Black Students and the Educational Practice of Tracking

Black Students and the Educational Practice of Tracking

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Black Students and the Educational Practice of Tracking


I remember my mom asking me one day why I didn’t have any black friends. Even though she is white, she was concerned that I hang out with kids of different backgrounds, especially because I am half black. I had never really thought about it before. I told her it was because there weren't really any black kids in any of my classes at school. I had been in mostly honors classes since the seventh grade and there were only about five to ten other black kids who seemed to circulate the “honors track” with me. I had always felt slightly out of place in my mostly white honors classes. I didn’t really become friends with many black people until my junior year of high school when I was invited to join an all black, all female, leadership group at my school called S.I.S. (Success In School). By the second semester of my junior year most of my friends were black. Me and nearly twenty other successful black and minority students became a close-knit “crew” and an extended family. We served as a support system for each other and I would not have made it though the second half of high school without them.

At the end of my senior year there was a big awards night. There was a special ceremony for seniors honoring academic achievement throughout the year. One of the last groups of awards presented were for the Presidential Excellence Award, National Merit Finalists, and students who were in the top ten percent of the class. The names were called, and mine was among them. I took my place on the stage among my fellow classmates. The lights were very bright and I looked out into the audience to find my parents. They were waving and smiling. I looked out into the audience for my friends. It is then that I realized that my friends were still in the audience. As I looked around the stage I noticed that I was one of only two black students on the stage. The other student, BJ Jacobs, stood farther down to my right. Though we were friends, I had always kind of resented BJ in a congenial way. However, our past rivalry didn’t seem to matter now.

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It was incredibly comforting to me that he was there. We were alone together. I looked over at BJ and we exchanged a glance and a smile. I could tell that he was as proud as I was, and wondered if he felt slightly awkward as well because he was the only black male on the stage. I was both proud and disappointed to be the only black (or half black) female out of approximately 130 black seniors who was in the top 10% of my class. I wondered what had happened to all the other black students who weren’t on the stage with me. This feeling of being singled out was one that I have experienced countless times before but had never really become quite comfortable with. I remember coming home from the awards night feeling somewhat overwhelmed with emotion.

Though my experience as a minority student in the public school system is a personal one, it is not at all unique. In fact, I have learned through talking to family and friends, fellow students, and acquaintances, that experiences such as these are surprisingly common. Not only are they common in today’s public schools, but similar stories and emotions were related to me by various individuals ranging from my 51-year-old father, Edward Fludd, who was educated in Albany, New York’s public schools to my 24-year-old cousin, Kalin Berry, who attended private catholic high school in Ohio. My dad describes his situation as a black student in the “Academically Talented” (AT) program in Albany, New York in the late 1950’s: “From the time I became an AT student through high school, there were never any more than five black students in any of my classes...Many times there were just two, or just me”. My Uncle Joe who was also in Albany’s AT program explained, “...especially as I went through junior high and high school, I noticed that the number of black kids dwindled sharply until, by the time I graduated high school, I was almost the only one”. Kathy Ray, another black student whom I attended high school with in Maryland told me: “[Regular] classes look almost opposite [racially] than honors classes. I’ve been in both; I know”. All of the individuals I spoke with are successful blacks who had been “tracked” in middle and/or high school and many of them (who had been placed into advanced academic programs within their school) shared experiences that were virtually identical.

Tracking is an educational practice that involves creating specific programs or “tracks” according to a student’s level of ability or desire for achievement. The higher tracks are generally designated “honors” or “advanced” while the lower level classes are deemed “regular” or “general” classes. Tracking has a large effect on the academic achievement of students, particularly minority students who have a history of being under-represented on higher academic tracks.

It is of great concern to me that honors and advanced placement classes are so disproportionate in their racial makeup. While the placement of black students on lower tracks may not be malicious or even intentional in most cases, there is certainly evidence to show that the phenomenon is occurring. This is something that Jomills Henry Braddock and Robert E. Slavin also discuss in their essay, “Why Ability Grouping Must End: Achieving Excellence and Equity in American Education”:

In high schools, black and Hispanic students are greatly over-represented in the vocational track and under-represented in academic programs. These groups are also over-represented among the low tracks in junior high and middle school and in low reading groups in elementary school. Further, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights has estimated that more than half of U.S. elementary schools have at least one “racially identifiable” classroom in the highest or lowest grade. A racially identifiable classroom is one in which the proportion of students of a given race is substantially different from that in the school as a whole. (Braddock and Slavin 11).

As the previous passage indicates, minority under-representation in academicachievement is a problem in the public school system as early as elementary school and continues throughout high school.

There are several explanations that would attempt to make sense of my experience and the experiences of those I spoke with. The dominant educational philosophy concerning education in American public schools is referred to as the traditional educational theory. The traditional educational theory places heavy emphasis on individualism and the individual student is often held responsible for personal successes and failures.
Feminist thinker and critical theorist Kathleen Weiler explains the traditional educational system as “one in which everyone finds his or her proper place: the inadequate fail and the deserving and talented rise to their merit” (Weiler 5). The traditional educational theory, would likely explain my experience, and similar experiences of academically successful minority students, in the following way: The educational system in public schools is designed to allow for all students to find their place in society. It is not only fair, but allows for students to learn and take part in education on an academic level that is appropriate for them. Because not everyone is on the same level (academically) certain groupings (“tracks”) have emerged that allow students to have a fair and equal opportunity to learn based on their needs and ability. Traditional theorists would also argue that it is possible for any student to get out of a vocational or lower academic track through hard work and determination to excel in the educational system. BJ and I had earned a place among the top ten percent of our high school class because of our individual efforts and hard work. Other black students had earned their place in “academically talented” programs and honors classes through high test scores and placement exams. The system is obviously fair and working (and not racially biased) because it has allowed for talented black students to achieve academic success.

Though this explanation may seem perfectly reasonable, I believe it to be greatly flawed. While the traditional educational theory is correct to assume that individual effort does play a very large role in individual success, and that a certain level of academic stratification will take place (realistically not all students can achieve the same level or manifestations of success), how does it account for the fact that black students, as a whole, are failing at such large rates in comparison to their white counterparts? Traditional theorists might explain the common occurrence of black students being over-represented on and remaining on lower tracks by arguing that these students are less apt scholastically, less driven or hard working, and ultimately, do not desire the same degree of success as other students. This view is completely mistaken because it fails to account for the fact that no group of students, black or otherwise, is innately stupid, lazy, and content with failure.

When examined, the scholastic stratification, and academic inequality, that results from tracking has strong parallels to societal class stratification and class inequality. Similarly, the traditional educational theory is easily compared to the functionalist theory in sociology, which is critiqued in the following way regarding it’s views about class inequality:

...it if is accepted, classism leads to two important conclusions: first that the wealthy deserve their privileges, and second, that the poor are more or less responsible for their plight. It suggests that the poor are lazy, stupid, immoral, and without ambition. It largely ignores structural barriers to upward mobility, and it implies that success or failure depends almost entirely on what individuals do--or fail to do” (Lindsey and Beach 228).

Much in the way that “structural barriers” are ignored when analyzing the failure of the poor to move up to a higher social class, the educational structural barrier of tracking is largely ignored when explaining why students on lower tracks (generally blacks and latinos) do not move into higher level classes.

The critical educational theory, which would hold that the dominant educational system is neither fair nor provides for the equal opportunity of all students, offers a different explanation for why many black students are failing in the educational system. The explanation lies in a paradigm of the critical theory referred to as the reproduction theory. Reproduction theory, as related to education, holds that “students are shaped by their experiences in schools to internalize or accept a subjectivity and a class position that leads to the reproduction of existing power relationships” (Weiler 6). Much like the educational theory of reproduction, a sociological theory exists that critically addresses the issue of inequality in education. This theory is referred to as conflict theory. Conflict theory “focuses on the social placement function of education and argues that a principle function of schooling in the United States is to reproduce and reinforce inequality” (Lindsey and Beach 407). This is to say that the educational system serves as a way to teach and reinforce the perceptions of students which ultimately provides for many aspects of society to reproduce themselves through the academic stratification of education.

Tracking helps to create and maintain inequality because it establishes two separate, and academically unequal, institutions within the school. “Even in the wealthier schools, two systems of education exist side by side. Children of all races and social classes may occupy the same building, but experience the learning process quite differently” (Lindsey and Beach 408). Once these separate academic institutions are established and students are placed into them, these groupings (“honors” vs. “regular”) shape students’ views of themselves, their views of success, and ultimately, their views of the system itself.

One of the first differences between the separate institutions is the curriculum and course work that students are assigned. In my honors classes I was usually assigned difficult work that challenged me scholastically and because of this I learned to analyze and apply a great deal of information. Kathy Ray, a black student who I met in an honors english class, says:

Honors work is more abstract and requires thought. [There are] more projects, journals, and reflection. In honors [classes] you are asked to explain and reflect upon concepts...”. My cousin Kalin tells me of her experience: “I think that it [being on advanced track] benefitted me academically... Many of the kids who were in my classes were interested in learning. The gifted and talented classes allowed me to explore topics that I liked...”. Though the work in honors classes was, at times, very challenging I think that I learned not only valuable information, but also skills relating to a how to work hard to achieve success.

In addition to the advanced and accelerated academic load teachers almost always have higher expectations of their honors students than of their regular students. I can recall countless occasions where teachers would say to an honors class, “You are my honors kids, I expect better from you...” or “you are honors kids and I expect you to do honors work”. Teachers would also often criticize the behavior or academic performance of their honors classes by comparing them to regular classes and regular students. Being a student on the honors track also caused teachers and other faculty to respond to you differently-- generally more favorably then they did to other students. There was a sense that teachers were proud of you and wanted to see you do well (a dynamic that was particularly noticeable between black honors students and black faculty). Over all though, as Kathy Ray states, honors students seemed to “get more respect, trust, and leeway...”. This no doubt, made it easier for honors students to maintain their academic success.

Being on the higher academic track also helps to shape students views of themselves, by creating a large amount of self esteem and confidence concerning their academic abilities. Kevin Powell, a black student who was on the “A” track in his middle and high school says, “I often felt intelligent and special.” My Uncle Joe tells me: “I felt very right about it [the AT program]. I was a ‘smart’ kid and I knew it, and so did everybody else.” Being a student on the honors track provides an academic reputation that follows you throughout your school years. Teachers learn to identify who the “good” or “smart” kids are. Students on high academic tracks do not even have to be directly told that they are “special” and “bright” because the names of the programs themselves say it all: “gifted and talented”, “honors”, “advanced placement”.

One way in which tracking shaped my view of success was by helping to instill what my view of success was. In the honors classes at my high school no grade below a “B” was considered passing. If a student in an honors class received a grade of a “C” or less for more than one marking period, you would be moved to a lower class level. As an honors student I learned to view “good” grades as “A’s” and “average” grades as “B’s”--naturally, nothing below average was acceptable. Also, the idea of going to college was a topic that was almost always discussed in my honors classes, beginning in freshmen year of high school. It was understood that we were all expected to go to college. To insure this our teachers, guidance counselors, and other faculty talked to our parents, wrote letters of recommendation, and helped us access special scholarship information. I remember my guidance counselor making me bring a letter of permission from my parents when I requested to be moved from Pre Calculus (an upper level class) to Consumer Math (a low level class designed for kids who were not going to college to get “real wold” math skills). She was concerned that making the move down to consumer math would hurt my transcript and make me less marketable to top-notch colleges.

Though the descriptions that I am offering of my experiences with tracking in the public school system may lead others to think that tracking is a beneficial practice and that myself and other black students are “success stories”, it is important to remember that we were, and are, greatly in the minority. After all, my dad had often been the only black student in his “AT” classes and more than thirty years later I was still alone on the stage. In the cases of the overwhelming number of black students placed on lower tracks in the educational system, they are isolated from the academically successful and often learn to see themselves as less, with the idealized version of success seeming far from their reach.

The first difference between my experiences and the experiences of students on lower academic tracks is the type of work that regular track students are given. Kathy Ray who was in both regular and honors classes during her middle and high school education tells me: “Regular [track] kids get busy work. It is not fulfilling. It is just elementary work to keep you busy; not much thinking is required and not much is expected by teachers from regular students. In regular you just repeat concepts which are given to you over and over through stupid worksheets. Even if you can do more than just repeat what you’re taught, few teachers care to listen”. Jomills Henry Braddock and Robert E. Slavin point out in their essay that “students can not learn what they have not been taught. One of the clearest outcomes of ability grouping at all instructional levels is that students in low -ability groups are exposed to substantially less material and to lower-quality instruction than are students in middle- or high-ability groups” (Braddock and Slavin 9).

In addition to the type of work given to the students on the regular track, the teacher-student dynamic is also usually very different. Because there is a stigma associated with being on the low track (much the opposite of the favorable academic reputation that follows high track kids) this causes many teachers to respond differently to low track students. Kathy Ray explains: “Teachers treat the kids differently. They assume you are poorly behaved and academically challenged”. This treatment by teachers is also discussed in Jane Page and Fred Page, Jr.’s essay, “Tracking And Its Effects On African-Americans In The Field Of Education”. Included in the essay is an interview with an elementary school teacher who said: “They [low track students] feel that they are different, and I think we are responsible for that because of ability grouping...As teachers, we treat them like they are different” (Page and Page 74). It seems that the goal of many educators is to push their students through the system, even if that means maintaining the status quo, rather than challenging the system and encouraging their regular students to do more than just “get by”. While many teachers in honors classes have high expectations for their students and challenge them to excel, I doubt that there are many teachers who would hold their regular students to such high standards or expect and prepare them to move up to higher level classes.

The first example to illustrate how being placed on a low track can influence a student’s vision of themselves is revealed when Braddock and Slavin include an interview of 11-year-old Ollie Taylor, a black student who has been placed on the low track at his school. Ollie states: “Hell, I know they [school system] put all the black kids together in one group if they can, but that doesn’t make any difference either. I’m still dumb. Even if I look around and know that I’m the smartest in my group, all that means is that I’m the smartest of the dumbest” (Braddock and Slavin 7). This description is similar to a situation that Mike Rose explains in Lives on the Boundary. Rose details the mentality of a student named Ken who had been placed on the vocational track: “What Ken and so many others do is protect themselves...by taking on with a vengeance the identity implied in the vocational track. Fuck this bullshit. Bullshit, of course, is everything you--and the others--fear is beyond you: books, essays, tests, academic scrambling, complexity...Keep your vocabulary simple,...flaunt ignorance, materialize your dreams” (Rose 29). In both of these examples, the students on the low academic and vocational track have had their perceptions of themselves molded to fit the implied “failure” and “worthlessness” that is associated with these groupings. Because these students have internalized this view of themselves which was perpetuated by the educational system itself, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to overcome their present situation.

Even when students don’t angrily reject such visions of achievement and success they may simply become conditioned to accept less. Consider the case of my friend Cisco: I made the acquaintance of Cisco, a black student, in a Spanish class during my senior year of high school. As a senior and level five French student, I was taking introductory Spanish because I had always wanted to learn the language. Cisco, in comparison, was in Spanish because he needed to graduate. The only two seniors in the class, we became fast friends. At the end of the year, Cisco and I were both happy with our grades. The only difference was I got an “A” and he got a “D”. I had been conditioned by my vigorous honors tracking to accept nothing less than a “B” as success. Cisco had learned from years on the “regular” track that merely passing was success.

In addition to warping the student’s view of themselves and their abilities, the system also effectively reproduces itself by altering the student’s view of success and achievement. An example of this is outlined by Nathan Glazer as he discusses a common problem in this book, We Are All Multiculturalists Now : “A related phenomenon is the well-documented pattern in black ghetto schools of hostility to academic achievement; it is considered acting white” (Glazer 135). In this example Glazer is describing how many black students, through their experience with the educational system, have learned to associate academic achievement with being white, and are therefore rejecting it. My Uncle Joe explains: “...if blacks try to distinguish themselves in the world or prosper in any way, they are accused of ‘trying to be white’. This results, for example, in black kids dumbing themselves down and committing intellectual suicide because they have been made to feel guilty, ashamed, ostracized...”. Unfortunately this phenomenon does not just occur in what Glazer refers to as “black ghetto schools”. Kalin Berry, a black female and Georgetown University graduate, describes her first hand experience with this pattern in a suburban middle school in Ohio: “In middle school, other black children would say that I ‘talked white’. Why is speaking correctly considered only a white characteristic? I was called an Oreo because I studied hard--black on the outside, white on the inside.” I too have been accused of “acting white” on more than one occasion by other black students in a diverse suburban school who have become so far removed from the idea and atmosphere of academic achievement that they can no longer associate themselves, or their race, with it.

All of these factors that students on low tracks face eventually greatly effects their potential for academic upward mobility. While placement onto low tracks may not be malicious or necessarily biased against one group, it isn’t always as easy for students doing well on lower academic tracks to move up to higher tracks as one might think. My friend Kathy Ray, who attended my high school, explains her struggle to be placed onto the high academic track:

It [tracking] is almost like a caste system. Once you are given a track, you can’t get off...and if you want to change because you were underestimated in the past, you have to go through hell and back. A number of teachers tried to prevent me [from moving into honors classes]. It came to the point where I had to have my mother, grandfather, and a middle school teacher speak on my behalf before my counselor would put me in honors.”
Teachers and administrators often don’t want to move regular students who are doing well into upper level classes for fear that their “regular A’s” will turn into “honors C’s”. This same underestimation that regular track students face in the classroom is something they also have to face when trying to move out of regular classes that are limiting their potential. Instead of receiving recognition, encouragement, and special attention many students are reinforced with the idea that “we already expect you to fail, so let us save you the trouble”. Despite her six years on the regular track and the reluctance of the school system to place her into higher academic level classes, Kathy graduated from high school as the treasurer of our senior class, a varsity cheerleader, S.I.S. (Success In School) member and is now attending the University of Maryland. She is in very good standing and was recently asked to be a member of the university’s honors program. Obviously Kathy Ray was capable of success.

Though experiences like Kathy’s may or may not be commonplace there are other explanations concerning why blacks do not move up ot higher academic classes. Aside from the obvious explanation that tracking has caused low track students to become, or to remain, academically deficient (and thus they don’t possess the skills, knowledge, and information to move up to higher tracks) there are still other factors. Even when black and other minority students on lower tracks do well and are not actively prevented from moving up to higher tracks, they often choose not to go, or prefer to remain on low tracks. While this statement may seem nonsensical or seem to even support the traditionalist view that many black students on low tracks are content with their situation, certain social factors need to be recognized before drawing this conclusion. For example, when a black student on a regular track does make the transition to honors it is usually much more than a transition in the type of academic work. Often the transition includes black students having to leave an academic environment where they are among teachers who are more often of their background and friends and students who are overwhelmingly of their same racial group (and often socioeconomic status). My dad explains his social situation after being selected to be in the Academically Talented magnet program:

Socially it was turmoil. I went to a school other than the one my friends in my 'hood went to. I had two sets of friends (associates): 1 white; 1 black. 1 upper middle-class; 1 lower middle-class (or poor). 1 genius level; 1 ingenious, but academically deficient. I had to become conversant in two societies everyday for the rest of my life”.

The feelings that my dad expressed are often shared by black students who move up to higher level tracks. Even when black students have been on high tracks for most of their schooling and do not have a community of black friends that they are being separated from (much like my situation prior to my involvement with S.I.S.) they often feel out of place in their predominantly white classes. Many students (particularly middle class white students) in this environment learn to internalize and accept the ideology and beliefs that the system is fair and that there is equal opportunity. However, black students on higher academic tracks often resist this dominant ideology, or at least do not accept it in its entirely. Thus their views of the educational system are very different than those of their white counterparts. This sentiment was common among all of the blacks I spoke with.

One might wonder why and how these black individuals came to the realization/belief that equal opportunity did not exist. After all, the people I spoke with are success stories; people themselves who have been given equal opportunity and benefited from it--at least in theory. The circumstances surrounding being an academically successful black student, however, provoke certain emotions and feelings that many other students, generally those in the majority, have likely never experienced. Kathy Ray says: “I did not feel comfortable in most of the honors classes. There were few people who could relate to me...unlike the white kids who were surrounded by their friends in class”. My dad told me of his experience in the Academically Talented program, describing emotions that were eerily similar to those I felt as I had been on the stage for the awards ceremony. He says: “I felt victimized and detached from my community. I was under a great deal of pressure to prove something, but I didn’t know what that something was”. These feelings of isolation, aloneness, social discomfort often lead many black students on advanced academic tracks into the following line of thought: “If there wasn’t equal opportunity I might not be here, but if there was equal opportunity I wouldn’t be the only one here”. Had there truly been equal opportunity, I would not have been the only black female on the stage that night.

This critical analysis of our situation, coupled with the information and skills acquired on the “honors track “ has allowed for many academically successful black students to become what, Italian theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci, would refer to as “organic intellectuals”. Gramsci believed that organic intellectuals were those who were ideologically opposed to the “dominant intellectuals”--the dominant class who attempts to “justify the social, economic, and political structure of [the] society” (Weiler 15). Gramsci felt that it was important for organic intellectuals to “remain true to their consciousness” (Weiler 15). It is also important for blacks students to remain true to theirs. If the traditional, dominant ideology is accepted and internalized by students on the low track then they will come to believe that they are stupid, less capable of achieving success, and thus, deserve their existing situation. However, if black students on high academic tracks accept and internalize this ideology (particularly in its entirety) the effects are perhaps even more devastating. These individuals will no longer have the potential to serve as agents of change, but will rather serve as “tokens” of the system with which it will perpetuate.

Some people may wonder why I should even be concerned that I was often the only black student in my honors classes or that I was one of only two black students standing on the stage that night. If I had made it out of the system as a success, then why should I be worrying about those who did not? I am concerned because I believe that education should serve to better all students, not only those that are deemed gifted and special, but those who are in the greatest need of help. Though I may be considered somewhat of a “success story”, the current educational system and the practice of tracking is failing many other black students. I am also reminded of a quote by W.E.B. DuBois, which was ironically my high school’s motto: “Only the educated are truly free”. DuBois believed that education was the key to black people’s freedom. This being the case, the few of us who do make it through the system are alone in our freedom, while so many others remain trapped in the crowd!

Works Cited

Braddock, Jomills Henry and Robert Slavin. “Why Ability Grouping Must End: Achieving Excellence and Equity in American Education”. Beyond Tracking: Finding Success in Inclusive Schools. Ed. Jane Page and Harbison Pool. Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.1995.

Gazer, Nathan. We Are All Multiculturalists Now. Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press. 1997.

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