Apparently tracking is making a comeback. I was actually unaware that it had disappeared in the first place, but given that I generally try my hardest to remain immune to the latest fads emanating from education schools, that’s not exactly a surprise. As the product of twelve years of tracked classes, however, I find the subject somewhat interesting. Now granted that in my deliberate (and obstinate) ignorance of educational theory leaves me with little to offer beyond personal anecdote, but as someone who got to see tracking from both the top and bottom — and who got to see both the advantages and the disadvantages of that system — I think I can offer a few insights.
I attended a high school that tracked strictly, beginning in ninth grade: all subjects were divided into standard and honors tracks, with some subject further broken down into Basic, Standard, Honors, and AP.
Although people would occasionally move up or down a level, for the most part there wasn’t a whole lot of flexibility. Furthermore, people who took AP classes rarely took anything below the Honors level, and people who took Standard classes rarely took anything above the Honors level.
Ever the anomaly, I took both AP and Standard classes, the only one of my friends to do so.
I was always a strong student in the humanities, and there was never any question that I would take the highest level offered in English, History, and French. Science I was actually not bad at, and I managed to hold my own in Honors-level classes without too much anguish.
Then there was math.
I sometimes that if I’d had a halfway decent math tutor I was in high school, I would have gotten a perfect score on the SAT (ok, fine, maybe not a perfect score, but at least a 1500). I’m sort of kidding, but not really. My math teachers ranged from well-meaning but mediocre to brilliant but utterly and totally incapable of explaining the material in an even remotely competent manner (Mr. Bookston, that would be you), and I just wasn’t good enough to teach myself the material.
I was actually pretty good at math in the early grades, then, like a lot of kids, started to tank around seventh grade. My grades were fine, but I didn’t really understand what we were doing in school and had no one elsewhere going over the material with me, so I just kind of stumbled along. When I got to high school, I was afraid of getting in over my head, so I signed up for Standard. At fourteen, I had no concept of the consequences of that decision and no one (guidance counselor, parents) explaining them to me. The notion of taking a level that I wasn’t really prepared for and getting a tutor to hold my hand through every single assignment (as is the case for so many of my students) was non-existent.
Aside from the racial and socio-economic makeup of the students, the biggest difference between my Math classes and my other classes was the pervasive sense of low expectations. In my AP classes, there was a tacit assumption that we were an elite, that we would go on to attend top colleges and become leaders in whatever fields we chose. Even the slackers sometimes made it into the Ivy League. (One boy who claimed that doing homework was against his religion somehow managed to finagle his way into Dartmouth on the strength of his programming skills.)
In my Math classes, the overwhelming sentiment was that we were simply there to waste time. If we happened to learn something, that was well and good, but it wasn’t as if any of us were actually going to do anything with what we learned. The absence of students who were genuinely good at the subject made impossible the kind of spontaneous peer tutoring I encountered in other subjects. We couldn’t help each other because none of us really understood, and most of us didn’t really care to understand. I recall no concerted attempts to engage us or encourage us to improve. Math was something we endured, nothing more. If ever there were an argument against tracking, my high school math experience would be it.
I can, of course, see the other side as well: as much as I could have benefited from the presence of a better classroom dynamic, putting a teacher in the position of having to teach to the middle would have been unfair to the to the students who were really good at math, who genuinely needed a curriculum that went faster and more in-depth. The real goal, it seems to me, should be to create a system that meets students where they actually are without locking them into assumptions about what they can and cannot do.
One of the things I will say about my AP classes, however, is that they were far from homogeneous intellectually. Pretty much everyone was motivated, but we also ranged from merely above-average and hardworking to off-the-charts brilliant. Being with people whose abilities in some areas were clearly so far above mine taught me a lot about humility. Yes, there were some very large – and very obnoxious – egos, but the people who had them really did tend to be at the top of the heap academically. No one ever tried to bolster my self-esteem by giving me a false sense of accomplishment; I knew where I stood and could deal accordingly.
Interestingly, from a standardized-testing perspective, I saw none of the gap between school performance and test scores that I regularly encounter with my own students. People who took AP classes and got straight A’s tended to have little trouble attaining a slew of 700+ scores. School somehow taught us what we needed to know without ever focusing overtly on test-prep.
So when people tell me horror stories about discipline and engagement problems in the classroom… I simply can’t relate. I never had the experience of being in a seriously problematic classroom, and I don’t think I missed out on much;) Although I certainly saw the more unflattering side of tracking, I’m grateful to have also experienced the best of it. In large public schools, the very real differences in student preparation, motivation, and ability need to be taken into account. The trick, as I said, is to not assume that what a 15 year-old can do at a particular moment is representative of what she might ultimately be able to accomplish, and the build a system that can adjust according. The key, as always, is flexibility.