The old tracking was racist, classist and hurtful.
The new “tracking” is basically a roll of the die, but just as hurtful, according to Barry Garelick. It’s a long essay; some may not want to read the whole thing, so I’ll summarize what I see his argument as in five points:
- When we threw out tracking in the late 60’s and early 70’s, we accidentally threw out ability grouping, too. Not everywhere, but in significant quantity.
- When we threw out tracking in the late 60’s and 70’s, we quite purposefully threw out explicit, teacher-centered instruction, too, because we wanted to make things relevant. Again, not everywhere, but in significant quantity.
- Without these things — ability grouping and explicit instruction — it’s incredibly difficult to learn. As a result many students don’t learn the things they need to learn at their schools. But whether they learn these things or not is reduced to a bit of a lottery: did you happen to land in a school that was teaching well, or poorly? If so, you probably learned. If not, well…
- Those students who haven’t been properly taught are now by and large being written off as “not college material”, “not good at math”, or lacking in “cognitive ability”. (Uh oh… now I’ve gone and done it.) This is its own insidious form of tracking, cutting off futures just as surely as if a black kid was forced into general arithmetic.
And here’s the last paragraph, where the meaty conclusion is. If you read this in isolation, though, you’ll miss much of the argument:
But students who have been put on the protection-from-learning track fulfill the low expectations that have been conferred upon them. The education establishment’s view of this situation is a shrug, and—despite their justifications for the inquiry-based and student-centered approach that brings out all children’s’ “innate” knowledge of math—respond with “Maybe your child just isn’t good in math”. The admonition carries to subjects beyond math and is extended to “Maybe your child isn’t college material.” And while it is true that a “college for all” goal is unrealistic, the view that so many students somehow are lacking in cognitive ability raises serious questions. As Schmidt (2011) states in his paper: “To attribute achievement differences solely to differences in student efforts and abilities is grossly unfair and simpleminded and ignores the fundamental relationship between content coverage and achievement.” There is now an in-bred resistance to do ability grouping and to teach using explicit instruction. That such approach may result in higher achievement, with more students qualifying for gifted and honors programs, is something that the education establishment has come to deny by default. It is an inherent and insidious tracking system that leaves many students behind. And many of those disdain and despise education and the people who managed to achieve what they could not—the same hatred that I imagine Raymond must have felt many years ago.
It’s a decent essay, even if it does repeat itself several times. And his take on the history of what happened to schools from the 50’s to the 80’s is pretty fascinating, though I’m not vouching for its historical or interpretive accuracy. Garelick seems aware that what he’s advocating isn’t a panacea — but he does seem to believe that ability grouping and explicit instruction would do a lot more good than is promoted by their absence, and in that I’m inclined to agree.