The United States public school system serves over 50 million students each year; however, it does not serve all students equally (National Center for Education Statistics). Public schools are the foundation of the American education system, with the two main goals of “access and excellence” for all students (Department of Education). However, racial and economic disparity exists throughout public schools, as shown by statistics that Black and Hispanic students are less likely to be offered advanced classes and obtain a high school diploma than their white classmates (Sablich). This paper will focus on a controversial practice called tracking, by which students are separated into classes based on their overall academic performance (Kohli). Tracking has been criticized for perpetuating inequality between wealthy white students and poor students of color by creating unequal opportunities and outcomes. The practice has even been called “a modern day form of segregation” (Kohli). Overall, the practice of tracking in public schools perpetuates race and class inequality by favoring privileged students over disadvantaged students.
The practice of tracking has a long history of promoting inequality, since its initial implementation more than a century ago (Kohli). Initially, the practice was developed by school administrators in response to large waves of immigrant children entering the public school system, many of whom spoke little English (Public School Review). This resulted in segregated classrooms, as immigrant students were filtered into lower level classes. Before Brown v. Board of Education, white students and students of color were separated into different schools based on race. However in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must be integrated to include students of all races (Kohli). After this ruling, levels of tracking in the US increased (Kohli). Tracking became a method to preserve segregation by separating the higher achieving students (mostly white and wealthy) from the lower achieving students (mostly students of color and poor). Wealthy families were able to afford outside resources including private tutors and paid online courses, to ensure their children would test into advanced classes. Poor children whose families could not afford additional resources were then left behind in low-level classes (Kohli). In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act placed a higher focus on struggling students in public schools in an effort to raise their standardized test scores (Kohli). This increased the amount of ability groups, which are a form of tracking where students are separated into smaller groups within the same classroom (Godsey). Throughout history, tracking has been and continues to be a widely used method within the education system.
Public schools portray tracking as inherently academic; however, race and class play a far greater role in determining which classes students are tracked into. According to the Department of Education, in 2011 and 2012, black and Latino students made up 16% and 21% of high schoolers, respectively. However, black students made up only 8% and 12% of those enrolled in advanced-level calculus, respectively (Kohli).This statistic shows a correlation between tracking and the racial divide because minority students are not proportionally represented in higher-level classes. Additionally, in 2013, students who received free or reduced-price meals at school made up approximately half of all high schoolers. However, this same group of students only accounted for 27% of AP test-takers (Godsey). Free or subsidized meals are an indication of poverty, while AP testing is an indication of high academic achievement. The conclusion can then be drawn that poverty and academic achievement are not strongly correlated. This may be partially explained through the high cost of AP exams, which cost $91 per exam, or the need to work and provide for a family (Godsey). Tracking privileges students who have enough time and resources to place ahead of their peers. Consequently, the system disadvantages students who have limited financial resources or outside obligations.
There are many ways that tracking perpetuates both race and class inequality. According to Department of Education advocates, tracking favors white students (who typically have access to greater resources) over students of color, including many black students (Kohli). This prevents students of color from achieving long-term success because they are systematically discriminated against within their own education system. Statistics show that black and Hispanic students are less likely to complete high school and earn a bachelor’s degree than their white counterparts (Sablich). Although the percentage of black students attending college has increased in recent years, the quality of institutions still remain lower for black students, as measured by their alumni earnings (Sablich). Black students comprise just 4% of the nation’s top four-year colleges, yet comprise 26% of the nation’s bottom ranked colleges (Sablich). These statistics show how the effects of tracking go far beyond the classroom. Underprivileged students are systematically disadvantaged within the education system and have little opportunity to rise from the bottom.
Another consequence of the tracking system is the widening of the achievement gap. Research has shown that tracking is partially to blame for the achievement gap that exists within education systems. In the US, the achievement gap is most prevalent with the difference in test scores between white and Asian students in one category, and black and Latino students in another (Kohli). According to Eric Hanushek, a researcher at Stanford, tracking has been shown to increase the achievement gap (Kohli). Hanushek compared various education systems that do and do not use tracking (Kohli). He found that from the nine countries in his study that track students, eight of them have a significant achievement gap between the highest and lowest test scores (Kohli). In countries that do not track students, Hanushek found the achievement gap to be much smaller (Kohli). This research confirms that tracking contributes to a larger achievement gap between students, therefore creating more disparity within schools (Kohli). The achievement gap in education then translates into an increased gap between the rich and poor of society because the disadvantaged are rarely afforded opportunities to advance (Kohli).
Despite the negative effects of tracking, there are many proponents of tracking who believe the practice is beneficial to public schools. Advocates of tracking, including many teachers, argue that it creates more effective teaching environments because teachers can focus on certain skill levels and allow students to learn at an appropriate pace (Kohli). Additionally, tracking helps keep wealthy families in public schools (Kohli). Many well off families in the public school system would likely opt for private education were it not for the advanced classes offered at public schools (Kohli). The system seems ideal on paper: students receive individualized attention, teachers focus on one skill level, and test scores go up (for advanced students at least). However, the implications of using a tracking system go far beyond academic skill level. Race and class play a paramount role in determining a student’s opportunities. The tracking system works great for students who can afford it, but it leaves countless underprivileged students stuck at the bottom.
Although tracking is not an official policy implemented by the government, it is a deeply established practice in public schools across the country (Godsey). Eliminating tracking in its entirety would be challenging, as each school has different demographics, problems, and policies (Kohli). These differences between school systems make it difficult to regulate and stop tracking from occurring (Kohli). The former US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, advocated for a partial solution to the inequality caused by tracking. Rather than prohibit tracking completely, programs for gifted students would be required to include a representative sample of students of color from the school population (Kohli). That is, if 20% of a school’s population is black students, 20% of that school’s gifted program would be comprised of black students. The concept is similar to a quota system, which have historically been effective in creating more equality, but such systems have also faced criticism for being unjust (Mansbridge). Another potential solution is for public schools to make advanced courses more accessible by removing barriers such as placement tests and high fees for AP tests (Kohli). If tracking persists in America’s public schools, partial solutions must be created in order to remedy the inequalities which stem from tracking.
In conclusion, tracking is a practice that goes far beyond separating the advanced students from the struggling ones. It separates rich from poor, white from black, and native from immigrant. Tracking perpetuates the deeply embedded systems of racism and classism that are so prevalent in today’s society (Kohli). A parent with a child in the New Jersey public school system said, “you see kids entering the building through the same door. Yet they enter a second door that’s systematically stratified” (Godsey). In order to have a more equal society, public schools must aim to create an environment in which all students, regardless of race or class, have the same opportunity to succeed.
Kohli, Sonali. “Finally the US admits it: AP classes are way too white” Quartz.
Godsey, Michael. “The Inequality in Public Schools” The Atlantic.
Barrington, Kate. “The Pros and Cons of Tracking in Schools” Public School Review, 18 May 2016.
Kohli, Sonali. “Modern Day Segregation in Public Schools” The Atlantic.
National Center for Education Statistics, “Back to School Statistics” NCES, 2017.
Sablich, Liz. “7 findings that illustrate racial disparities in education” Brookings.
Mansbridge, Jane. “Quota Problems: Combating the Dangers of Essentialism” Cambridge University Press.