Of Course There’s Tracking in High Schools. Get Over It.

The real question is what the tracks look like, and where they head.

Image of a three-way rail switch

Recently, I wrote about the vast distance between our rhetoric and reality on career and technical education. Despite our oft-voiced enthusiasm for “multiple pathways,” we force almost all high school students through what’s essentially a college-prep track. Instead, I argued, we should reserve that route for students “who like school and are good at it,” and let kids with other strengths focus on career preparation. Yet in virtually every state, numerous and exacting academic course requirements (four years of English, three years of math, etc.) make it virtually impossible for high school students to spend much time doing real work-based training.

As expected, I was attacked for calling for a return to 1950’s-style tracking. To my surprise, however, even my colleague and mentor Checker Finn criticized me on those grounds! In last week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast, he charged me with taking a “Back to the Future” approach.

And you know what? I’m guilty as charged, at least on some counts.

No, I don’t want to go back to the old way, whereby The System decided who could take college-prep courses, and who should “work with their hands.”

And hell no, I don’t want The System making those decisions based on the color of students’ skin or their zip code.

But do I think there should be tracking in American high schools? Yes. More to the point, tracking in our high schools is simply a fact and we would do well to stop pretending otherwise or believing that it could be any other way. At the very least, we should allow for diverging paths after the tenth grade. We also need to completely rethink our approach for our lowest-performing kids.

Consider this: According to the latest (pre-pandemic) data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gap between the 10th and 90th percentiles of public school students in eighth grade reading was 96 points (on a 0–500 scale). In rough numbers, that equates to six grade levels. Math is even worse, at 101 points. So some kids enter high school at a fifth-grade level, others at an eleventh-grade level. Does anyone think we can effectively teach students with such extreme degrees of academic preparation (or lack thereof) in the same classroom and serve them well? Or that we can’t predict which group is likely heading for success in college and which is going to need to get a job after high school, whether immediately or when they flame out of college?

So, yes, high schools track students. It’s a practice, by the way, that a recent American Compass survey found is overwhelmingly popular with parents of all socioeconomic groups—which helps explains the fierce political reaction when policymakers go on the warpath against the advanced track, as we saw recently in Virginia.

* * *

In the 50s-era “James Bryant Conant High School,” as Checker called it, there were four tracks: “It had Honors, for those who thought they might want to go to Duke or Wellesley,” Checker explained. “It had College Prep for those who wanted to go to the state school nearby. It had Voc-Ed for those who were heading for a trade. And then it had something called the General Track…and frankly [those students] weren’t prepared for anything when they came out of high school.” (Of course, back then, many of the General Track students never made it to high school graduation, since they dropped out long before, and often found an acceptable job anyway.)

All these years later, after decades of “de-tracking” policies and the like, we’ve really just collapsed those four tracks into three:

  • The Honors Track. This one remains, largely untouched, though in many high schools it now features a heavy load of AP and IB course-taking, and happily serves a larger number of students. That’s because of reforms to encourage more schools to create AP programs, efforts to reduce the gatekeeping to those courses, and the growth of the American upper-middle class, which is who’s most obsessed with getting their kids into (and able to afford) selective and highly selective colleges, even those far from home. High school course requirements are generally not a problem for the students in this track because they would take four years of most academic courses anyway. Let’s estimate that this track now serves about 20 percent of all students.
  • The College and Career Ready Track. Here’s where the big change has happened. In essence, we’ve tried to collapse the old College Prep track and the old Voc-Ed track into one. And in some respects that’s for good reason, since we’ve learned that the technical jobs of today generally require at least some postsecondary education, and that means getting students to a relatively high level of preparation in reading, writing, and mathematics, as well as various social and emotional skills that are valued in the modern workplace. As I wrote two weeks ago, though, we’ve loaded up students’ schedules with so many academic course requirements that we’ve squeezed out most of the time that could be spent doing technical training. So the students in this track really do mostly college prep, sometimes including a handful of AP, IB, or dual-enrollment courses, while perhaps also taking a few CTE courses as electives. This track serves the mass of students—probably about half—generally those from the 30th to the 80th percentile of achievement nationally.
  • The Credit Recovery Track. Of course we don’t call it that, but we should. Students in this track are often enrolled in “on level” courses, but that’s a ruse. These are the kids entering high school with very low levels of academic preparation, who struggle through their academic course requirements, racking up a lot of failure along the way. Unlike the old General Track, most of these students stay in school—a success of sorts, and the result of state policies that hold schools and districts accountable for boosting graduation rates. But since many of these students were so ill-prepared to start with, we’ve had to invent workarounds, especially credit recovery programs of dubious value (except perhaps to the for-profit companies reaping juicy financial rewards, and administrators who used it to boost their graduation numbers), plus grading “reforms” that make it easier for students to earn passing grades. None of which helps these students, and it probably devalues the high school diploma to boot. I’d estimate that 30 percent of American high schoolers are in this track; that’s about the number that NAEP deems to be “below basic” in math (32 percent) and reading (28 percent) coming out of the eighth grade.

To be sure, today’s system is in some ways an improvement over yesterday’s. Collapsing the College Prep and Voc-Ed tracks means that more students are pushed toward high-level work, surely a good thing. Dual enrollment, at least when properly done, seems to show particular promise in getting more kids onto a pathway toward college. Efforts to help kids earn technical credentials while still in high school are also encouraging.

But there are trade-offs, too. It means we don’t give students the time to do bona fide career training while still in high school, the kind we see in Austria and Germany, where their equivalent of juniors and seniors might spend virtually all day in apprenticeships or technical courses. Are we so sure that career-minded students are better off spending their time taking Spanish, Fine Arts, and English IV than, say, interning at a hospital center or first-rate restaurant kitchen or electronics plant? A better approach is the one embraced by Maryland’s Kirwan commission, whereby students who demonstrate mastery of key college and career ready skills at the end of the tenth grade are allowed to proceed to either true college prep or real career training. That would split the College and Career Ready track into two again—but after tenth grade.

My biggest concern, though, is with what I’m calling the Credit Recovery track. Yes, it’s good that most of these kids aren’t dropping out. They are safe and warm and fed and cared for in high school, and are off the streets. That’s no small thing. But I wonder whether the approach we’ve backed into is the best we can do—which is to have students experience a lot of failure, then make them click through a bunch of boring computer-based make-up programs, and finally hand them a diploma they can hardly read, with no plan or training for what happens the day after graduation.

I’ll explore other options in a future post.

What’s undeniable is that we continue to track kids, and until and unless we send many more kids into high school at much higher levels of achievement, we’re going to continue to track kids until the end of time, whether or not we admit that that’s what we’re doing. The only real question is what the tracks look like, and where they head. The sooner we’re honest about that, the better.

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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