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On The Wrong Track

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WHEN GEORGE FREY SET OUT TO REFORM THE STUDENT TRACKING system in the San Diego schools, he started something he didn't expect--a heated, often nasty, controversy.

To Frey, it all seemed pretty straightforward. As a high school principal, he had seen that students tracked into remedial courses were flunking the lowest-level math classes his school offered, so he figured it could do no harm to enroll them in higher-level, more stimulating courses such as algebra. He did and found that most of these low-achieving students performed just as well in the tougher classes, and some performed better. But when he became an assistant superintendent in San Diego and tried to make similar changes in the entire school system, he ran head-on into vigorous opposition from some of the community's more outspoken, influential members--the predominantly white, middle-class parents of high-achieving students.

One of the changes Frey hoped to make was to de-emphasize ability grouping. He planned to eliminate remedial classes and place more minority students in mixed-ability classes. But many parents of students in the honors tracks took strong exception. "If tracking is abolished,'' the mother of a gifted student wrote to district officials, "bright and highly motivated children who now respond to the rousing of their creativity will probably lose their incentive to do more than is required of them, or they may become too bored to participate.''

After months of intense, sometimes harsh, debate, San Diego implemented a core curriculum for all students in 1987. But advocates for gifted students convinced the district to preserve the high-track programs. Instead of eliminating them, Frey says, the district has attempted, with some success, to increase the number of minority students in the honors courses.

San Diego is certainly not the only city where tracking has flared tempers and raised angry voices. Conflicts have been played out across the country as schools and districts struggle to promote educational equality and improve academic performance. In Selma, Ala., a dispute over tracking recently erupted into one of the most tense and widely reported racial confrontations since the landmark civil rights marches there 25 years ago. At issue in Selma was the future of a black superintendent who tried to change a tracking system he said relegated a disproportionate number of black students to the low-track classes. After the superintendent's contract was not renewed, protesters--mainly black students and parents--closed the schools for a week; tensions continued to simmer even after students returned to heavily guarded schools. (See page 48.)

The Selma protesters' see tracking very differently from the outraged parents in San Diego. Their criticisms are shared by a growing number of people who denounce tracking for what they say are its damaging effects on students unfortunate enough to be placed in the low tracks. They also maintain that tracking permanently condemns many students--a disproportionate number of whom are minorities-- to an inferior education, both in what and how they are taught. As one group recently put it, tracking "effectively seals the child's fate, sometimes for life.'' Their protests could make tracking one of the central civil rights issues of the 1990's.

Although much of the headline-making controversy over tracking has been fueled by factions outside of the school, teachers find themselves at the center of the issue, and they are far from united. One National Education Association official calls tracking "probably the most professionally divisive issue in the association.'' Those who teach specialized groups of gifted or learning-disabled students have an extra stake in the grouping process. But for most teachers, the issue boils down to how to give slower students the extra attention they need without shortchanging the more able students who may lose interest. For every teacher who believes in tracking, there's one who views it as harmful.

Still, tracking is by far the most widely used method for dealing with student diversity, particularly in secondary schools. But more and more districts, schools, and individual teachers are trying to loosen or eliminate the practice. Not surprisingly, they have found that simply abandoning tracking is not enough. Managing a more diverse group of pupils in mixed groupings requires innovative approaches such as cooperative learning, small-group work, peer tutoring, and team teaching. In effect, they say, doing away with tracking requires rethinking the way we educate children.

CRITICS OF TRACKING CITE HISTORY AND research on current educational practice to support their arguments. Jeannie Oakes, an associate professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, traces tracking's advent to the turn of the century. At that time, Oakes says, most children in public schools were from upper-middle-class families, but large numbers of black and working-class students were starting to enter the schools as the result of compulsory schooling laws and rising immigration. Tracking became standard practice in response to this influx of lower-class students. Separate curricula were developed for the relatively small percentage of students destined for higher education and for the masses who went on to menial industrial jobs.

Although the world outside of schools has changed, tracking remains, Oakes argues, because society still expects its schools to sort students and prepare them for different roles as adults. "The idea of grouping makes sense,'' she concedes. "But we're not very good at sorting kids into homogeneous groups. Instruction is aimed at one level in a classroom that is really full of very diverse kinds of kids. Tracking masks the diversity of classrooms and fools teachers into believing that the same lesson plan works for all kids.''

Oakes has examined the skills and content that are taught in various tracks. In math and science classes--disciplines that typically use the most rigid tracking--she has found obvious inequities in the education each group receives. The high-track students tend to learn concepts, reasoning ability, and the sort of critical-thinking skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond. Low-level classes, by contrast, focus much more on simple skills, facts, and memorization, which leave the students unprepared for either higher education or fulfilling, well-paid jobs.

Vocational classes are seen as one possible alternative to remedial academic tracks, but they, too, receive less-than-favorable reviews from Oakes and other opponents of tracking. "Lots of times, in lots of schools,'' she says, "vocational education is used as a dumping ground. The classes are for kids who are seen as not capable of making it in more challenging courses.'' Oakes cites data indicating that, except for students who take a lot of practical business courses in high school (girls preparing to become secretaries, for example), most students in vocational tracks aren't even prepared for entry-level jobs after graduation. In California, she adds, there's evidence that vocational-track students don't fare any better after high school than their peers who dropped out.

Well before the racial tensions in the Selma schools hit the headlines, some educators and civil rights activists were decrying the overrepresentation of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans in these low-level remedial and vocational classes, and the corresponding lack of minority students in the college-prep honors tracks. These inequalities, they assert, produce a form of resegregation, even in schools with seemingly mixed student populations.

One group, Quality Education for Minorities, has made the elimination of tracking a significant piece of its ambitious reform agenda for the nation's schools. The group's recent, widely publicized report, Education That Works: An Action Plan for Educating Minorities, paints a grim picture of the effects of tracking on some students: "In the first few days of school, judgments are made about children in the classroom.....In most school systems in our nation, this decision effectively seals the child's fate, sometimes for life. Students classified as slow almost never catch up, and school rapidly becomes a forum for failure, not an arena for success. By the time these children are in middle school, tracking intensifies and options begin to close.

"Minority children are more likely to be placed in nonacademic tracks because they do not fit the stereotypical, middle-class images our present educational system holds up as ideals.''

Project director Shirley McBay says that even the youngest children understand when they've been placed in a low-level group. "The students internalize that and start to think they're something less than others,'' says McBay, who is dean of student affairs at the Massa- chusetts Institute of Technology. "It affects their self-esteem and confidence.''

Across the Charles River from McBay and MIT, a children's advocacy group has looked at the effects of tracking in one city school system. The Massachusetts Advocacy Center's year-long study of the Boston public schools concludes that "tracking is harmful to kids' achievement,'' says Ann Wheelock, a policy analyst for the center.

"We saw a funny cycle emerging,'' Wheelock explains. "Kids are labeled as unready, and then they are given a curriculum that is pretty impoverished, so they never get ready. They get this kind of education all the time, and they simply never become ready for anything more challenging or more educational. They fall further and further behind, and then they don't score at grade level.''

Critics of tracking also argue that special-education and remedial academic programs can lock students into those tracks. "Everybody wants the classes to work those kids out of special education,'' says Jeffrey Schneider, a program development specialist for the National Education Association. "But the reality is that once students are placed in special education, they tend to stay there until the end. All placement is supposed to be designed to meet the skill needs of students at a given time. If that placement becomes destiny, you've got a real problem.''

Widely unequal distribution of wealth and resources can create a form of tracking between schools within districts, as well. Schneider uses math classes to illustrate this point. Poor schools with high concentrations of minority students, he says, tend to have one or two 9th grade algebra classes and only one high school calculus class, if that. A wealthy neighboring school, however, might have enough of these high-level math classes to accommodate four or five times as many students. The same holds true for advanced science courses such as chemistry and biology. And, as Oakes has pointed out, with many academic subjects organized around a strict sequence of classes, if a student doesn't complete algebra or basic physical science by 9th grade, it's unlikely he or she will finish high school with the academic background needed to enter college as a math or science major.

THE ARGUMENTS FOR TRACKING ARE certainly more subtle today than they were 90 years ago, but efficiency still overshadows equality. Tracking proponents say that it is easier to teach relatively homogeneous classes and unrealistic to expect everyone to master the same curriculum, and that students feel more comfortable and learn better when they're grouped with peers of similar abilities. They say tracking enables teachers to tailor instruction to the needs of respective groups of students.

Some of the strongest support for ability grouping comes from the Council for Exceptional Children, a 55,000-member advocacy organization for both special-education and gifted-and-talented programs. Fred Weintraub, CEC's communications director, is fond of making his case by drawing analogies. He compares the main body of American education to a railroad, with a limited number of cars, destinations, and departure times. Special education, on the other hand, more resembles trucking, with a much wider array of services to reach every part of the system.

"Children differ in both what they need to learn and how they learn,'' he says. "Any educational system that fails to recognize that will serve some children well and some children poorly. If you have a system with one curriculum, one track that everyone is on, that's fine for the kids who can make it on that track.''

But what about the 5-year-old who reads The New York Times and does advanced math? Weintraub asks. "I would suggest that the local kindergarten is not a valuable learning program for that child,'' he says. "We clearly believe that there are kids who require a different curriculum.''

The CEC also contends that students at the other end of the spectrum--those with learning disabilities-- can benefit most from the targeted programs of special education. But Weintraub says special education is usually relegated to the "oh, by the way'' part of the system; it has rarely even been mentioned in the major reports that have flooded education during the past decade. "After reading those reports,'' he says, "you'd basically conclude that these kids do not exist,'' when in fact, they make up 15 or 16 percent of the total school population.

NEITHER THE NEA NOR THE AMERICAN Federation Of Teachers, the nation's two major teachers' unions, has voiced an official position on tracking. But the fate of an antitracking resolution presented at the NEA's annual convention a few years ago shows how contentious the issue can be among teachers. Former NEA president Mary Hatwood Futrell often criticized tracking and questioned its benefits for students, so when the resolution condemning tracking came before the union's Representative Assembly, there was widespread speculation that the measure would pass. Instead, the NEA's Schneider says, it was soundly defeated, largely because of opposition from special-education teachers. The vote led Futrell to appoint an executive committee task force to take a closer look at tracking and prepare a final report that will be presented at the group's convention this summer.

Based on his experience with that task force, Schneider offers this somewhat informal assessment of teachers' opinions on the issue: "Our figures show that about one-third of the teachers like academic tracking for one reason or another, one-third dislike it intensely, and the other third find it useful but don't like it.''

Likewise at the AFT, tracking is a topic of spirited and seemingly endless discussion and disagreement, says Pat Daly, an AFT vice president. "You can find as many studies that support it as oppose it,'' he notes. "But I think the trend is definitely in the direction of not tracking.''

Still, as the NEA figures suggest, a large percentage of teachers endorse the philosophy and practice of tracking. Many would likely agree with Charles Nevi, director of curriculum and instruction for the Puyallup (Wash.) School District, when he says that "tracking can be made to work.''

Unfortunately, he adds, it has become such a "loaded term'' that many people are quick to oppose tracking without really examining the issue objectively. "Sometimes, what is traditionally called tracking is a reasonable option,'' Nevi maintains. "If it's done as a means of empowering students, as a means of teaching them information and skills they can use, then it's not inherently bad.

"When you take large numbers of students and organize them for instruction, you have to group them on some basis. And there are times when the groupings themselves lead to improved instruction. They enable us to provide programs that are more appropriate.''

Catherine Schwartz, who has taught in Howell, Mich., for 30 years, believes mixed groups can work with younger students. But by the time they get to her high school writing-composition classes, she's a firm believer in tracking.

"I am totally opposed to heterogeneous grouping in 11th and 12th grade,'' says Schwartz. "The needs of the college-prep students are not met, and the needs of the average and low students are not met; nobody's needs are met. They should be tracked so they feel comfortable with a group that is like they are. I know a lot of what I say flies in the face of a lot of Ph.D. researchers, but I'm a classroom teacher and I know what works.''

ALL THE PARTICIPANTS IN THE DEBATE over the relative merits of tracking and mixed-ability classes can find research studies to back their arguments. But most recent research does show that heterogeneous classes can benefit all students, particularly the slower learners. These studies, however, also come with a caveat: It is not enough simply to eliminate tracking. Lumping students of all abilities together in one lecture-oriented class won't work; teachers must adopt new methods of instruction and flexible curricula to cope with these more diverse groups of students.

"The studies seem to show that [heterogeneous grouping] doesn't harm the higher-ability kids, and it may help students of lower ability,'' the AFT's Daly says. "But at the same time, from the teachers' point of view, unless you have some understanding or training in how to do it, it's not easy to balance high-and low-ability students with traditional forms of teaching.''

Daly, who taught social studies for 30 years, knows what it is like to go from tracked classes to heterogeneous grouping. The social studies department at his Dearborn, Mich., high school eliminated tracking when he was there. "It required you to learn how to do some things differently, to get students to help one another,'' he says. "But I didn't find that to be a handicap. On balance, I found it to be a more positive experience.''

Large public school districts are starting to follow the lead of Dearborn and the many other districts that have experimented with mixed groupings on a small scale. Denver and Orlando are among the urban districts that have joined San Diego in moving away from rigid tracking. Denver plans to eliminate remedial classes at all grade levels and place those students in regular classrooms. In Orlando, many of the changes focus on the middle schools, which are now structured around mixed-ability groups of 120 students who work with an interdisciplinary team of four teachers in English, math, science, and social studies.

"This has allowed us to work without having to label groups of kids as slow achievers,'' says David Sojourner, an associate superintendent for the Orange County, Fla., school system, which includes the city of Orlando. "If anything, kids who are labeled as slow live up to those expectations. But if you expect them to be successful, they pretty much live up to those expectations.''

One of the largest experiments at the elementary school level is the Accelerated Schools Program, led by Henry Levin, a Stanford University education professor. Some 40 elementary schools nationwide, primarily in urban areas, are implementing sweeping changes aimed at bringing all students up to grade level by the 6th grade so that they can compete equally with their peers for the rest of their school careers. The project staff hopes to extend its efforts into middle schools in the next few years, according to project coordinator Wendy Hopfenberg.

She says the accelerated program combines a relevant, challenging, interdisciplinary curriculum; instructional changes, such as cooperative learning and peer tutoring; and a school-management plan that gives teachers a central role in decisionmaking.

The growing number of schools that are attempting different ways of grouping students adds credibility to Daly's belief that one day rigid tracking will be "a relic of the past.'' But the arguments over the issue probably won't go away anytime soon: Even when there's agreement that tracking harms some students, there's no clear consensus on what should replace it.

Although some teachers are starting to change their own grouping practices, it's not easy for them to think about alternatives. "They are part of the same process that everyone is part of,'' says Schneider of the NEA. "Teachers, like everyone else, are going to have a great deal of difficulty giving up the abilitygrouping process that's been around them forever. Whether they like it or dislike it, it's one that they understand, that they know how to deal with.''

In the end, he maintains, the focus will have to be local if schools are going to better serve the entire spectrum of students. "Can we devise an educational system which effectively meets the needs of students, assuming that all students are special and have special needs?'' he asks. "Can it take all students as far as they need to go in order to productively meet their own needs and the needs of society? That's the challenge, and the changes will have to take place one school at a time.''

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