Photo by lumierefl on Flickr.

Should schools sort children into “tracks” based on their abilities? This debate has gone on since the 1950s.

It’s a simple idea. Most schools have several classrooms for any given class or subject. Children are starting in different places and learn at different speeds. Instead of teaching them all at once pace, which can be too fast for some and too slow for others, sort them by how much they already know and how quickly they can learn.

The concept is that each child will neither start out behind nor be bored. Each child can learn as much as he or she can handle, as fast as he or she can absorb it.

Whether tracking involves all subjects or only a few, or separate Gifted and Talented programs or magent schools, opponents charge that these efforts disadvantage the poor and minorities, and exacerbate social inequality.

After losing favor in the 90s, tracking has once again become widespread. The issue is especially relevant as David Catania, chair of the DC Council’s Education Committee suggests DCPS establish selective schools east of the river.

Tracking works

There is a fair amount of evidence to support sorting children when divvying them into classrooms. One study in Massachusetts shows that for every additional track of math in the 8th grade, 3% more of the student body scores at the advanced level. Another very rigorous study set up control and experimental classes in Kenya, and found that both higher- and lower-achieving students performed better in tracked classes than in normal heterogeneous classrooms. Another study from 1991 confirms these findings.

Teachers also generally prefer to teach tracked classes. They find it difficult to engage children across a wide range of academic attainment and aptitude simultaneously. The problem is intuitive: what interests one child bores another, what interests the latter confuses and puzzles the first. Children do not enter the public school system with equal preparation, so why shouldn’t our schools reflect this?

Tracking also highlights society’s ills

We live in an unequal society, and the inequality is not evenly distributed. A history of discrimination against some racial and ethnic groups has left their members less aflluent and less educated, on average. Children raised with these disadvantages reflect them as they enter the public school system.

Pre-kindergarteners (4-5 year olds) from low-income backgrounds are generally 12-18 months behind national norms, to say nothing of children from especially privileged households. This creates an immediate dilemma for schools as each cohort matriculates:

  1. Do we take kids who are a year behind and teach them separately?
  2. Do we mix classes and teach to the lower level (leaving at- and above-grade level kids bored and restless, and wasting their school time)?
  3. Do we mix classes and teach to the higher level (leaving below-grade level kids confused and embarassed)?
  4. Do we target the middle of the range, leaving some kids somewhat bored, and others somewhat confused?
None of these are great choices. While ability grouping (the common name for tracking in elementary school contexts) can resolve the immediate educational needs, it does nothing to resolve the broader inequality issues. Given the disproportionate level of poverty in minority communities, the lower-track classes will start out being disproportionately filled with minority children. Notwithstanding the Kenya study mentioned above, there is some evidence that “de-tracking” reduces the racial achievement gap.And there is something distasteful about the sight of de-facto segregated classrooms.At the same time, do we try to solve decades (if not centuries) of discrimination on the backs of well meaning 4-year-olds who quite literally don’t know the meaning of the word “race”?Are there alternatives to tracking?Ideally we could all have our cake and eat it as well. Is this cliché an option? Montgomery County Public Schools recently piloted a resource-intensive detracking approach for middle school English involving two teachers in every classroom; it appears to help the remedial students, but there’s no word if the high achievers did as well.Even if it is the solution here, would this work with math (mixing algebra and geometry students wouldn’t make much sense) and can other systems, barely able to pay the teachers they have now, afford to double up without exploding class sizes beyond all reason?Does all this apply to selective magnet schools?There is an argument that some of these issues don’t apply to magnet schools. The psychological effect of being “second tier” within one’s own school might demotivate students, but that doesn’t extend to the abstract knowledge that there are better and worse schools.On the other hand, perhaps the only thing worse than essentially segregated classes in an integrated school would be de facto segregated schools. The best-of-breed magnet schools like Stuyvesant in New York City manifest the same racial disparities on a larger scale.If the beneficiaries of Gifted and Talented programs and magnet schools are disproportionately wealthy, will their parents sit by and allow the public school system to use their children to achieve societal goals? There is another option, namely “exit.” If the upper-middle class must resort to private education or move to the suburbs to find classrooms that target their children’s level of aptitude and academic preparation, what will this mean for the District’s public school system?Beyond simply being the most segregated option (the entire system would then have socioeconomic separation), mass private school attendance among the affluent can undermine the political will to fund public schools to the levels necessary to achieve any goals, individual or social. If these families depart to the suburbs, that would mean also the city loses the tax base it needs to even try to adequately fund education.The choice we’re left withEssentially, we have to decide if schools ought solely try to teach each child to the limits of his or her ability, or whether they are meant to ensure that children exit the system with equal opportunity. This is not a free choice; the achievement gap is real, as is the cost to high achieving kids (disproportionately privileged, but not uniformly so) of sitting around while remedial education is provided to others in front of them.I reluctantly support tracking, on the theory that it doesn’t make sense to distort one system to achieve another’s goals. Let’s have the best schools, with every child receiving an education suited to them, and let’s try to heal the scars of past discrimination another way.Whether it’s universal pre-school, to reduce the “word gap,” or remedial classes in the summer that can help kids bridge from one track to another, any option is better than intentionally subverting the quality of instruction in the classroom, or having a third of the city abandon the system altogether for private schools.

Rahul Mereand-Sinha was born in DC and grew up nearby in Bethesda. He now lives in Kalorama Triangle with his wife Katherine. He has a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland and moonlights as a macroeconomist.