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October 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 2

Response / Untracking Advocates Make Incredible Claims

    Instructional Strategies
      Incredible claims have recently been made regarding “untracking,” a reform designed to reduce, or even to eliminate, ability grouping. Just as exaggerated claims that cold fusion offered a simple answer to the energy crisis were quashed when the scientific community demanded specific data, I hope social scientists will soon vigorously challenge the claims of untracking advocates. Educators have uncritically accepted that tracking is harmful and untracking beneficial, when little empirical proof has been presented. And this school reform, if implemented, is likely to prove counterproductive.
      For example, Jeannie Oakes, described as the “nation's best known expert on tracking,” reports that poor and minority children have long been tracked into inferior classrooms and schools, restricting their opportunities for success in American society (O'Neil 1992). Poor and minority children are disproportionately represented in the lower tracks at virtually all grade levels. For reasons yet unknown, this group of children (it is quite a different matter with individuals) performs less well academically than do middle-class and majority students. Therefore, disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged children in the lower tracks may simply signify that schools cannot remake society.
      Oakes cites unidentified studies that reveal “striking track-related differences, with some of the most dramatic evidence showing tracking's particularly negative impact on the opportunities of low-income, African-American, and Latino students” (Oakes 1992). Seeking data that disadvantaged students are harmed by tracking, I requested specific citations from Oakes. In return I received a brief note and two recent book chapters (Oakes and Lipton 1991, Oakes et al. 1992). The first chapter cited 31 references, while the second contained 315. On examining the first five references, I found that not one provided any evidence that tracking caused differences in students' grades or test results. Obviously, a more extensive investigation is required.
      Another untracking authority, Anne Wheelock has asserted that in schools that untrack, achievement is up for low and average students while undiminished and sometimes improved for high-achieving students (Wheelock 1992). When I asked for data that support her conclusions, her reply consisted of a promotional brochure for one of her books. By stating that “tracking forces poor children into a self-fulfilling racist prophecy,” the brochure implies that opposition to untracking is based on racism—an allegation that certainly inhibits the scientific study of tracking.
      Another leader of the untracking movement, Barbara Nelson Pavan (1992) cites seven studies that compared students who had spent all their elementary school years in the same nongraded school (which employed untracking tactics) with students who spent the same years in a traditional school. Allegedly, all seven studies report superior academic achievement for the nongraded students. Pavan also cites studies that reveal that blacks in nongraded schools had higher academic achievement, better self-concepts, and more positive attitudes toward school, teachers, and learning than did black students in graded schools. When I requested specific data from Pavan about the studies she quoted, she suggested that I refer to the citations in her book.
      Pavan's claims run counter to data I obtained in similar research (Scott 1984, 1985, 1991). In the 1985 study, for example, six experts investigated the relationships between schooling conditions and the achievement of black students. After an exhaustive literature search, I identified 157 studies as promising. Further data assessment determined that 19 of the 157 studies were “valid and empirically strong.” Of the 19, not a single study demonstrated that variables directly attributable only to schooling significantly promoted the learning of black students. In fact, the data consistently underscored the salience of home background factors.
      This brief review reveals certain marked differences between inquiry in the domains of physical and social science. The cold fusion controversy was quickly resolved when the scientists involved yielded to angry and insistent demands for specifics. Unfortunately, the record indicates that educational reformers assume little such responsibility. Indeed, the overall pattern affirms Chester Finn's view (1992) that the education establishment subjects certain perspectives to “skimpy analysis” and that “the present system gets away with something akin to educational homicide.”
      Ironically, as efforts to untrack American schools accelerate, evidence mounts that untracking is already more widely practiced in American schools than in the schools of other industrialized nations, and that it is also educationally counterproductive. Recently, a survey of international education reported in The Economist (Wooldridge 1992) concluded that the worldwide market revolution requires that nations take steps to maximally challenge students of all abilities to fully develop their skills. The author reported that European and Pacific Rim schools employ procedures designed to educate work forces for creation of high value-adding jobs. German schools were specifically praised for their tracking programs, which stream children into separate school systems at age 10. Conversely, American schools were faulted for educating all students without regard for abilities. In plain talk, other industrialized nations employ a greater degree of tracking, and it is positively associated with educational and industrial productivity.
      The Economist declared that future markets and prosperity will accrue to those who implement what untracking advocates disparage: schools that tailor teaching to student abilities and aspirations—and that use different curricular strategies for individual students. Untracking advocates may claim that they propose reform that emphasizes individualized instruction, but in practice, untracking homogenizes academic expectation. As a result, less experienced students are frustrated and more experienced students are bored. As someone who attempted to effectively teach in the same classroom students whose abilities extended from the 3rd grade level through the second year of college, it is difficult for me to fault the viewpoint that encourages tracking.
      The end results of tracking seem all too apparent. It seems illogical to dissociate the decline in the number of American students earning in excess of 650 on SAT tests (Lerner 1983) from educational reforms that in many cases involved significant applications of untracking. In addition, businesses like General Motors continue to subcontract Japanese companies to improve efficiency, suggesting that American students are ill-prepared to compete (“Business and Finance” 1992).
      Americans can take heart in efforts by the Clinton administration to employ European educational concepts in expanding vocational education and tracking. Present plans call for special programming for the noncollege-bound to combine the final two years of high school with community college education (Savage 1992). In reporting on the Clinton initiatives, NBC Evening News (December 12–14, 1992) suggested that the proposed tracking programs may enable larger numbers of young Americans to become happier and more productive adults. Both untracking advocates and their critics can share that vision.
      References

      “Business and Finance.” (November 12, 1992). The Wall Street Journal, A1.

      Finn, C. E., Jr. (December 16, 1992). “The Education Empire Strikes Back.” Wall Street Journal, A14.

      Lerner, B. (1983). “Test Scores as Measures of Human Capital.” In Intelligence and National Achievement, edited by R. H. Cattell. Washington, D.C.: The Institute for the Study of Man, Inc.

      Mallove, E. F. (1991). Fire From Ice: Searching for the Truth Behind the Cold Fusion Furor. New York: Wiley.

      NBC Evening News. (December 12–14, 1992).

      Oakes, J. (May 1992). “Can Tracking Research Inform Practice?” Educational Researcher 21, 4: 12–21.

      Oakes, J., and M. Lipton. (1991). “Tracking and Unequal Opportunities to Learn.” In Education a New Majority, edited by L. Rendon and R. Hope. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

      Oakes, J., A. Gamoran, and R. Page. (1992). “Curriculum Differentiation.” In Handbook of Research on Curriculum, edited by P. Jackson. Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

      O'Neil, J. (1992). “On Tracking and Individual Differences: A Conversation with Jeannie Oakes.” Educational Leadership 50, 2: 18.

      Pavan, B. N. (1992). “The Benefits of Nongraded Schools.” Educational Leadership 50, 2: 22–25.

      Savage, D. G. (December 1992). “Clinton Plan Targets Nation's `Forgotten Half.' “Los Angeles Times, as featured in The Waterloo Courier, A1.

      Scott, R. (1984). Productive Factors Which Influence Levels of Learning. Position Paper. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Education Department.

      Scott, R. (1985). Synopsis of the 1982–83 National Institute of Education Study into the Relationship Between Desegregation and Black Learning. Cedar Falls, Iowa: University of Northern Iowa.

      Scott, R. (October 7, 1991). “Functional Assessment” Paper presented at the Iowa Curriculum and Instruction Conference, Ames, Iowa.

      Wheelock, A. (1992). “The Case for Untracking.” Educational Leadership 50, 2: 6–10.

      Wooldridge, Adrian. (November 21, 1992). “Education: Coming Top.” The Economist 325, 7786: Special Insert.

      End Notes

      1 In 1989 Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann reported that nuclear fusion occurred in a simple tabletop operation at room temperature. Scientists unable to replicate the experiment inundated the researchers for details. When Pons and Fleishmann later supplied their data, replicative investigations discredited the “breakthrough” heralded by the media (Mallove 1991).

      Ralph Scott has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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