Friday, February 22, 2008

Final for Sociology Class ~ Tracking in Schools: A Discussion

Out of randomness I've decided to post this up here. I guessing that I'm going to post some of my other papers up here as well. So as background info, this paper was my final for the sociology course I took at Hunter College here in New York. I must say that I had a great time in the class and it did help expose to something I can later pursue when I actually get to college.

Tracking in Schools: A Discussion

Methods used in educational systems across the nation have always been a popular topic of discussion. Most apparent are the reforms that have been taking place, attempting to fix problems that arise from the usage of an outdated idea. One such reform is replacing the use of tracking student’s academic careers with organizing children into age groups. Tracking is a fundamentally flawed system that leaves room for sociological issues to occur, some of which include large, widening gaps between the students’ test scores and perceived social class. In addition to this, it also limits the potential educational success every child has the possibility of reaching, which is something no educational structure nor authority should have the power to do.

As defined in Sociology: The Essentials by Andersen and Taylor, tracking is “the separation of students according to some measure of cognitive ability.” Historically tracking has been around for many years and is thankfully declining in use. Students are placed into different levels and the curriculum is shaped towards each level’s ability of comprehension. The ideal concept behind tracking is that everyone should be able to learn at a greater degree due to having the planed course of subjects edited to their benefit. Yet, in practice, the actual result prevalent in observations made is quite the opposite. It is explained that “students in the lower tracks learn less because they are, quite simply, taught less. They are asked to read less and do less homework. High-track students are taught more; furthermore, they are consistently rewarded by teachers and administrators for their academic abilities. “(Pg.361 Ibid) By placing children into certain tracks we are harming their education instead of enhancing it.

Stratification is a significant result found in the implementation of tracking. In the article, The Stratification of Socialization Processes, author James E. Rosenbaum explores the severe use of tracking in a town called Grayton school’s system. At one point he states, “Thus, the Grayton track system produces a highly rigid stratification system in many ways resembling a caste system.” (Pg.3) Caste systems are sociologically renowned for their brimming levels of stratification. By Rosenbaum drawing such a connection between the two, one can see just how extreme the difference between each existing track can be. He has alluded to the clear-cut grade contrast of each track and the popular problem of tracking, favoritism. Furthermore, keeping in continuation of the caste system archetype, those higher up in the rankings are happier with the arrangements while the others are more inclined to be disheartened. “Observers in Britain and the United States have argued that secondary school stratification polarizes the student body into pro-school and anti-school factions. College-bound students conform to the school’s demands, while others resist.” (Pg. 4, The Variable Effects of High School Tracking) This illustrates how the lower ranking members can grow to become angry at the conditions and try to oppose them, only strengthening the polarization.

Adam Gamoran’s Measuring Curriculum Differentiation also looks at the issue of stratification between the children. He notes “…student’s positions in the curricular hierarchy are linked to stratification in the wider society…” (Pg. 1) In other words, there are cases where tracking can be seen as a mirror of the board differences between groups in society. Where a person is located on a societal scale is allowed to affect the expected rate of academic performance others hold for them. This logic is dangerous for kids coming from lower and middle classes seeing as how class is in no way a portrayal of intelligence.

Being placed in a so-called ‘low’ track has its mental effects on kids. Michael D. Wiatrowski, in his work Curriculum Tracking and Delinquency, expresses what some of those impacts are for those who are not considered great candidate for college. “Students in noncollege curricula are believe to suffer loses in social status in school, decreased commitment to educational goals, lower self-esteem and poorer self-concept, and are thus more likely to become delinquent than college-bound students.” (Pg.2) These conflicts within their own personal judgments of themselves can hurt these children in and out of matters relating to school. One could say that tracking systems punish these kids twice. First by making it hard for them to compete on an academic platform with others, and twice by creating emotional strife. These kinds of issues can also manifest themselves in the children’s intimate lives for some period of time even after they’ve graduated and moved on past the need for any schooling. It does not make sense that while we are trying to educate students, we are also corrupting them so that they can’t lead seemly normal lives.

Tracking has repercussions on the chances students are exposed to as well. In Jeannie Oakes’ article entitled Can Tracking Research Inform Practice? Technical, Normative, and Political Considerations, she looks into what can be learned from tracking’s past data. “Finally, tracking influences students’ attainment and life chances, over and about their achievement. Track placements are quite stable, partly because early assignments shape students’ later school experiences. By high school, track location has a far-reaching influence – with college-track students enjoying better prospects for high school completion… than their otherwise comparable non-college-track peers.” (Pg.3) Her statement mentions the notion of life-chances. As seen in her example, the tracks have an eminent amount of power in dictating where one ends up later on after high school. The higher up in the tracking system you are, the most chances you have in succeeding in school, and sequentially the rest of one’s life.

Along with the more internal complications tracking brings in schools, it not without its share of social backlash. It has the prospect of becoming more political in nature. “Tracking is accompanied by public labels, status differences, expectations, and consequences for academic and occupational attainment. Thus, tracking becomes part and parcel of the struggle among individuals and groups for comparative advantage in the distribution of school resources, opportunities, and credentials that have exchange value in the larger society. This political dimension often encompasses highly charged issues of race and social-class stratification.” (Pg. 3 Ibid) This comment represents a conflict theorist perspective on the situation. It views tracking as something that provides grounds for members of different tracks to quarrel over the assets that the school has to offer. The sheer fact that they are at odds with each other means that in the end, the overall education received will be at a lesser quality than if they were all in mixed classes. Then everyone would be more likely to receive the treatment they are entitled to.

While succeeding in school is of great relevance, life outside in the real world is a lot more demanding. When children are being partitioned there is rarely, if ever, any consideration of more personal skills. As it was put in the collection of sociological readings known as Sociological Footprints, “we also don’t know the extent of the social-class gaps in noncognitive skills – such character traits as perseverance, self-confidence, self-discipline, punctuality, the ability to communicate, social responsibility, and the ability to work with others and resolve conflicts. These are important goals of public education. In some respects, they may be more important than academic outcomes.” (P.330) The theory of symbolic interaction is most pronounced here, with functionalist undertones. Tracking does not truly take into account social interaction has it is being implemented. The traits needed for interaction between individuals can be taught in school, if everyone is only exposed to those that are really the same as them then the traits listed above cannot be properly assimilated. Thus one of the societal purposes of schools, which is socialization, is not fulfilled, leading to a likely gap in non-cognitive abilities. This outcome completely derails the functionalist conviction of schools being vessels that instills values needed by society.

The integration of students from all academic standings is the self-evident alternative to tracking. Andersen and Taylor refer to this as the detracking movement. They describe it as “based on the belief that combining students of varying cognitive ability benefits the students more than tracking… Students of high and low ability can thus learn from each other; the high-ability students are not seen to be ‘held back’ by students with less ability but are enriched by their presence.” (Pg. 361, Sociology: The Essentials) When classes are mixed, schools can correctly do their societal duty as detailed in the previous paragraph. This is in stark contrast to how “observers and survey researchers have found … students tend to form friendships with others in the same track.”(Pg. 4, The Variable Effects of High School Tracking) There is not much of an enrichment of school if it is a group of similar students. As explicated, a large part of learning is done, not from the teachers, but from the peers’ communication with each other. Limiting the number of peers that they may come into contact with, in turn limits their capacity to learn.

In the end, recent years have shown that the use of tracking, as a whole, has been on the downswing. Educators have been gaining awareness to the negative effects discussed here and turning to the method of mixing students together, so that each class has a good variety of students. They have utilized that tactic in hopes of providing a richer education of all of the students. Needless to say, systems of education are all still inherently plagued with difficulties due to each individual participant’s distinct learning or teaching style. And probably always will be. Yet, one can see that they are now in a more desirable state than they were years ago. Students are no longer afflicted with the stigmas fabricated by the concept of tracking.

From my own point of view, I do see how tracking is a negative idea. However I understand why tracking seems to be a good idea, especially when schools are given inadequate funding. There are simply no funds to provide students that in need with the proper individual attention. After speaking with two of my own teachers about this topic, it is now truly apparent that they struggle to find the right balance of teaching to help all the children in the classroom. They also brought up how the No child Left Behind law is, in their eyes, nothing more than an upgraded form of tracking. They also informed me of how when some of their colleagues had moved past the planned curriculum in order to help students, they got mad and reported that teacher on it. So after writing this paper, and listening to actually first-person accounts, I must say that there really does not seem to be any real action that can fix the issue. It looks as if it people will continue to go around in circles with it while no substantial improvements are made.

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