Does Tracking = Inequality?

Credit: flickr/cinderellasgEpisode #48 was about academic tracking, and whether it sets children off down unequal paths that continue long after they finish school. One of our guests, Penelope Martin-Knox, who oversees a group of middle schools as an Assistant Superintendent with Baltimore County Public Schools, said her system does not track its students. Several listeners contacted us to share their experiences.

A listener from Baltimore City’s Mt. Washington neighborhood who asked to remain anonymous texted our Google Voice line to say, “Academic tracking is going on in Baltimore City schools. Mt. Washington, to be exact. The gifted & talented 5th grade has 69% white while the total number of white children in the grade is 25%. The lower two classes have 2 to 3 white children, max. The remaining children are African-American. Whether or not intended, it's segregated schooling.”

We contacted Baltimore City Public Schools on Tuesday for a response, but hadn't heard back by Thursday at noon when we recorded our mailbag.

Another listener who asked to remain anonymous e-mailed us from Ellicott City to say, "Howard County definitely practices tracking whether you call it tracking or not."

The listener said that children are split into three groups starting in first grade: on-grade level, above-grade level, and enhanced enrichment. The latter group, the listener said, is meant for gifted and talented starting in third grade.

The listener continued, “The children are assigned to different teachers for reading and math based on their beginning of the year assessment test. And you practically stay in your assigned group for the whole year.  I have two kids in the elementary school now. I think it is unfair to separate them so early on. I myself did not get interested in school until I reached middle school.  I ended up alright—I am a specialist. I think division so early on discourages kids and give them unnecessary pressure.”

We contacted Howard County schools--their response is below.

Laura Dulany e-mailed us from the Stoneleigh community in Baltimore County with this story:

“I was born in 1973, and grew up with distinct tracking in the Maryland public school system. At one point in middle school, the ‘lowest’ group was named ‘The 7-ups’ because the students quote ‘never had it; never will’ unquote—which was a 'private' joke amongst the teachers.  There was nothing private – we all knew who was identified as gifted vs who was identified as hopelessly dim-witted.

“What is interesting to me as a 40 year old with an extensive list of Facebook friends from my childhood is the gross inconsistency between predicted intelligence and adult success. I've got friends from ‘low’ tracking groups who are now attorneys, and peers from my group who are drug addicts, starving artists, and total losers.

“I am 100% against tracking…The ‘gifted’ children think they don't have to work as hard, and the ‘low’ children assume they are stupid and powerless.

“THAT BEING SAID, current day, my daughter - who is 25 years younger than I am - has received (in my judgment) a far worse education than I did.  As a bright young lady in 10th grade in Baltimore County public schools, she is assigned way too much Mickey Mouse worksheet work.

“Inequality is abhorrent to me. I am very curious what the solution is to this problem.”

Thanks to everyone for sharing their stories. How do you feel about tracking? Let us know.

Rebecca Amani-Dove of Howard County Public Schools sent this response:

"In Howard County Public Schools, all students are taught on or above grade-level curriculum with intervention or enrichment provided as needed. Small groups are formed to address acceleration or intervention needs. These flexible groups are dependent on the skill/unit. For students who are not performing at grade level, additional instruction is provided during the school day, before or after school, or during summer intervention programs.

"Ongoing assessment in reading and mathematics is used to determine appropriate instructional groups.  Student groups are flexible and can change at any point during the school year. Acceleration for all and continuous growth is the goal.  

"The G/T Program offers Talent Development lessons beginning in Kindergarten. The G/T Program also offers Seminar Experiences for any student who would like to participate. These offerings are on a variety of topics the students may have an interest in such as robotics, photography, and architecture. In addition, there are Curriculum-Based Extension Units (CEU) offered in grades 1-5. Depending on the CEU topic, different students will participate based on their interest and strength areas. In fourth and fifth grade, some students participate in the G/T Mathematics class. This year there will be a new universal assessment for GT that will be administered in 3rd grade.  Not only will mathematical and verbal areas be assessed, but also spatial reasoning."