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Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (2d ed.)

reviewed by Kathryn A. McDermott - July 20, 2006

coverTitle: Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (2d ed.)
Author(s): Jeannie Oakes
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300108303, Pages: 332, Year: 2005
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Since it was first published in 1985, Jeannie Oakess landmark book Keeping Track has had the sort of impact that most academic authors only dream about, influencing not only educational researchers, but also practitioners and policy makers.  The selection of students into vocational, college-preparatory, honors, and general tracks on the basis of their measured ability or prior performance was once an unexamined common occurrence of U.S. middle and high schools, but during the last 20 years it has become a hotly contested political issue.  Keeping Track was a major catalyst of this debate.

To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Keeping Track, Oakes has published a second edition with new material that extends her previous arguments into the present.  In the preface to the second edition, Oakes explains that she chose to update her classic work for several reasons: tracking itself has changed, she and others have conducted more research on detracking, and she has learned more about persistent inequity and the resistance to equity reform (ix).  

The second edition of Keeping Track, which retains the complete 1985 text and adds two new chapters, makes a welcome addition to the ongoing debate.  The book begins by defining tracking, briefly explaining its history, and providing background information on its data source, the 1977 A Study of Schooling. Subsequent chapters analyze what teacher surveys, student surveys, and classroom observations reveal about what is taught and learned in different secondary-school academic and vocational tracks, how students and teachers in different tracks spend their time, and how they perceive themselves and their classes. According to Oakes, although tracking was intended to meet students different educational needs, in practice it reinforces and legitimates social inequality.  Students in high tracks engage in class discussion and independent thinking, learn high-status material and skills, prepare for college, trust their teachers, and come to see themselves as people who have earned the right to be treated well.  In contrast, students in lower tracks distrust their teachers, learn material and skills that prepare them only for other low-track classes, and come to see themselves as losers who deserve their lesser status.  Compounding the injury, students of color and students from homes with low socioeconomic status are disproportionately likely to end up in low tracks, while high-track students tend to be white and economically advantaged.  Tracking is thus a key part of how schools sustain the cultural and economic inequalities of the society in which they operate.  The 1985 edition of the book ended with a brief chapter on constitutional issues and a call for detracking schools in the name of equity: If school change does not appear to result in a society that is fair and equitable, perhaps educational reform should concentrate on making schools themselves fair and equitable places for students to be (p. 205).

The first of the new chapters in the 2005 edition, entitled The Tracking Wars, outlines the push to end tracking in the 1980s and 1990s.  During this period, the National Governors Association recommended that tracking be eliminated, and schools participated in various initiatives that included detracking, such as the College Boards Equity 2000, High Schools That Work, Turning Points, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and AVID.  Defenders of tracking pushed back.  They questioned the research on the harms of tracking, argued that contemporary tracking is different from the inflexible form that Oakes had studied, and claimed that instead of eliminating tracking, educational leaders should make sure that track assignments are made fairly, and that low-track classes are something other than dead ends for students.  Oakes refutes these claims, and concludes that tracking and its effects remain as negative as they ever were: &[T]he most important reason tracking today is so unchanged in its effects is that todays tracking practices take place within a normative and political context that is largely indistinguishable from the context of twenty years ago (p. 244).

The second new chapter, Democracys Canaries (referring to the birds used by coal miners to provide early warning of toxic hazards), describes successful instances of detracking and draws lessons from them for future efforts.  According to Oakes, detracking produces political backlash because of its connections to larger social patterns of inequality.  Parents of high-track students know full well that their children are gaining advantages and securing access to larger shares of scarce resources, and therefore oppose de-tracking.  In general, tracking has been around for so long and has become so entwined with ideas about merit and desert that de-tracking advocates are necessarily pushing against conventional wisdom about schools (p. 269).

Oakes book provides a model of how to communicate scholarly research to a lay audience.  She presents complex theoretical ideas and draws conclusions from massive amounts of data in a clear, accessible style. Oakes also strikes exactly the right tone in the conclusions and implications she draws from her data, repeatedly saying that her findings are consistent with, rather than proof of, social-reproduction theory.  The new chapters sustain the balanced tone of the original book.  For example, it is easy to caricature defenders of tracking as social climbers who not only want to enjoy high status and help their own children to the top of the pile, but also actively believe that their childrens success necessitates other childrens failure.  Oakes resists this temptation, acknowledging that at least some of these parents have legitimate concerns about their childrens education, and that they are amenable to reason: Although it may not be enough to convince the ones focused primarily on status, educators must certainly demonstrate to parents that detracked classes bring with them the concrete resources and opportunity advantages their children enjoyed in high-track classes (p. 275).  

Probably because so many of the educational challenges of 1985 persist, nearly all of the original chapters of Keeping Track have aged quite well.  They do not feel dated, even though many of the students who filled out the original questionnaires presumably now have children in high school or college.  The one exception is the chapter on constitutional issues, which would have benefited from either a complete revision or at least an addendum.  It is difficult to believe that the jurisprudence relevant to educational tracking has not changed at all in 20 years; even if it somehow has not, readers would have been well-served by a note regarding these more recent changes.  

Keeping Track raises issues whose significance extends to policies other than tracking.  Most crucially, advocates of various reforms must keep in mind how larger patterns of inequality can undermine efforts to make schooling more equitable, and how our general uncertainty about what equity ought to mean complicates efforts to achieve it.  The basic challenge of meeting diverse student needs without increasing social fragmentation and inequality is still with us, and by connecting current controversies with classic works in the field, we can learn from history rather than blindly repeating it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 20, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12609, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:14:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Kathryn McDermott
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    E-mail Author
    KATHRYN A. MCDERMOTT is Associate Professor in the School of Education and the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. education policy, educational equity, and standards-based reform. She is the author of Controlling Public Education: Localism Versus Equity (University Press of Kansas, 1999), as well as numerous journal articles. Her current research is on the development and implementation of states’ educational accountability policies.
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