A Superior Alternative to Tracking or Detracking

To solve the challenges confronting our nation so that we can continue to improve our quality of life, we must improve education for all students because education is the cornerstone of our civilization and we need the talent level raised for every student if we are to accomplish this goal.  But our schools must provide more challenge for all students in all classes if our nation is to improve education.  State mandated restrictions and school district imposed curriculum limitations must be lifted to empower teachers to teach more and better classes as well as for all students to have the opportunity to learn as much as they possibly can. 

While performing consulting services for a wide range of school districts including Abbott, urban non-Abbott, suburban,DFG“I and J’s,” and rural districts, I have listened to students discussing the perceived shortcomings in the quality of their education and one the most commonly heard complaints is the lack of challenge especially in middle school and high school  classes.  Whether I attend the respective board of education meetings for these districts or interview parents as part of my research, I have learned how parents readily agree.  Students feel as if their classes too often level down to the lowest common denominator.  Students report that teachers spend too much time trying to raise the performance of the lowest common denominator while the more talented students as well as those most in need of instruction or those who are members of disadvantaged groups languish. 

Rubin (2003) and Wenger (2008) address many of these issues involved with how to properly perform instruction for all students especially classroom based instruction from perspectives that add value.  Rubin (2003) performed a year-long ethnographic case study of a group of students in detracked ninth grade English and history classes in a diverse urban high school.  Rubin (2003, p. 540) explores not only detracking which she describes as the “conscious organization of students into academically and racially heterogeneous classrooms” but also the kinds of social interactions that result from detracking both within and outside of the classroom.  Wenger (2008) presents a learning theory which is based on the “communities of practice” which is a process of social participation that students develop for learning and making meaning.  Her theory combines four essential components:  

Meaning:  a way of talking about our (changing) ability – individually and collectively – to experience our life and the world as meaningful.  Practice: a way of talking about the shared historical and social resources, frameworks, and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action.  Community:  a way of talking about the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation is recognizable as competence.  Identity:  a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities.  (Wenger, 2008, p. 5) 

Rubin (2003, pp. 540-541) reports that the social dynamics in the “academically and racially heterogeneous classrooms,” which are not based on ability grouping …

were complex and mediated by notions of race, class, and academic competence that were forged in the larger school context.  For students, small groups often proved to be sites of tension and discomfort where fractures of race and class come to the fore.  This article describes how students enacted, or brought to life, the teaching practices of the detracked core program, reshaping them from the teachers’ original intentions.  Sometimes the result was a reiteration of the very inequalities that detracking was designed to address.  (Rubin 2003, p. 541) 

Like tracking, detracking is no panacea. Although detracking may have alleviated many of the shortcomings and group-based inequalities associated with tracking, it seems to have created its own inequities and ills of which the “bad split” is an example Rubin (2003, p. 550).  Perhaps one of the causal factors for the lack of challenge reported by students in my experience is the heterogeneous grouping within each class of students of all levels of ability in the same classroom with the same teacher at the same time.  It is likely that no matter how well qualified is the teacher; however, not even a teacher highly trained in differentiated instruction can overcome the problems of heterogeneous grouping.  It is profoundly difficult to differentiate instruction well enough within a classroom of 25 or more students so that all students benefit equally.  Rubin (2003, p. 556) reflects on this concept when she discusses the students’ priorities for their small work groups in the detracked classroom:  

In contrast to the value that teachers placed on balancing the membership of small groups for racial and academic diversity, students’ concerns about group membership were far more personal and pragmatic.  Students wanted group members who were academically competent, fun to be with, motivating, and respectful.  Many of these attributes were in conflict with the criteria that teachers used when configuring small groups.  (Rubin, 2003, p. 556) 

This fundamental desire on the part of all students to be among peers “who were academically competent, fun to be with, motivating, and respectful” regardless of racial, ethnic, or socio-economic class membership in my experience forces the top students to enroll in Advanced Placement or Honors courses so that their skill levels can be stretched while those students at the other end of the continuum who are generally those with the most severe needs seek remedial assistance. 

Tracking, on the other hand, is the grouping of students according to their level of ability in the same classroom with the same teacher at the same time.  Tracking may reflect the reality that students are not all alike.  Indeed, each student is unique and he/she learns in different ways, at different rates and performs best at varying degrees of course content difficulty.  Grouping classes according to ability may enable teachers to customize instruction so that the entire class not only learns more but also performs at a higher level of achievement.  Moreover, those students at the polar opposite ends of the ability continuum are not disenfranchised.  All students in every grade should be able to raise their achievement levels. 

The fundamental problem with tracking has been one of discriminatory implementation.  But no student should be locked into any track especially one that is lacking in proper content and challenge for that student.  Indeed, all students must be given the opportunity not only to improve their ability but also to advance to a higher level when they have demonstrated such improvement.  Tracking can be most effective when it enables students to benefit from rigorous teaching and is flexible based on the student’s unique abilities.  The reason why tracking and detracking fail to meet the educational needs and priorities of all students is found within the lack of proper classroom capacity.  Because schools too often especially those in urban school districts lack the physical space in which to teach a much wider range of ability groups, schools are faced with a dichotomous choice between tracking and detracking.  

Although I will present my alternative to the current dichotomous choice between tracking and detracking toward the end of this paper, the lack of proper classroom capacity has not always been the reason why all students could not learn and advance based on their unique abilities and time line.  As I recall from our week two readings, Mehan (1992) discussed how school psychologists were instrumental in determining not only the number of students classified as “mentally retarded” but also which students qualified for what is now referred to as special education.  But what is most interesting is that the term “retarded” or “mentally retarded” originated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when our nation was transitioning from one-room schoolhouses (i.e., one classroom for all students was the proper classroom capacity) to age-graded schools which occurred most dramatically in urban areas when large numbers of rural farm families moved to cities.  

Being “retarded” meant being too old for one’s grade or that “retardation” meant that the rural farm immigrant student took more than one year to complete a grade in his/her new age-graded school.  There was no concept of “retardation” in one-room schoolhouses because students regularly took time off from school to perform farm work returning once crops were planted or harvested to complete their studies and this was much more common for young rural male students.  Students simply returned to their respective in one-room schoolhouses and resumed their studies at the point at which they left.  The individual completion model of schooling employed in one-room schoolhouses was neither limited to nor a function of aged-based time slots.  The concept of “mental retardation” or “retardation,” therefore, is a tragic product of one of the earliest school reform movements.  That is, the nationwide adaptation of age-graded schools which could be perceived perhaps as a form of the “conscious organization of students into academically and racially heterogeneous classrooms” (Rubin, 2003, p. 540). 

Why do American students especially those in middle school and high school seem to lag behind those of other nations?  Mathematics provides a possible insight.  Perhaps it is because American students may not learn as much mathematics as do their international counterparts.  Compared to other nations where mathematics proficiency is rather high such asJapanandGermany, American students do not seem to study the same amount of geometry, algebra, and trigonometry.  Because the students of other nations attend more higher level math classes earlier in their school life, they are able also to study more and achieve greater proficiency in science courses especially physics including Advanced Placement physics.  When these factors are combined with the fact that most American school districts have either detracked or have maintained tracking, the mathematics education gap could widen. 

I will now address a rather thought provoking question:  “Is there another way to provide classroom instruction rather than through tracking, detracking, or a lowest common denominator (LCD) approach?”  Although the answer is yes, economic constraints on school facilities and staffing levels have created the dichotomous choice between tracking and detracking.  That is, the limitations of school facilities especially classroom space dictate the choice of either teaching students grouped according to ability or grouped within the same number of classrooms per school and taught in an LCD approach.  I argue that students suffer adverse educational consequences under either scenario. 

The “other way” is to cut the Gordian knot which bottleneck’s any alternative approach.  That is, to find a way in which to fund our schools without treating school funding as a zero-sum game in which, for example, if urban districts gain financial aid then their gain is or is perceived to be offset by an equal loss on the part of rural or suburban districts.  This lack of Pareto efficiency creates perpetual conflict among different districts, regions, and student populations which ultimately levels down the quality of education for all students but particularly for those that are at-risk and disadvantaged.  

My proposal to cut the Gordian knot of educational finance so as to provide the proper number and smaller sized classrooms necessary for increasing student achievement is to require the state and federal governments to fully fund all education mandates in advance of their implementation at the school level.  For example, in terms of special education and 504 Plan students, the state and federal governments would each pay their full share of their special education mandates such that no residual cost of special education is paid by any local school district.  Moreover, the state and federal governments would pay the fully allocated student cost and these monies would fully fund the student wherever he/she attended school regardless of geography. 

State issued budget caps, such asNew Jersey’s 2% cap, force local school districts to fund the unfunded portion of mandates which means that the typical district is regularly forced to cut non-mandate protected programs and services (i.e., regular education) to make up the difference.  This leads to conflicts among special and regular education parents primarily at the local level not to mention NCLB financial and operational penalties.  My proposal, however, would solve this problem.  Fully funding of all mandates would include but not be limited to those students who qualify for special education, free or reduced price lunches (i.e., poverty-level and economically challenged), LEP and ELL, and those from racial and ethnic minorities who have unique academic challenges.  This would lead to a massive increase of funding to urban and low income districts but without necessarily penalizing suburban and rural districts. 

ThePatersonpublic schools serve as an excellent example.  Paterson’s student enrollment is approximately 33,000, of which two-thirds qualify for special education while the other students generally qualify for free or reduced price lunches (i.e., poverty-level and economically challenged), LEP and ELL, and those from racial and ethnic minorities who have unique academic challenges.  Although I have not performed a weighted student cost analysis, I estimate thatPaterson might qualify for almost 100% state and federal funding of all of its students’ fully loaded costs if their state and federal aid was based on my model.   

In terms of property taxes,New Jerseyshould eliminate county government which is duplicative and a source of corruption asConnecticutdid in 1960.  Eliminating this unnecessary layer of county government would not only save New Jersey over $6.3 billion annually in property taxes so as to provide more funds for our schools and alleviate the property tax burden so that districts would be much more likely to vote to increase school budgets but also eliminate the rationale for any state imposed budget caps (i.e., 2% cap) as well as other restrictions. 

The incremental funds made available through the full funding of all state and federal education mandates plus the elimination of county government should be readily applied to designing and retrofitting our schools with the flexible classroom capacity necessary to successfully approximate the instruction of very small groups of students in smaller class sizes.  This would provide the foundation for “another way” that is based on neither tracking nor detracking!  Rubin (2003, p. 568) echoes the essence of my model by stating, “Larger changes in school structure can address this issue as well, such as creating smaller schools-within schools that would explicitly foster community among diverse students.”  


Mehan, H. (2000). Beneath the skin and between the ears:  A case study in the politics of representation. In B. Levinson et al. (Eds,), Schooling the symbolic animal:  Social and cultural dimensions of education (259-279).Lanham,MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, Inc. 

Rubin, B. C. (2003). Unpacking detracking:  When progressive pedagogy meets students’ social worlds. American Educational Research Journal 40(2):  539-573. 

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice:  Learning, meaning and identity.Cambridge:  CambridgeUniversity Press.


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