keeping track by jeannie oakes

Once again, a book from the early 90s examines the problems I see in our 2020 educational institutions. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes, was actually written in 1985, and was one of my summer reads.

The school I currently teach in is one of the remaining middle schools in our district that separates math, science, and English into “regular” and “advanced” levels in the 7th and 8th grades. 6th grade was added to the school later, so I am fortunate to not have classes that are tracked this way. We notice huge declines in classroom behavior as kids move from 6th to 7th grade. I’ve never believed that something magical happens between 6th and 7th grade that makes kids disconnect from school, so I’ve been wondering instead what *we* are doing as adults that is shaping this behavior and the student experience.

In addition to our class sizes remaining too large, the tracking of classes this way sends messages to kids that they aren’t good learners; concentrates large numbers of kids who need more supports into one classroom, making it harder for adults to support them individually; and divides the student population from the morning to afternoon bell into an “advanced” cohort and everybody else. Opposition to changing this tracking is often: “It’s nice for teachers to have an advanced class” or “Those (usually White) parents wouldn’t stand for it! We could never do that! They would all leave!”

(I hope you are listening to Nice White Parents.)

In my first day at my first class at UW Madison in my Master’s program, Professor Stacey Lee asked us to share whether we’d been tracked into advanced classes in our K-12 experience and how that impacted what we thought of ourselves and our learning. This conversation was one of the most memorable of our program, and forced me to reflect that while I was advantaged with “advanced” classes that fostered positive relationships with teachers and a small, tight-knit cohort, other students received the opposite experience as an adult. There were huge number of kids I never interacted with during my four years of high school. I also noted how being grouped in the advanced cohort made actually a less curious learner in some ways, just as a perfectionist child who does well in certain activities might be unwilling to branch out to try something and lose that comfortable assurance. Being labeled as advanced or not gives the impression that you are “done,” your intelligence is a status fixed by fate and that’s that. It’s a great way to get kids to check out of learning as a natural process of inquiry that will carry them through life...

Keeping Track investigated these dynamics and while there was no internet in 1985 and some things have changed, the book still felt very relevant. She talks about the dynamics that uphold these practices and the consequences of sticking with them. I’ll share some excerpts below, and I recommend you pick up a copy yourself if these are ideas you need to explore more.

(How can you resist that cover, anyhow?)



“The differences in viewpoint revolve around whether it is advantageous to seek homogeneity in groups and classes or to let placement occur randomly. The pluses and minuses are argued at various times from the perspective of impact on students’ academic, social, emotional, or personal development or some combination of these. Often, the arguments pertain to the relationship of grouping and tracking to egalitarian and democratic beliefs.

...both debate and practice usually proceed quite apart from evidence regarding advantages and disadvantages. Yet, ironically, there has been more research on grouping, tracking, and streaming than on most areas of schooling. Much of this research has addressed the effect of alternative practices on student achievement.”

“There were some clear differences between upper and lower tracks in regard to the content and quality of instruction, teacher-student and student-student relationships, the expectations of teachers for their students, the affective climate of classrooms, and other elements of the educational enterprise. It appears that those students for whom the most nurturant learning would appear to be appropriate received the least. Not only do individual schools differ widely in the quality of education they provide, but also, it appears, quality varies substantially from track level to track level within the school.

We are brought up short by the data and analyses regarding the way tracking resegregates students in racially desegregated schools. Minority students were overrepresented in the lower tracks, as were white children of low-income families. That is, the proportion of poor and minority students in low track classes was substantially greater than the proportion of poor and minority students in the population of the schools studied. The data reveal, also, the tendency of vocational programs to serve as a form of tracking in which poor and minority children once again were overrepresented.”

(emphasis added)

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