Education Opinion

More Powerful than a Locomotive: Tracks

By Nancy Flanagan — November 10, 2010 4 min read
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I finally saw “Waiting for Superman.” I was loath to plunk down six dollars--I hate on principle to buy anything that’s been so gratuitously overhyped--but you can’t make a fair assessment of any piece of media until you’ve experienced it firsthand. Besides, the venue was the venerable Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, and the showing was followed by an intelligent and lively panel discussion, featuring Professors Deborah Ball and Brian Rowan and State Superintendent Michael Flanagan.

No need to summarize--the definitive, thoroughly researched critique of the film has been written and widely shared. There was, however, one rather extraordinary claim made in Superman that seems to have escaped wide analysis. Remember the five kids in WFS? Four endearing minority children, and one white girl from Silicon Valley. As soon as Emily made an appearance, I thought: Oh. This is where Davis Guggenheim will rationalize trashing public schools in the suburbs, will attempt to redirect the conventional wisdom that the truly awful schools are where poor kids go. And I was right.

Emily (who has two educated parents and attends a well-regarded public school) has “low test scores.” According to the film, public schools track kids, and once they’re slotted into a lower track through those test scores, their academic geese are cooked. There was a cartoon conveyor belt showing the unfortunate, low-scoring kids headed off to a negative future of dumbed-down coursework and menial jobs. Charter schools, the film assures us, offer the same high-octane, rigorous curriculum to all kids. No unfair test results will drop potential superstars who “don’t test well” into lower tracks at charter schools.

It’s pretty clear why Emily was chosen as poster child for the evils of using test results to track kids, rather than Daisy or Anthony. Her low test scores counter our knee-jerk expectation that advantaged kids are doing all right. If Emily might be forced into watered-down curriculum, what will happen to kids who come from families without resources? All kids need charters!

Plenty of manipulation and fudging here: Some charter schools do level instruction, through entrance exams. Others boot out kids who can’t cut it academically or behaviorally. Not all charters are serving up traditional, demanding curriculum--and many public schools have abandoned tracking altogether. Entire states have significantly raised curricular requirements for all high school students. And lots of college graduates are happy to take menial jobs in this economy.

I found the assertion that concerned parents should seek a charter school to avoid tracking in public schools highly ironic, however--given that many schools use tracking because well-heeled parents demand it, seeking to separate their child from “those kids.” The focus on getting low-performing schools up to speed is often through prescriptive instructional programs focused on basic skills. Tracking efficiently sorts out the kids who might bring the scores down, where they can be fed low-level courses in an effort to improve the numbers.

Tracking is a destructive force in a nation that once claimed democratic equality and genuine opportunity were the cornerstones of its public education system. Do we honestly believe we can sort and level kids, identify raw ability and potential through scientific testing, classify students without activating our biases around class, gender and race? Labeling and grouping kids is a hangover from our love affair with industrialization. We fail to acknowledge that tags we hang on students can last for a lifetime, although they cannot predict eventual life outcomes. There’s some excellent ethnographic and qualitative research demonstrating just who gets tracked and what it means.

When I was in Junior High--a very long time ago--my school organized students into tracks by ability. They weren’t subtle about it, either. Each track was labeled (7A, 7B and so on, down to the dreaded 7F, a shameful designation, kids presumably destined for working at the landfill). Our pictures were arranged in the yearbook by track. We traveled together through civics, meat macaroni, and math, where we 7As had special books, learning about the associative and commutative properties, things apparently unfathomable to the lower classes.

A few years ago, I took my high school band back to my alma mater for an exchange concert. It was great fun, conducting in the auditorium where I performed as a young flutist. The folks at my old school were terrific hosts. At a post-concert reception, a beefy, vaguely familiar-looking man pumped my hand and held out his card. He introduced himself, and suddenly I remembered him as a fellow 7th grader, 45 years ago. He’s a systems analyst and CEO of his own small company; he was also president of the school board. He presented me with a plaque and made gracious remarks about my accomplishments as music teacher.

What was the first thing I remembered about him? That he was in 7D.

The late educational philosopher Tom Green wrote a beautiful essay on the nature of excellence and equity in education, the almost hopeless task of building programs that offer excellent education for children with widely varying skills and dispositions. Green said that the value of equity is nested in excellence: you can’t have a truly excellent educational system unless it is inherently equitable. Begin with excellence, then--and offer it to everyone.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.