On Tracking

Academic “tracking” occurs when students are separated into different classes and/or curricula by their supposed ability to handle any given material.

I, and most other teachers, have definitely reaped the benefit of tracking. One of the hardest parts of teaching is differentiating instruction, or attempting to reach all of your students at their own levels. Ensuring that your students are getting personalized material and instruction is generally considered (though not necessarily proven) to result in more engaged, focused, enthusiastic, and academically-oriented students.

However, today I write from a student’s perspective.  I happen to be a most unusually lucky individual, privileged through my genes, childhood, peers, mentors, and institutions.  I discovered many talents at relatively early ages (not piano-virtuoso-age, sadly) and was able to nurture them of my own free will.  Over the years, I’ve found that I have about equal capacity in a range of academic subjects, from history to writing to math to physics, but handicapped myself in the latter categories with my own lack of interest.  If you might forgive my hubris, I am rather intelligent in school, on the street, and with clients.

That said, I, too, have been subject to under-tracking many times, as is inevitable when random adults you barely know try to sift through 400 kids’ files in one day and decide just how smart the kids really are.

The instance that sounds out the most in my mind (and, okay, that I’m still pretty bitter about) occurred over ten years ago!  The high school I was entering stipulated that, in order to take biology as a freshman (the only science allowed for freshmen), an 8th grader must be recommended by his/her science teacher.  Needless to say, my teacher did not recommend me.

Why?  I’m not quite sure, honestly.  I think I got a B+ and A- in his class, participated actively, embraced the scientific method, and was generally pleasant and respectful, even if I spent a lot of time drawing my awesome comic strip satirizing the daily announcements.  (I really, really, really wish I could find those!!)  Of course, I hung out with equally academically-minded people and almost every single good friend I had did get to take Biology freshman year.

So basically, I was pretty embarrassed, and more than a bit confused, why, oh why, I hadn’t been chosen to take Biology freshman year.  I was just as smart (and conceited enough to think I was quite a bit smarter) than nearly everyone who did get to take the class, and although I wasn’t the hardest worker, surely I did more than enough work to succeed in my classes.

Unreasonably enough, I was embarrassed about my supposed scientific inadequacy for all of high school (ok, I’ still am), and was more than happy to shed that blemish when I got to college, where nobody would know that taking only 3 years of high school science denoted my complete vapidity.

More important, though, is the fact that this single tracking incident fueled my paranoia that I really wasn’t a “science person” for YEARS and YEARS past 8th grade.  This insecurity manifested itself in many, mostly harmful, ways.  Once I finally did get to take Biology, I resented the implication that I was of equal capacity as all the other sophomores in my class, none of whom were in my usual crowd.  While this, obviously, was an immature, and most likely highly inaccurate, response and categorization, I was so damn bitter about being in that class, I refused to do any work, and wound up with a C- the first semester and an A the second.  Once I got to tougher classes, I gave up early and often, convinced that my old science teacher and the system that supported him were right, and I really didn’t understand science at all.

What brings this tale from pathetic self-indulgence to absolute travesty is the fact that, prior to being under-tracked, I LOVED science.  I made my parents renew our membership to the Lawrence Hall of Science every year.  I checked out books and books and books on bugs, stars, trees, and muscles.  I bought chemistry kits and pre-fabricated experiments, tried to build my own robots, collected snails and kept an observation journal of them (don’t worry, I let the snails go after a week), polished rocks, and, from ages 8 until 13, struggled through the NYT Science section.  I was the only girl in FSEA and always played to win.  I liked learning about the physics of football.  My dad, who majored in “Science and Mathematics” (yeah, he’s so old that that was actually a major), was an engineer who always facilitated my imagination and, for my first 15 years, promised me that Chemistry would be the most exciting class I could ever take.  (And yes, I actually liked him.)

From that moment on, I was convinced I sucked at science.  While things certainly have worked themselves out over the past 10 years, I’m still a bit angry that I let one setback affect my spirit that much, and more than a bit ashamed that I let it.  That said, I WAS twelve, and see pubescents freak about way stupider stuff all the freaking time.

Things went okay.  Thanks to not taking Bio, I was able to finagle two electives each year, and Lord knows I helped the world a lot more through journalism and music than I ever would have through science.

But who knows?  Maybe I would have.  I did enjoy studying Poli Sci, and it certainly affected how I view the world, but what if I had gone into engineering, like I once wanted?  What if I weren’t scared of Calculus?  Maybe I wouldn’t made any significant scientific contributions to this world, but maybe that confidence would have helped go further than I have.

To circle back to the macro, while tracking makes sense from the teacher’s standpoint, it is very, very, very difficult to implement successfully.  If you have sufficient data to make an exceptionally accurate of a student’s current capability, AND if said student has the emotional and logical maturity to understand the arrangement, AND if you have norm-setters who can sit her down to talk about the situation and enable her to walk away feeling better about the tracking, you can track a student successfully.  However, until we have at least all three of these elements working in concert, we risk seriously undermining students’ confidence and, even more important, dulling their curiosity.

And, in the end, my teaching philosophy boils down to piquing curiosity.  Inspiring students to take those nuggets they get in our limited time together and pan them out in the real world, on their own and in their communities, to go farther down whichever path they choose, is what a great democracy-oriented educational system should do.  As we use it now, tracking rarely actually contributes to the greater good, and instead fosters a culture of low expectations and lower morale.

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4 thoughts on “On Tracking

  1. Totally agree with your final comments on how tracking seems to end up with lowered expectations and morale. In high school I obsessed with taking the most rigorous classes and was blessed to have parents that supported my goals to go to college so they in turn helped to motivate me to want to take the harder classes. I think had I not pushed myself to get into the tough classes, I would not have been pushed by the teachers. And in the end, Biology as a freshman is just as much of a joke as Biology as a sophomore. That’s what kills me; even at a school that touted itself for its Blue Ribbons and high Newsweek rankings, I rarely felt challenged until I started taking AP classes. I was not (and still am not) a stellar student by any means, but the lack of support for aspiring students can really dampen spirits. Basically, it really boils down to the family and the student’s personal drive; we can’t rely on the teachers to get that involved because they have too much going on as it is, sadly. From my experience and what I’ve learned from my friends from different school districts across the state, tracking rarely worked in the way it was intended.

  2. I totally agree! And thanks for reminding me — that biology class was seriously ridiculously easy. Way easier than any other freshman class. I can’ think of a good academic reason why they made students wait, so maybe they just didn’t have enough teachers to support four years of science for each student? If that was the case, they should’ve just made it a lottery system, or something, instead of screwing with our heads…

  3. I think a better example for your academic tracking post would be the tracking students go through for math courses. That, if anything, is one of the strictest and demoralizing processes I can remember. I would argue the tracking began all the way back in elementary school because we already were separated at the start of middle school. Slight differences at the tender age of 10 I would argue made the ultimate difference between if you took Calculus or just some other math filler course to get the requirement finished.

  4. You’re definitely right about the math. I didn’t use that as an example because I was particularly upset over the science class thing, but it is definitely shameful that 5th grade placement tests basically determine your math curriculum for the next 7 years.

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