published in educational Horizons 77,3 Spring 1999, 113-116.

"Tracking" in Public Education: preparation for the world of work?
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

edited 11/7/13

The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you and the world's need of that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near heaven as you can get. Without this, with work which you despise, which bores you and which the world does not need? This life is hell. -- W. E. B. DuBois (March 2, 1958)


In every kind of organization, failed expectations tend to be disguised and buffered with a kind verbal magic, formulations that express the triumph of hope over experience. A nation's "Department of Justice" may have little to do with justice, being occupied merely with the enforcement of laws that many see as unjust. Businesses, in this mode, do not "layoff" or even "downsize;" they "rightsize" and somehow everyone is supposed to be a little bit happier. A school's "disciplinary" procedures may have little to do with developing discipline in the students, relying mostly on incarceration in a special room or expulsion to maintain order -- such procedures are often dictated by economic necessity. "Tracking," too, is an example of educational Newspeak. Where the destinations are uncertain or indeterminate, the descriptive term, "tracking," gives the appearance that someone, somewhere, knows something about where the whole show is going, or, even, that it is going somewhere.

Internal vs. External Tracking

Suppose that we, a large number of us, could agree that for most kids, a special environment, protected and nurturant, was desirable; and, that we would compel children to remain in such an environment until a certain age, when they would show a capacity to direct their own lives. In order to soften the compulsive aspect of this institution, we would provide activities that engaged the interests and enhanced the development of the kids in our charge. Certainly, a substantial amount of diversity would have to be recognized. Social, artistic, as well as intellectual competence would be factors in defining options. Children would progress through an area of interest at different rates. We might reasonably talk of "tracking" in such a situations, and say that students were on different "tracks" to indicate the possible variations in their development through the schooling experience.

Such "tracking" makes no reference to the outside world, to economics national or global. And why should it? Wall Street Analysts are notoriously bad at predicting economic fits and starts. (Has anyone heard anything recently about emulating Japanese schools, since Japan has fallen into an economic slump?) Social scientists of all kinds failed to predict the transformation of the Soviet Union. Meteorologists, according to complexity theory, cannot even expect to predict the weather over a week away. Why should educators expect (or be expected) to conduct their activities with an eye on events they can neither predict nor control? To sum up: "internal tracking," i.e. relative to the needs of a diverse population of students, makes some kind of sense; "external tracking," adjusting present curriculum to possible future outcomes in the world, is just pretend science.

It cannot be repeated enough that we live in a predominantly market economy -- a market economy. Basic educators should not be engaged in training aimed at responding to blips and peaks in the economic cycles: let small proprietary technical schools fumble about at that. Rather, the basic curriculum, and the many tracks to fulfilling it must come from some conception of "what everyone should know and be able to do" irrespective of their eventual station in life. We will have enough difficulty developing a core of consensus on that.

At a local middle school, the principal and staff decided to incorporate more cooperative learning activities into the day. The reason was that they felt that their affluent, upper-middle-class charges should learn how to work together on occasion rather than constantly competing. The principal received the following letter from a parent:

I am a medical doctor. My son is in sixth grade in your school. I never had to be subjected to "cooperative learning activities." How are such activities going to help my son get into Harvard Medical School?"

The principal replied that the reason for cooperative learning activities was not, and should not be, to help any one student get into any college, anywhere, at the expense of another: there were more things to be learned in school than how to win. (I am happy to report that that principal still has his job and, in fact, is recognized in his community as a real educational leader.)

Tracking for Social Efficiency: that "Ole Time Religion"

I went through my high-school education in an "academic" track in the 1950's. We were "college prep" kids, so we were told, although many of my friends and I had no clue how we were going to be able to afford a college education. But academic track was great! We got less homework than kids in Commercial or General track, although we were expected to read more -- which many of us did anyway. Unlike kids in the Shop Track, we seldom had to demonstrate that we could do anything specific. Our classes were often fun, discussion groups in which an able tongue covered many a deficiency in knowledge. We behaved, if only to keep the pressures for other kinds of performance indicators away from us.

Most important: we were treated as special. The "best" teachers were happy to have us in their classes and admitted it. We were the best and brightest. (And our SAT's, 1959-1960, proved it.) One time when a mixed class of Academic and Shop Track boys were in the locker rooms, two Academics knocked over a row of lockers which by domino-effect ended up leveling the whole place. Immediately, the gym teachers rounded up the "obvious" suspects: all Shop Track kids. I suspect it was the taste of privilege rather than the joys of learning that provided the major part of our motivation.

Of course, no one believes that schools should aim at "social efficiency" anymore. Indeed, the whole community college movement has grown and prospered on the idea of giving people who may have been less than sterling performers a chance to "catch up" and switch over, now that they are more mature and more able to take advantage of instruction. (I allowed my daughter to drop out of high school; my son "graduated" with hardly any academic knowledge from a "nurturant" private school. They both went to community college, transferred to the university and did brilliantly as older students with respectable GPA's -- they have never come to believe that one should strive for an A if they personally didn't see it as necessary. On the job front, my daughter, an English major, is a star (and well paid) trainer in the software company that hired her and she is moving up fast. My son will begin his master's program in physical therapy next year.)

Basic educators should consider this carefully. Sooner or later, taxpayers are going to catch on: there is no reason for trying external tracking in the K-12 arena if, in fact, "cross-over" possibilities exist in higher education. Indeed, the entire budget for basic education might be rationally redirected (not cut!) toward a basic curriculum that aims at satisfying diversity of all kinds, instead of the pseudo-tracked, shamefully underfunded situation we find in many schools today.

Four Fallacious Arguments for Pseudo-Tracking

Argument 1: We need more scientists and mathematicians. Tracking in Basic Education facilitates their production. Who is "we"? Does the relatively small number of real mathematicians and scientists needed -- easily met by the combined outputs of our own and foreign universities -- warrant the considerable expenditures on AP track science courses in our high schools? An interested, half-decent student can begin studying physics as an undergraduate and achieve his or her Bachelor's degree. (They won't likely be hired anywhere as a physicist, but can use it to get into physical therapy -- how's that for tracking!)

Argument 2: We need a more highly skilled work force. The call by prospective employers for higher skills development in Basic Education should be seen for what it is: an attempt to have the public pay for what the employer primarily enjoys the benefits of. In fact, companies often must provide in-house training of some sort. They pass the costs on to the consumer. Why should the public schools be used to give them a market advantage?

Argument 3: The knowledge base has grown. Yes, and it will continue to grow. Exponentially. To use this fact to affect tracking in Basic Education leads to the absurd conclusions: e.g. lengthen the school year to 365 days, and the school day to 24 hours, without sleep, just to keep up. Why keep up? We may not need a civilization of polymaths.

Argument 4: Higher Education, and the tracking that leads to it, means higher income. This generates the shameless propaganda, "Stay in school and earn more money!" generally directed at kids whose social circumstances alone create a formidable obstacle to their financial improvement. Although there is some correlation between years of schooling and earnings, its usefulness for planning is offset by considerations that skills hardly related to formal schooling, e.g. computer skills, sports and other special talent, can have a substantial impact on earnings. Any recent Ph.D. looking for a job knows this. In our market economy, it is market (and tradition), less often level of knowledge, which affects salary offerings. Those who employ this argument tend to confuse the fact that employers use years of education as a selective device, irrespective of correlative skills, with the assumed skills such education provides. A good many jobs are filled by those "overqualified" in non-job-pertinent areas of knowledge.

What Basic Education Should Be About

Trends in computer technology and artificial intelligence seem to indicate that in the future more and more technical skills will be performed by machines, and fewer and fewer technically trained people needed who actually have command over everything it takes to build or maintain such machines. I wrote this essay using a computer, reducing editing time to a fraction of what it took me thirty years ago. I keep books on computer, using a double-entry method it used to take years to learn. Anyone can do quite complicated tax returns will very little skill, just following along with the software. According to a conversation I had with an FAA administrator, we have at present, the technology to fly and land airplanes at most major airports completely unaided by humans. What should be the focus of Basic Education?

It's simple and it's complex: citizenship skills. Our populace is not showing an increase in self-governance abilities. Thomas Jefferson was probably right that a civilization that is both free and uneducated is an impossibility. Education is not a matter of technical skills that can be supplanted by a machine. Certain basic skills are clearly necessary: reading to a level allowing access to politically relevant documents; enough mathematics and science to understand the broad outlines of arguments pertaining to one's well-being; enough history and philosophy to appreciate past decisions and present dilemmas. Basic knowledge in the Law; organizing skills; practice and public example in community organization, demonstration and challenge. School organizations small enough to provide a practice of community and real -- not the usual sham of -- student government. Some things should not be considered -- unless some particular person wants to fund them, e.g. C+ Programming, Astrophysics, or AP-Track anything.

Sacrificing the Children

Many educators like to consider study and homework, "kids' work." This employment metaphor makes the quote above from W.E.B. DuBois particularly appropriate to the following considerations. Does this work bring the students satisfaction? Is it needed by the world? A dismal article in the New York Times Education Life of January 3, 1999 tells of a school where children in quite early grades are given loads of homework to do. The principal concedes that this takes away some of the years of adolescence and childhood. Why do it? Because, rationalizes the principal, "That's what's demanded to stay competitive in a global market." Note that the principal's statement does not mention who it is that makes such demands, so we might be able to evaluate the reasonableness of the demand. The statement also indicates that the speaker himself knows what it is that makes for competitiveness in a global market. Why isn't he working on Wall Street, then? I would fire that principal or the superintendent that requires him to act that way. His example is not educational leadership, but pandering to misinformed opinion. No doubt many of the parents support the homework policy, feeling that it puts their kids on the "fast track." What's their kids' childhood or adolescence if it pleases their own ambition?

In Genesis 22, Abraham is commanded to, then restrained, from offering Isaac as a burned sacrifice. Some biblical scholars take this story to indicate the renunciation by Israel of the ancient practice of child sacrifice, commonly done in times of extremity by a variety of peoples. We have reverted to that ancient practice, not physically, perhaps, but psychologically and spiritually. And the gods we sacrifice to are unworthy ones: ambition, self-aggrandizement, and reputation. How much more preferable for many parents to put their kids through the circus of college admissions than to select a college of "lower standing" or have the student enter later than in the freshmen year. You can't brag about that to your friends. How much more convenient to have the school dump homework on the kids than to have to deal with them oneself in otherwise "free" time. And to the extent that educators promote external tracking in the curriculum, they reveal themselves as co-conspirators with such parents in the struggle against their children.

See Related article:
Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry:
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?

See also The Tracking Controversy