June 9, 2017

Counterpoint: Tracking Leads to Inequality and Crushes Confidence

Theo Deitz-Green ‘19

The history of education has been defined by debate over how best to carry it out. In the past half century, perhaps no issue has been more controversial than that of whether to place kids in classes based on their abilities.
At first glance, the advantage to tracking placement seems clear: placing students with others that learn at similar paces would allow teachers to tailor their teaching styles to best suit the needs of their students. Each student would get the education they need in the manner that they need it.
This is certainly a compelling case in principle. Unfortunately, though, it does not hold up to the reality of its impacts on education.  
In fact, research conducted by James Kulik and Robert Slavin on the impacts of tracking systems has found that while they have led to an increase in performance in higher achieving students, this increase has been entirely offset by the decrease in performance of lower achieving students.
Therefore, tracking systems provide no increase in the average educational achievement of students in relation to heterogeneous classes, or classes in which students are placed randomly with no consideration of ability.
Because both produce the same academic results, we must consider the other factors at play in these competing systems and it is in these that it becomes clear that the heterogeneous class placement system carries greater benefits.
While both yield average academic results, ability placement leads to a large gap in the quality of education of students in higher classes and students in lower classes. This means that some students are going off to college and into the job market at huge disadvantages. Heterogeneous schools avoid this by giving everyone the same class opportunity.   
Also, according to an article written by Nora Hyland, professor of education at Rutgers University, poor and minority students are often overwhelmingly placed in low classes, while students with more money are more commonly placed in higher classes.
Therefore, the tracking system further expands the disparities between those with and without money and between minorities and non-minorities, cementing it in perhaps the most important facet of life. It expands what many see as an existing systemic racism by providing minorities with worse educations and, by extension, fewer opportunities.
Additionally, the leveling of classes is detrimental to the confidence and motivation of those placed in lower level classes.
Now, there are people who argue that leveling of classes should actually help solve this problem because it is more demoralizing to be placed in a class with people who learn faster and constantly receive lower grades than to be in a lower class but do well.
However, according to a study conducted by Jomills Braddock and Robert E. Slavin, professor of sociology at University of Miami and director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, respectively, students in lower classes have lower self esteem and are more likely to believe that their “fate [is] out of their hands.”
The notion that they are less smart than others is pounded into them year after year and often stays with them for the rest of their lives. The system can beat out any ambition or hope of success.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of tracking education is that it begins so early, often in middle school. The ability of a student to learn at the age of twelve or thirteen determines the course of the rest of their lives, because often, once placed in a certain level, it is almost impossible to move up. With every passing day they are getting further behind and it gets harder to catch up.
Of course, heterogeneous class placement has its problems as well. No education system can be perfect.

However, if both produce the same average academic results and tracking leads to educational inequality, discrimination and crushing blows to confidence, while heterogeneous placement does not, it is clearly the better path for schools to take.    

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