Are kids being tracked?

One of my favorite books is Jeannie Oakes’ Keeping Track: How schools structure inequality.  It does what any good piece of nonfiction should do.  It defines a problem, researches all pertinent information as to the nature of the problem, and the book then sets an eight point action plan to solve the stated problem.  And it makes me think.

To begin with, Oakes defines tracking as, “the process whereby students are divided into categories so that they can be assigned in groups to various kinds of classes” (Oakes, 2005, 3).  This definition seems somewhat innocuous.  What she means, after reading further, is that the division mainly occurs at the ethnic and socioeconomic levels.  Therefore, tracking is the process of taking poor children of color (primarily) and lumping them into lower level classes where they are not given the same level of education as those students from either wealthier backgrounds or from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, or from both.  While at a cursory glance, her problem area seems well-defined, especially after the Oakes presents the historical information, a closer inspection revealed the nature of my frustration.  Ms. Oakes does not realize that tracking in schools is not causal, it is symptomatic of the nature of American society and should therefore be approached as such.

Oakes states, “it is apparent from these latter sources of information that, in some cases, homogenous groupings simply happened without any intentional placement or structural system operating” (Oakes, 2005, 45).  This statement comes after Ms. Oakes expresses confusion and frustration that she could find no evidence to suggest that tracked classrooms were the result of codified policies, yet happened anyway.  What Ms. Oakes failed to see is that “tracking,” as per her definition, is not a problem for any school system to solve, it is an effect of a power structure that will maintain itself through any means necessary.  The school system is just one tool through which power is maintained.

I call for another approach: begin a grass roots awareness campaign, not about tracking, but about power, not from a perspective of transmission of information, but through forums of mutual discovery.  Minorities, and people of repressed economic circumstances need to come to a joint understanding with the education community about goals and purposes of education.   Tracking is a symptom and the result of a dehumanizing and oppressive society.  It is not a problem that the school system can solve in and of itself.

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