Tracking Hurts Children

By Marcia Klenbort

Vol. 21, No. 1, 1999 p. 14

What is "tracking"? A high school sophomore who spent most of his schooling in low-level courses, says: "You live in the basement, you die in the basement. You know what I mean?"

Where did "tracking" in Southern classrooms originate? When desegregation moved from a fear in the minds of Southern white legislators, elected officials and school leaders, to a reality, the most frequent measure taken to resegregate the schools along racial lines was to separate students according to "ability groups." It was known as "tracking" because children put in a certain ability group (low, medium, or high) tended to stay there.

Is tracking still used today? It is. It is sanctioned by state departments of education, which plan for "gifted and talented" programs for about 5 percent of the student population. Those offer the liveliest curriculum, the most hands-on activities, the greatest choice for students, and frequently have the best teachers. Research shows that all students benefit from these conditions.

Who is concerned about the negative effects tracking? The loudest and most persistent critic of tracking is C.A.R.E. (Coalition of Alabamians Reforming Education) in Selma, Alabama. It was started by Rose Sanders, an attorney, songwriter, playwright, parent, and ardent advocate for education for black and for poor children.

What do students have to say? Students from Selma City and Dallas County, Alabama, schools describe their schools as chaotic places where teachers are ill-equipped to teach and clearly uninterested in children. There is no modeling among teachers of intellectual rigor, of multicultural sharing, or of taking students seriously.

Where can I read more about tracking? Anne Wheelock's Crossing the Tracks: How "Untracking" Can Save America's Schools (1992, New Press, New York) tells of teachers and students nationwide who achieve in heterogeneously grouped classrooms.

Jeanie Oakes' Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985, Yale University Press, New Haven) is a classic study of tracking.

Marcia Klenbort is director of education programs at the Southern Regional Council. For more information on C.A.R.E., call Jasmine Smith at 334-875-9264, or write to C.A.R.E. at 1 Union Street, Selma, AL 36701.