The Tracking Problem

Usually when it comes to educational issues… or any issue, really, I have strong opinions, but tracking in schools is an issue I have mixed feelings about. I’ve worked in five different high schools, and have seen tracked curriculum and untracked curriculum in action in various subjects, and I have to say it’s hard to find a good working solution.

For those unfamiliar with the term tracking and its attendant problems and benefits, tracked classes are classes covering the same material or curriculum requirement that are tiered into higher and lower levels of rigor. For example, in a 9th grade English class might have Honors English 9, English 9, and Remedial English 9. Of course, the course title rarely uses the word remedial in it, but it’s understood by both students and teachers alike to be remedial. One school I taught at had a little “grade inflation” for the titles. So remedial English was English, regular English was Honors English, and Honors English was Advanced English—presumably a self-esteem boost for all parties involved.

If you don’t have tracking, the classes you teach have too much of a diversity of motivation, ability, and knowledge for you to tailor the curriculum properly to suit most of your students’ learning needs, so you end up either teaching to your best students and leaving the struggling ones in the dust or teaching to your slowest students and leaving your best students bored. In most cases I’ve seen, teachers tend to teach to the middle-of-the-road students and offer extra help (outside of class) to the struggling students, but still leaving the brightest kids more or less bored.

If, however, you do institute tracking, the remedial classes tend to know they’re the lowest level and that doesn’t do much for their motivation. Their peers tend not to push them much, and so they don’t end up having to do much to get to the middle of the bell curve. Behavioral issues also tend to get compounded in these classes. And, worse yet, it’s often the most experienced teacher who ends up teaching the AP classes, leaving a teacher straight out of college or grad school with the remedial classes, which tend to be larger and full of a mix of learning issues, constantly distracted students, and low motivation.

I do have a rather radical solution (which, as I said before, I don’t feel too strongly about) to this problem, but it’s so radical that I doubt any school would ever adopt it. Get rid of the grade-level system and social promotion. This would have to be delicately implemented, as there would be cultural barriers to overcome in addition to policy ones. In other words, instead of having just English 9, 10, 11, and 12 or English 9R, 9, 9H, 10R, 10, 10H, etc.; have English 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and have a whole bunch of levels in various other subjects as well and get rid of this whole grade level business. You’re not a 9th grader or an 11th grader. You’re a student. One student might be taking English 3, Math 2, Spanish 5, History 6, Science 1, and Art 9. Another might be taking English 1, Math 5, Spanish 4, History 2, Science 2, and Art 1. That way, if you’re having trouble with one particular subject, you don’t automatically advance an entire grade or get held back an entire grade—you don’t advance to the next level of that one particular subject.

This is more in line with how students really are. Yes, there are many all-around spectacular kids, who excel in every subject. Yes, there are some all-around not-so-great kids, who do poorly in every subject. But I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle. I considered myself smart in high school, but I struggled in science and history big time, while simultaneously excelling in English, math, and art; and doing only so-so in foreign language study. If I had attended my own make-believe high school, I might have started off in Science 1, History 2, Spanish 3, English 5, Math 6, and Art 8. Kids in this make-believe school would get very used to the idea of having in any given class a mix of first-year, second-year, third-year, and fourth-year students, and there would be less of a stigma attached to being in Science 1, as even smart-in-other-subject kids would be in that class.

Of course, where this gets tricky is in college counseling, as it might be difficult for a guidance counselor to explain how this kind of curriculum prepares a student for college. We would know, of course, in real life that a student in my make-believe school is just as, if not more, prepared for college as someone at a regular high school, but on paper, it’d be ridiculous for someone who never got past English 2 to advance to university-level studies, even though plenty of high school seniors complete 12th grade English and cannot coherently express their thoughts in writing.

Well, that’s my mental barf of an educational theory. If I ever start my own school, I’ll keep this in mind.


  1. This isn’t a bad plan. It is partially similar to the way college is too, which at least acclimatizes them for college.

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