Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality
reviewed by Kenneth A. Strike - 1986
This book is a discussion of the practice of tracking in twenty-five junior high and high schools. The data are taken from John Goodlads project A Study of Schooling. The book provides detailed descriptive data on the practice of tracking in these twenty-five schools and on the effects of tracking on the education of the children in these schools. It embeds the results in an interpretative framework borrowed from recent neo-Marxist critics of schooling in capitalist societies, relying particularly on the work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.1 Thus, tracking is seen as one of a set of practices that are intended to provide equal educational opportunities to a diverse population with diverse abilities and diverse needs, but that in fact serve to reproduce the inequalities of the larger society while legitimating such inequality to its victims. The book concludes with a discussion of the legal status of tracking and of the authors proposals for reform.
Four theses are developed. First, students in the lower tracks receive an education that is qualitatively and quantitatively inferior to that provided to children in the upper tracks. The instructional material presented to children in the lower tracks is different from that used in the upper tracks: Children in the upper tracks have Shakespeare, creative writing, and differential equations; children in the lower tracks are drilled on grammar, letter forms, and basic arithmetic. Teachers spend less time teaching and more time on discipline. Even the affective environment in the lower tracks is different. The atmosphere is less cooperative and more acrimonious than that in the upper tracks. Whatever schools distribute that matters educationally, lower-track students get less of it.
Second, this produces a variety of undesirable consequences for students in the lower tracks. They learn less than students in the upper tracks. What they learn is of less status and less value. They are socialized to values appropriate to the future working class. And they learn to see their failure as their own fault. Even their rebellion and alienation is turned against them-it becomes a reason to justify their failure and their eventual economic marginality.
Third, students are unfairly assigned to their tracks and unfairly held captive to them. Students are assigned to tracks on the basis of racial and socioeconomic indicators and on the basis of culturally biased and inaccurate tests. Thus minorities and the poor are disproportionately found in the lower tracks. The system is inflexible. Children tend to stay where they are initially placed.
Fourth, what happens to children under the tracking system is the schools fault. Schools are not merely responding to differences in ability or willingness to learn by doing the best they can with slow or recalcitrant learners. They frequently mislabel students. Moreover, even when the schools are responding to student characteristics, they may well have created or reinforced those characteristics. If the reader is inclined to see a connection between the fact that teachers of lower-track students spend less time on task and the fact that they spend more on discipline, that is a mistake. At least, it is a mistake if the conclusion is that such students get what they deserve. Even if discipline does crowd out instructional time, we should see this as a response to student attitudes and alienation that the school has had a hand in creating.
The author concludes that our schools and our society are not meritocracies. Rather, the schools function to reproduce and legitimize the injustices of the larger society. They do this by unfair selection procedures, by a differential curriculum and socialization, and by teaching students to blame themselves for their failure. She recommends abolishing tracking, the restoration of a common curriculum, and the development and use of more cooperative forms of learning.
How sound is the authors case? First, it is important to note that the data reported for this study are entirely descriptive. Moreover, the author apparently does not have data on the socioeconomic status (SES) of the children in the study. At least none were reported. This means that no causal hypotheses can be supported by this study and that claims about low SES students are conjectural. This the author openly admits. Nevertheless this has significance for the view we should take of the book. Generally, only the first of the four theses noted above can be adequately supported by the data. The others require extensive interpretation. This interpretation is fortified by reviews of other work on tracking. Thus, to a great extent, the strength of the argument of the book depends on the adequacy of these reviews.
Unfortunately, the reviews seem to me to be inadequate. They are generally perfunctory. Only the basic conclusions are reported. More alarmingly, the impression is often given that the research on a topic is unanimous and authoritative in areas where in fact there is much controversy. There are, for example, quality studies suggesting that students are not routinely tracked on the basis of racial or socioeconomic characteristics.2 The views of Bowles and Gintis are not self-evident or without their critics.3
Second, there are important philosophical issues raised by the argument that are not adequately recognized or debated. The argument of the book assumes that the basic structure of American society is fundamentally (rather than occasionally or redeemably) unjust. One cannot buy into the social reproduction thesis as thoroughly as the author does without such an assumption. (After all, it is no indictment of schools in a just society that they reproduce that societys social structure.) Yet this claim is not argued and barely acknowledged.
A more interesting issue, because it is more central to the thesis of the book, is that of causal direction and responsibility. The data indicate, for example, that the relationship between lower-track students and their teachers is a good deal more acrimonious than that between upper-track students and their teachers and that the classroom environment is a good deal less civil. The interpretations put on these phenomena are that the students are responding to a tedious curriculum and to the negative attitudes of their teachers. At worst they are displaying attitudes that have been created by their earlier school experiences. Student characteristics are explained by the behavior of the school. Not much attention is paid to the possibility that teachers are responding to characteristics of their students or that students have some responsibility for what they get out of school. Consider the following:
Many . . . would suggest that a lack of involvement or interest in school or learning is a characteristic trait of those students who end up in low tracks and has little to do with what happens to them in school settings. This is a difficult assumption to sustain since . . . student characteristics are closely intertwined with what happens to them in school from the time they began. . . . To this assumption may be added the likelihood that the current classroom experience is so powerful that it can generate the low-track set of responses in students. (p. 131)
I would suggest that the matter of causal direction between the behavior and characteristics of students and the behavior and characteristics of schools is less obvious and more complex than these remarks suggest. It also helps to remember that there are other influences on students lives. Presumably students still have families, communities, and peers. Moreover, regardless of causal direction and other influences, may we not expect high school students to accept some responsibility for themselves and their education? And how shall we view tracking if we do see students as having some responsibility for the pursuit of learning? I do not have answers to these questions, but the reader should note that the argument of this book assumes a certain kind of answer to them and does so without benefit of more argument than what is noted above.
In addition to these remarks, I want to raise two modest complaints about the book. First, the review of the legal status of tracking contributes little. It recognizes that there is little in current case law to suggest that federal courts are about to turn against tracking, but also engages in some wishful thinking about how it might be otherwise. Do we really want courts that are deeply involved in educational policy? is not an issue seriously considered. Second, while generally the book is well written, it is repetitious.
This is a valuable book. It provides a wealth of descriptive information about how the tracking system works in these schools. In this regard it makes a substantial contribution to the literature. No one interested in the topic can afford not to attend to it. Its chief weakness is that it relies too heavily on prior work and on an interpretive framework that it does not adequately defend or critique. Yet its major conclusions depend on this framework. Its merits, however, considerably outweigh its deficiencies.