On Tracking and Individual Differences: A Conversation with Jeannie Oakes - ASCD
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October 1, 1992

On Tracking and Individual Differences: A Conversation with Jeannie Oakes

The widespread practice of tracking students won't be dismantled until we truly believe that schools can help “make children smart,” says Jeannie Oakes.

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies

A former teacher and researcher in John Goodlad's landmark Study of Schooling, Jeannie Oakes burst onto the education scene with the 1985 publication of Keeping Track, her research-based account of the devastating effects of tracking in public schools. Oakes has since become the country's best-known expert on tracking, one of the most hotly debated issues in education. A UCLA professor and researcher with the RAND Corporation, Oakes most recently co-authored Making the Best of Schools with her husband, Martin Lipton.

Your book Keeping Track really helped to raise awareness of the effects of tracking, particularly on students who are placed in the lower tracks. Is tracking still as widespread as you portrayed it?

I think that more people are now aware of the uneven distribution of learning experiences and access to resources than when I wrote Keeping Track. This increased awareness has led to lots of discussion and, increasingly, efforts to create alternatives to a tracked school. But I think that if we took a sample of American schools today, we would find that probably 80 percent of the secondary schools and maybe 60 percent of the elementary schools still use some form of between-class grouping based on the perceptions educators have about children's ability to learn.

It might help to clarify some terms. What do you mean by “tracking” and “ability grouping”?

Well, those terms are used very sloppily to describe a wide variety of programs, so I don't find it very useful to distinguish between them in that way.

When I talk about harmful effects of tracking and ability grouping, I'm talking about all of those forms of grouping that are characterized by educators making some rather global judgment about how smart students are—either in a subject field or across a number of subject fields. Sometimes, it's defined in terms of IQ, sometimes it's defined in terms of past performance, sometimes the criteria are predictions of how well children are likely to learn. In other words, some grown-ups in the school are making a judgment about how smart the students are.

I also worry that students get placed in these groups in a rather public way. The groups are a very public part of the school's culture that reflects judgments that adults have made about children's current and future abilities. Within that culture, the groups take on a very hierarchical nature: we talk about top groups, bottom groups, middle groups, high groups, low groups. And often in the culture of the schools, the “top group” quickly becomes the “top kids,” in a very value-laden way. So the students take their place in the hierarchy and the values associated with it.

And this begins very early in school?

Yes. It can start with two-tiered kindergartens. Some children, probably because they've had a rich preschool experience, are considered ready for a kindergarten experience that, unfortunately, is like the old 1st grade curriculum pushed down into kindergarten. The rest are grouped in “developmental” kindergartens. When you go into schools that have two-track kindergarten programs, even if they're called developmental and academic, there is just no mistaking that everybody knows where the children thought to have the most promise are. As a consequence of all this, kids experience a large portion of their school day and school year very, very differently from one another.

How is school different for students in different tracks?

First of all, I should say that instruction across tracks is probably more alike than it is different—teachers talk, students are passive, and so on.

Having said that, to the extent that we find students engaged in experience-based learning—hands-on and critical thinking activities that apply to the content of what they're learning, challenging problems that are likely to have more than one right answer or more than one way of achieving the answer, deeply contextualized curriculum—we find those things far more often in top-track classes than we do in bottom-track classes. The middle track falls somewhere in between.

What is school like for students in the bottom track?

The bottom track is distinctly different. It's typically dominated by strategies that are passive; students do lots of worksheets, they tend to work alone. We find in science, for example, that the amount of time students sit by themselves reading out of textbooks is far greater than in top-track classes, where students are more involved in doing science, often working in groups doing projects.

Ironically, we're finding out that for children who have difficulty in school, the kinds of experiences that are easiest for them are not low-level, abstract worksheets, or the disconnected, fragmented curriculum that is typical of the low track.

What sort of curriculum do they need?

If we pay attention to what cognitive and developmental psychologists have been telling us over the last 20 years, the rich, contextualized, problem-oriented curriculum that we usually think of as appropriate for the highest-achieving students is also the most promising kind of curriculum for children who have difficulty doing traditional school learning. So I think that the curriculum issue needs to be turned on its head: we need to realize that the kind of drill-and-skill curriculum that we've traditionally offered low-track students probably makes knowledge less accessible to them than would a richer and more demanding curriculum that better approximates real-life problem solving.

Why is instruction so different for these students in the lower track? I can't imagine that teachers would rather teach watered-down academic content.

Part of the answer is that the teachers who are most likely to be assigned to low-track classes are the least experienced, those without teaching credentials, and, at the secondary level, those with the lowest levels of preparation in their subject fields. We also see differences in teachers' confidence levels: teachers who are the most efficacious are most often assigned to the high track. So students in the low track are more likely to be saddled with teachers who have a smaller repertoire and less confidence. Then there's the limit that all teachers face about how you balance rich educational activity with classroom control.

What do you mean?

In many schools, students who misbehave are placed in the low track. There's a stange belief in the culture of many schools that disruptive students are likely to do the least damage in the low track.

So you find low-track teachers with a classroom full of students who have a history of school difficulties, school failures, or misbehavior. In those settings, even very skillful teachers often resort to classroom activities in which students are kept separate and quiet for purposes of control. These complex dynamics help perpetuate low-level curriculum for low-track students. That's one of the reasons I'm very suspicious about recommendations that schools simply “beef up” the low track: give students better teachers, more exciting curriculum, more interesting variety.

You mean, keep a tracked school but, within that system, just improve the quality of the bottom track?

Yes. That's been tried for many years without much success. And the reason is that you're still confronted with a situation where you've got a critical mass of students who know the school has identified them as not likely to succeed; you've also got students who have a history of misbehavior. And it just makes that kind of “beefing up” more difficult to do. Plus you don't have the resources in these classrooms of other students who are eager and excited, who have retained some interest in school.

It seems as if more and more experts are critical of tracking, yet it remains one of the most entrenched of school practices. Why?

Well, I've thought about that long and hard and talked with lots of educators about why they believe this system is so persistent. At the root of the tracking problem, I think, are powerful norms in the culture of schools and in the society beyond the school: for example, about the nature of ability. The notion persists that ability is fixed very early in life, if not before birth, and that there's virtually nothing schools can do that might alter a student's fundamental capability.

Another is the persistent misunderstanding of the idea of the normal curve. It's not viewed as a statistical artifact that attempts to portray the distribution of certain characteristics of a population; it's seen as an accurate representation of the distribution of how well kids are likely to do in school. So these notions of ability and normal curves lead educators to say: “Well, the educationally sound thing to do is adapt our curriculum to the ways that students are.”

Besides that, American educators seem to have a strong inclination to “be kind” to students: many feel it's unfair to expect high performance from students who can't do it; that it's frustrating and harmful to self-esteem.

Well, it would be foolish for anybody to say there aren't individual differences. The issue is how powerful are these differences in determining whether students do well in school? In countries like Japan and China, while ability is seen as part of the equation, working hard and persisting at difficult tasks is seen as making the difference. And the expectation is that all students can do that. It's quite a different cultural norm.

Now, unlike Japan, which has a homogeneous society, we have enormous diversity, and, unfortunately, our perceptions of ability tend to run along lines of race and ethnicity. This makes it far more difficult for us than many Asian countries to adopt a norm that says that any child who works hard and sticks with it can do well. The interesting parallel, though, in terms of organization, is that in Japan they simply don't track students before the end of the 8th grade. They have very heterogenous classrooms; they have lots of peer learning activities going on. So even though they may end up with considerable variation in learning outcomes in their classes, there is this sense that they all can do it and they all can do it together.

So American schools need new norms?

I think we do need other norms if we wish to untrack schools. Cognitive psychologists are now saying that intellectual capacity is learned as children interact with other human beings and with the environment—that, in fact, in this way human beings are far more alike than they are different. They're saying that the normal curve is not a very accurate depiction of the potential for children to learn most of what schools would like to teach. The norm that educators need to buy into is that, through their interactions with students, schools really can make children smart. And that's a powerful shift from conventional beliefs.

There's another reason that tracking is so prevalent, and I think it's a political issue having to do with people who have precocious children and who have, over the last 40 years in particular, won special programs and special advantages for their children.

White and wealthier families, in particular, have fought to maintain a system that guarantees that their children will have a rich curriculum, extraordinarily well-qualified teachers, a peer group who is very much like them in terms of background and values and interests. The political pressure from those groups to maintain that system is extraordinarily great—the countervailing force that makes educators feel so very insecure.

It seems that students in the college-bound track and their parents are happy with the way things are. They're worried that if tracking ends, there would be more disciplinary problems in their students' classes, the pace would be a lot slower, and so on. Aren't those legitimate concerns?

They're extraordinarily legitimate concerns, and any strategy to develop alternatives to tracking has to take them into account, and has to put in place a whole array of new programs and policies—many of which are on the current school reform agenda.

We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the fundamental goal of equalizing opportunity is not simply to mix students up, but to increase the quality of curriculum and instruction for everybody in the schools, even those who are now in the high track.

One thing we should keep in mind is that kindergartners coming to school show enormous interest in learning, and this cuts across socio-economic, racial, and ethnic lines. The willingness of 4- and 5-year-olds to work hard at learning is just extraordinary, both in school and out of school. But as kids go through school, if they don't have successful experiences and if they aren't considered shining stars, they learn that their effort does not pay off. So by high school we see a real diminishing of interest in school and willingness to do any hard work.

But is tracking to blame for that? Couldn't one argue that students have some degree of choice in what kind of classes they take? In most comprehensive high schools, they can select hard courses or easy ones.

Many high schools do use student preferences as one of the many criteria for course placement. But prerequisites are also a powerful factor. For example, in math, whether a student has had a pre-algebra class or whether she had an early algebra class in the 8th grade is more important than that student just saying, “I choose to take geometry as a 9th grader.” And, of course, entry into those early prerequisite classes is often determined by the kind of math ability groups that a student was placed in during elementary school. It's a cycle that begins very early.

Another thing that places great constraints on students' choices is what educators tell them. I've studied three schools in the last two years, trying to understand what happens when a student's choice conflicts with what counselors or prior teachers think would be an appropriate course, based on the student's standardized test scores or performance. Often, that student is counseled out of his choice.

And then, probably the most pervasive factor is that kids and their parents learn early on from the judgments made about them which choices are appropriate for them. So students often choose exactly what the school would choose for them. They know where they're likely to succeed, where they're likely to have trouble. Parents and students usually agree with the school's notions about ability, whether or not ability can change, and whether hard work can make a difference.

What you're talking about involves a major change in expectations.

It comes down to rethinking our notions of who can learn. If we took seriously the idea that all students can really be smart, we wouldn't ration opportunities so early in the school experience, and, as a result, I don't think we'd see these big discrepancies in students' interests and in willingness to work hard when they're in high school. You can't very easily take children who have been socialized toward schooling in very different ways for eight years and then expect them all to achieve well in high school.

So schools somehow have to restructure to offer opportunities to more students?

It's an extraordinarily difficult promise to make, but it's one that schools absolutely have to make good on.

I've been interested recently in the reports that have come out from the National Center for Gifted and Talented Education about how bright students are languishing in regular classrooms, and I think they're absolutely right. I think all students are languishing in most regular classrooms. What's so exciting to me about these efforts to create heterogenous classrooms is that in order to do so, the curriculum has to be much richer, more problem-oriented, and more engaging than even the curriculum of the high track.

Students need a lot of opportunities to construct knowledge together as a group, to make meaning out of their experiences to make sense of what they're learning, to make connections. Frankly, I'm convinced that that's the best kind of curriculum for all students.

Jeannie Oakes is Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Consultant for the RAND Corporation. She may be reached at the Graduate School of Education, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024. John O'Neil is Contributing Editor to Educational Leadership.

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