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Why Tracking is Bad

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After two years at another independent school, I returned as a junior to Brimmer and May, where I had spent the majority of my lower and middle school career. I looked forward to reuniting with my friends, but scheduling differences required that I take more advanced courses.

As a sophomore, I had taken non-honors American History and American literature, courses Brimmer and May requires of its juniors. If I wanted to return, I had to take AP English Literature and Modern United States History, both senior electives with talented but demanding teachers. Even as the only junior enrolled in them, I would receive no special treatment.

Needless to say, at the time, I lacked faith in my academic abilities. I couldn’t write very well, and I couldn’t imagine being able to keep up with academic juggernauts. Having taken only non-honors courses, I thought that I had a fixed potential—that no matter how hard I tried or how much I wanted it, I would never get to be one of the “smart kids.”

Teachers posing as soothsayers had decided the limits of my future potential, and I dared not question them.

Once the new academic year arrived, my teachers stayed true to their word. They didn’t offer special treatment, but they did do something much more beneficial—they pushed me to my limits every day. These magnificent professionals demonstrated an infectious love of learning, encouraging me not only to master a deeper level of proficiency for my own intellectual benefit, but also to prove to myself that labels like “honors,” “regular” or “college-preparatory,” are good for nothing.

I also benefited greatly from my classmates, whom I admired deeply. Never before had I engaged with such curious and respectful kids, who cared as deeply for their own success as I did for my own. I am grateful for their support, and while time and distance has separated most of us, I am forever in their debt for helping direct my path. My great distaste for labels aside, I eventually earned high-honors that year.

Here are my top-five reasons why tracking students by ability does more harm than good.

1. Tracking instills psychologically damaging labels

Schools do students no favors by labeling courses. Before returning to Brimmer and May, I truly believed that I had below-average potential. Why else would I be placed in all non-honors courses? Worse still, for a time, I believed all the falsehoods about what I could and couldn’t do in the classroom and beyond. I cringe upon thinking of the innumerable driven, capable, and curious students taking courses that don’t ask or expect them to reach beyond a certain, preconceived barrier. I also feel for students in honors courses, who have a different burden of always being expected to excel at whatever they pursue.

2. Tracking creates unhealthy competition

Tracking fosters a culture of condescension and social stratification, one in which “smart kids” can justify a sense of superiority over their non-honors counterparts. As a freshman and sophomore, on several occasions, I recall being made fun of for my supposed lack of intelligence—and for “dogging it” by taking only easy classes. I also fear that tracking encourages cheating by students wishing to move-up to and remain in more advanced courses. Unfortunately, some parents also attribute their status to the success of their child, and often feel embarrassed without a “my-child-is-an-honors-student” bumper sticker. These children are then encouraged to appease their parents, even by dishonorable means.

3. Tracking fails to acknowledge true and varied intelligences

I question how my teachers designated me as “non-honors,” given my tremendous future academic success. In many cases, a teacher who instructs freshman English, for example, decides what students will take honors or non-honors history for the following year. But what if an English teacher is just plain bad at her job, and even after a year, she can’t accurately assess a student’s growth or potential? Likewise, what if a science teacher failed to deliver effective, varied instruction and different assignments? In such a case, it would be impossible to accurately place most teens.

4. Tracking rewards good behavior, not academic ability

I fear that sometimes teachers connect honors recommendations with good behavior, not academic ability. True, it’s easier and often more enjoyable to instruct students who possess both positive characteristics, but a crucial distinction exists. Moreover, perhaps misbehaving students, however defined, are misbehaving more for reasons having to do with lazy, ineffective instruction than any true character flaw in the student. As a sophomore, I had my share of bad teachers, whose flagrant apathy drove me to lose focus, daydream, and goof-off.

5. Tracking prevents students from learning

Students, just like athletes, improve best and most easily when training with more advanced partners. At Brimmer and May, I learned as much from my peers as I did from my teachers. These remarkably insightful students supported my ideas, asked for my opinions, and when appropriate, respectfully criticized my contributions. I wanted to show my older and more academically advanced peers that I respected them, and I conveyed this by coming to class each day prepared to engage in scholarly debate. By not sharing my unique understanding, I thought, I would deprive others of my unique interpretation, as well as fail to contribute to the learning process.

Exception

Subjects with more inherently distinct levels, like math and foreign language, ought to consider making certain exceptions to the no-tracking principle. A student ready for calculus, for instance, won’t benefit by being placed with others still mastering trigonometry, and vice versa. Still, my view holds that all classes should shed the “honors” distinction.

Takeaway message

I strongly encourage all schools to do away with tracking, which has the potential to inflict psychological damage on otherwise smart, capable, and innovative students. Instead, let students of all abilities and intelligences benefit from each other by placing them in the same classroom.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Sunday, 11 December 2016