Tracking: Educational Paths Shaping Future Opportunities

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“Upper tracks? Man, when do you think I see those kids? I never see them. Why should I? Some of them don’t even go to class in the same building with me. If I ever walked into one of their rooms they’d throw me out before the teacher even came in. They’d say I’d only be holding them back from their learning” (Cottle 1974:24). Those are the words from an eleven year old African American boy, who was placed in his school’s low track. Unfortunately, this demonstrates a negative outcome of tracking in education modern day: students feeling unworthy of belonging in certain classrooms. Over time, tracking has served to separate students into different courses based on academic ability. Around the 1860s, Horace Mann claimed that education was “the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.” During the common school era, there were ideas that education was an opportunity to intellectually grow and to push for equality. As time passed, individuals had new ideas about education. More specifically, in the 1920s Robert Yerkes made a claim that students should be separated based on results from tests to ensure the students receive an education at their level. Despite the good intentions for the learning of the students, such separation was not very well executed. Education now does not fully serve as Mann hypothesized to make man equal, and tracking, along with the changing quality of education and the changing economy may all be at fault. By gathering information, I will answer the following: After tracking was initially proposed by administrative progressives such as Yerkes in the 1920’s, how and why did tracking grow so rapidly?



Tracking grew during the mid-twentieth century because it was driven by class stratification. In order for privileged people to obtain an advantage in the economy, they had to make sure their children received a better quality education than the children of people in lower classes, and grouping students by ability level achieved this goal. Many sociologists have coined this term as social class reproduction. Furthermore, tracking grew because it was ideological. The existence of racial separation in the United States caused an abandonment to the common school movement and justified changing students into groups despite being in the same building.



The Plessy v Ferguson case that established the separate but equal ruling in 1896 promoted separate schooling during the late 1890s. The ruling was established to make sure that schools for white for children of color were strictly enforced (Ansalone 2006:145). The growing division between blacks and whites during this period was reflected in education and propelled by tracking. The education of black students was very negatively affected as although there was a separation, equality was not established. Black students were given worn out, used textbooks, had old chalkboards, and low resources in general. This context shows how black children were denied the opportunity for an equal educational experience, which could have negative impacts in their futures (Ansalone 2006:146). Tracking was not existing as a label because students were not integrated, so this was just a separation. This existing racial separation in the United States then justified a difference in the qualities of education different individuals received depending on the color of their skin.



Tracking and educational inequalities grew alongside and were driven by racial divisions. During the time period of Separate but Equal, teachers were separated based on their skills. Unfortunately, many of the teachers who taught black children had not even completed eighth grade (Ansalone 2006:146). Racial inequalities caused educational inequalities to rise; the least qualified teachers were most often placed in lower tracks, causing those already disadvantaged students to be even more disadvantaged. Since the best teachers and the best students were put together, they were given the resources to allow their students to flourish. Justifying the separation of students into groups also allowed teachers to prime their students through tracking. Teachers held different expectations for their students. The higher the track, the higher the teacher’s expectations will be. If a teacher has high expectations of his or her students, then the students will be more motivated to study, which increases the chances that the students will be academically successful (Hellingman 2003:99). Teacher credentials and teacher expectations shaped tracking, all of which kept reproducing to cover racial inequalities.



Paul Davis Chapman writes Schools As Sorters: Testing and Tracking in California, 1910-1925 to demonstrate the impacts of using intelligence tests for the means of classifying students into ability groups. There is a focus on Oakland, San Jose, and Palo Alto because these cities were first introducing the tests and they were a direct link to Stanford, where Lewis Terman was creating intelligence tests (Chapman 1981:701). Terman largely contributed to intelligence testing in the state of California as he helped put together the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test. Terman’s slogan was, “a mental test for every child” (Chapman 1981:704). Chapman writes in this article, “Terman and several army colleagues, including Robert Yerkes of Harvard and Edward Thorndike of Columbia, received a generous grant from the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation to develop ‘an intelligence scale for the group examination of school children’” (Chapman 1981:704). Essentially, all children would be given a test that would decide the child’s track: gifted, bright, average, slow, or special. Intelligence testing was growing because it promoted efficiency, science, and nativist, all prominent values during this progressive era (Chapman 1981: 714). Terman’s contributions align to those of Robert Yerkes.



As an administrative progressive, Robert Yerkes (1920’s) claimed that children should be classified for mental differences and career preparation. Yerkes broke ground with separating individuals by the use of alpha and beta tests. Although these were culturally biased tests, they allowed for the separation of students based on their score, which defined their intelligence. (Yerkes 1919:6-7). Yerkes created the argument that because children were different physically, they also had to be different mentally. He created a mental classification and educational plan: students were placed in the high (A), medium (B), or low (C) track. The track accordingly decided if students took on professional, industrial, or manual jobs. Yerkes (1919) mentioned, “…occupations for which they were best adapted.” He believed individuals received an education that best fit their needs. Connecting schooling to jobs was an early problem that led educators to assume that school curriculums were either academic or vocational, which has been seen today through schooling (Oaks 1986:32). Yerkes’ plan further affected students individually: students in the high track would finish in three years, students in the medium track would finish in four years, and students in the low track would finish in 6 years. It is crucial to recognize that under Yerkes’ plan, students in the low track be placed at a disadvantage because they would need double the time as students in the high track in order to succeed, but this would then create complications for their future careers.



Dejure segregation in schools ended when the supreme court overruled the separate but equal policy in 1954. During this time, there was a growing belief that education could impact opportunity by facilitating economic and social equality (Ansalone 2006: 147). Schools gained more purpose to society than just to provide academic knowledge. Horace Mann’s claim of education as a “great equalizer” became relevant in demonstrating the potential of education. Sociologist Jeanie Oaks writes a book to explain the way race and class are embedded in measures of ability and prior achievement (Oaks 1986:33). Oaks explains, “Disproportionate percentages of poor and minority youngsters (principally black and Hispanic) are placed in low ability, general, and vocational tracks” (Oaks 1986:33). The trend in many research studies, like in Oaks’s research, is that poor, minority, underrepresented groups are most often placed in the lower, disadvantaged tracks. This occurs as the privilege ensure their children are in the higher tracks, leaving the unprivileged in the lower tracks. Tracking is the modern day label that has over time increasingly separated students not only by academic ability but further by class status.



Education began to take a shift as educators began fulfilling the needs of students on a more individual basis. Students received instruction that focused on what the student specifically needed help in. Since students of similar levels of intelligence asked similar questions and had similar needs, they were put in the same track, which increased efficiency. If a classroom had students of mixed learning abilities, the teacher would hypothetically have to stop for the students that take longer to grasp concepts, all of which would put the other students on hold. To avoid the expense of putting students on hold, tracking has become efficient through the creation of homogeneous groups of educational ability. In 1908, the superintendent of Boston schools wrote, “Until very recently the schools have offered equal opportunity for all to receive one kind of education, but what will make them democratic is to provide opportunity for all to receive education as will fit them equally well for their particular life work” (Oaks 1986:32). The superintendent’s position allowed him to give validity to tracking; he portrayed tracking as the way to create equality in education, for everyone received an education to their level. Tracking grew rapidly as parents learned about it and further advocated for it. Parents did not want their child to be placed in a classroom with students of lower abilities. Homogeneous classrooms may not, however, bring students of higher ability down; in many instances, students of higher abilities help those of lower abilities in mixed classrooms, but as tracking was growing and its long-term impacts were not clearly understood, many advocated for tracking for its efficiency in teaching students by needs.



Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu introduces the concept of cultural capital to explain the accumulation of knowledge and skills one can use to depict social status in society. Indeed, having cultural capital allows one to effectively navigate dominant social structures, like school. Those with cultural capital allowed tracking to grow rapidly as they took advantage of tracking to ensure themselves the best possible quality education. Most often, students with cultural capital relied on their parents to advocate for them. Knowing that higher tracks provide a better path to a successful career, parents were more able to use their capital to advocate and get their child the best, highest education. Students that are decided on careers, like engineering or medicine, know what they want, so they are going to make sure to be above everyone to ensure their career paths, which reinforces tracking and makes it grow increasingly (Rozycki 1999:115). Students with cultural capital tend to be white or wealthy students whose parents most likely attended college. On the other hand, students who lack cultural capital are low-income, minority students, who are not equipped to recognize the importance the tracking system has in their future and therefore fall victims to low tracks that do not steer them towards such career paths and that do not provide them with an understanding of how to navigate society’s dominant structures, like school.



Learning to navigate society’s dominant structures is important because we live in a capitalist society in which the job market is selective and reserved for privileged. Capitalism depicts social darwinism in that only some survive; only some succeed in the job market while others unfortunately partake in jobs of lower status. Over time, America’s agrarian economy shifted to a much more industrial economy, which increased demand for educated people. More students began taking up more spaces in high schools, so education was becoming a higher priority. When this was happening, immigration was rising, which in turn increased tracking (Loveless 1998). The reason being was that minority and the poor were trained for low status jobs that removed them from academic learning and the mainstream of schooling while the rich were placed in higher tracks. Although this trend was occurring as the United States became more industrial, figure one shows a similar pattern from Yerkes time. By studying the mechanisms that make up tracking, we can understand why it continues growing.

In the figure above, the high track completes kindergarten through fifth grade in only three years while the low track completes kindergarten through fifth grade in double the time of the high track. The higher track leads to a profession while the lower track leads to manual work. It is very visible that higher tracks prepare for the better jobs whereas the lower tracks prepare for basic skills.

Divisions in educational plans affect career choices that supplement the economy and further result in an increased achievement gap. Those in higher tracks stay on the top while those in lower tracks unfortunately stay in the bottom. The divisions within tracks is visible through subjects as well. Oaks explains, “At the junior highs, white students typically enrolled in typing, home economics, and general industrial arts courses, while minorities frequently took classes that prepared them for specific jobs” (Oaks 1986:33). Socioeconomic differences align with race and ethnicity, which unfortunately only put whites on top, depriving other individuals from an education that prepares for careers and promoting class stratification.

Further in terms of the economy, it is important to recognize the reality of the workforce. Although an education may lead to careers, the manual jobs still need to be completed. Tracking has continued to grow very rapidly because there is a need for a more highly skilled workforce, which tracking fulfills by creating people on top with roles to keep the economy going (Rozycki 1999:115). Furthermore, with positions of higher status taken, there need to be individuals to take jobs of lower status. A school, for example, needs a principal and a dean of students, but it also needs janitors and cafeteria staff. All in all, tracking is disadvantaging because employers look for people with problem solving skills, general knowledge, and complex skills, not the complex skills lower tracks teach.



Harvard’s President from 1933 to 1953, James Bryant Conant had contributions to tracking as he brought in his perspective of a push for schools that would function in an economically unjust society. Conant recognized that students were different in ability, but he claimed that schools had to find a way to respond to such differences. He claimed that having students of mixed abilities together and reducing visible group differences would serve to promote a democracy (Proefriedt 2005). Proefriedt directly writes about Conant, “He expected that all students would be exposed to a general education program for about half their time in school, with students assigned to different ability levels. There would be no formal tracks; placements would be made on an individualized basis” (Proefriedt 2005). Conant pushed not for tracks, but for assigning students to different ability levels to allow students to help uplift each other. He envisioned a society in which college graduates would make a salary close to that of those that did not graduate college (Proefriedt 2005). Unfortunately, tracking has taken a shift in which students are solely tracked by their ability, which does not follow Conant’s beliefs about mixing students. Furthermore, tracking has not allowed for an equality in education as Conant believed. Although schools should be held accountable, social and economic factors must be held accountable.

Source: Retrieved from Presentation by Jack Dougherty at Trinity College
“Famous educator’s plan for a school that will advance students according to ability”



Tracking has grown so rapidly, resulting in positive and negative effects for students in different tracks. Using tracks allows to separate students by ability; therefore, students compare themselves to students in their track. Because students in a lower track are not forced to compare themselves to students in a higher track, students tend to have a better self-esteem. Similarly, tracking has, to an extent, grown to positively motivate students to learn as much as they could so that they could move up tracks. Hallinan (2003) researched instructional grouping and found that assigning students to groups in which tasks are intellectually challenging and related to future goal increases their motivation to learn (Hallinan 2003:99). Essentially, if students are seeing themselves as not successful, they will want to prove themselves to move up tracks. Despite positive effects of tracking, its rapid growth has allowed for visible negative effects. In opposition to the above listed, tracking has too caused students in lower tracks to develop low self-esteem in that they may think are are incapable of reaching higher tracks. Tracking is also detrimental to the poor youth who are targets to the lower tracks because it restricts their learning. Lower tracks are not exposed to college preparatory classes, which puts students at a disadvantage. Furthermore, teacher expectation may be influenced by the track and reflect on student performance. Teachers, curriculum, and self-esteem of the student play a role in tracking.



Tracking as an ideology has caused an abandonment of the common school movement towards that of a a separation of students due to the existence of racial tensions. Despite being in a similar building, students were separated. Of those separated, those that received the best education were placed in higher tracks because their parents used their privilege to advocate for their education and put them at an advantage, all of which prompted class stratification. When Robert Yerkes broke ground by separating individuals based on tests, tracking was flourishing as individuals were tracked for believed mental differences. Ideally, tracking was meant to maximize student learning by strategically placing students in classrooms of their levels. However, tracking has fallen behind of its goal as seen in practice over time. Hallinan explains, “Limitations in the process of assigning student to ability groups and in the pedagogical techniques utilized at different ability group levels seriously restrict the learning opportunities that are provided to students in some ability groups” (Hallinan 2003). Dividing students by levels of ability resulted in divisions of race. Unfortunately, only those with cultural capital were able to advocate in order to receive the best education possible, which was most often in the higher level tracks. Higher level tracks have served to provide students with the knowledge and skills to thrive in higher positions and careers while lower tracks have done the opposite, most often negatively impacting poor, minority, students of color in training for manual labor and basic skills. Although tracking become commonplace in the United States, perhaps detraking will now serve to raise awareness regarding the educational inequalities that exist and lead to economic inequalities, all of which shape future opportunities.



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Ansalone, George. 2009. “Tracking, Schooling and the Equality of Educational Opportunity.” Race, Gender & Class 16(3/4):174–84. <>

Chapman, Paul D. 1981. “Schools As Sorters: Testing and Tracking in California, 1910-1925.” Journal of Social History 701–716. <>

Cooper, Robert. 1996. “Detracking Reform in an Urban California High School: Improving the Schooling Experiences of African American Students.” The Journal of Negro Education 65(2):190–208. <>

Oakes, Jeannie. 1986. “Beyond Tracking.” Educational Horizons 65(1):32–35. <>

Oakes, Jeannie and Martin Lipton. 1992. “Detracking Schools: Early Lessons from the Field.” The Phi Delta Kappan 73(6):448–54. <>

Proefriedt, William A. 2005. “Revisiting James Bryant Conant” Education Week. <>

Rozycki, Edward G. 1999. “‘Tracking’ in Public Education: Preparation for the World of Work?” Educational Horizons 77(3):113–16. <>

Rubin, Beth C. 2003. “Unpacking Detracking: When Progressive Pedagogy Meets Students’ Social Worlds.” American Educational Research Journal 40(2):539–73. <>

Yerkes, Robert. 1919. “The Mental Rating of School Children.” National School Service 1, no. 12 (February 15, 1919): 6–7, <>