This article was written by KnowledgeWorks consultant and former Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives Eric Toshalis, EdD.
Over the past few tumultuous years, activists and reformers have regularly featured a quote by the great James Baldwin to help underscore the necessity for raised awareness. It goes like this:
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Baldwin is saying so much in that one sentence, but one thing that jumps out to us is this: the need for bravery in confronting injustice. To face something in the way Baldwin is framing it is to turn toward it, to see it for what it is, to challenge it. That requires pushing through denial and complacency and revealing the flaws in our taken-for-granted assumptions. It involves the creation of new or altered relationships. It means mustering the will to ask hard questions and transform self, other and system. And yes, it also necessitates discomfort, particularly for those who benefit the most from the status quo. Discomfort notwithstanding, we think Baldwin’s call for bravery is also an offer of hope. Once we muster the courage to face something, we open the possibility that it can be changed.
Here we attempt to face and make the case for replacing one of the most hurtful and pervasive barriers to justice and equity currently operating in our schools: tracking. By “tracking,” we mean the widespread practice of labeling, ranking, sorting and separating students, our children, by perceived academic ability and behavioral compliance. As we’ll discuss, the justifications for tracking are specious, its origins indefensible and its current applications harmful. Despite this, it continues to be a fundamental design component in US public education. To break down why it’s so problematic and propose a specific remedy, our goal is to do as Baldwin recommends: face the injustice of tracking, not just to build awareness but also to change things.
Observation #1: (In)equity is a consequence of design
Our PreK-12 educational system is perfectly designed to yield the inequitable outcomes it produces. If we want to change those outcomes, we have to change the design. Adding new approaches isn’t enough. Tinkering with features is insufficient. If we want big changes, we have to make big changes.
We have to face the fact that the design problems we’re confronting in our schools are rooted in our history and perpetuated by dominance. Education has always been a primary tool of the colonizer; both domestically, with our harm-ridden Indigenous boarding schools and our legacy of segregation, and internationally, as we sought to indoctrinate other nations and peoples with Western ideals. That history endures. After all, our schools still look a lot like they did 100+ years ago. We’ve added innumerable flourishes since then to modernize instruction, assessment, discipline and curriculum, but the student experience and the system’s outcomes still largely mirror those of the late 1800s. Kids seated in rows (or in boxes on screens), teachers lecturing or demonstrating, kids practicing, work being collected, work getting graded, kids being labeled and sorted based on their performance, repeat. In the early 20th century, if you were Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, from a low-income family, emergent bilingual, differently abled, immigrant and/or LGBTQIA – and if you weren’t already segregated into “separate but equal” schools – you were far more likely than your more privileged peers to be tracked into the lesser tiers where low expectations, rote forms of instruction, fewer resources and less skilled educators were commonplace. The result was predictable because it was pre-determined—marginalized students with minimal opportunities underperformed, whereas more privileged students received extra supports and resources and went on to achieve and earn wages and access power at higher levels.
Today’s tracking infrastructure isn’t an occasional byproduct or a historical accident; it’s intentional systemic inequity.
That tracked design persists largely undisturbed today, as do the gaps in opportunity and long-term negative effects on historically marginalized students. Today’s tracking infrastructure isn’t an occasional byproduct or a historical accident; it’s intentional systemic inequity. It’s baked into the system because it was designed that way in the beginning and we’ve yet to find the will or the way to sufficiently dismantle and replace it. But if we are committed to equity, we have to recognize that the inequitable design we inherited and the outcomes it produces are purposeful. In short, if we want to change it, we have to face it.
Observation #2: Tracking is a primary organizer of our PreK-12 system
Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), Talented and Gifted (TAG), Career and Technical Education (CTE), Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), honors, college prep, pullout, remediation, enrichment, “kids who don’t want to learn,” “struggling students,” “study hall.” These are just some of the names we invent to separate students based on perceived ability. We say perceived ability because the criteria used to determine that ability (typically: teacher selection and standardized tests) are lacking in scientific merit and frequently biased. And yet the practice endures. Here’s how Virgel experienced it:
Early in my childhood and schooling experience, I was balancing social and academic language both in English and Spanish. I enjoyed school and always strived to achieve at the highest of levels. In doing so, a teacher advocated for my testing into the GATE program. I recall the testing being fun, different and engaging. I enjoyed the puzzles, explaining my logic and coming to conclusions that connected to my world. However, soon I received news that brought me back down to reality when it was revealed my standardized test scores were not high enough. The belief was my understanding of English was not where it needed to be thus resulting in misreading the directions and questions. I had become a learner that was excited by the potential learning opportunities to one that was sullen and discouraged to hear the fun and excitement I had through this process/track was not for me. At this formative moment in my educational career, I believed I was not gifted. This realization was painful and took me years to overcome.
Virgel’s experience is not unique. Research has demonstrated that “[S]chools often conflate limited proficiency in English with limited ability to master academic content. As a result, [emergent bilingual students] are tracked into classes with modified curricula that are less rigorous than those of regular classes, which prevents these students from gaining access to advanced instruction even as their language skills develop.” One study actually noted that a core “reason recent Mexican immigrants outperform second-generation students is that the immigrants have spent less time in low tracks in U.S. schools.”
Once tracked, students typically receive very different expectations, messages, learning conditions, peer cohorts, teachers, pedagogies, curricula and opportunities. And over time, those differences open more and more doors for some while slamming them shut for others.
Most PreK-12 systems begin segregating students into different tracks in the primary grades, some as early as kindergarten. Students who may be further along in their skill development in a specific domain are provided with opportunities to enrich and extend their learning, while students who may be a bit behind are separated so they can receive remediation. If these divergent paths were designed to be temporary opportunities that functioned to level the playing field, it would make sense for us to support the differentiation of instruction they imply. But they don’t work that way. Once tracked, students typically receive very different expectations, messages, learning conditions, peer cohorts, teachers, pedagogies, curricula and opportunities. And over time, those differences open more and more doors for some while slamming them shut for others. For example, if you struggle with fractions in elementary school and get tracked into a math remediation program, your chances of succeeding in algebra in middle school and advancing to calculus and statistics in high school are severely diminished, and therefore so are your chances to succeed in post-secondary. But the kid who receives tutoring or extra help at home to understand fractions gets labeled a “gifted” learner and gets put on a track leading to greater enrichment and achievement. Two different kids, two different tracks, two different life trajectories.
Observation #3: Tracking is racist (and classist, and ableist, etc.)
Anti-Black eugenicists filled the ranks of public school designers in the early 20th century when scientific management theories shaped both factories and classrooms. Using (now) disproven theories of intelligence and human capacity that relied on repulsive categorizations of “Negroid,” “Mongoloid,” and “Caucasoid” “races,” they sought to design systems that would rationalize and secure White supremacy. When Nazi Germany adopted those same eugenicist lies to build a “master race,” school designers shifted their rhetoric to obscure its racist intentions. During a period of high immigration and rising nativist fears, school designers extolled the value of optimizing our economy by ensuring that the labor force was divided into roles best suited to each individual’s “intelligence” and “temperament”—categories that relied on the same specious distinctions used to legitimate slavery, colonization and segregation. Deploying these categories, those who thought they were White considered themselves the owning and managing class—the “captains of industry”—and all others were more or less relegated to laborers. Housing, transportation, health care, childcare, food distribution, job training, the tax code and a whole host of other social and governmental features took similar approaches to secure advantage of the dominant class and ensure a steady stream of unskilled and often desperate workers, the abundance of which kept wages low and profits high. Similar patterns emerged with the categorization and segregation of students with disabilities, students from low-income families, emergent bilinguals and students from Indigenous, immigrant or refugee families. This segregation was intentional.
White leaders committed to sustaining their supremacy have long known that policies and pedagogies designating “ability” can be nearly as effective in maintaining advantage as poll taxes and tests, and segregated drinking fountains, buses, neighborhoods and schools.
To justify and sustain this segregation, the designers needed schools to operationalize forms of ranking and sorting that would yield the stratifications they desired. Tracking served that purpose (and so did private elite schools only the upper crust could afford). So the designers used racist “intelligence” tests and biased teacher nominations to identify pre-determined bands of pupils who would then be slotted into different academic tracks aligned with the kinds of work already deemed appropriate for them. It functioned as a closed system: the logic that rationalized it became the structures that perpetuated it, which produced the eventual differences in groups’ “abilities” that they claimed were God-given.
White leaders committed to sustaining their supremacy have long known that policies and pedagogies designating “ability” can be nearly as effective in maintaining advantage as poll taxes and tests, and segregated drinking fountains, buses, neighborhoods and schools. Such approaches work to sustain supremacy because they divert Black, Brown, Indigenous and students of color from opportunity and prevent them from flourishing not because they’re not able to achieve at the highest levels but because they are deemed not able to do so. In this way, tracking accomplishes in schools what Jim Crow, lynching, police violence, voter suppression and housing discrimination achieves in society.
The research detailing tracking’s ruinous effects, racist / classist / ableist / xenophobic logics, disproportional outcomes, discriminatory practices and segregating policies is well established. But at the system level, we are still dedicated to labelling, ranking, sorting and segregating students based on indefensible criteria. The harm this produces is hard to overestimate. So why does it persist? We need only look out upon the workforce of well-intentioned educators, administrators, district officials and policymakers currently maintaining the system of White affirmative action that is tracking. The vast majority of those educators and systems leaders are White (depending on the role, upwards of 80%), and most likely benefitted from being tracked into high-expectancy classes when they progressed through school. This does not mean they are bad people with bad intentions! The normative nature of tracking makes it somewhat invisible to many—it’s just “how we do things.” It has become a part of our culture. And folks don’t have to be bigots to be well-incentivized in a system of racial oppression, a system that benefits them and may be largely invisible to them; they just have to avoid facing the racist roots and harmful impact of the system they’re supporting.
Systemic racism, of which tracking is a core component, is precisely that—a system. Being in it doesn’t mean we have to be of it, but it does mean we have to work hard if we want to dismantle it. As Baldwin implies, we won’t seek to change it if we don’t ever face it.
Observation #4: We need a replacement for tracking
Improvement is not the same as dismantling. We can’t just keep adding cool new stuff to our schools and classrooms—we need to take down and remove the old bad stuff, too. But schools or districts that have recognized how tracking drives inequity often struggle to subtract its features. Because those features are baked in and commitments to it can be entrenched, any attempt to remove just one component ends up affecting a host of others, and the pushback against multi-level change can be fierce. Leaders can often see the need to de-track but can’t figure out how to do the demolition and construction required to build something new in its place. They rightfully point out that teachers would need new skillsets, schedules would need to be reorganized, assessment strategies would require overhauling, students and families would need to see the value-add and sometimes whole communities would need to be re-conditioned to see what de-tracked schools can do to bolster the achievement of all learners. Undertaking this kind of change can feel like navigating a swamp: mucky, scary and disorienting.
But what if there were a ready-made infrastructure available to replace the logic and practices of tracking? What if folks didn’t need to re-invent wheels and don’t have to stress out about constructing a new system from scratch? What if we gave them a swap, not a swamp and thereby made equity attainable and the workload sustainable? Well, we have!
Observation #5: Personalized, competency-based learning is an ideal and anti-racist replacement infrastructure
The challenging process of de-tracking schools requires the substitution of new designs. Those designs must supply sufficient policy, instructional, assessment, cultural and developmental infrastructures capable of dismantling and then replacing the oppressive logics of tracking. We think personalized, competency-based learning is ideally suited to become tracking’s replacement infrastructure and thereby function as an equity and anti-racist catalyst. Here’s an example.
When Maine had consolidated school systems, Regional School Unit Two (RSU2) saw an opportunity to engage its five communities in the co-construction of a new learning system. Prior to consolidation, these five communities functioned within four unique school systems. When they came together as one, there were many strengths and assets to build upon—there were also many opportunities to remove restrictive and oppressive polices and structures. The five communities rallied to identify a vision centered on the personal, unique gifts of each learner and to adopt policies and practices that would achieve greater equity. Leaders and educators shifted the teaching and learning paradigms to build on the backgrounds, experience, agency and aspirations for each learner, family and community. They aligned curricula to a newly designed competency-continuum that was designed to empower and motivate learners rather grade, label, rank and sort them. This new de-tracked infrastructure offered expanded opportunities and experiences for each child with instructional designs that captured unique, personalized demonstrations of mastery on a common, transparent, competency-based continuum. As these designs took root and RSU2 eliminated tracking, hope by and for each child blossomed.
RSU2’s story demonstrates that despite tracking’s legacy and its current dominance, there is a way to face the need for change and move forward. Personalized, competency-based learning has the necessary ideological, pedagogical, structural and practical components to dismantle tracking and replace it with an anti-racist system expressly designed to produce equity. And doing so isn’t a dream—it’s already happening in districts and schools across the nation.
So what can I do right now?
- Talk to someone you know about tracking. Share how it benefitted or harmed you or those you know. Look at the logics supporting it and the practices, policies and procedures sustaining it. Do you want to sustain that system? If so, why? If not, why?
- Read research on tracking and send it to someone who teaches in or leads a school / district. What’s their reaction? If they argue for keeping tracking despite the evidence against it, what reasons do they supply for doing so? If they’re in favor of de-tracking, what do they need to move forward?
- Ask different students how they see tracking impacting their learning, their sense of self, the culture of the school, the things kids and educators say about different students and the divisions among social groups. What do they tell you?
- Seeking out options for replacing tracking is one way you can shift to an antiracist approach to teaching and learning. Luckily, there’s no need to start from scratch! Personalized, competency-based learning is a proven, established approach that makes tracking obsolete, equity attainable, the workload sustainable and gives both students and teachers the agency they need to own learning.
- “perfectly designed to yield the inequitable outcomes it produces”
We’re glossing Tony Bryk and his Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching colleagues’ statement here: “[E]very system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets, which means that results are the natural products of the current state of affairs.” https://www.carnegiefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/carnegie-foundation_continuous-improvement_2013.05.pdf
- “those who thought they were White”
Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me (Random House, 2015).
- “[S]chools often conflate limited proficiency in English with limited ability to master academic content”
Gamoran, A. (2009). Tracking and Inequality: New Directions for Research and Practice. WCER Working Paper No. 2009-6. Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Retrieved from https://wcer.wisc.edu/docs/working-papers/Working_Paper_No_2009_06.pdf, p. 5.