there is so much I’m leaving out of the curriculum. However, I could *not* do that in math. Math builds on itself long-term so much more than any other subject that students who are not developmentally ready for variables and abstraction should not be forced into upper maths, nor visa versa.

    I believe that not tracking is possible in subjects that don’t “build on themselves” from year to year. However, in math it is impractical and unreasonable to not differentiate students by classes, although I think there should be much, much more flexibility and forgiveness for when students advance to the next “class”.

    Having said that, we should be careful that tracking in math does not allow for segregation and oppression. Too often students are held back or pushed forward in the math tracking because of race or social status, and we need to be careful that does not happen. Teachers who can judge without bias of race and class (or pushy parents!) or simply restricting it to testing (not the best, I know) would be some ways to do this, but it won’t be a perfect world. Of course, we shouldn’t resign ourselves to something that we see is impossible: we are teachers after all, aren’t we? 🙂

  2. I teach middle school math, and my experience is that mixed classes do work, at least in middle school. I have students who learn math at home with parents (as my third grader does with me) or who take extracurricular math (the Boston area has many choice including ones with names like SMART school, and Russian Math). As sixth graders these students often know much of the arithmetic in the state standards, but typically only as procedures – they don’t have the practice standards. In my class they learn to apply what they know in problem solving and they must also develop their number sense side by stride with kids who are learning it for the first time. As long as they have engaging problems, they don’t need to be doing Algebra 1 in 6th grade, even if on paper they would be perfectly capable of learning it. I don’t spend whole group time review those problem sets but they have a small cohort and answer keys, and I am available to them when they are stuck. Furthermore other students who are also faster learners are motivated to get through the basic materials so they can take on the challenge work too. Also for some tasks I can mix the kids up.

    At the same time, I have seen a group of low achieving 8th graders drag each other down, even students who might have been borderline solid achievers. A kind of malaise settles on that section that cuts across all their classes and is deeply demotivating and demoralizing for students and teachers alike. The students see themselves as the “dumb” section, and they know that no matter how hard they work, they will always be inthe dumb section.

    Another school I taught at which wanted leveled math classes, but not tracking, we scheduled all math classes for one grade at the same time. We math teachers had to teach (and prep) at multiple grade levels but it meant that students who needed to be grouped in math could be mixed for all other subjects. In that way we avoided the tracking notion that once on that track, there is no way off. Also, we made it clear that there was fluidity from section to section for those who could demonstrate they were capable of doing the work. The key here was that the curriculum sequence was the same across sections, just different tasks and problem sets. The so called fastest section wasn’t doing pre algebra in 5 months and then startng algebra 1. There is enough richness in the math to keep everybody engaged and together.

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