Tracking = Resegregation?

Source (image): “Coming Clean Beyond the Fiscal Cliff”,

I am always amazed at how excellence in education is equated with equity. Although, I am not an elementary or secondary educator, I am often privy to my educator-friends who are assured that one of these concepts comes at the expense of the other; that a school lending itself to equity will undoubtedly sacrifice excellence. Or, that to be academically excellent, the school must limit its equity in order to properly serve high-achieving students who deserve academic consistency and progressiveness. Forgive me, but I am somewhat confused by this idea. Wouldn’t an environment that offers its best curriculum to all students be simultaneously achieving excellence?

In Margarita Pivovarova’s (2014) article , Show we Track or Should we Mix Them?, she explores the notion of tracking in elementary schools. Tracking refers to the grouping of students by ability; thereby placing high-performing students in an environment with peers of the same ability, while placing lower-achieving student with low-achieving peers. Basically, this is a fancy way of saying “put the smart kids in one classroom; put the dumb kids together in a different classroom.” You can tell by my tone, that I do not agree with this idea in any form. Pivovarova (2014) asserts that while positive effects can be seen through tracking, it greatly impacts lower-performing students in detrimental ways. She based her assertion on literature that implicitly showed that “the data does not support the linear-in-means model” (p.7), coming to the realization that the nature of peer effects within the learning environment are more complicated than the model suggests. While Pivovarova (2014) doesn’t clearly state which data set presented this finding, she mentions that some research indicated positive findings, while other research indicated no effect; she finds that peer interaction is a highly important component to achieving the success of tracking (Pivovarova, 2014). I agree with Pivovarova’s (2014) assertion here. Simply grouping students together based on ability alone is not sufficient to prove that this method achieves optimal results. Students must be able and willing to engage with peers and instructors in a way that fosters positive identity and confidence in the learning environment, therefore, producing desired results.

High school principle and author, Carol Corbett Burris (2014) discusses tracking in her book On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the Twenty-First-Century Struggle against Resegregation pointing out that previous literature documents tracks as “racially and economically stratified” (p. 112). For example, if a high-performing Black student who comes from a low socio-economic background is put into a classroom with a large number of White students from middle to high socio-economic status would the linear-in-means model be so clear cut? Would the student feel confident to perform? Would he/she be able to relate to the classroom climate or culture of privilege within the group? While some students may perform well in this environment, some may not. In addition to the inconsistency of this model, other learning theories come into play (i.e. stereotype threat, “performing whiteness”, etc.) that can easily blur the framework of academic tracking. Tracking also puts a great burden the teacher to ensure that equity is maintained between groups; a burden that lends itself to resources, tools, and institutional support. Pivovarova (2014) concludes that a mixed learning environment is optimal, asserting that the quality of peers has a great impact on both high and low achieving students stating, “…while the average quality of peers is more important for high-achievers, adding just one more smart kid in a classroom has a larger impact on marginal kids than it has on top students” (p. 28).

Tracking, in my opinion, lends itself to labeling as well. In a society where emphasis is placed on the level of coursework studied by the student, it is no wonder that parents will work the system to ensure their child is put into high-achieving classrooms to ensure that all social and academic opportunities are made available to them. Labels such as “gifted”, “honor student”, “special needs” and “remedial” are identities placed on the student which often confirm the student’ identity of self-worth, and so very often students perform to the label by which they are identified. Why not eliminate the curriculum gap in an effort to close the achievement gap? I am sure there is no easy solution to this issue, but we must work harder to ensure educational equity, or risk repeating the injustices of the past.


Burris, C. C. (2014). On the same track: How schools can join the twenty-first-century struggle against resegregation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pivovarova, M. (2013). Should we track them or should we mix them? Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.