The threat of using tracking to warehouse the most challenging students and provide them with a substandard education is a real one. However, that problem is fruit of the poisonous tree of low school quality. The solution is not to stop tracking; the answer is to fix schools at a more fundamental level.
At a certain point, one has a difficult time sustaining the notion that low-school quality is damaging students’ life prospects by failing to provide them with important skills while simultaneously arguing that higher expectations can provide a significant and rapid fix to disparities in educational outcomes. No doubt teacher expectations of students have a profound effect on student motivation, attitude, and sense of self-efficacy, but a student doesn’t regain years of lost literacy or math instruction on expectations alone. That is, at some point the effects of educational inequity become pedagogically relevant. Though educators believe all high-schoolers should be reading Shakespeare, they need to recognize that they are abandoning their duty to students if they expect them to grapple with such texts if they can’t read.
Perhaps the most unsettling consequence of tracking is the possibility of heavily segregated classes. This is undergirded by many things, from the hefty history of our schools as one of the main sites for racial segregation to the disappointing lack of exposure to diversity that our students would receive in such a setup. But perhaps the most powerful driver is that it makes visible and unavoidable the degree to which our current system disproportionately fails to provide poor and minority students with an adequate education, let alone one equal to that of their more affluent peers. If tracking is as beneficial to both low- and high-achievers, and embraced as openly by teachers as research suggests, then to reject such a change in the name of maintaining a superficial sense of equity would be serious failure for those concerned with providing all students with the education they deserve.
Ultimately, some reformers may still look at our toughest schools and determine that tracking is not appropriate given the way it will likely be practiced. But it is vital to see this criticism as separate from a critique of tracking on its merits. In complex systems that fail in many ways and for many reasons, it is easy to develop a misplaced distrust of certain programs and procedures. But I, along with many other reformers, like to remain open -- at the very least -- to the possibility that as schools continue to improve, tracking can be a useful tool when implemented properly.
CJ Libassi is a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Madrid, Spain. He can be reached at clibassi(at)hotmail(dot)com.