Tracking; Part Two
How Tracking Stacks the Deck
As the product/beneficiary of a highly tracked secondary school education system, I can see at least FIVE advantages accrued, simply by being placed in “Honors” classes. These were: (1) Teachers with high expectations; (2) Deferential treatment (from staff, students, and community); (3)College (where, by the way, there is NO tracking --- or, more precisely, “self-tracking,” a much different animal); (4) Post-College Opportunities; and (5) Generational Legacy. Let’s take a look at each of these factors to see how Tracking privileges a few at the expense of the many.
Teacher Expectations. While I have noted that tracking doesn’t “officially” begin until (usually) Middle School/Junior High, it actually raises its ugly head earlier than that, during elementary school --- with the same results regarding teacher expectations. When “Reading Groups/Circles” are created and some kids are sent to read with the Robins and others meet with the Turkeys, kids catch on pretty quickly as to what’s going on. The same holds true for “pull-outs” and GAT (“gifted and talented) programs. However you want to label it, we sort kids out and designate some as “smart” and others as “less so.” And this has a clear effect on teachers. Studies that go as far back as 1927 consistently confirming the “Pygmalion in the Classroom” effect (the title of the classic Rosenthal and Jacobson study from 1968). Later research by Jeannie Oakes at UCLA (in 1985) also clearly showed that:
teachers’ expectations about their students strongly affect how teachers treat these students in ways that create self-fulfilling prophesies. Students treated as if they were high achieving acted in high-achieving ways. Students treated as if they were low achieving performed as low achievers. Expectations can create reality. In a circular fashion, students’ and teachers’ perceptions and expectations both reflect and determine their achievement goals. They influence the strategies they use to meet these goals; the skills, energy, and other resources they use to apply these strategies; and the rewards they expect from making—or not making—this effort. And as research shows, teachers’ behaviors reflecting these expectations are related to measures of student academic achievement. (Kaplan & Owings: Establishing a Student-Centered Culture, Sage Publishing 2013)
Despite almost a century’s worth of research proving how detrimental tracking can be, we persist. For those of us who have been teachers and tried to work toward equity in our classrooms, the deleterious effects of tracking are obvious on a daily basis. As we survey the current divisions in our polity I would submit that it is, finally, a lot of chickens coming home to roost. Kids know when a system is rigged, and those kids, particularly if they are cut out of receiving the benefits of a first-class (“Honors”) education. The problem, as I will describe later in this essay, is that one of the other tragic results of denying equity in education is that we breed a population that is not un-intelligent but is, in fact, grossly ignorant.
Deferential Treatment. “Honors” students are often given a “wide berth” in their schools. They are seldom in “trouble” (and, if they are, their “punishment” is light), they are often referred to in “glowing” terms by teachers --- quite the opposite of how their peers in the lower tracks are treated or described. The first --- and still one of the best --- book I read about being a teacher was James Herndon’s How to Survive in Your Native Land. Herndon is better known for his first book, The Way it S’pozed to Be, but How to Survive, published in the spring of 1971, when I was a senior in college, had a lifelong effect on me --- and my views and practice as a teacher. On page 92 he says: an American school must have winners and losers. This is because, as he notes in the conclusion of his essay on “Find a Good School and Send Your Kid There,” The school’s purpose is not teaching. The school’s purpose is to separate sheep from goats. (p. 96) And, indeed, this is true. We can still see, in our public schools in 2020, that we are following an early 20th century model that was actually devised in 1892! The mis-use of poor Alfred Binet’s “IQ” tests began in schools shortly after World War One, when large-scale public schooling really began in this country. Looking back, if you are a Baby Boomer in particular, you can see how schools, architecturally, very much resembled factories and the “workers” (students) within were being trained to fit into our then-industrial society. First: sort the “managers” from the “workers” (Tracking!), then put a premium on obeying authority (the Teacher) and, finally, discipline (move when the bell tells you). Then the day unwinds like a nice assembly line --- 45 minutes for the English bolt, 45 minutes to secure the Science axle, another 45 minutes for the Phys.Ed. hubcaps, a short break for lunch, and so on. Amid this separating “sheep from goats,” the “sheep” get treated better, receive privileges, and, most significantly, are held to higher standards with higher expectations. Self-fulfilling prophecies.
COLLEGE. A major distinguishing mark in United States society is: did you go to college? One year? Two? Three? Did you graduate? Where did you go to college? All of these questions directly affect directions your adult life travels. Wound into this journey are several important factors. First and foremost, you probably went to college because you actually acquired certain skills in high school. You can read, write, probably understand a bit about doing research, maybe have some organization skills and, if you were an “Honors” student, you might be able to think critically. College not only rewards those skills but significantly embellishes them. The advantages college gives a person are not just the academic skills and resources but also the expansion of one’s world view. Even if you went to your local State University, you were probably thrust into a more diverse society than the one you came from (I worked with a colleague who grew up in Westchester and went to college at SUNY Albany, where her freshman roommate had never met a Jew before --- and wanted to know if she had horns on her head!). You will also be bombarded with new ideas from a variety of directions. You will be reading things you didn’t even know existed and being prompted by professors to consider concepts that were alien to your earlier life. Finally, you learn enormous amounts from those you go to college with. Yes, there are parties and bull sessions galore --- but there is also some discourse, some conversations that you never would have had back at your high school or in your hometown. One’s college experience has layers that include the academic, the social, and the political --- and often result in benefits that are economic.
Post-College Opportunities. Here’s a sobering quote from a January 12, 2017 USA Today front page story:
WASHINGTON — Americans with no more than a high school diploma have fallen so far behind college graduates in their economic lives that the earnings gap between college grads and everyone else has reached its widest point on record.
The growing disparity has become a source of frustration for millions of Americans worried that they — and their children — are losing economic ground.
College graduates, on average, earned 56% more than high school grads in 2015, according to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute. That was up from 51% in 1999 and is the largest such gap in EPI's figures dating to 1973.
Since the Great Recession ended in 2009, college-educated workers have captured most of the new jobs and enjoyed pay gains. Non-college grads, by contrast, have faced dwindling job opportunities and an overall 3% decline in income, EPI's data shows.
"The post-Great Recession economy has divided the country along a fault line demarcated by college education," Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, said in a report last year.
(Bold print, my addition)
Where the Baby Boom generation was told a “college education” would be beneficial, today’s economy makes it a “sink or swim” proposition and, once again, it is not hard to see how tracking has had onerous results and, I would contend, created the Trump Cult of “poorly educated” followers. These are not stupid people but they are ignorant in the truest sense. According to Merriam-Webster, ignorant is defined as:
destitute of knowledge or education; lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified.
It is why it’s probably pointless to argue politics in our current environment --- we have become a Nation that reflects the tracked schooling we have received.
Generational Legacy. When I was growing up I knew two guys who went to Prep Schools. I was pretty oblivious to that whole world (which is why my rant about Tracking is aimed at Public schooling) and it wasn’t until I went to college that I learned just how extensive the prep school world was. More than that, though, I learned about legacies. When I was a freshman at Yale, George W. Bush was a senior. As you may know, his father had attended Yale (George H.W. Bush), as had his grandfather, Prescott. That’s a dyed-in-the-wool legacy. What has unfolded in the years since the Baby Boomers went to college is a notion that if you went to college, your children will, too. Generational Legacy. They may not go to the school you attended but they will go to college --- and accrue the benefits thereof. What we find, demographically, these days is that most “first in the family” college students (as I was in 1967) are overwhelmingly the children of immigrants. The United States’s “native” population (predominantly white, but also Black) tends to “stay in their lane.” That is, if the parents (or a parent) went to college, the children will and if the parent(s) didn’t, the children won’t. Thus, we have another detrimental result from our national system of tracking. It creates generational inequity.
In Conclusion: I wrote this essay because I too often have watched the Presidential briefings on our Coronavirus Crisis and have seen polls that indicate 75% of the President’s party do not think this is a critical issue --- and, worse, believe the claptrap he issues on a daily basis. The continued support of this man is an enigma to me but I think my analysis of schooling in America, and particularly the tracking system is, at least in part --- if not in good measure --- a reason for the continued allegiance of Trump’s followers. Once again, these are not stupid people but they are, as far as I can tell, grossly ignorant, they choose to ignore science and believe a charlatan. They continue to live up to the low expectations that were set for them as students and now feel justified in elevating a con man as their leader because he claims (with some justification) the “system is rigged.” Indeed, it has been, in terms of education. As a result, Trump has created a cult that will follow him, despite all evidence that he is a malignant narcissist. Mine may not be an uplifting analysis but I do believe it is an accurate one.
Please stay home and safe during this crisis.