Heather K. Conley: Manchester students would benefit from ending student tracking
I APPLAUD Manchester Superintendent Debra Livingston and Assistant Superintendent David Ryan for introducing the idea of eliminating tracking, and also the Curriculum and Instruction committee for its interest in beginning a dialog.
The practice of “tracking” or “leveling” is indeed common, as the Union Leader stated in a May 1 editorial. In fact, schools have been placing students in classes based on their academic performance for decades. In the middle of the 20th century, students were placed in one of three different tracks to prepare them for life after secondary school: vocational, general, or college preparatory. Today, students are placed largely based on academic performance and in Manchester, only advance to upper level classes with a teacher’s recommendation.
However, according to a study published in Phi Delta Kappan in 2005 by Burris and Welner of the University of Colorado at Boulder, low-track courses are ineffective in raising student achievement levels; and on the contrary, raising the bar — not lowering it — is shown to increase student achievement. Therefore, eliminating tracking supports established ideas that higher achievement comes from a more rigorous curriculum and lower-level, unchallenging classes result in underachievement.
These conversations may have frightened the parents of higher-tracked students who are concerned the classroom will become watered down and that their student’s success could be compromised for the “good of the few.” On the contrary, studies have shown an increase across the board in student achievement in a de-tracked system. After eliminating tracking and offering advanced level courses to all its students, The Rockville Centre School in New York showed an increase across the board in earned Regents diplomas. In fact, not only did they raise overall student achievement, they also significantly decreased the achievement gap.
The achievement gap does and should make administrators, activists and parents demand changes; how can it not? During nearly 40 years of assessment, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has revealed substantial and significant achievement gaps between African-American, Latino, and low-income students, and their white, Asian, and higher-income peers. The reasons for this are incredibly complex and multifaceted, but research supports eliminating tracking helps reduce the gap.
The 1983 quote from the “Nation at Risk” report by the U.S. Dept. of Education that the Union Leader used in its editorial is outdated. More current is this comment on school reform from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “This is really hard work, but let’s remember what it’s all about. This is about our children and our collective future. This is about raising the bar to ensure they are able to compete in the global economy. This is about strengthening the teaching profession. It’s about creating the systems of feedback and support that teachers want and need to personalize education, focus resources, and give every child the attention he or she needs. This is about holding ourselves accountable at every level for ensuring that all children — and especially those most at-risk — have an opportunity to succeed and compete.”
Our schools need to become more student-centered and provide all students the access to the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in today’s world. Eliminating tracking, aligning our schools with current research on learning and motivation, and harnessing community assets will ultimately raise the bar for all students and ensure that all students have access to the 21st century education they need to be successful in today’s global economy.
Heather K. Conley of Manchester is an organizer with the Granite State Organizing Project.