The Tracking Wars: State Reform Meets School Policy
reviewed by Maureen Hallinan - 2001
One of the components of the massive school reform effort of the eighties and nineties was the effort to detrack schools. Advocates of detracking argued that students assigned to low tracks learn less because they are exposed to a weaker curriculum and less effective instruction than students assigned to higher tracks. Further, they argued that tracking discriminates against minority and economically disadvantaged students because it disproportionately assigns them to lower tracks. Critics of detracking claimed that teachers find it difficult to instruct students who are heterogeneous with respect to ability. They argued that detracked classes require a level of teacher control and pedagogical skills beyond the reach of many teachers.
In 1987, the state of California recommended detracking the state's middle schools; in 1993, Massachusetts followed with the same recommendation for its middle schools. In The Tracking Wars, Loveless examines school responses to detracking policies in these two states. The motivation for the study is the belief that national or statewide policies are of little use unless put into practice in the schools; hence, the response of schools to state policy is of critical importance. It is at the school level that educational innovations are implemented or ignored.
Loveless points out that educational reforms typically have predetermined objectives, set by those recommending the policy. When policy makers at the state level neglect to take into account other worthy objectives of administrators and teachers, their policies meet resistence at the school level. A major reason that many educational innovations fail is simply that schools are not shown how new policies are consistent with their existing goals or how the new policies would benefit students.
In encouraging schools to detrack, state officials in California and Massachusetts failed to provide incentives to the schools to implement the policy and made little effort to explain its benefits. Given the lack of incentives, and the fact that many teachers and parents prefer tracked classes, one would expect that local schools might ignore their state's detracking policy. Surprisingly, this was not the case in California and Massachusetts. As The Tracking Wars demonstrates, many schools enthusiastically embraced detracking.
Loveless argues that local response to state recommended policies is influenced by how the issue is framed. In the case of detracking, he explains the surprisingly positive response of many schools in both states to detracking as a consequence of its being presented as an equity issue rather than a learning issue. The main argument of proponents of detracking was that tracking is a racist policy that discriminates against the poor and denies them equal opportunity for learning. They presented detracking as a method of restoring justice and equity. This position found favor in a number of schools.
Loveless identifies other factors expected to influence a school's response to its state's detracking plan. These include a school's institutional characteristics, organizational properties, political climate and technical challenges. Loveless predicted that school differences in these characteristics would explain some of the variation in school level responses to detracking. Variation among the schools in the way they shared governance with the district and state was also expected to account for a school's response to detracking. Finally, within school differences in teacher willingness to detrack by subject area, departmental autonomy, and pedagogical skills, were predicted to influence school response.
In analyzing survey data from middle schools in California and Massachusetts, Loveless found a strong association between school characteristics and a school's response to detracking. Urban and rural schools are more likely to detrack than suburban schools, as are schools with higher minority enrollments, schools with a lower percentage of high achieving students, smaller schools, and schools with low parental influence on policy. Caution is needed in interpreting these results, however. Loveless' survey analysis is limited in a number of ways. The data were obtained from questionnaires mailed to the 894 middle schools in California in 1991 and to a random sample of 343 of these schools in 1994, and from questionnaires sent to all the 230 middle schools in Massachusetts in 1995. The response rate was low in both states, averaging about 50% across the three surveys. Hence, selection factors may bias the results. The analysis also is limited because cross-sectional data precludes an examination of causal mechanisms governing school level responses to the state detracking policy.
Loveless supplemented the survey analysis with interview data gathered from a sub-sample of schools believed to represent the varied tracking practices in the two states. Comments from many of the interviewees provide fascinating insights into how local reactions to a state recommended policy are shaped. They provide convincing evidence of Loveless' contention that the success of a major educational reform is determined at the local level.
The major contribution of The Tracking Wars lies in Loveless' perceptive analysis of how interactions among state, district and local actors affect local response to a state recommendation. His discussion of the way that institutional, organizational, political and social factors affect policy implementation is of considerable significance. Loveless moves the tracking debate beyond many of its simplistic assumptions to a more realistic understanding of schools' reactions to detracking. In doing so, The Tracking Wars provides a useful conceptual framework for further studies of detracking and of other educational innovations and reforms.