March 22, 2020
Were You “Tracked” in School?
During my 42 years as a public school educator (and teacher-educator) I tirelessly advocated against TRACKING. If you are not sure what tracking is, I’m sure you’ll recognize it when I describe it. Basically, and simply put, Tracking is sorting public school students according to their “ability”/”intelligence”/”aptitude.” In some schools there are as many as seven (7!) tracks. In general, historically, most schools use three or four tracks. There is, of course, an “Upper” tracks (“Honors” “College-bound,” etc.) which is determined by grades, IQ, test scores, or some combination of those and other factors. The problem with this, of course, is that all those measures are subjective or privilege people with certain kinds of intelligence or aptitudes, at the expense of others. I won’t go into my rants about why grades are a poor measure (totally subjective and, as we all know, Teacher X’s “A” can be based on far different criteria than Teacher Y’s “A”). Or why IQ tests are a poor measure (let it only be said that Alfred Binet, the creator of the most commonly used “IQ” test --- the Stanford-Binet exam --- developed his test to find the best roles for people who were enlisting in the Army and specifically said it SHOULD NOT be used as a “be-all/end-all” gauge of an individual’s intelligence!). All of us subjected to batteries of “standardized” testing can explain why these are not a good measure of one’s intelligence (“Why did Loretta chose ‘C’ as the answer to #5? Was it a guess or does she actually know the answer?” We’ll never know!). So, given that all these measures are far less than perfect we can begin to see why “Tracking” is not a legitimate way to sort students. It’s bad enough that we segregate students based on an inexact tool to begin with (Birth-years. Of course, exceptions are made to this “rule” when performance is involved. The brilliant cellist gets the First Chair whether (s)he is a Sophomore or a Senior; the unstoppable running back plays for the Varsity whether (s)he is a Freshman or Junior). “Tracking” adds another arbitrary layer to school segregating based on inexact --- and often inaccurate --- measures of intelligence.
The long-term consequences of this system may not be obvious when looking at our fellow citizens but the long-lasting effects of “tracking” are there. Think about being labeled “less than” from an early age. I will use my own experience as a case study you might recognize. In Junior High School (before “Middle Schools” were invented) my classmates and I were put into one of three tracks --- Honors (the supposedly “smart” kids), Regents (the “average” kids) or School (the “slow-learners”). Making things worse, our class Sections were designated by the corresponding letter of our group: 7H, 7R, or 7S. If you know Jr. High/Middle School students it won’t take long to figure out that the “7S” group were labeled “Stupid” by their less-than-sensitive classmates who, even if they were “7R” felt okay --- because they weren’t in the “S” track (akin to poor whites in the Jim Crow South). Imagine, if you can, the long-term effect on someone who spends 6 years in the “S” group and receives a “Local” diploma (not a New York State Regents Diploma) after working his/her way through this system. Another factor, and there is a ton of research on this, is that Teachers who work with students labeled “average” or “slow-learners,” historically, hold much lower expectations for their students, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, imagine the long-term consequences of Tracking --- an entire segment of the population who not only might see themselves as “Low Track” but certainly are justified in believing that everyone else sees them that way.
Having created a school without tracking and having instituted an “A.P. for All” policy (every 11th grader at my last school in NYC took Advanced Placement United States History, like it or not) I have seen, first-hand, how populating classrooms with a diverse group of young people benefits all those involved. As long as teachers maintain high expectations for every student while conducting a safe space that allows for every voice to heard respectfully --- fewer and fewer students see themselves in a dim light. I will contend that students know who the smartest kids are (from an early age), just as athletes know who the best basketball player is but being on the team with the smartest kid/best player makes one feel part of the journey and not “less than,” in a separate room with a group of “losers.”
This has to do with opportunity and, in an aggressively capitalist nation that privileges one group over others (you know who you are, White Men), we hear a great deal about “merit” and “carrying your weight,” etc. But those folks who were relegated to the “Lower Track” honestly believe the system is “rigged” (because it is!) and that “Elites” keep the deck stacked in their favor. This explains why Trump has been so successful in winning over the “poorly educated” (as HE called them). 57% of Trump’s support comes from people with a high school education or less.
As I peruse Facebook (which I do less and less) I see that the people who are out there defending Trump are indeed my Bay Shore classmates who were relegated to the lower tracks and my students (from many schools districts and over many years) who were denied admission to AP or other “Honors” classes --- Trump’s “poorly educated.” I do not necessarily believe any of these people are less intelligent than I. I do believe that I was lucky and was given more opportunities than many of my peers. I may have scored well on an IQ test, I may have had teachers who thought I was a “bright kid” and gave me good grades. I was lucky in that my parents valued reading and writing and my brother and I had books all over the place. There are so many variables that go into creating who we become. But school is a Big Factor --- and Tracking people can only have deleterious effects on many people. Playing sports, I was lucky to be put into situations that combined people with a variety of skills, intelligences, etc. As a result, I had friends from those “other” tracks --- and we got along fine and I remember wondering why at least some of those guys weren’t in my “Honors” classes. But “the School” makes decisions and we all live with the consequences. I think I understand the rancor and resentment Trump’s cultish followers feel and I think at least part of their allegiance was created in those school systems that insist on Tracking students thereby instilling inequity from an early age.
3/22/2020 03:21:16 pm
My relatively small high school had five tracks as well as the “academic” and “commercial” tracks. I swore I would never perpetuate tracking in my professional career. I hated it when I was student and never saw the rational then or ever. At FLMS, we had multi-age classes with 6,7,8 grade students in all science, social studies and language arts classes. Teachers were masters at differentiating instructions and often used strategies like Socratic Seminars to promote dialogue and interaction. Of course, NYS testing was among the factors that helped dismantle that organization along with a superintendent who was not an educator but a politician..
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