Why is educational tracking bad?

A little while back a former student of mine sent me an article on tracking in schools. It’s an interesting article about how tracking is racist because fewer minority races are represented in advanced classes than are apparent in the total student body, but it makes the problem of tracking seem more good vs. bad than it is. (I was going to say “black and white” but that might actually confuse things here.) There are several issues here that create the disparity of races in advanced classes and “gray” the whole issue.

First of all, if one were to get rid of tracking, then how would someone teach a class of 20-40 students with a complete range of ability? Do you teach to the bottom 25% and let the other 75% work more independently? To the middle 50% and leave behind the bottom and bore the top? Or to the top 25% and hope that the challenge will push the lower students to try to achieve rather than discourage them from ever wanting to study the subject again? See, the integrated classroom (by ability, NOT race) is nigh impossible, so I am for tracking BY ABILITY.

One point the article makes is to stop testing into tracks and just make all classes self-selective. That, I am for. You want to try AP English? Go for it! Can’t make it? Switch out. Recommendations from teachers are helpful, but need not be binding. Why shouldn’t a student be allowed to try something that might be a real challenge? Why shouldn’t a student leave a class that is clearly too difficult for him to pass? That’s how college is.

What is also influencing this problem that the article does NOT take into account is history. Ethnic minorities, particularly black and latino ones, have had a history of bad opportunity because they GENERALLY have lived in poor neighborhoods that don’t get enough funding for schools, so the focus slips from being about excelling in education to finding a job to make money in order to survive. Poverty is such a huge issue in this country that no one does anything about it. It’s too big and too ugly a truth for the general public to handle and the government won’t just force equal spending on public services.

The history of poverty also brings with it the history of poor education. If I were raised in a household where both parents never finished high school, even if I am genius-level smart, it is less likely for me to graduate from high school. This creates a vicious circle of poor education. Because people were discriminated in the past, it leads to them being disadvantaged in the future. Again, this is where the government needs to step in and say: “That’s not right. We are going to put money into expert counselors to help students stick to school, understand that education is a way to rise out of poverty, and back good teachers to teach them.” But no one does that because there’s no short-term profit in it, only long-term economic growth, which no one really cares about because those who have money are too selfish to part with any of it. (It would mean HUGE taxes to pull off a country-wide program.)

Thus, the government has come to rely on private investors (i.e. charter schools) to help disadvantaged kids out of “the goodness of their hearts,” which actually means to make a profit. What else is business for? So, companies now profit off of mediocre education for poor minority kids, and the rich get richer, and the poor get duped into thinking they are getting a good education. Those who have children with behavior problems or learning disabilities that charter schools won’t deal with, are forced to send their kids to the regular public schools, which are failing because of a lack of funding since the city is paying for charters too, and, thus, are being closed because they fail to raise test scores of kids. Very vicious circle.

There is an easy, though expensive solution, though. Redesign the ENTIRE system.

No more age-based levels of education. No more score-based advancement. No more giant-sized classes. Students work in classes according to ABILITY as assessed through professional, well-trained educators that meet with them INDIVIDUALLY throughout their years in school, and each student must pass a benchmark set of classes in order to graduate and go to college or work or whatever.

This way advancement through school is based solely on ability and not how big a class is or how well a kid does on one test. Students get a better sense of achievement because they are in control of their education and can move at their own paces. Teachers are respected as true professionals, and the economy booms because we have many more students graduating high school with an idea of what they are really good at, which directs them more to careers that are available to them and they become more productive members of society.

But no one will go for that because there is no short-term financial gain, and it’s too “socialist” for Americans. Oh, and no one listens to me either. Not really.


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