The new tracking

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.


  1. I was going to write, “So Garelick is saying that all outcomes are determined by the teacher? There is no such thing as cognitive ability? Or did you just paraphrase poorly?”

    Until I realized that you were almost certainly paraphrasing poorly.

    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.”

    I think it most likely that cognitive ability explains a great deal of the achievement gap–most, if not all of it (with poverty cutting some part of it first).

    However, hidden under his avalanche of words is the implicit acknowledgement that kids with less cognitive ability must be taught differently than kids of higher cognitive ability, and that teaching them differently might prepare more of them for college or at least more advanced work. I agree, if so.

    Or he’s arguing that rich kids learn entirely outside school and that this alone explains the gap and if that’s the case, then he’s just wrong.

    In general, he could have cut this article in half and sounded much less annoying.

    Does anyone think it would have the same power if Raymond had been white? No? Because Raymond did fail algebra, and his goal to take Algebra II was totally unrealistic, but the counsellor was supposed to nurture that little spark of “algebra II looks fun” in order to get Raymond working harder–a very unrealistic goal.

  2. Hi Michele,

    Yes, the story would have had the same power if Raymond had been white. This situation happens in many places, as you know well. When I was in high school, it was the white, lower-class rural kids who were held back by design, having been set up to fail or top out at a mediocre level, and more directly by being academically abandoned.

    Raymond’s goal to take Algebra II *at that time* wasn’t realistic — you and Barry would both agree on that — but not putting him Algebra II is a different issue than relegating him to the lowest-level math class and leaving it at that. It’s not an issue of self-esteem, and no one is pretending that Raymond had no ceiling for his math ability — it’s about whether the kid developed optimally in an academic setting. He didn’t.

  3. How do you know? You all act as if “being in the lowest math class” is some sort of horrible fate. But unless you wish to argue that everyone has exactly the same ability and is capable of exactly the same math achievement, someone has to be in the lowest math class. Who better than someone who got a D in algebra?

    Because otherwise you are indeed pretending there isn’t a ceiling to his ability.

    And that’s why it matters that Raymond is black, because it’s not that he’s in the lowest math class, but that there are disproportionately too many blacks in the lowest math class. There are several explanations for that, but the least bothersome one is that someone let all down those black kids by putting them in the lowest class and then, somehow, not following up to rekindle Raymond’s spark.

    It’s all part of a narrative that people want to pretend is true–that the reason for low achievement is a failure on someone’s part, that with the right handling, Raymond would have ended up in algebra II. But that’s probably not true, and it’s not a narrative we should be comforting ourselves with, deluding ourselves that one happy day all Raymonds will get wonderful teachers.

    The reality is that at charter schools across the country, Raymonds are getting wonderful teachers of all shapes and methods–and none of them are getting the Raymonds through algebra II with test scores that prove he knows it. In fact, very few Raymonds are getting through Algebra I.

  4. I should add that at many comprehensive high schools–including my own–Raymonds are getting support and teaching methods varying from constructive to instructive and beyond. It’s just that reformers like pretending they don’t exist.

  5. Even with good administrators, good teachers, good curriculum choices and good instructional methods (and most schools don’t have all/most of those), there will be kids on the left side of the curve who “don’t get it.” The reasons include cognitive ability and work ethic but they also include peer/family/community factors. Schools can hope to move the entire curve to the right, but (given appropriate academics, which kids in the top third of quarter often don’t get), the curve still exists because it represents actual kids, not the idealized version. Some will always do less well than others.

    Both nature and nurture are always in play. Non-PC as it is to admit, the offspring of two semi-literate, unmotivated, unwed teenagers is unlikely to start wtih the same cognitive equipment as the offspring of a MS math teacher married to a nurse, let alone the offspring of parents with grad degrees. Both of the latter families are also more likely to provide out-of-school enrichment/help and to live in communities that expect kids to do well in school.

  6. “Who better than someone who got a D in algebra?”

    Perhaps someone who got an F in algebra.

  7. That person would be taking algebra again.

    And good job, there, ignoring all the substantive points for something flip that wasn’t even on point.

  8. Ability grouping was abandoned for the same reason that tracking was abandoned; the top groups in many schools were primarily white and Asian and the bottom groups were primarily black and Hispanic.

  9. Ayup, quite correct, but grouping students by ability was done in my high school (late 70’s) based on stanines (1-3 low, 4-6, average, 7-9 high) for class selection. I remember being placed into a low US government class (with many students who were white as well, didn’t have many minorities in the district at that time, so to speak).

    After a couple of weeks, the instructor (Mr. Fitz) spoke to me privately and said ‘You aren’t supposed to be in this class, are you?’ I told him ‘No’, but he was a good teacher, and I liked the class, so I pretty much learned at my own pace and got an “A” as a result. I don’t think many of the students were ‘dumb’ per se, but rather no one ever expected a lot of achievement out of them, so perhaps they didn’t try in earlier grades.

    Grouping students by ability (regardless of what one thinks of tracking) benefits all of the students and one of the results of placing low achieving students with high ones is that the high reaching students are usually forced to help the low or under-achievers, which results in the high reaching students being bored or resentful.

  10. Genevieve says:

    I’m to young to have experienced the tracking described by several people here. Though I did attend an “advanced work” class in Boston in 4th grade and a half day gifted high school in Iowa.

    Having been above average intellectually and having children that are as well. I see the necessity of at least ability grouping to maximize children’s potential (and prevent boredom).

    I wonder how one would deal with the students that Bill describes as not “‘dumb’ per se, but rather no one ever expected a lot of achievement out of them, so perhaps they didn’t try in earlier grades”. How do we push students, but also have realistic expectations?

  11. In reality, a lot of this starts with the parental units. If they do not make education a priority in the dwelling, the offspring is gonna find a hard road to travel when they get to the K-12 system.

    Also, if students haven’t mastered the basics by at least 3rd grade (age 8 or so), they’ll have a much harder time in middle or high school years down the road…

  12. I taught an Algebnra 8/9 class that ranged from kids who could do the math in their sleep and could have done the whole course in about 2 months, to kids who thought long division was some mystic thing they would never master and who had total breakdowns because,. in their mind, no matter how many times you showed them, worked through it, explained, etc, 2x=8 and 2a=8 were two TOTALLY DIFFERENT PROBLEMS and they couldn’t solve the second after solving the first because it was completely new and they’d never seen anything like it before.

    What happened? Well, the gifted kids completed ‘Algebra 1’ without ever exerting any effort at all or EVER getting a problem wrong.

    The middle-of-the-road kids (bulk of the class) struggled some at the beginning, eventually got the hang of things, and then we hit polynomials and they struggled again but eventually got the knack.

    I managed to teach the struggling kids fractions and decimals. But they didn’t learn algebra— and managed to pull out D’s, which meant they automatically got to do Algebra 2.

    The school was a tiny one, but these kids could have really benefitted from tracking– as it was, only the middle really got what they needed– there was no way to teach them all…

  13. This is really a vast and complex topic. From my understanding, when thinking about ability grouping and tracking (besides the fact that those really can be different things), the subject being taught as well as the grade or age being taught is important to consider . You also have to look at the products students are expected to produce in any given course. I just don’t find it useful to talk about tracking or ability grouping in math versus, say, civics. Or maybe it’s just math versus everything else. Whenever I talk to math teachers or read about math education, I realize how different it is from teaching everything I’ve taught, which is mostly secondary social studies and language arts courses. Now that my kids are in elementary school, I also notice that ability grouping is used selectively and especially with math.

  14. Math teachers, as a rule, strongly oppose tracking. This is a great essay on tracking by Tom Loveless:

    Research is unclear on whether tracking’s effects vary by subject area. Several studies note that math teachers are resistant to tracking reform (Loveless, 1994; Gamoran & Weinstein, 1998). The middle and high school math curriculum is usually organized hierarchically, with progress through courses predicated on successful completion of prerequisites. Even within a particular math course, topics build upon one another so that students acquire knowledge sequentially. As a consequence, math teachers are intuitively skeptical of assigning students who can’t do basic arithmetic to the same classes as students ready to solve complex algebra problems.

    This intuition may be on the mark. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University analyzed NELS data to find out what happened to the math achievement of 8th graders who were grouped in different ways (Epstein & MacIver, 1992). Students in heterogeneously grouped algebra classes didn’t learn as much as students in tracked algebra classes. This held true for all ability levels—high, average, and low. In contrast, when survey courses in math were heterogeneously grouped, low-ability students benefitted. Tracking apparently doesn’t affect all math courses identically. This finding assumes added importance as the idea of all students taking an algebra course at an earlier age gains popularity. If the finding is valid, then tracking reform may seriously diminish the prospect that universal 8th grade algebra will boost U.S. math achievement.

    I think this part here is dead on, too:

    Detracking is often part of a package of reforms that eradicates a series of institutional statements about what is worthy—that curriculum can be differentiated by its complexity and challenge, that one’s ticket to college is punched by mastery of a particular body of knowledge, that being a good student is an achievement that schools cherish and hold in high esteem. A strain of egalitarianism believes that all status rankings are evil. But wholly compatible with equity is the notion that status distinctions are a good thing as long as they are awarded fairly and for the right accomplishments.

  15. The comment on heterogeneously grouped “survey courses” is interesting. After elementary school, does anyone OTHER than the low achieving students take a survey course? In every district I’ve lived or taught in, middle school and high school give way to a sequence of classes.

    Of course, ‘tracking’ isn’t really a solution for math, in the sense that you can’t really have “Honors Algebra 2” and “remedial Algebra 2” and expect the classes to be remotely similar. It’s not really fair to call a class “Algebra 2” if the kids come in completely unable to comprehend “Y=mX+B” It’s better to totally divorce Math class from age, and just base it on what the child is ready to do….

    I can see how tracking for civics wouldn’t be particularly useful, but that’s because, (in my experience) most civics classes are a joke.

    My high school actually HAD tracking for gym, of all things! The athletic kids were encouraged to register for certain gym classes, and the nerds could take 8th period ‘magnet gym’ where we got to do aerobic walking, play “round the world” (instead of basketball) and jump on trampolines…….. We knew magnet gym was a joke, but we didn’t care… we were only taking it because it was required….

    Hmmmm….. I wonder if part of the problem is that a large segment of students feel the same way about math and English as we did about gym?

  16. Peace Corps says:

    @ Cal: Did you really mean to type this: “Math teachers, as a rule, strongly oppose tracking.” It conflicts with the reference you have below it, and your statement is completely opposite my experience.

  17. Oops!” Strongly oppose heterogeneous classes.”

  18. No, I did not. But for someone who doesn’t mean to do that, I do it a lot! Math teachers, as a rule, strongly SUPPORT tracking and OPPOSE hetergeneous classrooms.