School Tracking versus Dynamic Grouping

ACORN Education

San Francisco  In any discussion of inequality over the last 30 years, “tracking” in public schools, where children are sorted out by initial abilities often determining expectations and future progress, has always been on the short list in any discussion.  More recently with the furor over reform, the discussion somewhat receded, but perhaps because other issues were at the forefront rather than because any change had occurred.

The New York Times raised the alarm that tracking was back:

A new analysis from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Census-like agency for school statistics, shows that of the fourth-grade teachers surveyed, 71 percent said they had grouped students by reading ability in 2009, up from 28 percent in 1998. In math, 61 percent of fourth-grade teachers reported ability grouping in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996. “These practices were essentially stigmatized,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who first noted the returning trend in a March report, and who has studied the grouping debate. “It’s kind of gone underground, it’s become less controversial.”

I wonder if tracking ever left.

            With the passage of No Child Left Behind in the Bush era, “teaching to test” has become standard operating procedure in urban public schools throughout the country.  It is hardly a surprise as teachers have been targeted, test-based pay incentives introduced, and constant pressured that teachers would have “grouped” or tracked students for their own survival and possibly the children’s as well.

            The real issue in tracking may be the one not discussed and that is the wholesale re-segregation of urban schools in many cities where the inequality is baked in at admissions, rather than simply instruction.  It is no secret that many large scale urban school systems are more minority and ethnic by wide margins than the cities themselves.  Parents with the means have either moved or bought something they hope is better from private or parochial systems, many of which of course do not have the same accountability standards, but certainly have better future social and job “networks.” 

            The public school exceptions may be the “magnetizing” involved in the kind of open choice in New York City and the charter dominated enrollment process in New Orleans.  In a report done by New York ACORN some years ago on educational apartheid, we found that whole schools within the system, rather than within an individual class were being “tracked” by admissions standards at magnet schools that were decidedly prejudicial to low-and-moderate income children in our communities.    A prominent candidate for mayor in New York, Christine Quinn, is now calling for even more of that.  Bill Blasio, who we’ve worked with closely for decades talks about having experienced the stress of wondering whether his kids got in the right public school. 

            A teacher in the article called her practice “dynamic grouping,” because kids could move in and out of various ability based groups in her class.  Tracking was never a law.  Movement sometimes happened.   But, it was hard to see what choice she had, and as long as people with unequal resources can buy their way out of the schools or colonize some schools and abandon others; this is likely to be a way of life, as it has been for so long.

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